Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Do You Hear Them?

Nathalie Sarraute

translated by Maria Jolas

Dalkey Archive Press ($12.95)

by Stephen Schenkenberg

There's probably never been a more serious book about the giggles than Nathalie Sarraute's Do You Hear Them?, first published in 1972 and newly re-released in English. The sounds start off lovely enough: "Fresh laughter. Carefree laughter. Silvery laughter. Tiny bells. Tiny drops. Fountains. Gentle water-falls. Twittering of birds…" and "clear, limpid laughter… living water, springs, little brooks running through flowering meadows." But there are also "long peals of laughter like thin lashes that sting and coil up"; "idiotic titters"; and "sharp peals" that "permeate every recess."

That last phrase should be remembered, for it well represents the author's narrative treatment throughout this work. Considered a key member of the Nouveau Roman, or New Novel, movement, Sarraute (1900-1999) spoke and wrote clearly about her strategies of narrative recess-permeation; in a forward to Tropisms, her first of 17 books, she described her authorial focus as those "inner moments" that "slip through us in the frontiers of consciousness in the form of indefinable, extremely rapid sensations."

Here those sensations are given life through sound. Do you hear them, the title asks? Do you hear those children giggling? The question comes from the children's father, who sits a floor below with an old friend, attempting to meditate on a recently acquired work of pre-Columbian art, a heavy, puma-like animal of rough stone that "would deserve to figure in a museum." The father is insulted, intellectually derailed, infuriated at these children of his—these "overfed babies" with access to the best cultural education but who "[turn] up their noses at art treasures" for the comfort of comics and television. Here's one remarkable passage, delivered with the dizzy poetics on which the whole novel floats:

Alone now, leaning toward each other, the two friends turn in every direction the stone set before them on the low table… the two misers tenderly stroke this precious chest, this casket in which there has been deposited, in which is locked up for safekeeping, preserved for all time, something that calms them, reassures them, ensures them security… Something permanent, immutable… An obstacle set on the path of time, a motionless center around which time, arrested, is revolving, forming circles… They hold on to that, seaweed, swaying grasses clinging to the cliff…

The most intriguing thing about Do You Hear Them? may be that Sarraute has taken one simple scene—a father's object fetishization, his children's in-character childishness, the resulting conflict—and fashioned something wonderfully strange and complex. Very little else happens in the novel except this single scene, played again and again from different angles and with different colorizations and through different voices, the author handling, flipping and turning the story like a Rubik's Cube. (This novel, intent on showing multiple sides in something of a single view, does in fact seem Cubist.)

Thus the reader is given revolving points of view, so that the book's anger and its sympathies are continually shifting among the characters. When the father marches upstairs, for instance, we are told that the children are "going to stop, cower in corners, scared to death, startled nymphs caught unawares by a satyr, little pigs dancing when all of a sudden, howling, his great teeth bared, in comes the big bad wolf." But through another lens these cowerers hold the power—"One single invisible ray emitted by them can turn this heavy stone into a hollow, flabby thing," and to counter the father's fuming stair-march we're given this startlingly poetic image: "they felt clinging to them the threads they make him secrete, that slaver with which he tries to envelop them, the slender lasso that he throws at them from behind… and they stiffened, they withdrew violently, they went upstairs, dragging him behind them, giving him hard knocks, his head bumping against the steps…"

Sarraute's elliptical prose can be exhausting and frustrating, but it will ultimately reward the reader who can keep time with the book's unusual rhythm and accept its plotlessness. The ideas and emotions the author casts a fog over—matters of taste, childhood fear, disdain for the next generation's future—remain surprisingly intact when the strange novel's over; the fog clears, and the reader sees more clearly the characters Sarraute has created. While the book includes some simple, declarative statements—"They hold art in contempt," says the father; "He holds a stopwatch on all our gestures," says one of the children—the reader senses that the richness of the book is in its faint, poetic, quickly passing passages, such as: "I believe that it's time… They rise… and inside him something breaks off and falls…"

The author's commitment to locating these "inner moments" feels, in the end, worth the labor of both writer and reader. The moments may have slipped through the consciousness of Sarraute's characters, but they have not slipped through hers, nor ours.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents