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Authors: Nathalie Sarraute

The Age of Suspicion

BOOK: The Age of Suspicion
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Nathalie Sarraute

 

The Age of Suspicion

 

 

Translated from the French by Maria Jolas

 

 

 

Contents

 

 

FROM DOSTOÏEVSKI TO KAFKA

THE AGE OF SUSPICION

CONVERSATION AND SUB-CONVERSATION

WHAT BIRDS SEE

 

 

FROM
DOSTOÏEVSKI
TO KAFKA

T
HE
NOVEL
, we constantly hear it said today, falls into two quite distinct categories: the psychological novel and the novel 'in situation'. On the one hand, Dostoievski and, on the other, Kafka. Indeed, if we are to believe Roger Grenier, even the news-item— and this illustrates Oscar Wilde's famous paradox—divides quite naturally into these two genres. However, in life as well as in literature, Dostoievski characters (or so it appears) are becoming less frequent. 'The genius of our epoch,' M. Grenier notes 'inclines in favour of Kafka . . . and even in Soviet Russia, Dostoievski figures are no longer to be seen in the Court rooms.' Today, he declares, we are faced with 'homo
absurdus,
the lifeless inhabitant of a century whose prophet is Kafka
{1}
.'

This dearth of what is called with a certain irony 'the psychological' (held between quotes as though between tongs), and which, it seems, is due to the lot of modern man who, overwhelmed by our mechanical civilisation, is reduced, according to Claude-Edmonde Magny, 'to the triple determinism of hunger, sexuality and social status: Freud, Marx and Pavlov,' seems, nevertheless, to have inaugurated for both writer and reader an era of security and hope.

The time was well past when Proust had boldly believed that 'by urging his impression on as far as his powers of penetration would allow,' (he could) 'try to reach the ultimate deep where lie truth, the real universe, our most authentic impression.' Having learned the lesson of successive disappointments, everybody knew now that there was no ultimate deep. 'Our authentic impression' had been found to have any number; and they extended one beneath the other,
ad infinitum.

The deep uncovered by Proust's analyses had already proved to be nothing but a surface. A surface too, the one that the interior monologue, basis of so many legitimate hopes, had succeeded in identifying. And the immense progress achieved by psychoanalysis, which stopped at nothing, passing through several deeps at one time, had shown the inefficacy of classic introspection, and inspired doubts as to the ultimate value of all methods of research.

Homo
absurdus,
therefore, was Noah's dove, the messenger of deliverance.

Now, at last, it was permissible to leave behind without remorse all sterile endeavour, all wearisome floundering, all nerve-racking splitting of hairs; modern man, having become a soulless body tossed about by hostile forces, was nothing, when all was said and done, but what he appeared to be on the surface. The inexpressive torpor, the immobility that a quick glance could observe in his face when he let himself go, hid no interior reactions. The 'tumult like unto silence' that adherents of 'the psychological' had thought they saw in his soul was, after all, merely silence.

His consciousness was composed of nothing but a superficial network of 'conventional opinions taken over just as they were from the group to which he belonged,' and these very commonplaces hid 'a profound nothingness,' an almost total 'absence from self.' The so-called 'heart of hearts,' the 'ineffable intimacy with oneself,' had been nothing but a delusion and a snare. 'The psychological,' which had been the source of such great disappointment and sorrow, did not exist.

This soothing conclusion brought with it the delightful sense of restored vigour and optimism that usually accompanies liquidations and renunciations.

Now it was possible to gather one's forces and, forgetting past misadventures, start over again, 'on new bases.' On every side, more accessible, pleasanter prospects seemed to be opening up. The very promising art of the cinema would allow the novel which, as a result of so many fruitless efforts, had reassumed a touching, juvenile modesty, to benefit by its entirely new techniques. By virtue of a beneficent contagion, the wholesome simplicity of the new American novel, with its somewhat unpolished vigour, would restore a certain vitality and sap to our own, which had become weakened by over-indulgence in analysis, and was threatened with senile dessication. The literary object would be able to recapture the full outlines, the hard, smooth, finished aspect of fine classical works. The 'poetic' and purely descriptive elements in which the novelist too often saw merely vain ornamentation, and which he only parsimoniously allowed to pass after minute filtering, would lose its humiliating role of auxiliary, exclusively subject to the demands of psychology, and blossom out any-and-everywhere, unrestrained. By the same token, style, to the immense satisfaction of those 'persons of taste' who inspired such fearful apprehensions in Proust, would recover the pure lines and sober elegance that are so little compatible with the contortions and stampings, the finespun subtleties, or the mired ponderousness, of 'the psychological.'

