Marie NDiaye’s Lost Souls
By Jacob Siefring.
All My Friends, Marie NDiaye, Trans. Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press, 2013 [Tous mes amis, Editions de Minuit, 2004]
Self-Portrait in Green, Marie NDiaye, Trans. Jordan Stump, Two Lines Press, 2014 [Autoportrait en vert, Mercure de France, 2005]
It’s a truism that terrible or unpleasant things, when they take their place in a work of art, can afford readers and viewers great pleasure or enjoyment. That which is most feared in life may be most welcome in literature. As Aristotle says, “we enjoy looking at the most accurate representations of things which in themselves we find painful to see, such as the forms of the lowest animals and of corpses.” The meaning of Marie NDiaye’s writings—or at least what tiny fraction of them I know—seems to stand in close relation to this principle. Notwithstanding the many other epithets that might be applied to her work, NDiaye’s All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green seem, above all other qualifications, somber, sad, even depressing. To what extent does the suffering that they depict become a source of pleasure for the reader? While I admit that these two books are elegantly crafted, I find their somber tonalities afford me, on the whole, very little enjoyment. Surely, some books are meant to unsettle, but not, perhaps, like this.
NDiaye’s career as a fiction writer took off when she was quite young, still a teenager in fact; her first book was Quant au riche avenir (Éditions de Minuit, 1985), whose title, looking back retrospectively thirty years later, reads like a prophecy come true, announcing its author’s prolificacy and eventual renown. In all, Ndiaye has published fifteen books, six plays, and three books for children in French editions. Among these, Trois femmes puissantes, which won the Goncourt Prize in 2009, was translated into English as Three Strong Women (trans. John Fletcher, Knopf, 2012). Two years later, two additional books by NDiaye have been translated into English, both available from Two Lines Press: All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green (published in 2004 and 2005, respectively). The translator for both books is Jordan Stump, who has previously translated a number of France’s top authors—Balzac, Jules Verne, and Patrick Modiano, among others. Elsewhere Stump has discussed the particular challenges of translating All My Friends into English. Not having read either of NDiaye’s books in the original French, I can hardly comment on the efficacy of the translator, so I won’t attempt to do so here. Suffice it to say that Stump’s translations have established him as one of the most sought-after French-to-English translators at work today, and that his translations are a pleasure to read.
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All My Friends consists of five short stories, five sketches of as many individuals struggling through tough times, or—if we prefer to call a spade a spade—fear and pain, even mental agony. The predominant vision of character that emerges in these tales is very moving and tragic. For example, the final story, “Revelation,” depicts a mother’s inner struggle as she takes her only son to a mental institute, effectively saying goodbye to him forever. The shorter book, Self-Portrait in Green, unfolds through autobiographically-inspired vignettes set down in the form of a journal. It has the lyrical first-person intimacy of memoir, but insofar as it is focalized outwards rather than inwards, its form suggests less a “self-portrait” than a composite portrait, built of the narrator’s memories of women she has known: her mother, a few friends, and a neighborhood ghost who invites our narrator in for tea.
Any comparison between the two books, it should be noted, is foremost incidental. They share a lot in common with regard to production (e.g., the same American publisher and translator, strikingly similar cover designs to match their somber tonalities, and so on), but little else to ground a comparative critical assessment, which is what I attempt below. Readers’ advisory aside, it would be better to take these books independently and not set them against one another.
* * *
What’s immediately striking about All My Friends is NDiaye’s classical approach to narrative, her embrace of compact dramatic structures and a spare style to relate the misfortunes of her protagonists. In some respects, these tales read as if they could have been composed in the middle of the last century, or even perhaps in the late nineteenth; the experimental or postmodernist impulse is virtually absent from them, and their intent is serious (non-ironic) in a way that calls to mind certain of Anton Chekhov’s fictions. (One story in particular, “Brulard’s Day,” seems to involve Chekhov, inverting the plot elements of “Lady with the Pet Dog” to construct its dark negative.) Similarly, the settings of the stories in All My Friends are vague enough that they seem to imply a parable-like universality of their theme. The endings reveal the setting to have been purgatory all along, and there is a strong sense, after the last lines have been read, that the characters’ torments will go on interminably without the reader. Although it’s little comfort, the success of this illusion is certainly a testament to NDiaye’s craft and imagination.
