For an unsexy book about sex addiction, you can’t do much better than Leïla Slimani’s Adèle. The new novel from the writer of the bestselling, Prix Goncourt-winning Lullaby (2016) asks the reader to watch uncomfortably as its protagonist moves from man to man, having many sexual encounters but zero orgasms. Adèle, an attractive Parisian woman in her thirties, with a husband, Richard, a child and a desultory job as a journalist, has what the DSM-5 would describe as a hypersexual disorder, that is, if sex addiction weren’t such a controversial diagnosis that the DSM-5 clinicians decided not to include it.
‘Adèle has been good,’ the novel begins. She has run great distances, she has avoided alcohol, she has gone to sleep at 10.30 p.m. Trying not to give in to the early morning urge to leave her sleeping husband and child to visit one of her lovers, she ‘hops about restlessly’, drinking coffee, smoking, taking a shower. Nothing helps.
She bangs her forehead against the wall. She wants someone to grab her and smash her skull into the glass door. As soon as she shuts her eyes she hears the noises: sighs, screams, blows. A naked man panting, a woman coming. She wishes she were just an object in the midst of a horde. She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole. She wants fingers pinching her breasts, teeth digging into her belly.
The novel is driven by the problem of Adèle’s desire. What she wants is sex, but of a degrading kind; she wants the relief that would come with no longer being responsible for her actions, for what she does or for what is done to her. She wants, Slimani writes, ‘to be a doll in an ogre’s garden’. This odd expression gave the novel its original title in French, Dans le jardin de l’ogre, and awkward though it may be, it conveys the novel’s atmosphere of danger and debasement. The English title feels like a compromise reached after a long editorial meeting in which no one could agree on what the novel was actually about.
This is not the first time Slimani’s titles have vexed her Anglophone editors; the title Lullaby was chosen for the UK edition of Chanson douce, whereas her American publishers recast the book completely, calling it The Perfect Nanny, in a bid to make it sound like a commercial thriller. ‘We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target,’ her American editor told the New Yorker. This proved confusing to many readers, who were confronted with the novel’s stark opening line (‘The baby is dead’) and its refusal to grant the reader anything resembling catharsis at the end, instead of a Gone Girl-style page-turner.
Slimani’s subject in both of her novels (as well as her 2017 book on Moroccan women’s sex lives, Sexe et mensonges, or Sex and Lies), is women’s freedom – or unfreedom. In many ways Adèle treats this in a more nuanced fashion than Lullaby. Myriam, the mother in Lullaby, inspires a please-don’t-let-it-happen-to-me kind of sympathy; Adèle inspires amazement that, as a working mother, she has time to fit in quite so many lovers. Myriam is so fulfilled by her work that it doesn’t matter if her salary is cancelled out by the nanny’s; Adèle doesn’t feel that satisfaction. Myriam does so well at her (largely off-stage) job that she keeps getting promoted. Adèle despises her job and her colleagues, and although we learn she provided some impressive coverage from Tunisia during the Arab Spring (as Slimani did), her technique for writing a news story goes like this:
She opens a blank document and starts to type. She invents quotes from high-up anonymous sources: ‘a figure close to the government’, ‘a well-placed observer who asked to remain nameless’. She comes up with a nice hook, adds a dash of humour to distract any readers who were expecting the article to provide some information. She reads a few other pieces on the same subject and copy-and-pastes lines from each. The whole thing takes her barely an hour.
There’s an enviable clarity and forthrightness to Slimani’s writing, both in French and in Sam Taylor’s capable translation. A guy called Nicolas she meets in Madrid ‘had a hook nose and very nice hair. They had sex, stupidly. He kept pinching and biting her. She didn’t ask him to wear a condom. True, she was drunk, but she let him sodomise her without a condom.’ The next morning, she ignores him. ‘He didn’t appear to understand that he disgusted her.’ When her work as a journalist calls for her to accompany a government minister on a trip to Africa, on the first night, in Bamako, she sleeps with his bodyguard, who, ‘turned on by Adèle’s desire’, dances topless in a nightclub, ‘his Beretta stuck in his belt’. On the second night, in Dakar, while the other guests are eating canapés at a cocktail party, ‘she sucked off the adviser to the French ambassador in the toilets.’ When she has infrequent, socially sanctioned sex with her husband, ‘she felt nothing, nothing at all. She just heard the sounds they made, like a toilet plunger: torsos sticking, genitalia bumping.’
