Childhood

Overview

As one of the leading proponents of the nouveau roman, Nathalie Sarraute is often remembered for her novels, including The Golden Fruits, which earned her the Prix international de litterature in 1964. But her carefully crafted and evocative memoir Childhood may in fact be Sarraute’s most accessible and emotionally open work. Written when the author was eighty-three years old, but dealing with only the first twelve years of her life, Childhood is constructed as a dialogue between Sarraute and her memory. Sarraute...

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Childhood

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Overview

As one of the leading proponents of the nouveau roman, Nathalie Sarraute is often remembered for her novels, including The Golden Fruits, which earned her the Prix international de litterature in 1964. But her carefully crafted and evocative memoir Childhood may in fact be Sarraute’s most accessible and emotionally open work. Written when the author was eighty-three years old, but dealing with only the first twelve years of her life, Childhood is constructed as a dialogue between Sarraute and her memory. Sarraute gently interrogates her interlocutor in search of her own intentions, more precise accuracy, and indeed, the truth. Her relationships with her mother in Russia and her stepmother in Paris are especially heartbreaking: long-gone actions are prodded and poked at by Sarraute until they yield some semblance of fact, imbuing these maternalistic interactions with new, deeper meaning. Each vignette is bristling with detail and shows the power of memory through prose by turns funny, sad, and poetic. Capturing the ambience of Paris and Russia in the earliest part of the twentieth century, while never giving up the lyrical style of Sarraute’s novels, this book has much to offer both memoir enthusiasts and fiction lovers.

"Sarraute has used her enormous resources to pin down the movements in her inner and outer life as a child that impelled her to write..."-- The Village Voice

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Editorial Reviews

Vanity Fair
“Evoked with telescoping intensity, these scenes glow with the immediacy of time not recalled but relived.”
New Yorker
Childhood is a dialogue with memory, a merciless coaxing of memory into images and then into refractions of images, until memory is stripped of sentiment and becomes something close to sensation itself.”
New York Times Book Review - Roger Shattuck
“In these beautifully paced pages the reader can watch a literary sensibility hunt persistently for that most ridiculed of literary prizes: the truth.”
New York Times
“A book of great power, conviction, and passion.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226922317
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Nathalie Sarraute (1900-99) was a French novelist, essayist, dramatist, and critic. Her works have been translated into more than thirty languages.

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Read an Excerpt

Childhood


By Nathalie Sarraute, Barbara Wrigh

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1983 Editions Gallimard, Paris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92232-4


CHAPTER 1

Childhood


—Then you really are going to do that? "Evoke your childhood memories" ... How these words embarrass you, you don't like them. But you have to admit that they are the only appropriate words. You want to "evoke your memories" ... there's no getting away from it, that's what it is.

—Yes, I can't help it, it tempts me, I don't know why ...

—It could be ... mightn't it be ... we sometimes don't realize ... it could be that your forces are declining ...

—No, I don't think so ... at least I don't feel they are ...

—And yet what you want to do ... "to evoke your memories" ... mightn't that be ...

—Oh, for heaven's sake ...

—Yes, the question has to be asked: wouldn't that mean that you were retiring? standing aside? abandoning your element, in which up to now, as best you could ...

—Yes, as you say, as best I could ...

—Perhaps, but it's the only one you have ever been able to live in ... the one ...

—Oh, what's the use? I know all about that.

—Is that true? Have you really not forgotten what it was like there? how everything there fluctuates, alters, escapes ... you grope your way along, forever searching, straining ... towards what? what is it? it's like nothing else ... no one talks about it ... it evades you, you grasp it as best you can, you push it ... where? no matter where, so long as it eventually finds some fertile ground where it can develop, where it can perhaps manage to live ... My goodness, just thinking about it ...

—Yes, it makes you grandiloquent. I would even say, presumptuous. I wonder whether it isn't still that same fear ... Remember the way it returns whenever anything inchoate crops up ... What remains with us of former endeavors always seems to have the advantage over what is still trembling somewhere in limbo ...

—That's just it: what I'm afraid of, this time, is that it isn't trembling ... not enough ... that it has become fixed once and for all, "a sure thing," decided in advance ...

—Don't worry about it having been decided in advance ... it's still vacillating, no written word, no word of any sort has yet touched it, I think it is still faintly quivering ... outside words ... as usual ... little bits of something still alive ... I would like ... before they disappear ... let me ...

—Right. I won't say any more ... and in any case, we know very well that when something starts haunting you ...

—Yes, and this time, it's hardly believable, but it was you who prompted me, for some time now you have been inciting me ...

I?

—Yes, you, by your admonitions, your warnings ... you conjure it up, you immerse me in it ...

Nein, das tust du nicht ... "No, you're not to do that" ... here they are again, these words, they have come to life again, just as living, just as potent as they were at that moment, such a long time ago, when they penetrated me, they press, they bear down with all their strength, with all their enormous weight ... and under their pressure, something within me that is just as strong, that is even stronger, emerges, swells, rises up ... the words that come out of my mouth carry it, hammer it in ... Doch, ich werde es tun. "Yes, I am going to do it."

