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.

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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.