The Planetarium was The Wolves’ read for November 2011, and I said I’d join in. I have yet to see any other reviews, so I don’t feel too late.
John Calder are really selling this book in the blurb on the back:
Many readers have been put off the writers of the New French School by imagined difficulty in the style and subject matter of their novels, and it is true that some of them have required great concentration on the part of the reader. This cannot be said of The Planetarium, which is written in an immediately attractive style which absorbs the reader from first page to last.
Well yes, it’s certainly easier-going than Tropisms, which was the last Sarraute I read (her first book) and it’s just as well because it’s about six times as long, and I’m not sure I could cope with being faintly baffled for that long.
The Planetarium starts off as a novel largely about interior decoration and you get this nice New Novel feeling that things are being described in inordinate detail; but gradually, from this starting point – an aunt wondering about a new door she’s having fitted, a nephew and his wife wondering about the aunt’s taste in interior decoration and some sort of sofa suite she wants to buy them, a group of friends who find the aunt’s idiosyncracies comically – we find ourselves seeing all the various characters from various different points-of-view, and the entire book becomes concerned with these circles and how different people act differently when they find themselves in different orbits and how they all want to connect and how depressing and at the same time comical it is when they misunderstand each other and assume the other has a different opinion to the one they actually have.
You’ll notice in the above paragraph I used the word “characters”, and you are probably wondering … “characters”? in a Nathalie Sarraute novel. – Well, let me quote you a passage from The Age of Suspicion (with a lot of ellipses):
[C]ritics … prefer … to … seize every opportunity to proclaim … that the novel … is and always will be … “a story in which characters move and have their being” … [but] it is of no avail. Neither reproaches nor encouragements are able to revive a faith that is waning.
[That quote is actually from a paragraph 25 lines long, and manages to use both the second and last word, but I don’t think I do it a disservice – not in semantic terms, at least].
Sarraute’s early work is highly against having any characters in it: – in Tropisms, for instance, it is often not clear what is being described, let alone who or how many, and where there are distinct individuals, they are given no names or background (in fact, pretty much no information is divulged about them); but The Planetarium seems a descent from this high ground of avant-gardism: here there are distinct characters and they do have names (some of them, more than one), and they are even what we might term “recognisable types” – “stereotypes”, if you like – the kind of thing you might find in Balzac. The central character (Oh, I forget his name; I’m sure it wasn’t important and it wouldn’t have mattered after all if he didn’t have one) is a spoilt rich young man who is used to getting his own way in life, and he lives with a spoilt wife, and has an eccentric aunt, and there’s an eccentric authoress too, and a harsh but fond father etc. etc. That we see them from different points of view, that they are occasionally contradictory – particularly when they are acting under the strong gravitational pull of another character – none of this prevents them from being clear-cut characters in themselves.
Reading Leon S Roudiez’s account of Sarraute’s work in French Fiction Revisited, the following paragraph amused me, though it is about her earlier work Martereau, rather than this one:
What, from an ordinary reader’s point of view, “saves” the book , ironically, is the element of suspense and ambiguity contained in the plot. Will Martereau … consent to relinquish the house? Such a question, however, is obviously irrelevant to Sarraute’s concern.
Or, avant-garde writer only succeeds because of judicious use of “plot” and “character”.