And, quite close to us, Kafka, whose message combined so felicitously with that of the Americans, showed what still unexplored regions could open up for the writer, once he was rid of the unfortunate near-sightedness that had forced him to examine each object at close range, and kept him from seeing further than the end of his own nose.

Lastly, those who, despite all these assurances and promises, still had certain scruples, and continued to lend an anxious ear, to be convinced that behind that dead silence there subsisted no echo of the former tumult, could feel fully reassured.

Contrary to the formless, soft matter that yields and disintegrates under the scalpel of analysis, this fragment of the universe within whose boundaries the new novel prudently remained confined, formed a hard, compact whole, that was absolutely indivisible. Its very hardness and opacity preserved its interior complexity and density and conferred upon it a force of penetration that allowed it to attain not to the superficial, arid regions of the reader's intellect, but to those infinitely fertile, 'listless and defenceless regions of the sentient soul.' It provoked a mysterious, salutary shock, a sort of emotional commotion that made it possible to apprehend all at once, and as in a flash, an entire object with all its nuances, its possible complexities, and even—if, by chance, these existed—its unfathomable depths. There was therefore nothing to lose and, apparently, everything to be gained.

When Albert Camus's The
Outsider
(The Stranger) appeared, it was permissible to believe with good reason that it would fulfil all hopes. Like all works of real value it came at the appointed time; it corresponded to our expectations; it crystallised all our suspended stray impulses. From now on, we need envy no one. We too had our homo
absurdus.
And he enjoyed the undeniable advantage over even Dos Passos's and Steinbeck's heroes of being depicted not at a distance and from the outside, as they were, but from within, through the classical process of introspection, so dear to adherents of 'the psychological': we could ascertain his inner nothingness at close range and, as it were, from a front box. In fact, as Maurice Blanchot wrote,
{2}
'this Stranger's relation to himself is as though someone else were observing and speaking of him . . . He is entirely on the outside, and all the more himself in that he seems to think less, feel less, be less intimate with his self. The very image of human reality when it is stripped of all psychological conventions, when we try to grasp it by a description made solely from the outside, deprived of all false, subjective explanations . ..' And Claude-Edmonde Magny wrote:
{3}
'Camus wants to let us see the inner nothingness of his hero and, through it, our own nothingness . . . Meursault is man stripped of all the ready-made garments with which society clothes the normal void of his being: his conscience . . . The sentiments and psychological reactions he tries to find in himself (sadness as his mother lies dying, love for Maria, remorse at the murder of the Arab) he does not find: indeed, all he finds is a view that is absolutely similar to the view that others may have of his behaviour.'

And the fact is that during this scene of his mother's funeral, although he does occasionally discover within himself a few of the sentiments that classical analysis, albeit with a certain timorous fluster, succeeded in uncovering, a few of the fugitive thoughts, 'shadowy and shy,' that it detected (among so many others) 'gliding by with the furtive speed of fish'—such as the pleasure he derives from a lovely morning in the country, the disappointment he feels at the thought of the outing this funeral has made him miss, or the memory of what he usually does at this time of morning,— on the contrary, everything that in any way concerns his mother, and not only ordinary sorrow (without surprising us too much, he might have experienced a sense of deliverance and satisfaction, like one of Virginia Woolf's heroines), but all sentiment or thought whatsoever appears to have been completely abolished, as though by a magic wand. In this well-scrubbed, well-adorned conscience, there is not the slightest scrap of memory that ties back to childhood impressions, not the palest shadow of those ready-made sentiments that the very persons who think they are best protected against conventional emotions and literary reminiscences, feel slip through them.

