Author(s): Nathalie Sarraute; Maria Jolas (Translator)
A series of sketches and observations of daily life a crowd gathering in front of shop windows, an old man talking to his grandchild about death, a professor lecturing about Proust and Rimbaud, a woman concealing her disdain at family gathering Nathalie Sarraute 's first work of fiction places human existence under the microscope, revealing the dynamics at play between our thoughts and actions beneath the veneer of social convention.
First published in 1939 to little fanfare, Tropisms was ahead of its time and finally received the recognition it deserved when it was republished in 1957 at the height of the nouveau roman movement, of which it is now considered a precursor.
In biology, the directional response of a plant’s growth, either towards or away from an external stimulus that either benefits or harms it, is termed tropism. Nathalie Sarraute, in this subtly astounding book, first published in 1939, applies the term to her brief studies of ways in which humans are affected by other humans beneath the level of cognitive thought. In these twenty-four pieces she is interested in describing “certain inner ‘movements’, which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives. These movements, of which we are hardly cognisant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness, in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak. They constitute the secret source of our existence.” We are either attracted or repulsed by the presence of others, though attraction and repulsion are indistinguishable at least in the degree of connection they effect, we are either benefitted or harmed by others, or both at once (which is much more harmful), but we cannot act upon or even acknowledge our impulses without making intolerable the life we have striven so hard to make tolerable in order to survive. Neurosis may be a sub-optimal functional mode, but it is a functional mode all the same. We wish to destroy but we fear, rightly, being also destroyed. We sublimate that which would overwhelm us, preferring inaction to action for fear of the reaction that action would attract, but we cannot be cognisant of the extent to which this process forms the basis of our existence for such awareness would be intolerable. We must deceive ourselves if we are to make the intolerable tolerable, and we must not be aware that we so deceive ourselves. Such devices as character and plot, which we both apply to ‘real life’ and practise in the reading and writing of novels, are “nothing but a conventional code that we apply to life” to make it liveable. Sarraute’s brilliance in this book, which is the key to her other novels, and which constitute an object lesson for any writer, is to observe and convey the impulses “constantly emerging up to the surface of the appearances that both conceal and reveal them.” Subliminal both in its observations and in its effects, the book suggests the urges and responses that form the understructure of relationships, unseen beneath the effectively compulsive conventions, expectations and obligations that comprise our conscious quotidian lives. Many of the pieces suggest how children are subsumed, overwhelmed and harmed by adults: “They had always known how to possess him entirely, without leaving him an inch of breathing space, without a moment’s respite, how to devour him down to the last crumb.” Sarraute is not interested here in character or plot, but in the unacknowledged impulses and responses that underlie our habits, attitudes and actions. Each thing emerges from, or tends towards, its opposite. All that is beautiful moves towards the hideous. Against what is hideous, something inextinguishable moves to rebel, to survive. ‘Tropism’ also suggests the word ‘trop’ in French, in the sense of ‘too much’. The ideas we have of ourselves are flotsam on surging unconscious depths in which there is no individuality, only impulse and response. Sarraute’s tropisms give insight into the patterns, or clustering tendencies, of these impulses and responses, and are written in remarkable, beautiful sentences. “And he sensed, percolating from the kitchen, squalid human thought, shuffling, shuffling in one spot, going round and round, in circles, as if they were dizzy but couldn’t stop, as if they were nauseated but couldn’t stop, the way we bite our nails, the way we tear off dead skin when we’re peeling, the way we scratch ourselves when we have hives, the way we toss in our beds when we can’t sleep, to give ourselves pleasure and to make ourselves suffer, until we are exhausted, until we’ve taken our breath away.”