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.


Desert Island List: Books, 2014

Roget’s International Thesaurus (desert islands tend not to have WiFi)
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions
Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees
Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Henry Fowler, Modern English Usage
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
Emile Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Franz Kafka, Collected Short Stories
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (“Bartleby the Scrivener” will do in a pinch)
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (about a metaphysical desert island, if you will)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (really anything, but desert islands aren’t known for their abundant shelf space )
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Bolaño’s 300 Years of Laziness

ELISEO ÁLVAREZ: Did your parents influence your love of literature, books?

ROBERTO BOLAÑO: No. In terms of genealogy, the truth is I come from two families: one that dragged with it 500 years of constant and rigorous illiteracy and the other, maternal, that dragged with it 300 years of laziness, just as constant and as rigorous. In that sense I’m the black sheep of the family. I suppose that they would have preferred any other thing. The truth is I’m fifty years old and knowing what I know now I wouldn’t want my child to be a writer either. That isn’t to say I would want him to continue with 500 more years of illiteracy, but why not 300 more years of laziness? It’s quite hard to be a writer, although, let’s not exaggerate.

A wry allusion to Marquez? I’d like to think so.

From Roberto Bolaño : the last interview & other conversations

Reading List #1

2012: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

2011: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

2010: Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emile Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

2009: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

2008: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2007: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

2006: In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

2005: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

2004: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

2003: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

2002: A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

2001: Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

2000: Idoru by William Gibson

1999: The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

1998: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

1997: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

1996: The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.  2,  Second Edition

1995: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

1994: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by David Norman

1993: The Way Things Work by David Macaulay

1992: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

1991: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire

1990: The Abominable Snowman by Barbara Antonopulos

1989: O, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

1989: Tassel’s Mission by Susan Thompson-Hoffman

1987: Hot Air Henry by Mary Calhoun

1986: Cross-Country Cat by Mary Calhoun