“The Boys” is certainly the most disturbing of these five tales. A poor, rural family in some unspecified locale sells its handsome son, Anthony, to a woman referred to in the text as “E. Blaye.” René is a poor urchin who lives in a shack with his mom and does odd chores for this family. He watches from a corner of the room as they follow Anthony’s adventures online with a new computer, bought with the proceeds from Anthony’s sale:
And when he came the next day, there was Anthony on the screen, against a background of blue sky and glass towers, amid which René thought he could make out the smiling face of the woman named E. Blaye, Anthony so handsome, so glowing, that René couldn’t repress a brief groan.
“You see?” said Madame Mour, triumphant. “You see, you see?”
Had René ever doubted it? Doubted what? The spectacular radiance, the prosperity, the new ecstasy that shone in Anthony’s eyes, that strewed even the sky behind him with sparkles? And the woman’s face was shining as well, splashed with Anthony’s magnificence.
“He sent us some money,” said Madame Mour. “A lot of money, already. And I have the computer and the internet and it’s just like he was here. Isn’t it?”
As the Mours and René watch Anthony’s transformations—his nudity, and numerous physical alterations—René and the reader try to grasp just what is happening. What is happening? Is this just a simple case of child pornography?
From time to time the memory of a naked Anthony raced through [René’s] mind, gilded, exultant, displaying his teeth (whitened?), his legs spread wide in a virile stance, index figure upraised before his lips (plumped with silicone?), and nose (reshaped, slenderized?), as if mischievously swearing the viewer to secrecy, and then, dizzied, he wondered if that really was Anthony Mour, if Anthony’s new existence could one day be his.
Desperate to escape his pitiful situation, René pleads with his mother to arrange for someone to purchase him. Madame Mour arranges a transaction, ensuring she’ll take the proceeds—not René’s destitute mother. As the car that is to bear René away arrives and René sits down in the passenger seat, he turns his head to see “who was holding the wheel”: something or someone so horrible that a scream dies in his throat. “Nothing escaped but a moan, a submissive whimper of dread and regret.” So ends the tale.
We are left, then, with an revelation of the most terrible aspect. If the story succeeds (and I believe it does), this revelation coincides with a feeling of awe at the story’s flawless and irrevocable structure. There is a mastery of form in evidence here, and a clear fulfillment of the key components of tragedy—Aristotle’s “pity for the undeserving sufferer and fear for the man like ourselves”—and yet no catharsis which follows, no final sigh of acceptance or relief. “The Boys” culminates, rather, on a note of pure terror, and this is most troublesome.
Though none of the other stories in All My Friends match the sheer awfulness of “The Boys,” they are likewise harrowing. The title story achieves the effect by adding an element of desperate, self-pitying humor into the mix. The narrator here is a divorced high school teacher, and NDiaye’s first-person narration is bracing and suspenseful, effectively placing us (uncomfortably) in the mind of a sort of moral monster, a man filled to capacity with self-loathing and rage. What is most masterfully executed—and emotionally devastating—in this story is the narrator’s attitude of self-pity:
To be sure, I sometimes come nose to nose with one of my sons on the playground, and how painful it is to see his eyes, having lighted on me by accident, suddenly fill with a sort of still water before he turns on his heel and flees, his gait slightly stiff, horrified. […]
“Does your father stink so horribly, that you have to run?” I sometimes cry after my son.