She is aware that her transgressions, if discovered, would mean the loss of her husband and child, and with them material comfort and social status. So she conceals her extracurricular activities, using a friend as an alibi, acquiring a second computer and mobile phone, whose number she only gives to men she wants to see again. ‘Her obsessions devour her. She is helpless to stop them. Because her life requires so many lies, it has to be carefully organised – an exhausting activity that occupies her entire brain, that gnaws at her. Arranging a fake trip, inventing a pretext, renting a hotel room … Lying without trying too hard to justify herself. Justifications give rise to suspicions.’ This narrows down the pool of possibilities: ‘She is wary of married men, sentimental men, hysterical men, old bachelors, young romantics, online lovers, friends of friends.’ But then she targets her husband’s doctor, her boss, her husband’s boss. Perhaps being discovered is what she wanted all along: without the sense that she’s doing something wrong, sex would lose its power.
At a dinner party with colleagues of her husband, ‘her leg shakes beneath the table … Her only ambition is to be wanted.’ She hits on her husband’s boss, Xavier:
She doesn’t find him handsome, or even attractive. She doesn’t know what colour his eyes are, but she is sure that she would feel relieved if he slid his hand under her sweater and then under her bra. If he pushed her against the wall, if he rubbed his erection against her, if she could sense that he desired her as much as she desired him. They couldn’t go any further, they’d have to be quick. She’d have time to touch his dick, perhaps even get on her knees to suck him off. They’d start laughing, then return to the living room. They wouldn’t go any further and that would be perfect.
The first night she spends with Xavier, her husband falls off his scooter and is seriously injured. While Richard is in hospital, and her son being looked after by a friend, Adèle gives in to her most shocking urges. One morning she wakes up naked and cold with her nose blocked with blood. She vomits. In the shower, she finds blood on the inside of her thighs.
She doesn’t dare look at her crotch but she knows it is raw, torn and swollen like the face of someone who’s been beaten up … Her vagina is just a shard of broken glass now, a maze of ridges and fissures. A thin layer of ice with frozen corpses floating beneath it. Her mons pubis, which she shaves every day, is purple.
She had ordered a couple of rent boys to the house, who brought drugs. Slimani structures the scene so that we think for a moment that Adèle has been raped, but it soon becomes clear that she asked for everything they did to her.
The primal scene of Adèle’s voracious sexuality happened in Paris when she was ten. In a flashback, we see her mother abandoning her in a hotel room without food for three days, while, we infer, she tends to her own sexual appetites. When Adèle’s mother finally returns, she takes her to the red-light district. ‘Her memories of that visit to Pigalle are dark and frightening, at once murky and terribly vivid. True or not, she remembers seeing dozens of prostitutes on boulevard de Clichy, half-naked despite the November drizzle.’ On that trip, observing her mother and a man who was not Adèle’s father exchanging lascivious glances, she felt for the first time
that mix of fear and longing, disgust and arousal. That dirty desire to know what was happening behind the doors of those seedy hotels, in the dim depths of those back alleys, in the seats of the Atlas Cinema, in the back rooms of sex shops whose pink and blue neon signs pierced the twilight. Never since that evening – not in the arms of men, nor during the walks she took years later on that same boulevard – has she ever rediscovered that magical feeling of actually touching the vile and the obscene, the heart of bourgeois perversion and human wretchedness.
Maternal neglect, hunger and backstreet desire are bound together for good, along with duplicity towards husbands.
As in Lullaby, some of the most compelling things Slimani has to say are about motherhood, which is depicted here as an escape from Adèle’s addiction. She sees it as a ‘cure’,
the only way out of her malaise, the sole solution that could end this perpetual flight from herself. She had thrown herself into it like a cancer patient finally accepting the necessity of chemotherapy. She had made this child – or rather, this child had been made without any resistance from her – in the mad hope that it would be good for her.
The passivity of ‘had been made’ is counterbalanced by the energy of with which she throws herself into pregnancy; comparing maternity to the gruelling cure of chemotherapy is telling, even if the simile of the cancer patient is overblown.
