The Use of Speech by Nathalie Sarraute (trans. Barbara Wright). Counterpath Press. 151 pp., $14.95.
Born in 1900 in Ivanovo, Russia—although she spent most of her life in Paris after being abandoned there, as a young girl, by her mother—and forced into hiding by the Nazi invasion of France because of her Jewish heritage, Nathalie Sarraute was (along with figureheads such as Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Claude Mauriac) a highly respected author within the Nouveau Roman movement of mid- to late-20th century French literature, which sought to do away with many narrative constrictions, particularly within the Realist tradition, perceived to be imposed on the form of fiction. (Sarraute is also one of the only authors to have had a Pléiade edition of her works printed by the Gallimard publishing house during their lifetime, an honor reserved for major writers.) Her novel The Use of Speech, originally published in the early 1980s, has been recently reprinted by Counterpath Press, in Barbara Wright’s beautiful translation of the author’s characteristically dense, elliptical, and terse paragraphs.
As a work of fiction, The Use of Speech is remarkable for exploring the seemingly contradictory idea that if language is the primary form of communication between human beings, it is also their primary form of persecution. This analysis is especially evident within the novel’s drawn-out meditations on the similarities between the structure of language and the structure of societies, and it is primarily through this concept that Sarraute explores a strand of conscious thought always present in human culture, but nearly invisible to each person experiencing it: namely, the extent to which our perceptions both determine and, perhaps more importantly, are determined by linguistic acts.
It is appropriate that for a novel—a form of art constructed out of language—this consideration on Sarraute’s part should take place within the work on levels of both form and content, of language and idea. Sarraute often structures the narrativein such a way that words themselves seem to overpower the few characters who dimly appear and quietly disappear, as though in waves of fog, within the circumscription of her prose, even while the characters try to master their own sense of reality by describing the world as they perceive and exist within it. This formal element of doubling and mirroring literary structure and subject matter may also act as a reflective process for the reader; Sarraute use a style of thematic layering that mimics not just the effect that language has on the book’s characters but also, in a wider sense, on the society in which the audience plays out their lives.
Throughout The Use of Speech, Sarraute dismantles the assumptions that support deceptively simple ideas; she shows that they are, in fact, complicated and bear such force that they irrevocably act on the worldview of the person who utters or hears them. Her technique is thus reminiscent of the essays of Roland Barthes, wherein what initially appear to be pure, transparent symbols are shown to be strands of thought forever lost in depths of abhorrent social restrictions to which they are rooted. (Celia Britton, for example, has pointed out that a common element to the writing of practitioners within the Nouveau Roman movement was the influence of Barthes. (The Nouveau Roman: Fiction, Theory, and Politics” (St. Martin’s, 1992).))
Thus each chapter of the novel begins with a ghostly narrator who directly addresses the reader on the subject of a simple phrase that occurs in an isolated, dramatized conversation (with sections of the book having titles such as “The word love”; “So what, he’s crazy”; and “See you very soon”). The narrative voices dramatize situations in which these phrases have come to surface: a meeting between friends; a man on his deathbed (who happens in this case to be Anton Chekhov) speaking to those surrounding him; a discussion of a political exile; etc. Sarraute visualizes the phrase “So what, he’s crazy,” for example, as a concrete form of separation between human beings, specifically by linking the way in which the sentence implies an outsider exterior to the dialogue, in opposition to both the person uttering the phrase and the listener, to the parallel process through which an individual is, in reality, excluded from society because of insanity.
