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Nathalie Sarraute

JACQUES SASSIER/Courtesy of New Directions

Title
Tropisms
Author
Nathalie Sarraute
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
New Directions
Pages
52
Price
$13.95

While reading Nathalie Sarraute's Tropisms on the subway, an ad for another book caught my eye. Something about it seemed off: the poster contained a pixelated image, a title and the author's name, but no blurbs or description. The more I stared the less sense it made, and I began to wonder if it weren't some sort of hoax. But the book, I discovered online, was real, albeit self-published. (The corresponding website announced the author's "exceptional literary skills" and "ability to produce great literature.")

My engagement with Sarraute, another producer of great literature, derailed. I had questions: Who was this subway self-promoter? Why the marketing campaign? What did he want? Tropisms, released in 1939 and reissued this month, initiated Sarraute's lifelong project of capturing "interior movements" in an "immeasurably expanded present," and inspired what would become the French nouveau roman. What might she have in common with someone inclined to rent commercial real estate on subway cars? They were, after all, both writers.

I wondered if some shared instinct or enthusiasm might inspire the vain and solitary pursuit of marrying text to thought and feeling and sharing the results with strangers – regardless, I suppose, if the writer attempts to capture the experientially ineffable or embarks on a DIY affair of self promotion. So I asked about 300 writers, from established novelists, poets, screenwriters, playwrights and journalists to the as-yet-unpublished and aspiring, a simple question: Why do you write?

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I was amazed at how many people seemed not only to take me seriously, but who responded with consideration and generosity. As the replies began pouring in, I started to divide them into categories. A large proportion expressed the necessity of writing in their lives. I looped together variations of "If I don't write, I become severely depressed/I start feeling kind of lost/I'd probably go insane/the world goes dead/I turn suicidal," with those that claimed writing is a compulsion: some version of "I write because I have to," which included authors who "think in narrative" as well as those for whom writing eased the loneliness of human existence.

Another group claimed to write for feelings of elation and gratification. Writing allowed one poet to "peer through the cracks of a worrisome existence toward a lighter one" and provided another "a chemical high." Perhaps the most common response was an echo of Joan Didion's statement of purpose, "I write to find out what I'm thinking" – to create self-understanding, to fashion meaning out of existence, to use language to anchor oneself in the world – whether privately or as a tool for interpersonal communication.

Others spoke of posterity and mortality. "My life seems to dissolve as I walk through it," explained an author of short fiction, "as if the pavement is crumbling behind me with every step. Writing is the only way to capture my impressions." Three people said "money" and two said "revenge." A few confessed to wanting to be liked or loved. Political rationale was rare, though one poet asserted that "writing is an indispensable feminist tactic," and another response cited a need for disability narratives from, and not just about, that particular community. My favourite (yet totally unhelpful) reply ranted about robots and vampires and ended with the terrific line, "There's still blood enough here in the real world for everyone."

Only one writer admitted, "I don't know." Which was refreshing, though the question itself was a bit of an unfair set-up. Writers are often required to provide answers – a funny expectation, considering how many work toward, as opposed to from, a place of understanding. And yet as literature's cultural stock plummets, writers find themselves pressed to validate literature, both to themselves and the society at large. My question, then, implied an innate value judgment; I might well have asked, "Why do you write … when nine million refugees have fled Syria since 2011?" What can the writer do but self-affirm?

Perhaps the reasons why one writes should be divorced from the strategies of legitimization one employs because one writes. Speaking for myself, I often justify what I do with moralistic and self-aggrandizing rationale. I might claim, for example, that literature arouses empathy and compassion in a society increasingly devoid of such things. Or that, at its most essential, fiction operates on a non-commercial psychic and spiritual plane, and as such can function as resistance to neoliberalism's dehumanizing technocracy (or whatever). But, dubious logic aside, those aren't the reasons I sit down and start typing. And while almost every response to my question resonated with me – compulsion, communication, loneliness, wanting to be liked – the one that rang truest was that confession: I don't know.

Which, finally, brings me back to Nathalie Sarraute. I have no idea "why" she wrote Tropisms. But the book has such intensity that it feels imperative – not just to her, but the reader as well. In science, a tropism is the movement of an organism in response to an external stimulus, such as sunflowers twisting toward a light source. In Sarraute's work, the tropisms are internal, such that "the slightest act … [becomes] a provocation, a sudden leap into the void." The resulting emotional resonances occur in the implied spaces between images and action, a sort of second text that lurks and shifts beneath the surface of things.

Following Joyce and Woolf (and possibly resisting Wittgenstein), over nearly two dozen plays and books, Sarraute made a lifelong project of expressing those inexpressible moments on the "frontiers of consciousness." Her work is immersive and consuming; when you look up from the page you see and feel the world differently. Which is why, I think, that subway poster struck me so startlingly. My response was tropistic, a bending toward wonder that I didn't quite understand, but felt the need to follow.

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