Mayhem & Manners
BALDLY STATED, French Novelist Nathalie Sarraute's newest novel is a plotless collection of cultural chatter about an imaginary French novel. Like her own book, the new work is called The Golden Fruits. It is praised extravagantly by a few literary lions. Cultural toadies in Parisian salons begin to croak approvingly about it. A few foolish rebels dare suggest it is unreadable.
Nothing could seem less promising, or more likely to induce yawns, except, perhaps, within sneering distance of the Café Flore. But Miss Sarraute is a genuine minor genius, whose motto might be "They that live by the word shall perish by the word." By the time she is through, the Louis XVI chairs are all beslobbered with blood.
Flaying Alive. Few of Miss Sarraute's victims have names. They are anonymous critics who pretend they have always been for the new writer, when in fact they panned his first collection of short stories; sycophantic women who have latched onto novelists to be part of the cultural whirl; legions of cultural snobs who fear nothing so much as being accused of having no taste; and a few perplexed commoners who actually try to read the book in question. "You expect to bite into juicy pulp," one confesses shamefacedly (and in secret) to a friend, "and you break your teeth on hard metal."
Drawing-room duels, in literature as in life, seldom seem lethal. But in Miss Sarraute's special world, all the characters appear flayed alive in advance. Like the cartoon creatures of Jules Feiffer, they fear nothing so much as loneliness; they long to make human contact. But when they plunge together, each touch inevitably is anguish.
Whimpering Puppies. In The Golden Fruits, the delivery of a critical opinion can be an appeal for love—or an attempt at assassination. A fashionable author, who has been unwise enough to admit he does not like the book, is forced to cling to a dowdy female guest for support. Even as he does so, he burns with shame and a sense of "degrading promiscuity." As for the woman, "she listens to him," Miss Sarraute writes, with the "face of a rapt fanatic . . . and an inadequately furnished head into which come to settle perhaps, taking up all the room, who knows what absurd beliefs . . . Christian science . . . occultism . . . yogi . . . Greek sandals . . . table-tipping." Two critics pass the ill-matched pair. "Ha, ha," they gibe, "still discussing The Golden Fruits?" Translated into Sarrautese, this sally means: "Poor creatures, incapable of grasping, dissecting anything delicate . . . trusting only in their instinct, which immediately makes them react to what is 'true,' 'beautiful,' 'alive' as they say, like puppies that lie on their backs and whimper at the mere sound of a caressing voice."
Taken as social comedy, The Golden Fruits is a marvelous hoax, an inside joke, which sums up and lampoons every possible critical position—from the visceral to the cerebral—so thoroughly that for a season or two, cocktail-party critics may find their tongues cleaving to the roofs of their mouths. It is also a killing parable about intellectual conformity. Most impressively, however, the book transforms a dry, decorous and essentially frivolous scene into a simmering sideshow in which a series of tiny figures, full of recognizably human venom and vulnerability, grapple cruelly with each other.
Psychiatric Seismographs. Like many another experimental French novelist today, Nathalie Sarraute is trying to break away both from stereotyped Victorian emotions like honor, love and greed and from the equally crude Freudian categories of guilt and sexuality. Unlike the others, however, she has not retreated into eye-catching but sterile gimmickry—writing only about things and objective surfaces, for example, or offering as a novel a box of unnumbered pages. Instead, she has returned to the world of minute inner impulses, best explored in the past by Dostoevsky. Too delicate to be recorded on the rough seismographs of the psychoanalysts and only vaguely understood by the subjects themselves, these tremors yet betray the existence of some hidden volcanic life, which each man secretly knows to be his own.