This example of Sarraute’s casting back of thought is an important point in understanding the novel, and it is in a sense the forte with which Sarraute cuts through a wall built between human relationships. The example’s use illustrates an area of life in which the behavior of citizens within a society mimics a linguistic figure: Sarraute’s narrator says, “‘So what, he’s crazy’. . . is a strong-room. Nothing from outside can pass through its walls, they’re guaranteed proof against all risks, they’re totally impenetrable. . . . [The phrase] ‘So what, he’s crazy’ erects its impenetrable walls all around him.” This series of lines is almost certainly a metaphor for the act of consigning a person deemed insane to an asylum, and it calls to mind those have been willed, as it were, into a state of nonexistence. That the phrase is imagined as an impenetrable series of walls surrounding a victim also evinces the idea that by dividing our perceptions into oppositional categories—sane/insane, etc.—language takes a unified perception of the world and divides it into pieces, an effect that extends to our relationships to those relegated to the margins of society. In fact it is as though, in this case, the walls of the asylum are first reinforced by the cement of language: the narrator notes that “‘Crazy’” is “a powerful word by which all agitations and convulsions are mastered, put in a safe place, locked away, well guarded.”
Sarraute goes on to suggest that we also extend this tension between language and action—as we have seen in its effects on the insane—to political outcasts. In another section of the book, Sarraute writes of someone gunned down by enemy guards: “But where do you think you are? With your fellow countrymen, in peacetime? You didn’t realize you were in a country occupied by enemy troops? You didn’t know the regulations? You have infringed them, a patrol saw you, they’ve taken aim at you, they fire . . . and with a tremendous din, something explodes in his head.” Here the outsider is not only subjectively erased from our perception through a turn of language, but also objectively erased, as it were, from reality; the scene is all the more sad because we know such tragedies occur and go undocumented within war-zones on a daily basis.
In another of the novel’s most profound and tragic passages, dealing with the borderlines between silence and speech, as well as death and life, Sarraute’s narrator considers the phrase “Ich Sterbe,” or “I’m dying,” the last words of Chekhov as he lay on his deathbed in a German hotel room. Sarraute uses this example, I believe, as a specific case in which a human being has attempted to encompass the indefinable—the experience of near-death—in an act of language. It is notable that dying is a place in which language must necessarily fail, because it lacks a past or common ground of experience between speaker and listener: the experience is only felt by the dying, and only felt once. It follows that Sarraute describes the great writer rendered nearly speechless by the event: “[Chekhov] is so at a loss, so bereft of words . . . he has none . . . This resembles nothing, this recalls nothing anyone has ever described, ever imagined . . . this is surely what is meant when people say that there are no words to say it . . . There are no more words, here.” It is as though, Sarraute suggests, life is an impenetrable darkness, an unknowable mass that we attempt to focus through language: here Chekhov is “Swept along, carried away, trying to hold myself back, clutching . . . solid earth: Ich sterbe.” As though swept up in a dark river, he looks for some purchase to keep himself above the water, and language would seem to provide this hold, a false moment of certainty in a landscape bearing only uncertainty. In that Chekhov was a doctor, Sarraute has him say (as though he is taking control over his physical state with words in the same way that a surgeon may take over the body), “I am going to put into words [with the phrase 'Ich sterbe']. . . An operation which will introduce order into this infinite disorder. The unsayable will be said. The unthinkable will be thought. The senseless will be restored to reason.” Furthermore, “[with] the blade of excellent make—I have never used it, nothing has ever blunted it—I anticipate the moment, and I, myself, cut: Ich sterbe . . . I certify the event.”
Is this not, in a sense, what Sarraute intends to do herself, by writing a novel on the very subject of the “act of speech”? In this comparison of a phrase to a blade, cutting through experience, Sarraute again asserts that language by necessity acts upon reality, describing the moment of impact and separation. That we are so chained to this violent state of affairs is a testament to the importance of thinkers such as Sarraute; in the act of writing this novel she has shed light on the possibility of a future in which “the unsayable will be said,” when perception would no longer negate the difference between ourselves, others, and the world around us. That Sarraute accomplishes this negation through language is a profound artistic achievement.
Jordan Anderson is a writer living in Oregon whose main interests are the 19th century and contemporary literatures. He can be reached at anders [dot] jordan [at] gmail [dot] com.
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