Instead of doing what Emma Bovary does and sending her child away, Adèle draws close to her son; having to look after someone besides herself is good for her. Three-year-old Lucien is probably the only person Adèle loves. But though she feels ‘an intense, physical love’ for him, it doesn’t crowd out the ache that leads her to man after man; she turns her son into a miniature lover, sleeping next to him, rubbing ‘her nose in his hair, against his neck, in the palm of his hand, sniffing his sour smell. She wishes so much that this would be enough to fill her.’ She often cannot give her child what he needs either, covering her head with a pillow when he cries, or sobbing ‘at the sight of the slimy, stained high chair, of this sad child who didn’t want to eat’. For Slimani no one can give anyone else everything they need; not a child, and not a husband.
When Lullaby won the Goncourt, Slimani appeared on every French television and radio show, was interviewed in every magazine, published op-eds on issues like terrorism and nationality. Last year, French Vanity Fair named her the second most influential person in France, after the designer for Céline, Hedi Slimane, and ahead of the Paris Saint-Germain footballer Kylian Mbappé, the filmmaker Céline Sciamma, and the president himself. Although she was born and raised in Morocco, she has written herself into a prominent place at the heart of the French cultural establishment, a difficult feat for a writer from the Maghreb (‘Francophone’ literature is often shelved in a separate section from ‘French’ literature in bookshops). Soon after Macron took office, he offered her the post of minister of culture, which she turned down. Then he asked her to become his ambassador of Francophonie, promoting French language and culture around the world, and talking about issues like ‘education, culture, gender equality, youth employment and mobility, the fight against climate change and the development of digital technologies’. She accepted – though no one seems to know what the role concretely involves, apart from representing France at the Conseil permanent de la Francophonie, which brings 88 French-speaking nations together for a biannual summit.
The backlash has been relentless. Slimani has been accused of playing the ‘good Arab’, of being a collabeurette, telling whites what they want to hear about the Arab world in exchange for their prizes and honours. Houria Bouteldja, a spokesperson for the Parti des indigènes de la République, accused Slimani of being a ‘native informant’, or, as she put it, ‘an Arab woman who is an expert on couscous, merguez and sexuality’. When Adèle was published in Morocco, Slimani toured the country, visiting bookshops, universities, libraries. At each event, women would approach her with stories about their sex lives. She listened, and adapted what they told her into Sexe et mensonges, a series of monologues, linked by her own experiences as a woman growing up in Morocco. ‘What I wanted was to let them speak in their own words, [to allow them to tell] these stories that deeply affected me, that surprised me, that moved me, that angered and sometimes appalled me.’
Sex outside of marriage is illegal there, as is adultery, homosexuality and abortion, except for married women when the pregnancy poses a risk, and even then the husband’s approval is required. Infringements can be punished by imprisonment, though this isn’t often enforced, from one month to a year for extramarital sex, or six months to three years for ‘conduct that is … against nature between two persons of the same sex’. The criminalisation of the way people choose to live and love eats away at Moroccans, Slimani writes, though their suffering goes largely unseen.
Boys, she writes, divide girls into two groups: the girls you marry, and the others. There are rules: ‘good girls don’t smoke’, ‘good girls don’t go out at night, don’t have male friends, don’t wear shorts, don’t drink in public, don’t speak louder than their brothers, don’t dance in front of men.’ Women in miniskirts can be found guilty of ‘offences to modesty’. Gay men are ‘lynched in the street’. When they marry, women must present a certificat de célibat attesting to their virginity; obviously it is impossible for men to prove their virginity, so no one worries about it. Rape victims are stigmatised, and accused of having been too inviting. The police trawl parks to catch teenage lovers necking, or are paid to look the other way. A recent fatwa prohibits women from touching bananas or cucumbers because of their resemblance to penises. A pair of Egyptian academics recommend that women breastfeed their male colleagues – this relation de sein means that they can stay in the office together without anyone else present.
Virginity has become ‘a device to keep women at home, where they can be monitored at all times’, an ‘object of collective preoccupation instead of a private matter’, and ‘an economic godsend’ for doctors who perform dozens of hymen reconstructions a day. At the core of Slimani’s politics is an examination of what happens to women when they leave the home and set other priorities above their families. In both Adèle and Sexe et mensonges, Slimani suggests that women cannot contribute fully to society as long as society maintains itself by controlling their bodies, whether through capitalism or patriarchy.
