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Nathalie Sarraute: Martereau (Martereau)

Apart from the title character, we are in familiar Sarraute territory with unnamed characters (they are identified only by their family relationship to the also unnamed narrator) and little or no plot. The narrator lives with his uncle, aunt and cousin. There is a sort of a plot but it is, of course, subordinate to the tropisms. The uncle plans to buy a house and uses Martereau to buy it in his name, in order to avoid paying taxes. Martereau fails to give the narrator and his cousin (who deliver the purchase money to him) a receipt and moves into the house. This causes a rupture in the family, with each member taking sides for or against Martereau. In the end, Martereau does come clean (though it is not clear whether because he is honest or because he is afraid of the consequences of not doing so). But this does not matter because things have clearly changed.

What makes this novel somewhat different from its predecessor is that while the narrator tries to observe and watch, like the narrator in Portrait, it is his view of Martereau’s grasping of the money that triggers the idea with the uncle that Martereau might be unreliable or worse. In short, a tropism has set off the chain of events which, while they turn out to be irrelevant to the sale and transfer of the house, are very relevant to how the family members and Martereau will relate to one another in the future. However, we already know that the narrator is unreliable. One of the episodes is the narrator’s view of a meeting between his uncle and Mr. and Mrs. Martereau. The narrator did not see this event but imagines it – four times! Each time, he puts a different spin on it, with Martereau gradually getting less confident in his dealings with the uncle. The reader, of course, does not know which one, if any, of these is the truth. In short, an unreliable narrator, the truth never known and tropisms setting off minor events, but events that will be important for the characters – everything we have come to expect from Sarraute.

Publishing history

First published in 1953 by Gallimard
First English translation 1959 by Braziller
Translated by Maria Jolas