24 July 2015

Nathalie Sarraute: Enfance (1983)

Enfance by Nathalie Sarraute (1900–99) (translated as Childhood) is an autobiography of the author's childhood, written when she was 83, and is one among her last books. It's also one of her most popular, no doubt largely because of its greater accessibility.

But the book is by no means conventionally autobiographical: it consists of a series of recollections, with Sarraute often having a dialogue with herself – or her 'double', as the back cover of this edition puts it – about the accuracy of her memories.

Sarraute was born Nathalie Tcherniak in Ivanovo near Moscow and her parents separated two years after her birth. Her childhood is at first largely spent between Russia and France, although from the age of nine she lives with her father, her step-mother Véra and her half-sister Hélène (nicknamed Lili) in central Paris, with summer in Meudon-sur-Seine. Her biological mother is represented as cold and distant, and she can't bring herself to call Véra – also cold and distant – 'mother'.

Nathalie has few friends of her own age, and she is obviously a gifted young student and almost always the top at her primary school in central Paris. Words and the effect they have are of central importance, although not many writers are actually mentioned: of those who are, René Boylesve and André Theuriet are noted among her probable readings of the time, perhaps Pierre Loti, and certainly Ponson du Terrail, whom her father detests.

The book ends shortly before Nathalie begins at the lycée Fénelon.

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