Nein, das tust du nicht. "No, you're not to do that" ... these words come from a figure that time has almost effaced ... all that remains is a presence ... that of a young woman sitting back in an armchair in the lounge of an hotel, where my father was spending his holidays alone with me in Switzerland, in Interlaken or Beatenberg, I must have been five or six, and the young woman had been engaged to look after me and to teach me German ... I can't make her out very well, but I can distinctly see her work basket on her knees, and on top of it, a pair of steel scissors ... and me ... I can't see myself, but I can feel it as if I were doing it now ... I suddenly seize the scissors, I grip them in my hand ... heavy, closed scissors ... I aim them, the point upwards, at the back of a settee covered in a delightful silk material with a leafy pattern, in a slightly faded blue, with satiny glints ... and I say in German ... Ich werde es zerreissen.

—In German ... How could you have learnt it so well?

—Yes, I wonder ... But those words, which I have never said since ... Ich werde es zerreissen ... "I'm going to slash it" ... the word zerreissen has a hissing, ferocious sound, in one second something is going to happen ... I'm going to slash, devastate, destroy ... it will be an outrage ... a criminal attack ... but it won't be punished as it might be, I know there will be no penalty ... perhaps just a slight reprimand, my father will look displeased, a little worried ... What have you done, Tashok, what came over you? and the young woman will be indignant ... but a kind of fear, stronger than that of improbable, unthinkable punishments, is still holding me back from what is going to happen in an instant ... the irreversible, the impossible ... what is never done, what cannot be done, no one would dare ...

Ich werde es zerreissen. "I'm going to slash it" ... I'm warning you, I'm going to take the plunge, leap out of this decent, inhabited, warm, gentle world, I'm going to wrench myself out of it, fall, sink into the uninhabited, into the void ...

"I'm going to slash it" ... I have to warn you, to give you time to stop me, to hold me back ... "I'm going to slash it" ... I shall say that to her very loudly ... perhaps she will shrug her shoulders, lower her head, look thoughtfully at her work ... Who takes it seriously when children indulge in these provocative, teasing acts? ... and my words will waver, dissolve, my limp arm will drop, I shall put the scissors back in their place, in the basket ...

But she raises her head, she looks me in the eyes and says, strongly stressing each syllable: Nein, das tust du nicht ... "No, you're not to do that" ... exercising a gentle, firm, insistent, inexorable pressure, the same pressure I later perceived in the words, the tone, of hypnotists, of animal tamers ...

"No, you're not to do that" ... these words flow in a heavy, massive tide, what it carries with it sinks into me in order to crush what is stirring in me, what is trying to rise ... and under this pressure, it braces itself, rises more vigorously, rises higher, grows, and violently projects out of me the words ... "Yes, I'm going to do it."

"No, you're not to do that" ... these words surround me, constrain me, shackle me, I struggle ... "Yes, I'm going to do it" ... There now, I'm freeing myself, excitement and exaltation impel my arm, I plunge the point of the scissors in with all my strength, the silk gives, tears, I slash the back of the settee from top to bottom, and I look at what comes out of it ... something flabby, greyish, is escaping from the slit ...


In that hotel ... or in another Swiss hotel of the same type, where my father is once again spending his holidays with me, I am sitting at a table in a room lit by wide bay windows through which you can see lawns, trees ... It's the children's dining room, where they have their meals under the supervision of their governesses, their maids.

They are sitting in a group as far away from me as possible, at the other end of the long table ... the faces of some of them are grotesquely deformed by an enormous, swollen cheek ... I hear guffaws, I see the amused glances they secretly dart at me, I can't quite hear, but I can guess what the adults are whispering to them: "Come on, eat up, stop that idiotic game, don't look at that child, you mustn't imitate her, she's an insufferable child, a crazy child, a fanatical child ..."

—You already knew those words ...

—My goodness, yes ... I'd heard them often enough ... But none of those vaguely terrifying, degrading words, no attempt at persuasion, no entreaty could incite me to open my mouth to accept the bit of food being impatiently waved around on the end of a fork, there, just outside my clenched lips ... When I finally unclench them to admit this morsel, I immediately push it into my already full, swollen, taut cheek ... a larder in which it will have to wait its turn to pass through my teeth and be masticated there until it has become as liquid as soup ...

As liquid as soup were the words pronounced by a Paris doctor, Doctor Kervilly ...

—It's curious that his name comes back to you at once, whereas so many others, however hard you try to recall them ...

—Yes, I don't know why out of so many forgotten names his should surface ... My mother had had me examined by him, for I don't know what minor ailments, just before I left to join my father ... Which makes me think, since at that moment she lived in Paris with me, that I must have been under six ...

"You heard what Doctor Kervilly said? You must chew your food until it has become as liquid as soup ... Whatever you do, don't forget that when you're there, without me, no one there will know, they'll forget, they won't bother, it will be up to you to bear it in mind, you must remember what I'm telling you ... promise me you'll do that ..." "Yes, I promise, Mama, don't worry, set your mind at rest, you can rely on me ..." Yes, she can be quite sure of that, I shall replace her at my side, she won't leave me, it will be as if she were still there to preserve me from the dangers that the others here are not aware of, how could they be aware of them? she is the only one who can know what's right for me, she's the only one who can distinguish what's good for me from what is bad.