In one fascinating section of Sexe et mensonges, Slimani points out that Morocco’s modesty laws do not derive from Muslim law, as people tend to think, but from French colonial law. Article 489 of the penal code, outlawing homosexual relations, uses the same wording as article 331 of the French penal code repealed in 1982, which described homosexual relations with a minor as ‘an indecent act against nature’. Why should Moroccans continue to oppress each other in the same terms as their former colonial overlords, she asks? Though she defends French universalism, secularism and enlightenment values at every opportunity, in her journalism she has sometimes been critical of France. In spite of her government post, she didn’t hesitate to attack Macron’s immigration policy last November. When a veteran asked the president when he was going to ‘kick out the sans-papiers’, Macron’s response seemed to condone the man’s implicit racism, replying that ‘those who can live freely in their countries ought to be returned to them’. Slimani countered: ‘It seems to me that Emmanuel Macron might have more vigorously defended those whom the veteran wanted to “kick out” … Since he is such a proponent of “complex thought”, he might have replied that immigration is an incredibly complex question because it is a human one, painful and existential.’
Doubtless one reason Slimani is criticised is that she is addressing a largely Franco-French audience, who may have no knowledge of Morocco beyond her book. But it is exactly this ‘us v. them’ idea that Slimani is challenging. Her own grandmother was a Frenchwoman from Alsace (the most German part of France) married to an Algerian officer in the colonial army. Though Slimani was raised as a Muslim, she celebrated Christmas every year with her grandparents in a large white house in the country, between Meknès and Fez, where ‘there was no question of religions, beliefs, or nationalities.’ She upends the notion of monolithic identity in her novels, asserting North Africanness through ambivalence rather than resorting to a Scheherazade-like Orientalism. Adèle appears for most of the novel to be a typical middle-class (therefore white) Parisienne. As we read on, we learn that her father is Algerian; she is, therefore, métisse, like Slimani herself. The reader discovers she has been white-reading – assuming that any character whose ethnicity is unmarked must be white.
When Dans le jardin de l’ogre came out in France, some critics expressed surprise that a Moroccan woman could produce such a book. What they meant to say, she wrote in the introduction to Sexe et mensonges, was how could a Moroccan woman produce ‘a crude, trashy book’ about a nymphomaniac? ‘As if, because of my culture, I should have been more modest, more reserved.’ But it is no accident, she admits, that she invented ‘a frustrated woman, who lies, who leads a double life. A woman who skirts prohibitions but doesn’t enjoy it. Adèle is, in a way, a bit of an extreme metaphor for the sexuality of young Moroccan women.’ In Sexe et mensonges, several women talk about hchouma, or ‘shame’. Hchouma is used to instruct children in what they can, and can’t, speak of, a word that stands for a wealth of unspeakable subjects. It is euphemism itself.
It is also the only Arabic word spoken in the whole of Adèle. In a series of sexual power struggles and debasing encounters, Adèle’s keenest moment of shame occurs as the novel builds towards the moment Richard discovers his wife’s addiction. While he is in hospital, she visits a peepshow in Pigalle – one we are given to understand she frequents – and as she leans over a man, admiring his ‘moistened, veiny hard-on’, an older Arab man sitting behind them says, without taking his eyes from the stage, ‘Hchouma’.
‘What did you say?’
The old Arab does not lift his head. He continues to stare sideways at the woman on the stage, who licks her fingers and then moans as she puts them on her tits.
‘I can hear you, you know. I understand what you’re saying.’
He stares maliciously at her expensive clothes, her shoes, her skin, her wedding ring; spits on the ground, then leaves.
The moment is ambiguous: is he referring to the woman on stage or the woman in front of him? He assumes Adèle doesn’t understand what he’s saying, because she passes for white. But she does understand, and the word leaves her dazed, ‘shaking with rage’, paranoid that she is being followed in the street by an ‘army of lovers’ who will betray her to Richard. In the 19th-century novel, Madame Bovary included, female characters are given two possible outcomes – marriage or death. Slimani’s novel refuses both, choosing instead an ending in which it cannot be said precisely what has happened to Adèle. Her fate is not marriage or death, city or country, France or Morocco, but shame itself, shame as the place she lives, shame as the place she disappears to.