This state of anaethesia appears to be so profound that we are reminded of the patients described by Dr. Janet, who suffer from what he has called 'feelings of emptiness,' and who keep saying: 'All my feelings have disappeared . . . My head is empty . . . My heart is empty . . . people and things are a matter of equal indifference to
me
...
I can go through all the motions, but in doing so, I feel neither joy nor sorrow . . . Nothing tempts me, nothing disgusts
me
...
I am a living statue; whatever happens to me, it is impossible for me to have a sensation or a sentiment about anything..

Despite these similarities of language, however, there is nothing in common between Albert Camus's character and Dr. Janet's patients. Although in certain things Meursault appears to be so insensitive, so simple-minded and as though in a daze, in others he gives evidence of refinement of taste and exquisite delicacy. The very style in which he expresses himself makes him, rather than the rival of Steinbeck's bellowing hero, the heir to the
The Princess
of
Cleve
and Adolph. As the Abbé Brémond would say, he is 'all strewn with winter roses.' This Outsider has the vigorous acuity of line, the rich palette of a great painter: 'Without a smile she inclined her long, bony face . . 'I was a bit lost between the blue and white sky and the monotony of these colours, the sticky black of the fresh tar, the dull black of people's clothes, the enamel black of the
car'
...
He notes with the tenderness of a poet the delicate play of light and shadow and the varying tints of the sky. He recalls the 'brimming sun that made the landscape quiver,' 'an odour of night and flowers.' he hears a 'moan that became slowly audible, like a flower born of silence.' Unerring taste guides the choice of his epithets. He speaks of 'a drowsy headland,' 'a
dark
breath.'

But there are things that are still more disturbing. If we are to judge by the details that hold his attention,—such as the episode of the maniac or, above all, the one about old Salamano, who hates and martyrises his dog and, at the same time, loves it with deep, moving tenderness—he is not averse to skirting about the edges of the abyss, with prudence, of course, and circumspection. Despite the 'ingenuousness' and 'unconsciousness' with which he discloses, to quote Maurice Blanchot, that 'man's real, constant mood is: I do not think, I have nothing to think about,' he is much more aware than we imagine. As witness, such a remark as this, which he lets drop: 'All healthy human beings (have) more or less wished for the death of those they loved,' which shows that, on occasion, and doubtless oftener than most, he has made rather deep incursions into forbidden, dangerous zones.

The feeling of malaise that we are unable to shake off all through the book, probably comes from these very apparent contradictions, and only at the end, when, incapable of containing himself any longer, Camus's hero feels that 'something . . . has burst inside (him)' and 'he pours
out
...
all the depths of (his) heart/ do we feel, with him, a sense of release: . . I appeared to have empty hands. But I was sure of myself, sure of everything . . . sure of my life and of this death that was going to
come
...
I had been right, I was still right, I was always
right
. ..
What did the death of others mean to me, or a mother's love; what was the meaning of the lives we choose, the fates we elect, since one single fate had elected me and, with me, billions of privileged people . . . Everybody was privileged ... There were nothing but privileged people . . . One day the others too would be condemned.'

Now we have it. Finally! What we had timidly surmised is suddenly confirmed. This young employee, who is so simple and rough-hewn, in whom we were asked to recognise the new, long- awaited man, was, in reality, diametrically opposed to him. His attitude which, at times, may possibly have recalled the stubborn negativism of a sulky child, was one of determined, haughty prejudice, a desperate, lucid refusal, an example and perhaps, too, a lesson. The wilful frenzy, characteristic of genuine intellectuals, with which he cultivates pure sensation, his very conscious egoism, fruit of some tragic experience that, thanks to this exceptional sensitivity of his, has left him with a fine, constant sense of nothingness (had he not given us to understand that formerly, 'when (he was) a student, (he had had) great ambitions . . but that 'after (he had) been obliged to drop his studies (he had) very soon understood that none of that was really important', relate
The
Outsider
to Gide's
The Immoralist.

BOOK: The Age of Suspicion
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