The French Jewish journalist Claude Sarraute, 82, is the daughter of the noted Russian Jewish novelist Nathalie Sarraute (born Natalia Tcherniak). A new memoir from Éditions Plon, “Before You Forget Everything!” explains how Sarraute consciously avoided following in her mother’s footsteps.
The elder Sarraute was the author of abstract, sober philosophical narratives such as “Do You Hear Them?”; “The Planetarium”; and “Martereau,” which many French literati admit to finding incomprehensible. By contrast, Claude Sarraute has made a career out of writing humorous articles for French newspapers, and droll books like “Mademoiselle, s’il vous plaît” (Please, Miss!), about department store salesladies, which she researched by actually working for three months at Paris’s Galeries Lafayette.
As Ann Jefferson persuasively argues in “Nathalie Sarraute, Fiction and Theory: Questions of Difference,” the elder Sarraute’s consciousness of being different as a Russian Jew in France influenced her work. Although defiantly populist (and popular), her daughter Claude also retains an element of otherness. Claude always wears a Star of David in memory of wartime persecutions — as a bubbly adolescent, she was suddenly snubbed by her classmates after the German invasion. After the war, she took her vengeance, she notes, by “openly flirting with all the boyfriends of the girls who had snubbed me. I stole their boyfriends, one after another.” After a failed first marriage to Jewish American journalist Stanley Karnow, Sarraute married the physicist Christophe Tzara, son of the Romanian-French Jewish writer Tristan Tzara (born Samuel Rosenstock). Among the few mournful passages in “Before You Forget Everything!” are those describing how Sarraute and her husband euthanized Tristan Tzara, who was dying from cancer, by giving him a fatal injection.