Nathalie Sarraute and England

Context N°14

by Barbara Wright

It was she who taught us that it was impossible ever to categorize, classify, pigeonhole anything whatsoever. That every human being is made up of infinite facets, and that it is therefore totally idiotic for us to believe we can say of someone:

“That’s the way he is (was).”

So what can I say about her that is not idiotic?

I can tell anecdotes. I can also say how she was with me, her translator. And I can describe how, together, we produced her English translations. I have always insisted that the English publisher should print: “Translated . . . in consultation with the author,” because there is always a great deal of her in the final result. Just as well.

I wouldn’t dare speak of her intellectual qualities but, obviously, they were omnipresent. And they were always surrounded and accompanied by her sense of humor. She was kind, friendly, accessible, simple, amusing, witty, sympathetic. . . . She was interested in everybody—I can’t say “from the greatest to the most humble,” because that was not the way she saw human beings. The word “hierarchy” didn’t seem to be in her vocabulary.

Naturally I knew her by sight, and had heard her speak, a long time before I came to know her properly. Nathalie Sarraute quite often came to England to give lectures, and I always went to listen to her. Everyone knows that she adored England, the English, the English language, . . . and she always made this very clear. She was regularly invited to lecture at our French Institute, and I always noticed that the moment she came into the hall and started to walk up to the platform, it was as if the whole audience had fallen in love with her. She came surrounded by her own ambience, and we felt we were welcome in it. She was a born orator—although when she spoke in public, it was just as if she were chatting to you and me.

In this context, here is an example of her kindness. Quite some time ago, there at the French Institute, Nathalie was speaking about her books. When questions were solicited, an unfortunate young man stood up and asked her what she had had in mind when she was writing Jealousy. . . .The whole audience held its collective breath. . . . The lecturer, with a charming smile—no indignation, no scorn—simply replied, as if she regretted it: “That is not one of my books.”

Still before I knew her, a literary magazine sent me to interview her—after yet another lecture at the Institute—and one Saturday afternoon I went to see her there, in the flat where she was spending the weekend with her husband, Raymond. That was where I heard from her own mouth how much she loved our country, and even why. This was before she had written Childhood, so it was only later that I read in that marvelous book her account of how her passion began. Her stepmother, Véra, engaged a series of English girls as governesses for her own daughter, Lili. They were to teach Lili English, but Véra insisted that Lili should be the only one to benefit from this privilege.

“Few of them managed to hold out for long in this ‘hot seat,’” Nathalie was to write later of these badly-treated “Misses.” But they all made friends with Natasha and were only too happy to speak English with her when her stepmother was not there. “Especially in the evenings,” she wrote in Childhood (1983):

When Véra and my father had gone out, we came together, these lonely young English girls and I, in their room near mine . . . which had the advantage of being closer to the front door . . . from there it was easier to hear the sounds on the stairs, the street door closing, the steps coming up . . . they stop on the landing . . . the key fumbles in the lock, it’s going to open . . . I must tear myself away from the joy of listening to this language, of trying to speak it myself, of discovering through the delightful nursery rhymes and the little children’s books intended for Lili, a country in which everything charms me, awakens tenderness, nostalgia in me too . . . but there isn’t a moment to lose, I take to my heels and close my door quietly . . .”

A few years later, still in Paris, Nathalie took a degree in English. After that she managed to persuade her father to let her go to Oxford to study, and she spent a year there reading history at Saint Anne’s. Right up to the end of her life, recalling that happy year, she spoke of England as an “earthly paradise.” And it must have been at Oxford that she made such a determined effort to get used to our incredible English “cuisine” that in the end she came to love it. Not to say to adore it. . . .

That too she told me when I was interviewing her. She had put me so much at my ease that when I left her I had no hesitation in rushing off to the nearest supermarket and buying disgusting things like Bird’s Custard and Porridge Oats, and going back and discreetly depositing them outside the door of the illustrious Institute. I heard some time later that they had reached her and was reassured to be told that this little episode had amused her as much as it amused me.


Right. Two or three years later, the publisher John Calder suggested to Maria Jolas, who was the last living Paris member of James Joyce’s circle, that rather than “waste her time” translating, she would do better to write her memoirs. And he asked me to take over from her as Nathalie Sarraute’s English translator. I won’t even try to describe my reaction to this suggestion. . . . But Nathalie understood it at once.

