Nathalie Sarraute: A Memoir
by Simone Fattal
It was in the last days of 1961. I had just come back from a year in England where I studied English. It had been a very hard year. Id come out from boarding school to be in a huge metropolis and the most difficult thing for me was to interrupt my Philosophy courses. But the everyday life in London, the beauty of the English language, going to the theater and the museums gradually compensated for it. It was the great days of the British theatre. I had a pronounciation Professor who was a teacher at a prestigious drama school and he sent me to all the important productions: I saw "Fings aren't what they used to be", the Joan Littlewood production; also "The Hostage" by Brendan Behan,"A Taste of Honey" by Sheila Delaney (both produced and directed by Joan Littlewood!) and Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" with Lawrence Olivier at the Sloane Square theatre . It was the big scandal of the year for Olivier was playing with Joan Plowright, and he had just announced that he was leaving his beautiful wife of many years,Vivien Leigh, for Plowright. Public curiosity was such that she was forced to stop playing. I was shocked that it had to be the woman who was asked to leave and not the man.
And I enrolled in Beirut at the Ecole des Lettres to start a degree in Philosophy. My parents lived in Damascus, so they took a room for me in a" Foyer de Jeunes Filles" run by nuns in civilian clothes (we called it the bordello) which made them think they were extremely liberal. It was a big change for me from the horrible convent where I had spent my high school years and quite a regression compared to my year in London. But I was going to study Philosophy and that was all that mattered.
We were a few girls there, enrolled in various Universities but I was the only one in Humanities. There was a medical student whom we never saw, and two inseperable girls who had the room next to mine and whose names were Peggy and Violettewe called them the Peg and the Violet. The Peg and the Violet told me that I should look for a girl who lived in Alexandria and who came only to take her exams and they predicted that we were going to be great friends, for Josiane was enrolled in Literature and Philosophy but she studied privately at home and came at the end of each semester to present her exams. The French system allowed this freedom as one was not required to attend the courses. When Josiane came, I was away in Damascus. I came back and as I was walking in, the Peg and the Violet were waiting for me and asked me to their room that night so I could meet Josiane.We met and indeed we had a lot to talk about. We ended up in my room talking till the morning. I was the only girl in the dorm to have a private room. And my mother had brought from home a beautiful chest which was to be a buffet in which she stored olives, and apricot jams from home. I managed to put in some books. At the end of the night Josiane admitted having been interested in me only because she had visited my room in my absence and had seen among my books Le Planetarium by Nathalie Sarraute.
Of course we would only read Le Nouveau Roman then, and among the Nouveau Roman she was the only woman, she had this interesting name, and the book's title evoked the stars and the astronomy with which I had always been involved. Also, in those days our affection would go to any author who had an introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre. So we read avidly Genet, Nizan, and Sarraute. I knew nothing of her historythat she was Russian and came from a broken home, that she was Jewish and that she had to wear the yellow star during the war (but in fact she took the star and never wore it). She went back and forth from Russia in her early childhood sometimes with her father, sometimes with her mother.Her father was a socialist; she first tried to study chemistry to please him, for he had a plant of chemical dyes. Then she read law and it was only later after she married that she devoted all her time to writing. She said one could not write the same way after having read Proust, Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I loved that prose that went on and on and produced a fascination in itself that was not due to anything particular being said, but was the product of the writing itself. She had signed the Manifeste des 121 in 1960 , which was a manifesto that included Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras etc., against the policy of the French Government in Algeria. Raymond Sarraute, her husband was also a socialist; his mother had been a friend of Rosa Luxembourg.
Among the Nouveau Roman writers, she was the only one published by Gallimard and I would more easily buy a book with the red and a black lines that are the Gallimard design than any other that I did not know. Soon Josiane was to let me know that Gallimard, except for publishing Sarraute, was a very old-fashioned publisher and that all writers who mattered were published by les Editions de Minuit, i.e. Beckett mainly, and she filled my bookcase with the blue and black lines that was the Editions de Minuit distinctive design. Soon I was to read Malone meurt, Fin de Partie, En attendant Godot, etc. As for the Nouveau Roman it was years later that I read Flaubert and I realised that he was indeed the first and most perfect Nouveau Roman writer. I started visiting Josiane in Alexandria where I met a young future professor, Jean-Yves Tadie, who was doing his military service as a corporal in Egypt.
Last year both Jean-Yves Tadie and Josiane reappeared in my life; Josiane from Montreal where she had become a celebrated Philosophy Professor who received a medal from the French government for her work on the French revolution and the French Philosophers; and Tadie, who in the meantime had become the celebrated author of the definitive edition of the complete works of Proust, as well as his most important biographer. Tadie came to dinner to my apppartment in Paris witha present the complete works of Nathalie Sarraute that he had edited for les Editions de La Pleiade.
BIO: Simone Fattal is a painter and sculptor who divides her time between Northern California and Paris. She is the founder and publisher of Post-Apollo Press.