NATHALIE SARRAUTE is one of the group of French writers including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Robert Pinget, and Marguerite Duras whose names are associated with the ``Nouveau Roman'' that first gained fame - or notoriety - in the late 1950s. The idea behind the ``new novel'' was to dispense with traditional devices such as narrator, narrative, characters, and plot in order to be able to concentrate on aspects of consciousness and experience too subtle, subjective, or otherwise obscure to have received close attention in more conventional novels.
Often, passages of a ``Nouveau Roman'' sound like someone thinking aloud. The question, in the absence of a conventional story line and characters, is how well does a given ``Noveau Roman'' engage and hold our attention? The answer, in the case of Nathalie Sarraute's latest novel, ``You Don't Love Yourself,'' is very well indeed.
Although it is the ninth novel by a woman just entering her 90s, ``You Don't Love Yourself'' may serve as well as any other as a way into her work. Perhaps the simplest way of describing this novel is to say that it consists of an ongoing conversation that someone is having with himself. You could call it an interior monologue - except that it is more like a dialogue in which this unnamed person ponders the ramifications of an accusation someone has just flung at him:
```You don't love yourself.' But what does that mean? How is that possible? You don't love yourself? Who doesn't love whom?
You of course ... you, the only one they are talking to.
Me? Only me? Not all the rest of you who are me? ... and there are so many of us ... `a complex personality,' ... like every other ... Who is supposed to love whom, then, in all this?''
The man in question, the ``complex personality,'' feels he has many possible selves. Indeed, his curse - and blessing - it seems to him, is that he seems to have an infinite number of potential selves. This leaves him perpetually open to change, influence, and new experience, but also deprives him of the sense of a solid, well-defined identity, which, he believes, is characteristic of people who do love themselves.
The contrast between these two types of personality forms the core of the book, as our ``hero'' reflects on the problems - and attractions - of narcissistic personalities, whose boundless capacity for self-love seems to make everyone else love them too.
Although there is no conventional story line, a number of incidents serve as episodes for reflection: An invitation to visit a woman he admires prompts our hero to wonder what she sees in him. An insult has him debating among his ``selves'' whether or not he really was insulted, then going to consult a more experienced self-lover on the question. An encounter with a great man everyone seems to worship leads our hero to the rash act of trying to point out to the worshippers that it is the gre at man's self-love rather than his specific merits that first won their hearts.
Throughout it all, Sarraute captures our attention by pursuing her themes with wit, charm, and penetrating insightfulness. (The only shortcoming I felt was a failure to draw a distinction between two forms of self-love: self-esteem, on the one hand, narcissism, on the other.) In almost every other respect, this is a novel that clarifies and illuminates whatever it touches. Nothing in it is abstruse merely for the sake of abstruseness.
By the time this nonstory draws to its close, the reader will have thought a lot about the roles that we all play, the faces that we present to ourselves and others, the conflict between happiness and self-consciousness, and the nature of love.