Childhood by Nathalie Sarraute
Review by S. D. Stewart
With lucid, engaging fragments, spoken in a dialogue with herself, she envelops us in the ‘soft, whitish, cloudy layers’ of childhood, of her childhood, a childhood spent as a pawn moved back and forth across the European chessboard by two strong-willed and distracted parents. The telling is more or less chronological, with her understanding of what her parents are doing to her growing clearer as she ages. At age eight she realizes there would never be any other home for her than the one she inhabits in Paris with her distant father and her cold, indifferent stepmother Vera. When her mother agrees to take her back at one point, on the condition that she not be responsible for the child’s transport, her father forces her to choose where she will live.
How she loves her father, feels this connection with him, yet he is not really there, so absorbed as he is in his work. He does not show physical affection toward her. And sometimes, sometimes, when she shows her vulnerability, her need for his comfort, he shames her with his ‘insulting contempt’, his expectations of how she should act overpowering his ability to fulfill the role of a comforting parent.
Her stepmother’s mother is the one adult figure who gives her what she needs, all the time, without reservation. But she is only there for a year. The familiar sequence of serial abandonment continues.
She feels the power of words. Vera’s devastating phrase ‘Because it isn’t done’, that ‘brick wall which she drags me up against’. And then the feeling she has of being trapped in a word, when a woman says it is a ‘tragedy’ that she has no mother, and how she believes it, that she has no mother, feels this word ‘tragedy’ stretch around her…
And then, everything in me revolts, rises up, with all my strength I reject it, I smash it, I tear off this yoke, this carapace. I won’t stay in this thing which that woman has imprisoned me… she doesn’t know anything, she can’t understand.
—Was that the first time you had been trapped like that, in a word?
—I don’t remember it happening to me before. But how many times since, have I not escaped, terrified, out of words which pounce on you and hold you captive.
Yet there is also the nature of ideas and discovering she has the power to control them…
[I]deas have now become discreet, they merely pass through me, they obey me, I am the one who decides to hold them back, to make them stay as long as is necessary, when I happen to feel like examining them before I dismiss them. None of them can make me feel ashamed, none of them can affect me. Oh, how good I feel. That will never happen to me again. Never…
After two years she meets her mother again, feels her indifference toward her: ‘There was no way of reaching her’, with her ‘calm coldness’. Her mother does not know how to treat her, thinks that at age 11 she is no longer a child, that she can talk to her as an adult.
She falls into a novel, becomes completely immersed.
Her mother returns again, they have a good time together, but the war is starting and her mother must return to Russia. Her mother can’t hide the excitement she is feeling at the thought of returning, despite that it also means she is leaving her daughter again. The child’s feelings spring forward and back, from despair to joy and again to despair.
She confronts her stepmother, wants her to admit to the feelings of hatred she emanates toward her. ‘How can anyone hate a child?’ asks Vera. She deconstructs this question, and wonders what it will mean to her when she is no longer a child.
I press my back, my arms outstretched, as hard as I can against the moss-covered earth so that all its saps can penetrate me, so that they will spread throughout my body, I look at the sky as I have never before looked at it… I melt into it, I have no limits, no end.
Vacation is ending and she will be entering a new school, a new life, a sweeping away of the wispy cloudy layers…
—Don’t worry, I’ve finished, I won’t take you any farther…
—Why now, all of a sudden, when you haven’t been afraid to come this far?
—I don’t really know… I don’t feel like it any more… I’d like to go somewhere else…