Marie NDiaye was born in 1967 and spent most of her childhood in the Paris banlieues. Raised by her French mother, she didn’t meet her Senegalese father until she was fifteen, and this disjointed parental dynamic makes its way into many of her books. Disapproving parents loom, are disappointed and disappointing. A mousy mother – needy, self-abnegating and trapped – is often a foil to a distant and dominating father. Three Strong Women (2009) opens with Norah, a lawyer in her late thirties, arriving in Dakar from Paris to visit her father. Their relationship is strained. He shows her a photograph of herself as a young woman, standing in front of a pink house. She’s offended. It’s not me, she tells him. He’s certain that it is. They both stare at the photograph, furious. Later, she wonders if he’s right, if somehow she’s blocked the memory. In Ladivine (2013), a family travelling on holiday to an unnamed destination discover that their suitcases have gone missing. Soon afterwards they find their clothes on sale in the street, including items they left at home and couldn’t possibly have packed. The mother, Ladivine, cringes when her daughter points out these extra clothes, as though they reveal something inappropriate or even deviant in their family. This is how NDiaye starts: small disturbances in the shared reality.
Though she grew up in the city, NDiaye tends in interviews to emphasise her birthplace, Pithiviers, in north-central France. Her family returned to the area for holidays throughout her childhood and, by her own account, the landscape ‘shaped her spirit’. This is the second disjuncture in her work: not between France and the former colonies but between Paris and the provinces. In That Time of Year (1994), a Parisian family outstay their welcome in an unnamed rural village, extending their holiday into drizzly September. Overnight, as if some cosmic rule has been broken, the wife and son go missing. The father finds the local people polite but indifferent to his pleas for help. In such a place, safety is contingent on fitting in.
Though many of her books are available in English, NDiaye is little known outside France, where the story of her early success is already part of publishing mythology. In 1984, aged sixteen, she travelled to the office of Les Éditions de Minuit in Paris and posted through the letterbox the manuscript of her first novel, Quant au riche avenir. Days later, so the story goes, the publisher Jérôme Lindon was waiting to meet her outside her suburban lycée, contract in hand.
Quant au riche avenir was published the following year. The psychotherapist and critic Andrew Asibong described it, extravagantly, as ‘the work of an old person who has been worn out by the world and who is now focused wholly on the construction of the perfect sentence that will encapsulate her disillusionment’. NDiaye says she began writing novels at the age of twelve. ‘After reading the great Russian novels, I wrote a Russian novel, after the American novels, an American one, from there onto the Latin American works, and so on.’ Four years later, she felt she had finally written a book in her own voice – the account of a ruminative teenager, Z, bored and isolated at school, and stifled at home.
By the time she won the Prix Femina for Rosie Carpe (2001), her seventh novel, NDiaye had become a darling of the French literati, for whom her modest background underlined her precocious talent. Questions about her African ancestry would inevitably come up, sometimes with clumsy references to African narrative traditions. NDiaye would respond that she is ‘exclusivement Française’, the cultural heir of ‘Molière, Rousseau, Proust’. Dual culture, she said, was not something she was offered.
But she acknowledges that being read as foreign in your own culture has an influence of its own. ‘As a child and an adolescent, I never felt Black,’ she told the New York Times last year. ‘Because we didn’t know our father, and were raised by our mother, we actually didn’t know any Black people.’ This changed as she grew older, and saw that, into his thirties, her brother was repeatedly stopped and searched by the police when taking the train into Paris. After NDiaye co-wrote the screenplay for White Material with Claire Denis, she noticed that people made different assumptions about them. Denis was raised in French colonial Africa and spent her childhood between Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. But it was NDiaye whose works were shelved in the ‘Francophone’ section of Fnac and who was asked about her heritage.
NDiaye has described these experiences as ‘conducive’ to writing, creating a sense of being ‘out of step’ or ‘slightly off’. It produces some unusual perspectives in her work. In My Heart Hemmed In (2007), the narrator, Nadia (sounds like NDiaye), has worked hard to build a bourgeois life for herself in Bordeaux, becoming a schoolteacher like her husband, Ange. Overnight, something seems to change: ‘Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can’t really mean me, can they?’ A passerby spits in her face when she smiles at him. She learns that Ange has been wounded, stabbed with a gouge or a chisel. What unspoken rules have they transgressed? No one will say, so Nadia comes up with theories of her own. Perhaps she was too proud. Did she take too much pleasure in her work? ‘Could it be my coat?’ she wonders. Someone has pinned little gobbets of flesh onto it without her knowing, terrifying the children she is trying to teach. At times, NDiaye seems to be describing a descent into madness, driven by stress or isolation or anguish. At other times, it’s the world itself that is slowly collapsing, the structures of family, society and work that are falling apart. One woman’s breakdown is, from another angle, a social disease affecting the whole of France.