(Parenthesis: Alas, Maria Jolas only got up to 1922 in her memoirs. . . .)

It’s the oldest cliché in the world—the notion that every conscientious translator who loves his trade aspires to produce “what the author would have written if he had written his text in the target language.” The fact that it is a cliché doesn’t bother me a lot, though, because I feel it is exactly what everyone should aim at. Nathalie immediately saw that that was what I was going to try to give her, and she was pleased. Nevertheless, while she was indeed often satisfied with the finished translation, she herself, as I have already said, had a great deal to do with it.

I was never able to persuade her that she could—almost—have made her own English translations. She loved the language so much that she had acquired a profound knowledge of it, with all its nuances and eccentricities. . . . She read it with ease, she listened regularly to the BBC radio, and she spoke it fluently. She did have a slight accent, of course, although everyone agreed that it was charming. She would never believe this, though, and was always reluctant to talk English with people who were supposed to speak French.

Thus she was the translator’s perfect author. I should add that while I have almost without exception had kind, patient help from “my” authors, with Nathalie it was something else. She really did care passionately that her translations should be as if she had written them herself, the way she imagined them, the way she heard them. Everything she wrote was poetry, so every effort had to be made to reproduce its musicality. For Nathalie, every word, every phrase, every cadence, counted. In every language.

It didn’t take us long to invent our way of working. That’s to say, it somehow established itself. The first texts of hers that I translated were fairly short: the play It Is There and the essays collection The Use of Speech, so it was no problem for me simply to go to the Avenue Pierre ler de Serbie and read them aloud to her, while she followed with the French text. When there was something she didn’t like or wasn’t sure about, she would stop me, and we would discuss it. Very often it turned out to be a passage that I myself was not very happy with: I’ll come back to that. But when it happened to be something that I was pretty sure I had gotten right and could say why, I would tell her, and she would never argue. She never sought to impose anything on me. She even said: “You’re the boss.”

For both of us, nothing counted but the text. That’s to say: when we started working. Before that, everything counted, everything that exists in the world. I was fairly stunned when I realized that she was interested in me too—that she saw me not as a simple translating machine but as a fellow human being. . . .

So this is how it was. I arrive. Nathalie opens the door to me and greets me warmly. (I must put in a parenthesis here: twice she opened the door to me with an Anthony Trollope [in English] in her hand, and asked me to excuse her while she finished a paragraph, it was so fascinating. . . .) (And a further parenthesis: that was how I now have so many Trollope books that they are falling out of the bookshelves—whereas before, I had never read him. . . .)

. . . Nathalie opens the door to me. Latterly, we went straight to her bedroom, which was where she liked to work. (It was only in the very last years of her life that she gave up her little morning walk to work in her favorite café in the Avenue Marceau.) Then it was gossip (amusing). Laughter, offers of vodka or whisky, cigarettes, exchanges of opinions, enquiries about our respective families. At some moment, we decide to work. And there, everything changes. With hindsight, I can see that it was an almost brutally dramatic change, but at the time it was automatic and couldn’t have seemed more normal and natural. Not that Nathalie became the mistress and I the servant, nothing of the sort, but we both became the servants of the text. And we behaved as such; we became totally serious.

But when we took a break, presto!—everything changed again. Always within the framework of my respect for her, we laughed and joked, made fun of the self-important people of this world, almost became irresponsible schoolgirls. . . .

And here, I want to state that Nathalie was never an old lady. At the end of her life all the critics vied with each other to be the one who praised her new books the most highly, but not one of them ever failed to start his review with: “Now well into her nineties . . . ,” with variations. She merely shrugged her shoulders at it—she had been used to such irrelevances for decades. But for my part, it infuriated me. Talk about categorizing, classifying, pigeonholing, stereotyping. Talk about condescension, to say nothing of ageism. . . . It was pathetic. Threadbare, banal, idiotic. And what on earth did her age have to do with her writings?


There were three possible results of our translation discussions: 1) We found the solution together; 2) I suddenly found it; 3) Nathalie came up with it on her own.

