Friday, 21 June 2019

Book Review: Portrait of a Man Unknown by Nathalie Sarraute

Not only political power can bring the despotic vein of a person to the surface. In fact, most of us will be a lot more familiar with it from a family setting where it shows more or less markedly in relations with children or less self-assured relatives, notably a weak spouse. This wish to rule over others, to impose our will on them seems to be deeply rooted in our nature. In addition, living it we often pass it on to the next generations. The father in Portrait of a Man Unknown by Nathalie Sarraute is tough to his grown-up daughter whose penchant for a carefree and extravagant life he disapproves because he had to work very hard to live in moderate wealth. He even threw her out of his flat to teach her a lesson, but she always comes back to him for money that he grudgingly gives her…

Nathalie Sarraute was born Natalia Ilinitchna Tcherniak (Натaлья Ильинична Черняк) in Ivanovo-Voznesensk (today: Ivanovo), Russian Empire (today: Russia), in July 1900. After her parents’ divorce, she grew up shuttling between mother and father living in France and Russia. She graduated in law from Sorbonne University in Paris, then studied English and History in Oxford, England, and Sociology in Berlin. In 1926, she passed the bar exam and worked as a lawyer until 1940 when she was prohibited to exercise her profession because of her Jewish descent. Despite first attempts at writing in 1932 that resulted in the short prose collection Tropisms (Tropismes: 1939), she didn’t fully devote herself to literature before the war. Her first of a dozen novels, Portrait of a Man Unknown (Portrait d’un unconnu), appeared in 1948 and was followed among others by The Planetarium (Le Planétarium: 1959), award-winning The Golden Fruits (Les Fruits d'or: 1963), Between Life and Death (Entre la vie et la mort: 1968), The Use of Speech (L’Usage de la parole: 1980), You Don't Love Yourself (Tu ne t’aimes pas: 1989), and autobiographical Childhood (Enfance: 1983). In addition, the author wrote plays and essays. Nathalie Sarraute died in Paris, France, in October 1999.

When the unnamed narrator of Portrait of a Man Unknown observes a notoriously tight-fisted man well advanced in age and his sensitive daughter who belong to his remote acquaintances in Paris, he has only a vague idea of how to do their characters full justice in writing. Much about them, notably the inscrutable mask behind which the father constantly hides, reminds the well-read narrator of Prince Bolkonski and his daughter Marie in Leo Tolstoy’s monumental novel War and Peace. To him those invented characters often felt more real than any person whom he actually knew and it’s his ambition to achieve the same effect in a completely new way liberating himself from the leash of conventional narrative technique à la Balzac. He takes note of every little detail regarding the two of them to construe from outward impressions like clothes, complexion, behaviour, gestures, words, and other peculiarities a picture of their true selves beneath the surface, especially of their thoughts, of their secret urges and pleasures, even of what made them the man and woman who they are. He likes to watch them from afar because he believes himself to be one of those people who inspire so much discomfort in others that they automatically show reserve. In fact, he is uncertain of himself to the point that his worried parents made him go to a psychoanalyst to help him overcome his unhealthy introversion and become fit for life. Encouraged by his psychoanalyst, he travels to a city in the Netherlands for a change of scenery and in a hidden corner in a museum he finds a portrait of a man with doublet painted by an unknown Dutch master. With its vague outlines it is just what he needed to develop his own method of realistically depicting father and daughter…

Already in the preface to the first edition of Portrait of a Man Unknown, Jean-Paul Sartre called this piece of writing an anti-novel because its focus is so much on exploring the psychological depths of the protagonists and their relations to each other through detailed scenes of everyday life, real or imagined ones, that there isn’t room for a worthwhile plot. In addition, the author refrained from naming narrator, father and daughter or anyone else except the daughter’s future husband, who makes his appearance towards the end. This anonymity in the literal sense asks some attention of the reader to grasp without much delay who is “he” or “they” in the respective passage, but it doesn’t make the characters less tangible. In fact, it’s all the minute, often seemingly insignificant details – clothes, habits, gestures, words, thoughts – that give the characters not just strong contours but true life, and yet, the picture of father and daughter eventually turns out to be wrong because after all it’s impossible to read other people’s minds and, as we all know, appearances can be really deceptive. An unusually rich vocabulary makes the author’s language a bit difficult at times, but it didn’t diminish my pleasure.

All things considered, Portrait of a Man Unknown by Nathalie Sarraute was a challenging short novel, even more so in the original version that I read although French isn’t my native language. I was prepared for a rather difficult read, though, having come across the author’s collection of experimental writings titled Tropisms some years ago. That one I liked and this one, her first novel, too, I could truly enjoy because for me it was an engaging, partly even amusing read. Besides, I usually prefer character studies to primarily action-driven plots without much psychological depth. Many traits shown in the novel I already noticed in penny-pinchers among my acquaintances and in some other people, too, who like to economise, be it out of necessity or out of habit having gone through hard times in the past. I recommend the book to all who look for more than just light entertainment.


  1. Loved your review! I read 'Good Morning, Midnight' in second-year and absolutely loved it! I'd be interested to hear your opinion on some other female modernist writers. Perhaps Virgnia Woolf or Colette?

    1. As a matter of fact, BP x, I reviewed "Jacob's Room" by Virginia Woolf and "The Cat" by Colette here on Edith's Miscellany a couple of years ago. I hope that you'll like these early reviews of mine, too!


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