The Use of Speech by Nathalie Sarraute, translated from the French by Barbara Wright
(Counterpath Press, Denver, Colorado, 2010)
In Counterpath’s 2010 re-release of The Use of Speech, first published in 1980, Nathalie Sarraute functions as a lexicographer of the nouveau roman order, compiling words and phrases only to complicate meaning and disorient the contexts in which they occur. Though the novel appeared decades after nouveau roman’s mid-century explosion, it’s difficult not to consider Sarraute’s work in the context of the literary innovation with which she, along with writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Phillipe Sollers, and Michel Butor, is so commonly associated. The Use of Speech engages many of the approaches that broadly characterize the movement, such as exacting description of sensations and initially coherent impressions that are undone by disunity of time and space. Sarraute categorically denies the kind of stable characterization that would situate speech-acts in lucid circumstances. A protean prose style, which adapts to the incremental shifts of each of The Use of Speech’s ten sections, erases the sense of a contiguous focalizer. The narrator weaves in and out of scenarios that serve to simultaneously illustrate and obscure the words and phrases that constitute the core of each section.
In documenting the ways in which we communicate, Sarraute explores how both words and the conditions of speech are loaded volatile import that creates a surfeit of discordant meaning and correspondingly mixed emotions. In fidelity to the denial of developed characterization that marks Sarraute’s earlier work, the individuals who populate the sections are depersonalized while the words and speech acts are humanized, transformed into mercurial figures rather than linguistic signs. Over the ten chapters, Sarraute surveys the extent to which speech shapes everything from political history to artist’s cliques.
For instance, “Ich sterbe” investigates the speech of the dying by deliberating on the language that precedes or ushers in threshold states. “See you very soon” foregrounds the sum of words constantly tallied in friendships, wherein the roles of speaker and listener that are rarely balanced, against a background of social exchange mediated by advertisements and entertainment. Here Sarraute tackles the interpersonal power dynamics that manifest in the language of friendship and how speech accretes its own weight and burden. The specter of gossip rears its head, too, as a social currency that is measured against its surfeit or scarcity. In “Your father. Your sister,” the emotional and psychological impact of “key- phrases”—the accumulations that surround oft-repeated expressions—also undergoes examination. Sarraute explains the “key” as language capable of shifting experience the moment that it is spoken: “Few phrases are more deserving than this to be called a key-phrase. A key in which the words ‘Your father’ ‘Your sister’ stand out like the web that enables the key to turn… ‘Your father’ ‘Your sister’… a section of the invisible dividing wall opens, and through the opening… what do we see?…” This section theorizes the “key” as language that has gathered richly textured meaning against the backdrop of family and life-long relationships. “The Word Love” has similarly potent capabilities. The word—not even the utterance, but the glyph—is a “powerfully armed, well-guarded, well-policed State” and kaleidoscopic by nature.
“Aesthetic” offers a manifesto against the reduction of art and beauty into a set of principles that are intimated by the mere utterance of a word that reduces and confines.
This word “aesthetic” erupted like the fateful pustule that discloses… it cropped up like a tattoo that reveals membership… But don’t think that, it isn’t the sign of what you imagined, not with me… I am not one of those, and I’m going to prove it, here’s something that will reassure you, here are the words I’m going to bracket with that word “aesthetic”… words in common usage, nice vulgar words I like to use…and you’ll see how at their contact “aesthetic” will lose that air you dislike…yes, I know…an aloof, haughty air, a bit supercilious, isn’t it?…but you’ll see how these good words infect it with their jauntiness, generosity, good-nature… “Well yes…the aesthetic sense… they don’t give a damn. All the care about is their own crap.”
Sarraute systematically destroys the denotative meaning of “Aesthetic” to reveal the connotations that associate a word with social and community motivations. This process of unraveling a phrase or a word so it is no longer neatly tied to a use value that can be employed in the linguistic economy is in line with the defamiliarization that occurs in the other sections. By looking closely at the use of speech under specific lenses, Sarraute reveals the extent to which concrete meaning dissolves and leaves behind the trace of gestures, intimations, and doubts. Relationships, whether with family or larger communities, become fraught by attempts to work through their intricacies using the inadequate perimeters of language. Within each of these scenarios, the position of speaker and listener are dynamic rather than static. They respond to the codes that surround speech, alternately upholding, breaking, and surreptitiously transgressing them.
As translated by the great Barbara Wright, the lines are filled with cadences, ellipses and interruptions that constantly evade and deny the completion or containment of one thought while adding yet another. As a result, ideas overlap and pile up, sounds layer upon other sounds. This level of sonic cacophony duplicates the uproar of ideas that resonate throughout the book. It’s a formidable reminder of the way in which nouveau roman dissonance and discontinuity responds to the political and social turbulence of the latter half of the twentieth-century. Despite the fact that nouveau roman has frequently been accused of being apolitical, Sarraute reminds me of the ways in which the breakdown of artistic representability can make a political claim by asking us to question other forms of representation and their veracity.
Gabriel Lovatt writes, researches, and teaches in Athens at the University of Georgia, where she is finishing her dissertation.