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Nathalie Sarraute: Portrait d’un inconnu (Portrait of a Man Unknown)

Sarraute’s first novel was turned down by Gallimard, despite a preface by Sartre, in which he used the word anti-roman (anti-novel). This is a pretty accurate description. The characters are not named and the plot is at best sketchy. Sarraute has said that the novel is an updating of Balzac‘s Eugénie Grandet, a novel about tight-fistedness and how it is passed from father to daughter. In Sarraute’s novel, an unnamed narrator tells the story of an also unnamed father and daughter, who are also miserly. Initially he struggles to tell the story. He is a writer and trying, like many writers, to do something new, to get away from the Balzacian approach to writing. However, when he is advised to stick to the conventional method which, of course, also involves naming his characters, the narrator considers this approach sensible. However, he then sees the Portrait of a Man Unknown in an art gallery. He has known this painting before. It is hidden in the worst lit part of the gallery and, of course, is a portrait of an unknown man by an unknown artist. This painting resonates with meaning for him, despite the outlines of the picture being vague. He then feels that he can describe the father and daughter, without having to fully portray them à la Balzac, in his own way. And this is what he does, watching them carefully, from afar or from close up. He spends his time following them and watching them but he is unable to get that sense of them that he seeks. In the end, the daughter introduces him to her fiancé, giving him a name (Louis Dumontet) and a description. He realises that the new ways have not worked and he is back to the old, traditional Balzacian novel. Can the new ways work? Sarraute asks.

Publishing history

First published in 1948 by Robert Marin
First English translation 1958 by Braziller