It's no use telling them, explaining to them ... "As liquid as soup ... it was the doctor, it was Mama who told me that, I promised her ..." They shake their heads, they smile condescendingly, they don't believe it ... "Yes, yes, all right, but even so, be quick, eat up ..." But I can't, I am the only one here who knows, I am the only judge here ... who else here can decide for me, allow me ... when the moment still hasn't come ... I'm chewing as fast as I can, I assure you, my cheeks are hurting, I don't like to keep you waiting but I can't help it: it still hasn't become as liquid as soup ... They get impatient, they try to hurry me ... what do they care what she said? she doesn't count here ... I'm the only one here who takes her into account ...

Now, when I have my meals, the children's dining room is empty, I have them either before or after the others ... I was setting them a bad example, there have been complaints from the parents ... but I don't care ... I'm still here, at my post ... I'm resisting ... I'm holding out on this bit of territory on which I have hoisted her colours, on which I've put up her flag ...

—Images, words, which obviously couldn't have come into your head at that age ...

—Of course not. No more than they could have come into the head of an adult ... It was, as always, an all-embracing feeling, outside words ... But it is these words and images that enable us to grasp, as best we can, to retain these sensations.

If I give in, if I swallow this mouthful without first having made it as liquid as soup, I shall be perpetrating something which I shall never be able to confess to her when I'm back there with her ... I shall have to carry it hidden within me, this cowardice, this treachery.

If she was with me, I should have been able to forget about it long ago, and swallow without chewing, as I used to. My mother herself, as I knew her, insouciant and absent-minded, would soon have forgotten ... but she isn't here, she made me bring that with me ... as liquid as soup ... I received it from her, she gave it to me to keep, I must conserve it piously, preserve it from all touch ... Is it really what may be called as liquid as soup yet? isn't it still too thick? No, I really think I can allow myself to swallow it ... and then bring the next piece out of my cheek ...

I am very sorry to be such a nuisance to a person who is so gentle and patient, to run the risk of upsetting my father ... but I have come from a long way away, from a foreign place to which they have no access, whose laws they are ignorant of, laws which, when I am there, I can amuse myself by flouting, I do sometimes infringe them, but here, loyalty obliges me to submit to them ... I valiantly endure the reprimands, the mockery, the exclusion, the accusations of naughtiness, the anxiety my folly produces here, the sense of guilt ... but what is that in comparison with the guilt I would feel if, going back on my promise, mocking the words which have become sacred, losing all sense of duty, of responsibility, behaving like a feeble little child, I agreed to swallow that mouthful before it had become as liquid as soup.


And all this was obliterated the moment I was back in Paris with my mother ... once again everything took on that air of insouciance ...

—It emanated from her.

—Yes, she was always a little childish, frivolous ... she came to life, she shone, when she was talking to her husband or discussing things with their friends in the evenings, in the rather dark, barely furnished little flat in the rue Flatters, but she didn't seem to notice that and I didn't pay much attention to it, I liked to stay with them, just listening to them without understanding, until the moment when their voices became strange, as if more and more distant, and I vaguely felt myself being picked up, carried away ...

Just to the left of the steps going up to the broad path leading to the place Medicis, under the statue of a Queen of France, beside the enormous, green- painted tub in whichan orange tree is growing ... with in front of me the circular ornamental lake on which boats are sailing, round which carts upholstered in red velvet and pulled by goats are circulating ... with my back close up against the warmth of her leg under the long skirt ... I can no longer hear the sound of her voice as it was in those days, but what does come back to me is the impression that, rather than to me, it's to someone else that she is telling ... no doubt one of the children's stories she writes at home on big pages covered in her large handwriting with its disconnected letters ... or is she composing it in her head ... the words addressed elsewhere flow ... I can, if I wish, grasp them in passing, I can let them pass by, nothing is demanded of me, no look is trying to see whether I am really listening, whether I understand ... I can let myself go, I can allow myself to be immersed in that golden light, that cooing, that chirruping, the tinkling of the little bells on the heads of the donkeys and the goats, the jingling of the hoops fitted with handles that the children bowl in front of them, the very small children who don't know how to use a stick ...

—Don't be angry, but don't you think that there, with that cooing, that chirruping, you haven't been able to resist introducing something a little bit prefabricated ... it's so tempting, you've inserted a pretty little piece ... completely in keeping ...

—Yes, I may perhaps have let myself go a little ...

—Naturally, how can one resist so much charm ... those pretty sonorities ... cooing ... chirruping ...

—Yes, you're right ... but so far as the little bells are concerned, no, not there, I can hear them ... and also the rattling sounds, the rasping sound of the red, pink, mauve celluloid sails of the toy windmills, revolving in the wind ...


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Childhood by Nathalie Sarraute, Barbara Wrigh. Copyright © 1983 Editions Gallimard, Paris. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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