Only three or four years ago she spent a weekend in England to fulfill various engagements, the most important of which was an interview, once again at the French Institute, in its theater. Presiding over the evening was Ann Jefferson, professor at Oxford, contributor to the Pléiade edition of Sarraute’s (almost) complete works, and friend of Nathalie—in short, the perfect choice. Also on the platform, of course, was Monsieur the French cultural attaché, but this amiable gentleman didn’t think that that was sufficient entourage for the star of the evening, so he forced me (yes, forced is not really too strong a word) to join them there. Disaster! Everyone knows that I hate appearing in public, maybe for the simple reason that I’m no good at it, I never know what to say, I was never taught, I am not an academic. However, I climbed up on to the platform bravely, I sat down as far behind the others as possible, I made myself as small as I could, while doing my best to look perfectly at my ease, so as not to get noticed. . . . What a hope! The moment came when Monsieur the (amiable?) cultural attaché politely shoved the mike under my nose, turned to the audience and said: “And Barbara, the translator, what has she to tell us?”

All that the translator could find to tell them was what she had already told her friends a thousand and one times—how we worked together, and the three possible results of our discussions. But when I arrived at number three—that Nathalie alone would find the solution—something like an electrical discharge flashed through the air. I thought Nathalie was going to jump out of her chair. . . . She almost yelled: “WHAT! I! I found solutions IN ENGLISH?! Not possible! Never!”

Whereupon all my inhibitions left me, all I could do was contradict her, and me too I almost yelled, I insisted that oh yes you did, don’t you remember, that happened lots and lots of times. . . . We stared at each other for a moment—and then we both burst out laughing. And the audience laughed with us.

At that same evening there was a very touching incident. George Steiner, sitting in the front row, stood up and said, very briefly and in a voice full of emotion, that for a long time he had been wanting to tell Madame Sarraute the inspiration she and her writing had represented for him ever since he was a student. And then he sat down.


I know very well that Nathalie was often full of anguish . . .
I know equally well that she was also often full of joy . . .
I have so many pictures of her in my head, so many anecdotes . . . ***

I was with her in Oxford three or four times. . . . When she was made a Fellow of her college . . . When she was the guest of honor at the Oxford Maison française . . . When she was made a Doctor Honoris Causa in 1991 . . . This took place in a really extra-super-British ceremony, that’s to say there were lots of very dignified elderly gentlemen moving around in a very old, very beautiful building in episcopal robes (or as near as makes no difference), with the elderly gentleman number one standing at the far end of the central aisle, his back to the altar (or what represented it), and little Nathalie, splendid in her academic robes, standing a little lower down in the same aisle, facing the master of ceremonies and waiting for what was going to happen next. What came next was a longish discourse (in Latin), praising her merits. . . .

They had thoughtfully placed a chair for the “elderly lady” just behind her, but the elderly lady didn’t even deign to notice it and stood all the time. For the first time in my life I had been assigned a seat among the Elite, so I had a wonderful view. And from where I sat I could have sworn that Nathalie had some difficulty in keeping her face straight. . . .

Which is absolutely not to say that she wasn’t extraordinarily pleased, extraordinarily moved by being honored in this way. And she was even more moved because it was her beloved Oxford that was acknowledging her. . . .

She was always so happy there. She went everywhere, she spoke to everyone. . . . Recently she was talking to a porter of one of the colleges and telling him of her memories, and he asked her politely: “And in what year was that, Madame?” When she replied, “In 1920,” he exclaimed: “Oh, my dear!” She was delighted with this exchange.


In her later years, she liked to have someone to accompany her when she traveled, and this someone was almost always her youngest daughter Dominique, the photographer. By some miracle, Dominique always managed to free herself from her work to accompany her mother, and often, when I went to meet them in London before a lecture or a play, they waited for me in a hotel foyer. We shouldn’t forget that Dominique had her photographic studio in Nathalie’s big apartment in the Avenue Pierre ler de Serbie, so mother and daughter saw each other every day. Yes but, without exception, when I finally spotted them, they were always engaged in an animated conversation, sometimes in gales of laughter. . . . ***

Two or three years ago, in one of the pauses in our working sessions, Nathalie adopted a very serious look and asked me if I would be prepared to do her a great favor. Oh 1à là! Naturally I would do anything. And the favor?—Would I be really kind and talk English to her? She would be so pleased. . . .

But the pleasure was mine—it was so much easier! From time to time I would forget, but soon remember again, and then she would redouble her thanks.


If her father hadn’t insisted on her going back to France after the year of paradise in Oxford, she may well have spent her life in England. That was what she thought she wanted to do at the time, but Alas!—if she had, I very much doubt whether she would have become the real Nathalie.

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