Tuesday, September 29, 2015

as innocent as a doctor's thesis

Words under pressure can appear sinister, they begin to diffuse a secretion of unreasonable excitement throughout the story (the hysterical and contextually correct "joy" in Ullman's "attentive joy"), and now it is not Ullman I'm thinking of, it is Nathalie Sarraute at the start of "fools say" (1976), interrogating the phrase, "She is sweet;" now I remember her in Between Life and Death (1968) as she wrings out the word "héros." That true core of the bundt cake in Ullman is the momentary solidness of an interrogative chamber atmosphere (boundaried by the overt happiness of these people, arriving with joy and then accepting their flowers at the end), which is, also, the atmosphere of Sarraute's fiction, a fiction that is haunted by a "they," a collection of sportspeople or hunters who are searching for a score, a nasty wound, a little nourishing hit --

There's no use in shutting yourself up in your room to read, simply, or to work at anything as innocent as a doctor's thesis, they won't be taken in. Without showing it they possess – certain of them – an extraordinarily sharp instinct. Signs that, like ostriches, he believes to be invisible are perfectly clear to them.

(tr. Maria Jolas)

– but the hit is always brief and the movement of the books as a whole is the slipping action of a fluid that streams out from under them as they try to put their hands on it; the author's subtlety is a long report on the subject of their trapping or sniffing actions – her characters are sensitive to an invisible pressure that can be or could be forced or persuaded, or detected – "All he needed was for them to let him see that they sensed, as he did, this presence, that it is there for them too … something that exists very strongly, which it is not possible to disregard, which resembles nothing else … if they will just acknowledge that." (Ellipses hers.) Nothing is uttered unconsciously (this is in Ullman as well, and in Walser), and if the character is somehow unconscious of it then the author is not and nor is the reader, ever – so that a conversation in Sarraute's books (which are almost entirely conversation with nearly no description) is like water probing downhill and finding the most sure route but always via people, slippery people, never that solidness in things, never a bundt cake. This is a train of thought that Mudpuddle has put me onto by mentioning "the poetry of chinese taoist hermits" –

Drinking Alone with the Moon

From a pot of wine among the flowers 
I drank alone. There was no one with me -- 
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon 
To bring me my shadow and make us three. 
Alas, the moon was unable to drink 
And my shadow tagged me vacantly; 
But still for a while I had these friends 
To cheer me through the end of spring.... 
I sang. The moon encouraged me. 
I danced. My shadow tumbled after. 
As long as I knew, we were boon companions. 
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another. 
...Shall goodwill ever be secure? 

(tr. unknown)

– wrote Li Po/Li Bai (701 – 762), who was sensitive to the pressure exerted by non-human objects as well as human ones, but in Sarraute the presence is always human and hostile, without a reason for that hostility; without a landscape setting where it might be taking place.


  1. i am intrigued by your reference to the pressure words communicate. also by the flux of time in connection with the pressure. i remember in "the waves" how woolf played with the pressure/time presence like it was a musical instrument, playing her themes as if they were a score to be interpreted into depictions of character and event. do you think she was greatly influence by ullman and/or sarraute? the whole set of ideas is new to me and opens up another dimension from which to look at literature. thanks.

    1. Ullman wasn't known in English and Sarraute didn't publish her first book until 1939. The Waves came out in 1937. I don't think either of them had any influence on Woolf. But Sarraute wrote about her in The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel, in 1956, when she argued that serious fiction had gone beyond modernist "psychology."

  2. just ordered a copy of the essays. so, i wonder if woolf influenced them at all? woolf seems so underrated in the lit world, she's hardly ever mentioned; but i guess that applies even more to ru and ns. so many things going on that we'll never know about. sigh...

    1. Sarraute once told an interviewer that when she was "reading Virginia Woolf [in the 1920s], I felt it that was no longer possible to write as people had done previously, and so, since I couldn't find anything to write about, I didn't write." That was the reason she gave for not writing or publishing until the late '30s.

    2. some people are black and white: their view is of a discrete reality where things are one or needfully, the other. hence, maybe sarraute became a bit discouraged over woolf's writing as it compared to her own and just decided to quit. hmmm not very clear; people get damaged and the things they do indicate the kind of damage they have sustained. absolutism in value judgements may mean some sort of childhood trauma wherein undue competition has fostered a predeliction toward challenging, competing, judging... "hard" persons often seem to have been effected in this way; they don't see that time and the world are a continuum, both in natural phenomema and in time. there are no absolutes, relativity is all. at least that's what i think. n.s. seems to illustrate these kinds of behaviors, but i may be entirely mistaken; i'll have to wait until i get the copy of her book in the mail. admittedly, woolf would be a difficult exemplar to compete with, genius as she was...

    3. I'm wary when it comes to psychoanalysing authors but the pre-teen life that she remembers for herself in Childhood shares a few things with your imaginary version: the judgments that her mother asks from her (is the stepmother really stupid? is the mother really beautiful?) leave her acutely destabilised, anxious, or confused, and at school she wants to be first in the class for everything; second place is worthless.

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  4. Who were your scholars? The only one I've got here is Burton Watson, and he assumes that Li Po loved to drink ("one imagines that he could never have been entirely desolate as long as he had his wine"), but this book was published in 1971 and the trend of scholarly thought has probably changed.

    1. ignore the replies below. after thinking about it awhile, i remembered that my memory can be unreliable, so i went and looked up li po in arthur waley and david hinton, two well known translators of chinese verse. they both said that li was a wild man notorious for abandoned behavior and that one legend stated that he died while drunk and trying to grab the moon's reflection leaning over from a boat. i don't know where i get these ideas from; one would think i'd learn by now...

    2. That's a shame; I was hoping for a revelation. "New research reveals ..." though how much new research could there be when the person has been dead since 762?

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