As I was reading Nathalie Sarraute’s Martereau I began to see a connection—a pattern—between her novel and a couple of other writers. Since Sarraute is one of the central practitioners of the nouveau roman, I immediately considered my favorite author, Alain Robbe-Grillet. But Sarraute’s novel was different (while still being the same) and all the attention to detail and to cerebral analysis brought Joseph McElroy to mind, especially his challenging novel, Actress In the House, or even more so his novel Women and Men that has challenged me for years and I have yet to conquer.
What is it about Martereau that makes it seem dense and demanding?
Robbe-Grillet has a fascinating novel titled Jealousy that (for me) is the essence of the nouveau roman. Much like Martereau, Jealousy has little plot and instead allows the reader to piece the story together by providing a number of instances that may or may not be significant. Then again, perhaps they are all significant. In Jealousy the central image is a large, presumably juicy, splatter on the wall where a particularly nasty critter was squashed in anger. Then throughout the novel, the position of the splat-mark is key in deciphering exactly where a character is situated and from which window an observation occurs. R-G doesn’t tell you very much. It’s almost like those puzzles in the newspaper where you see a half-dozen pictures and the task is to put them in order so as to recreate the story. R-G gives you lots of clues, but the splat-mark is the most obvious and the most useful.
In Martereau a tubercular young man is sent to live at his uncle’s house. His uncle, not wanting his wife to know, makes a surreptitious arrangement with his friend Martereau to purchase a house as an investment, giving Martereau the money so as to avoid tax liabilities (catspaw). When the young man (he is never named) brings the cash to Martereau, he doesn’t get a receipt and after Martereau moves in to the house in question, it looks as if there is something shady going on. The uncle begins to fume.
The essence of the novel is not this plot but rather the continuing observations and consciousness streams of the young man. When he is involved in an episode, he gives an accounting and colors it with his own thoughts and fears. Yet when he is not involved in an episode, he still gives an accounting. In fact, one seminal event—when the uncle gets Martereau to agree to the”favor”—the young man is not present; therefore his accounting of the event is purely imaginary. Furthermore each of the four times the event is narrated in the novel, it is imagined slightly differently (gradually making Martereau seem more and more nefarious).
Is the young man a traditional unreliable narrator?
Sarraute’s roman d’analyse takes a fairly simple event (the purchase of a house) and develops an atmosphere of suspicion and doubt. Of course this suspicion comes to the reader through the observations of the narrator but it also is imparted to the uncle through that same young man. It is the thoughts and emanations of the narrator which attempt to find the hidden truth behind apparent attitudes or direct statements.
Martereau is one of those novels that challenge both the reader’s intellect and also the reader’s patience. Let’s face it, 350 pages of internal dialogue with nothing much happening tends to be boring. I’m sure Sarraute was very interested in pursuing this analysis in detail but it takes a special kind of reader to put up with something that never attempts to excite … or even to acknowledge the reader’s possible lack of interest in the subject.
Martereau is a tour de force but is it worth reading? Sarraute might give us the answer when she writes that it is “nothing to make a fuss about.”