Nathalie Sarraute describes tropisms as the “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” They happen in an instant, and apprehending them in the rush of human interactions demands painstaking attention. Tropisms are the key to all of Sarraute’s work.
Since Sarraute is also a central writer in the nouveau roman, it is interesting to compare her “tropisms” to Robbe-Grillet’s Snapshots. In both works it is commonly asserted that they show the sources of the theory and technique of these writers (although one critic referred to R-G’s work as “aesthetic squiggles”).
The comparison is apt but I will suggest that Robbe-Grillet is more a noun while Sarraute is more a verb.
Here is Tropisms VIII:
“When he was with fresh, young creatures, innocent creatures, he felt an aching, irresistible need to manipulate them with his uneasy fingers, to feel them, to bring them as close to him as possible, to appropriate them for himself.
“Whenever he happened to go out with one of them, whenever he took one of them “walking,” as they crossed the street he squeezed tight the little hand in his own hot grasp, restraining himself so as not to crush the tiny fingers, while he crossed over, looking with extreme prudence to the left then to the right, to be sure that they had time to reach the other side, to see if there was not a car coming, so that his little darling, his precious little child, this living, tender, confident little thing for which he was responsible, should not be run over.
“And he taught it, when crossing, to wait a long while, to look carefully, carefully, carefully, above all very carefully, when crossing the streets between the lines, because “it doesn’t take much, because one second of carelessness is enough for an accident to happen.” And he also liked to talk to them about his age, about his advanced age and his death. “What will you say when you won’t have any more grandfather, he’ll be gone, your grandfather will, because he’s old, you know, very old, it will soon be time for him to die. Do you know what people do when they die? Your grandfather too had a mamma once. But where is she now? Yes! Yes! Where is she now, darling? She’s gone, he hasn’t any more mamma, she’s been dead a long time, his mamma has, she’s gone, there’s no more mamma, she’s dead.
“The air was still and gray, odorless, and the houses rose up on either side of the street, the flat masses of the houses, closed and dreary, surrounded them as they proceeded slowly along the pavement, hand in hand. And the child felt that something was weighing upon him, benumbing him. A soft choking mass that somebody relentlessly made him take, by exerting upon him a gentle, firm pressure, by pinching his nose a bit to make him swallow it, without his being able to resist—penetrated him, while he trotted docilely along, like a good little boy, obediently holding out his little hand, nodding his head very reasonably, while it was explained to him that he should always proceed cautiously and look well, first to the right, then to the left, and be careful, very careful, for fear of an accident, when crossing between the lines.”
I was recently involved in a discussion of Clarice Lispector and whether her fiction is internal and cerebral or whether it is gibberish. I guess gibberish is in the eye of the beholder. With authors such as Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute I had to fall back on the close-reading I learned at the University and the habit of reading and then re-reading until my brain became adequately engaged so as to understand and appreciate the text (to some extent).
Sarraute, like several other contemporary writers, felt that
The traditional novel, with its plot and characters, etcetera, didn’t interest me. I had received the shock of Proust in 1924, the revelation of a whole mental universe, and I thought that after Proust one could not go back to the Balzacian novel. Then I read Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etcetera . . . I thought Mrs. Dalloway was a masterpiece; Joyce’s interior monologue was a revelation. In fact, there was a whole literature that I thought changed all that was done before.
Compare this to the statement made by another influential writer, John Hawks:
I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.
Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Clarice Lispector, John Hawks: there’s some damn good reading in there … take the challenge.