Becoming a Biographer
In 2011 I was asked to contribute to a French TV programme about the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999) in a series about writers and their houses. The plan was to spend a weekend filming in and around Sarraute’s weekend house in rural Normandy, and I was there at the behest of her daughter who was afraid that the programme might trivialise her mother’s work. My role was to talk about the books, with the predictable result that the TV people kept just a couple of minutes from an hour-and-a-half long conversation. When the programme appeared I saw, to my surprise, that I was credited with being Sarraute’s “biographer”, which I absolutely wasn’t. I queried this with the producer who explained that it was their way of suggesting that I had specialist expertise and that mentioning academic publications and university affiliation would be the kiss of death for a TV audience. I found this amusing, but thought no more of it.
I had first come across Nathalie Sarraute as an undergraduate when I attended a summer school on contemporary French literature in Aix-en-Provence. At a time when the Oxford syllabus didn’t penetrate much beyond Gide and Proust, it was hugely exciting to learn about the present, which included the Nouveau Roman and all the ideas that went with it. Sarraute’s essays in L’Ère du soupçon became my bible, I got hooked on her novels without understanding very much of what was going on in them, and ended up writing a D.Phil. thesis on her work.
Being in Paris before starting the thesis, I plucked up courage to write to Sarraute asking if could come and see her. I’m not sure what I expected, but she reminisced at length about Oxford and the year she spent there at Home Students (later St Anne’s College) in 1920-21, opening up a biographical perspective whose potential I blithely ignored. This was in the days when avant-garde literature was read in relation to theory: biography was taboo, considered to be antithetical to the literary qualities of the text.
Sarraute herself was ferociously opposed to biography—in general, but in particular as applied to literature. In general, because in her view, the conventions of biography distort and misrepresent the way that life is actually lived as fluctuation and change. And in relation to her own writing, because of the reductive effect it would have on her experimental explorations of what Virginia Woolf once called “the dark places of psychology”.
This rejection of biography was shared by others of her generation, such as Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida, biographies of whom nevertheless appeared after their deaths. Intrigued and impressed by the results, it occurred to me that Sarraute might benefit from the same treatment, a suggestion I made to her daughter when I happened to meet her in Paris. I had no intention of offering my services (ruled out, I thought, by virtue of being British and an academic critic), but I was eventually persuaded by her offer to provide authorisation for access to anything I might wish to see.
I wasn’t blessed in my subject: Sarraute never kept a diary, there are barely any personal papers, and other than for practical purposes, she was no letter-writer. She had donated her papers to the Bibliothèque nationale (BnF), but imposed a 40-year embargo on the manuscripts. This left her correspondence (such as it is) and her engagement diaries, starting in the early 1950s (when she was herself in in her 50s).
During an unusually wet July I began to tackle the archive in the BnF, where photocopying and photography are forbidden, and documents must be transcribed in pencil or onto a laptop. The laptop was indispensable as Google proved to be a vital research tool providing information about unfamiliar names and allusions I came across. As time went on, I became just as hooked on factual discovery as I had been on the novels. It was a thrill to get scans of Sarraute’s borrowings (and overdue fines) from the library in Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop in the 1930s. This was from a colleague in Princeton, one of many people who contributed to the project. Biography is impossible if undertaken as a single-handed venture.
A historian colleague introduced me to two invaluable historical archives, though I never did understand the arcane cataloguing systems in these places. In another archive I came across a manuscript account by a friend of Sarraute’s of her panic after being denounced by a neighbour in the village where she was living during the German occupation. (Sarraute was Jewish, which turned out to have life-threatening consequences for her, if not directly for her work.) In light of recent events, I consider myself most fortunate to have got to Ivanovo in Russia where Sarraute (whose parents were Russian) was born, and where, under the tutelage of a young woman who had written a thesis on Sarraute at the local university, I visited the regional archive and the house where Sarraute was born, currently occupied by undocumented and apparently unemployed drunks. People responded very generously to requests for interviews: I did a 700-km round-trip to speak to Sarraute’s fellow New Novelist Michel Butor not long before he died. Sarraute’s daughter made herself available for questions, but claimed increasingly that I knew more about her mother than she did.
And then, with the 20th anniversary of Sarraute’s death in prospect, the time came to pull this material together. My French publisher told me not to dwell too long on the literary texts because “frankly it’s boring” and to keep up narrative momentum, a skill I had never previously required. But, although after more than four years of full-time research my laptop was chock-full with notes of every conceivable kind, the challenge turned out to be unexpectedly rewarding. I like to think that Sarraute has benefited more from biography than she ever imagined she might, as the most gratifying responses I had were those from people who said that the book had made them want to read (or reread) her work.
Ann Jefferson’s biography of Nathalie Sarraute came out in a French translation with Flammarion in 2019, and in English as Nathalie Sarraute: A Life Between with Princeton University Press in 2020.