Review: Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute

It has always been a bit mysterious to me that the forms of literary concision—short stories, lyric poetry, and novella etc.—remain secondary in the digital age, at least in comparison to the novel. Viewed strictly in terms of the attention economy, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

With so many distractions in life, wouldn’t readers of Roberto Bolaño prefer, say, Distant Star over 2666? The latter is several hundred pages longer than the former, and yet there’s no question which work is more popular. Something other than efficiency must be guiding readers.

Yet there is something to be said for concision. Unlike length, one can make the case that it is a good unto itself. A novella simply eats up less of our life. Even more than that, there are certain effects that naturally lend themselves to the form.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was reading Nathalie Sarraute. Her 1939 debut, Tropisms, was reissued last year by New Directions as part of their Pearls series. The novella is composed of episodes in the life of an unnamed bourgeois couple living in Paris. There is little to say about them that’s separable from the text itself. The plotless, impressionistic prose resists summary.


When we meet the principle characters, they are on a walk in the city during springtime. They pause in front of a shop window:

A strange quietude, a sort of desperate satisfaction emanated from them.They looked closely at the White Sale display, clever imitations of snow covered mountains, or at a doll with teeth and eyes that, a regular intervals, lighted up, went out, lighted up, went out, each time at the same interval, lighted up and again went out.

I wrote “characters”, but in typing the passage above, it became clear that these are not characters at all. They are placeholders for bits of consciousness, not unlike the mysterious “it” that keeps reappearing the poetry of John Ashbery. The he’s and she’s and they’s form negative space around which sensory precepts and spasms of emotion congeal.

Despite the exacting nature of the physical descriptions, the general impression is of vagueness. But vagueness comes in different forms, and Tropisms comes in like the breeze. You can’t see the air but it refreshes nonetheless. A strange and beguiling book, and one that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Relevance is Bunk

“I never read fiction.” It could be a PHD candidate who says this. She is busy designing a study testing the heritability of behaviors associated with methamphetamine addiction. It could be a businessman who says this. He is busy learning the tax codes for wine distributors, which are different in every state. It could be some aspiring music producer. He is busy pouring over an Abelton manual, trying to design the right envelope filter for a characteristic bass thump. Each of them have practical reasons for why they don’t read fiction. But, often enough, these people will have another reason, one that cuts across all kinds of different situations. It is this: fiction isn’t “relevant” to their lives. That reason is bunk.

This came to mind as I was reading The Hunters by James Salter. The novel follows Cleve Connell, an Air Force Captain, who flies F-86 jet fighters against Soviet and Chinese MIGs during the Korean War. Although he is an experienced pilot, Connell finds his ability and courage questioned when he fails to shoot down the expected number of enemy planes. Written in spare but vivid prose, the book sharply demonstrates how notions of glory can warp as well as nurture men. It holds a critical eye to the military without the baggage of outright polemicism. Salter, himself a pilot and veteran of over 100 combat missions during Korean War, intimately knew the life he fictionalized.

The Hunters shows how a good stylist can open up an area of human endeavor that would otherwise be closed.  Aerial warfare hasn’t interested me since I was a kid, when I would obsessively watch documentaries about test pilots and WWII flying aces. Reading the book, I remembered how much I wanted to be an aviator. It was also a reminder of how fundamentally unsuited I am for that life. The elitism among the pilots is vividly brought to life. It is the metaphorical air in which they fly. These men are making life and death decisions on the basis of who will get bragging rights. Some prefer downing enemy planes to protecting their own comrades. What a monstrous situation.

There’s an interesting episode halfway through the book. Connell, on leave in Japan, visits a friend of the family in the outskirts of Tokyo. He is a painter by the name of Miyata. In the brief portrait he writes, Salter creates something close of an ideal for an artist and a human being:

They spoke briefly of Korea and then of the past war with the United States. Miyata had been in Japan for its entire duration and must have been deeply affected, but when he talked about it, it was without bitterness. Wars were not of his doing. He considered them almost poetically, as if they were seasons, the cruel winters of man, even though almost all the work he had done in the 1930s and early 1940s had been lost when his house was burned in the great incendiary raid of 1944. He described the night vividly, the endless hours, the bombers thundering low over the storms of fire.

“All of your work?” Cleve said. “It must have been like being killed yourself.”

Miyata smiled.

“One would think so,” he replied, “and I, myself, did at first, but no, it was not. It was finally like being born again, I decided. I started life for a second time.”

Lessons aren’t offered with such style and concision in self-help books. There is no effected chattiness. There are no bullet point summaries. And finally, there are no concessions to what the reader, in 2016, might think of as relevant. Who would have an unprompted interest in the fate of modernist painters in mid-20th century Japan? Who would need a complete correspondence with the historical record (an actual painter, an actual pilot, and actual house in suburban Tokyo) to think of the conversation as significant? The story itself and the manner of its telling are what create the stakes. The fact that scene in question is partially or even wholly invented doesn’t lessen its impact.

What Miyata said, what Salter said, taking on the character of Mr. Miyata, was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. It put me and my sense of relative failure in check.  Starting over in life can be a noble thing. Being able to start over is a gift. But I wasn’t reading The Hunters for inspiration. I was reading the novel because I admired the writer’s prose style. Instead, I got something unexpected, something better. This sense of surprise is why I keep going to back to fiction. It is an indelible characteristic of that mode of expression and one of its chief pleasures. Fuck relevance.

How does it feel for native English speakers that everybody in the world uses their language?

Answer by Matthew Spencer:

On a practical basis, it makes travel and expat life a lot easier. Of course, not everyone can speak the language. But in Europe, it’s rare to meet people without at least some knowledge of English. Running errands, speaking with colleagues, dealing with bureaucracy, all of those things come easier.

As for its worldwide adoption, I don’t feel any particular pride in that. Nowadays, English is often used outside of any specific Anglo-American context. Poles talking to Hungarians, Italians talking to Chinese, that kind of thing. It has little to do with any kind of broad acceptance of American or British culture.

There are downsides to global English adoption. The hardest for me is that I love learning other languages and would prefer the opportunity to speak them over a German, Swede, or Korean, for example, switching to English.

Lack of English can make for a more rich traveling experience. French and Italians have a reputation for cultural chauvinism, but I enjoy how many of them are reluctant to converse in English. They usually appreciate my trying to speak their language and it gives positive reinforcement for learning it.

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Short Story “The Big Book of Answers” at Poplorish

Last month, Old Growth Northwest published a story of mine, “The Big Book of Answers,” for the inaugural issue of their literary magazine Poplorish. The issue is available for download as a PDF here.

OGNW is a newish literary organization based out Seattle, Washington. I highly recommend those of you in the city and the surrounding area to come to one of their readings or attend one of their free writer’s workshops. Why? Because when was the last time you ever received writing advice at that cost?