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Nathalie Sarraute: Le Planétarium (The Planetarium)

Sarraute’s third novel was the one that brought her literary fame. As she herself remarked the reasons for this are clear – it was her first novel with a (sort of) plot and with named characters. As with most of her work, it is not about the great issues of the day but about tropisms, what pushes us and what pulls us. The novel centres around Alain Guimier and four women in his life. The first is Aunt Berthe who, to Alain’s father’s disgust, has had a lot of influence on Alain and made him the essentially weak man he now is. Alain is married to Gisèle and their flat is not as nice as Aunt Berthe’s Aunt Berthe has promised it to Alain and Gisèle and then backs down. This change of heart – which is common in Sarraute’s work – naturally makes an impression on Alain and his attitude towards his dearly beloved aunt changes. In addition to Aunt Berthe and Gisèle, the other two women are his mother-in-law and the writer, Germaine Lemaire. His mother-in-law dotes on him, making his favourite grated carrot (which he immediately denies liking) and offering two leather armchairs (which he and Gisèle disdain). Like many men, he does not want to be controlled by his mother-in-law. However he deeply admires Germaine Lemaire and is always seeking her approval, though he may well be the better (though less successful) writer. But plots are not what Sarraute is about and this plot is, of course, not what makes this novel. Beneath it all Sarraute explores the tropisms of life, how little things make us change our behaviour and direction and how the surface is nothing because it all happens underneath.

Publishing history

First published in 1959 by Gallimard
First English translation 1960 by Braziller
Translated by Maria Jolas