‘As if,’ Nadia repeats again and again. ‘As if they were afraid I might do something indecent or dangerous’; ‘As if he were afraid I might rip it away’; ‘as if … the very silence were plotting some sort of treachery.’ Comme si … comme si … comme si. Jordan Stump, who has translated six of NDiaye’s novels, admits that when he first attempted My Heart Hemmed In, he gave up after a few pages. Her sentences are tonally ‘precarious’, easy to make ‘flat’ or ‘overly poetic’. He doesn’t always find the balance – some passages are too heavy or verbose – but on the whole he conveys the strangeness of NDiaye’s French.
In 2007, the year My Heart Hemmed In came out in France, NDiaye left Paris and moved to Berlin. Nicolas Sarkozy’s election earlier that year had made France intolerable. One of his first foreign visits had been to Senegal, where he gave a speech at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. ‘The tragedy of Africa is that it has not fully entered into history,’ Sarkozy told the assembled students. ‘Africans have never really launched themselves into the future.’ NDiaye wrote Three Strong Women partly in response to this. As well as the mixed-race lawyer visiting her overbearing father in Dakar, the novel features a white Frenchman ruminating on an ugly fight with his Senegalese wife, and a young Senegalese migrant attempting the perilous journey to Europe. When Three Strong Women won the Prix Goncourt in 2009, NDiaye’s decision to leave the country was subject to intense discussion in the press and in the Assemblée Nationale. An interview she had given months before to Les Inrockuptibles, a cultural magazine, was criticised for referring to Sarkozy’s France as ‘monstrous’. She has since described the anger triggered by her comments as ‘not uninteresting’, since it had allowed various parties to ‘clarify their positions’. ‘I’ve spent my whole life in this city,’ Nadia says in My Heart Hemmed In, ‘and I love it with a fraternal tenderness … But now I find Bordeaux slipping away from me, enigmatically shunning my friendship, its streets seeming to change their look and direction … its citizens grown hostile.’
The paranoid inclination of NDiaye’s novels leaves the reader searching for clues, like one of her frantic characters, desperate to understand how an intimate piece of their clothing has turned up for sale on the street. There is a parallel with what Eve Sedgwick, writing about the paranoiac’s faith in the power of exposure, described as the impulse to uncover ‘hidden violence’:
Like the deinstitutionalised person on the street, who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier, bristling with his precious correspondence, paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known.
It would be easy to diminish the strangeness of the books, turning what’s most unsettling about NDiaye’s dim and haunted worlds into platitudes about race and identity in contemporary France. But something more specific, and stranger, is always going on. There is no simple analogy for Nadia’s post-menopausal pregnancy, or the (possibly demonic) ‘black, glistening, fast-moving thing’ – like a ‘short, fat eel’ – that slithers out from between her legs near the end of the book, when her son’s girlfriend insists on examining her with a speculum. NDiaye’s writing repeatedly gestures towards allegories of race or class-based otherness, but her stories also push against this way of reading them, into something more mysterious and capacious.
Self-Portrait in Green is the shortest and most intriguing of NDiaye’s translated novels. A woman living in Gironde finds herself noticing a number of ‘women in green’ as she goes about her everyday life. One day, she stops her car by an old farmhouse and tells her children that she’s come up with a new game: ‘Look closely … Is there something or someone anywhere near that banana tree?’ The children look and say no, nothing. But the narrator sees, or understands, that standing there all along has been a woman in green. In town, she bumps into her friend Cristina. Halfway through the conversation, however, she realises it’s not Cristina. The actual Cristina is waving from across the street. Who, then, is this tearful woman in bright green shorts, who seems to know the narrator and insists on sharing intimate and embarrassing details about herself?
The women in green keep cropping up – magnetic, beautiful, sad, somewhat ominous. One hangs herself. Another throws herself off a balcony, before limping back into her house. They can’t seem to die. But these visitations, or hallucinations, don’t cause the narrator any disquiet. Unlike in NDiaye’s other novels, there’s no breakdown, no spiral. There is something delicious, in the wake of so many anguished books, about this playful story. Commissioned as part of an ‘autoportrait’ series by Mercure de France, Self-Portrait in Green was originally interspersed with photographs of Mont Sainte-Victoire, which are missing from the English translation. As a memoir, of sorts, it offers an eccentric definition of selfhood, in which psychic distortions are common fare, rooted in reasonable concerns or old-fashioned mummy issues. ‘I’m very aware of my little smile,’ the narrator says, ‘because I’m saying to myself: is all this really real?’
Who are the women in green? The narrator seems dependent on them but also dismisses them. When she describes someone as ‘an absolute woman in green’, it’s clearly an insult. Her own mother is, of course, a ‘woman in green’, even though she has no physical markers of greenness, no green clothing at all. They don’t quite figure as metaphor, or representations of different aspects of the narrator, or her disintegrating psyche. They are not entirely real or unreal. They are just women in green. At the end of the book, something much less ambivalent occurs: the thing that slithered out of Nadia in My Heart Hemmed In appears again. The narrator hears her children screaming and runs out of the house to see a ‘dark form’ sliding away. ‘I don’t think it has a name in our language,’ she says.
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