But the longest, most powerfully constructed story of the collection is “Brulard’s Day.” It unfolds over a single day in the life of the titular, middle-aged film actress whose luck and prospects have run out. Under vague circumstances she has “fled her own house,” leaving her husband and teenage daughter. For a brief period she lived with a presumably older man; now, she’s penniless, a day away from being turned out of her hotel. As she erratically casts about a Swiss resort town (we are told in no uncertain terms that she has no idea where to go or what to do next), she feels her grip on sanity slipping; she has hallucinations. In her exhaustion and fatigue, images of her younger self crop up here and there, dressed elegantly, fresh with youth, full of hope. Brulard’s husband unexpectedly turns up, somehow having tracked her to her hotel. At first he too seems like a figment of Brulard’s weary mind, but no. Certain bizarre touches, almost overstated but suggestive of allegory, lend an ineffable strangeness:
“So, Jimmy, you got yourself this dog to replace me?” she said with a forced laugh.
“He was following me, and I adopted him because I thought he was you,” Jimmy said gravely.
The reply, which seems incredible (given that Jimmy is hardly portrayed as cruel-hearted), underlines the metaphorical truth that Brulard is indeed a stray dog: lost, helpless, homeless, vulnerable, in need of protection, etc. (However, it turns out that Jimmy is no better off than she is: the story’s nadir is the revelation that Jimmy has sought Brulard out to borrow money from her.) And the dog motif recurs climactically in the final sequence: Jimmy and Brulard are walking through a residential neighborhood when a Great Dane barrels out of a yard, knocking Jimmy over and snatching away Brulard’s loafer. The wealthy owners, whom Jimmy knows, invite Jimmy and Brulard into their home. Horrifically, when the dogs are left for some moments outside, the Dane brutalizes Jimmy’s tiny mutt – or rather, “tears it to pieces.”
With this touch, and other mildly sensationalist elements, the story suggests a debt to and a fusion of noir and melodrama. Melodrama may have a bad name, but it shouldn’t; it’s a technique or genre like any other, and most effective at arousing pathos:
How worn, how faded seemed their two little selves, hers and Jimmy’s, on their bench—how poor and ugly they were, crumpled under the wreckage of the life they’d led together, exasperated by each other exactly when they knew they’d be exasperated, knowing each other so well, so well, without tenderness or sympathy.
Physical descriptions, of Jimmy in particular, verge on caricature or cliché, lingering on bodily traits to suggest suffering:
… he’d so flagrantly and definitively aged—which is to say that no trick, no subtle arrangement of the hair on his forehead, or his high-buttoned shirts, could now prevent anyone noticing, before anything else, his hunched back, his bowed legs’ irreversible thinness, the coarsened grain of his skin, the shadowy veil over his eyes, which, for a few seconds, when Jimmy thought himself out of sight, turned lost, evasive, devious.
The details are not gratuitously chosen, but convey Brulard’s thought process. What is admirable and rare is NDiaye’s keen sense of just how much emotional directness to allow the narration, when to let go and when to hold back. An exquisite balance is struck between the story’s progression and the countless pathos-steeped, lurid details that embellish it (e.g., Brulard’s “tremulous, weary face,” her “rumpled and torn” pink dress). It is this delicate balance that distinguishes “Brulard’s Day,” and All My Friends as a whole, as a work of elegant and classical construction.
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Self-Portrait in Green is a book that defies easy categorization: not short stories, not conventional memoir, not a literary journal, not a diary, but some sort of hybrid of these. It unfolds initially through first-person narration, in a time (December 2004) when the local river, the Garonne in the south of France, is rising. The narrator is looking back and remembering the four or five so-called “green women” she has known over the course of her lifetime, each sorrowful in their way. As such, Self-Portrait is an exploration of female sadness, told through the narrator’s contact with her mother, two of her friends, and a ghostly neighbor.
Or a ghost. In NDiaye’s world, ghosts are not as rare as we might think, nor are they like other ghosts, or as you or I probably imagine ghosts. In fact, nothing prohibits us from imagining NDiaye’s luckless characters as species of ghosts that just happen to be corporeally alive, marooned in a world that affords neither exit nor recourse. Would you recognize a ghost if you saw one? Were you a ghost yourself, would you even know it? Once we are hypnotized by the dizzyingly brilliant twenty-five page opening sequence of Self-Portrait, these are questions that start to matter, even if we don’t explicitly formulate them.
