Book//mark – Portrait of a Man Unknown | Nathalie Sarraute, 1948

 Portrait d’un inconnu, 1948                                                                                                     Nathalie Sarraute

“How delightful and peaceful it would be to see them become part of the cheerful circle of familiar faces.
But for this to happen, I realize perfectly, I should have to bring myself to accept certain risks, to launch out a bit, to begin with, if only on a single point, no matter which one, it’s of no importance. As, for instance, to give them at least a name to identify with. That would already be a first step towards isolating them, towards rounding them off a little and giving them a certain consistency. That would serve to establish them somewhat. But I just can’t do it. There’s no use pretending. I know it would be just so much pain for nothing…. It wouldn’t take people long to find out what kind of merchandise I was transporting under this flag. My own. The only kind I have to offer.”

“I felt myself being drawn irresistibly onto a slippery incline, I knew that I ought to stop, but I was seized with a sort of foolish daring, perhaps, too, the need I have to defy her, that sort of giddiness that impels certain guilty persons, aware that they haven’t a chance, to make a mad attempt to forestall their adversaries and challenge them… “or let’s say… for instance… you’ve never seen it, probably,…. it’s not very well known…. a portrait… in a Dutch museum…. it isn’t even signed… the portrait of an Unknown Man… Man with Doublet is my name for it… well, there’s something in that portrait… a sort of anguish… a sort of appeal…I…I prefer it to anything else…there’s something uplifting…”

“Just as people who have little confidence in their own impressions, or are uncertain of what they know, keep looking in their guidebook to see what to think when they’re sight-seeing in a foreign city, I too, in his presence, kept casting about for help, for points of reference, as my eye lighted, all at sea, now on his nose with its widespread nostrils: a sign-“

“Some of these unfortunate creatures, perhaps vaguely conscious that something oozes from them, themselves assume an inscrutable, rigid expression, with all exits blocked, as though to keep these mysterious effluvia from escaping; or perhaps it is in a spirit of imitation, the result of suggestion –they are so easily influenced, so sensitive –that they, too, in the presence of the masks, take on that set, dead expression. Others, in spite of themselves, dance about like puppets, twitching nervously and making faces. Still others, in order to get into the good graces of the mask and restore life to its stony features, play the clown and stoop to any lengths to provoke laughter at their own expense. Others, even more contemptibly –these are generally the older, more vicious ones –as a result of a sort of irresistible attraction, sidle up like a dog rubbing against its master’s leg, beg for a pat or an affectionate gesture that will calm their fears, and lie wriggling on their backs, all four feet in the air: they chatter away, open wide their hearts, grow confidential and, in a voice that lacks assurance, blushingly tell their most intimate secrets to the motionless mask.

But the mask won’t give in. It simply won’t let itself be taken in. On the contrary, all these contortions and flummery more often than not only serve to make it grow harder.

It would be difficult to say exactly whether it is in spite of itself, and without knowing very well why, that the mask keeps growing harder like this, or whether it doesn’t deliberately overact, in order to punish the person who has stooped to these degrading buffooneries in its presence, and so increase the smart of baseness; whether it is in order to discourage the opponent, by playing dead like a fox at the approach of an enemy, to defend itself against these contacts and repulsive wrigglings; or whether, on the contrary, it is in the unconscious desire to foment these goings-on in order to make the game more exciting, and thus prolong and relish for a greater length of time a subtle kind of secret, sensual pleasure.

I have no idea. Nobody has any idea. Nobody has ever given it a thought. They’ve all got other fish to fry, other, more worthwhile, more legitimate things to think about.”

“Now and then, when I have been seated next to them at the theatre, without looking at them, while they listened motionless and as though turned to stone beside me, I have sensed the trail left across the entire audience in the wake of the images emanating from the stage or from the screen, images that settle on them like steel filings on a magnetic surface; I longed to rise, to intervene and check these images in their flight, to turn them aside; but they flowed with an irresistible force, straight from the screen onto the women; they clung to them; and I felt the women close beside me, in the darkness of the hall, motionless, silent and voracious, spinning these images into an object destined for their own use.”

Portrait of a Man Unknown, Nathalie Sarraute, 1948
/ Portrait d’un inconnu, tr. Maria Jolas



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