Enfance (Childhood)

This last semester, I was teaching the second half of our French literature survey course. (The first half covers the Middle Ages through the 18th century, and the second half just the 19th and 20th century.) There are lots of philosophies about how to teach a class like this, when you want to familiarize students with the many, many important authors and literary movements during a broad period of time, but I like students to read whole works, rather than excerpts from an anthology. So during this semester, they read A Simple Heart by Flaubert, Thérèse Raquin by Zola, No Exit by Sartre, Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras, and Childhood by Nathalie Sarraute (along with a whole bunch of poetry by various representative authors.) It had been some years since I read Enfance, and it’s such a glorious book that I wanted to share about it here.

Nathalie Sarraute is not an easy or accessible novelist. Her books, like Tropismes and Portrait d’un inconnu, are examples of the nouveau roman: like Robbe-Grillet and others, she wanted to make a radical transformation of conventional models of narrative and plot. No more Flaubert for her, no more Balzac! When you read her books, it’s as if her language and her characters are groping in the dark, trying to find precisely the right word for the impossibly complex tangle of relationships and emotions that, really, cannot be described. She shifts perspectives and points of view, and communicates the way our own lived experience can be incoherent — which can make for difficult reading. The limitations of language and of our own self-understanding compass and transform her books, and yet they are still gripping.

Enfance bears the marks of some of those literary preoccupations, but in other ways it is much simpler. It is Nathalie Sarraute’s autobiography, from her first memories until the age of about eleven. She led a fairly eventful childhood: her parents were divorced when she was too young to remember, and she went back and forth between them, between Russia and France, between two households and two languages and two loyalties.

This division begins in the very first pages of the book, when the adult Sarraute is pondering her choice to write about her memories (all ellipses are in the original):

–So, you’re really going to do this? “Evoke your memories of childhood”… How those words embarrass you, you don’t like them. But acknowledge that they are the only words that suit. You want to “evoke your memories”… don’t squirm, that’s what it is.

— Yes, I can’t help it, it tempts me, I don’t know why…

— Perhaps… might it be.. sometimes people don’t realize… perhaps your powers are on the decline…

— No, I don’t think so… at least I don’t feel it…

–And yet what you want to do… “evoke your memories”… might it not be…

— Oh, please.

These “conversations” between Sarraute and herself, one self questioning and the other considering, are dotted throughout the book, reflecting on episodes in Sarraute’s childhood. They offer experience and compassion that the child-Nathalie has no access to, and will not have for years. At the memory of a rejection from her mother and stepfather, for instance, she is interrupted, again by herself:

–That’s good, go on…

— I was a foreign body… that troubled them…

— Yes: a foreign body. You couldn’t have said it better. That’s what you felt then, and so strongly… A foreign body… An organism where it’s been introduced, sooner or later, has to eliminate it…

— No, I didn’t think that…

— Think it, no, I agree… it appeared, indistinct, unreal… an unknown promontory that surges for an instant out of the fog… and then a thick fog covers it up again…

— No, you’re going too far…

— Yes. I am staying very close, you know it quite well.

In a way, then, there are three Sarrautes at any given time: the child self, living the experience, and the two adult selves, reflecting and judging. Outside of this Sarrautian triangle are the three adult family members: the father, the mother, and Véra, the stepmother. This family dynamic revolves around itself and rearranges itself in different constellations, constantly demanding changes in loyalty and mysterious passwords that Nathalie can never quite seem to grasp so that she can feel safe.

The book is written more or less chronologically, with the exception of the circling interruptions from the adult Sarrautes. But everything is fluid and not quite linear: Sarraute is always using phrases like “I must have been six,” or “I might have been about ten,” or “It was the summer after I had diphtheria.” She circles back to certain episodes, and other moments reflect ideas she’s mentioned before. We are never quite sure of time, and places are more about the emotions and relationships associated with them than about geography. Sarraute seeks the precise words that will convey her emotional state: is it happiness, exaltation, exhilaration? No, no, it’s joy — and we are made aware, again, of the limitations that words place on the complexities of human interaction.

This book is not so much about memories as about the nature of memory itself. Sarraute wonders why she can remember some things in such detail — scents, names — while other things are a blur. For some things, the memory is important, but the event slips away; for others, memories are attached to each other, like pearls on a string. Her adult consciousness holds these things and judges each of them. What is exact? What is accurate? How do I know? Out of this careful chiseling, a marvelous work is made.

Gradually, Nathalie becomes more confident, finding a structured world at school, and once she escapes into this world, the book ends. But arriving there is like moving through a startlingly unexpected jungle of words. She has taken the conventional autobiography and shaken it, made it into a different object with a different purpose. This was certainly the most challenging book I taught this semester, but (or do I mean and?) the most rewarding.

Note: The passages I quoted are my own translations, but this is available translated into English by Barbara Wright.

This entry was posted in Memoir, Nonfiction. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Enfance (Childhood)

  1. Thanks for sharing. I just began reading it for French (after two pages decided to look for an overview before continuing confuzzled) and was wondering if she was talking to herself at the beginning. The text makes much more sense now :)

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