In 2002, we are told, NDiaye drove her four kids to school every day. Something on the route kept catching her eye. An overgrown verdant yard where she half-saw and half-did-not-see a woman standing next to “a tall, spreading banana tree,” blending into the landscape:
And I looked at her and didn’t see her, and yet a vague unconvinced feeling always turned my head in that direction, though I noticed nothing, ever, but a lovely surprising banana tree.
To gauge her sanity, she asks her kids if they too can see the lady; they cannot. The effect of a narrator in thrall to a ghost’s presence is predictably eerie, but not entirely so: oddly, the giddy tone in which the opening unfolds conveys a tone of wonder and excitement, not fear. After her first uncertainty erupts (is the green woman just a hallucination?), the narrator’s doubts start to multiply. While watching her kids at the playground, she wonders:
… what are they thinking? Are they sure this day will end? That they’re not stranded here, alone among dozens of frenetically active bodies, for all eternity? They know, they know. Is that certain?
Such interrogatives accelerate the prose and have a way of inviting us into the narrator’s confusion; an effect of enchantment, seduction. (This self-questioning seems at times to be Self-Portrait’s very motor, and its greatest virtue.) Walking down the sidewalk, she sees a friend. Is it Cristina?: another chasm of doubt. (Prosopagnosia?)
as soon as I see her I’m not sure it’s her rather than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison. Not that her name escapes me: it’s just that among these three women, I no longer know which this one is.
Taken together with the hallucination in the yard, we start to wonder, perhaps, if what’s going on isn’t something akin to the bizarre psychological episodes described in Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
The rest of the book, unfortunately, fails to sustain the heady magnificence of this opening vignette. The other vignettes—two describing the narrator’s father, who has gone on to marry her childhood friend, and another describing her mother, whose movements and reinventions defy what she thinks she knows of her—suggest incompletion, and the impossibility of ever fully knowing our family members. (And if not them, can we know anyone?) This is a question well-considered by countless authors, and important in its truth, no doubt, but it also appears in the present context as a convenient way of writing a book where the parts are under no obligation to cohere or fit together as a whole. Self-Portrait’s organizing principle—as a hybrid of memoir, diary, journal, anecdote, and vignette—presupposes some intractable discontinuities. But the opener, and the previously discussed stories “Brulard’s Day” and “The Boys,” suggest that NDiaye is capable of much more.
The most glaring problem in Self-Portrait is the elusiveness of the central concept of the “green women.” As I’ve suggested, if it means anything at all, it would seem to mean a woman afflicted by profound sadness. Consider the following descriptions of three different green women:
In a plaintive, toneless voice, she tells me of the difficulties of her existence in this Aquitaine countryside, the frequent absences of a husband who is furthermore alcoholic and over-talkative, the coldness of her grown-up children, now grasping adults in their faraway towns. Her very green gaze is pale and cold. The hours go by as she speaks, giving up on hearing me say a word. The hours go by, but I don’t notice. What exactly she’s saying I’ll soon have forgotten.
She regrets not what was, but what should have been, could have been, had she only made some other choice way back then, and she regrets the choice she made, the path of sorrow.
My mother is a woman in green, untouchable, disappointing, infinitely mutable, very cold, able, by force of will, to become very beautiful, and able, too, not to want to.
Setting these descriptions side by side reveals a fundamental inconsistency: if sorrow is the defining trait of the green women, as seems to be the case, then the narrator’s mother is the exception to the rule. How anyone could be “infinitely mutable” is a great mystery, but the narrator is indeed surprised to learn that her mother is doing well for herself, flourishing in a new city, having left her life of woe behind her. This development suggests a latent capacity for change and growth in the green women, but the character and motives of the mother remain obscure, like those of the other green women. The book’s brevity, its lackadaisical approach to characterization, and its fragmented, vignette form prevent the green women from coming alive in the way that each of the characters in All My Friends do. Like the narrator who knows she’ll soon forget the ramblings of the first green woman, readers will likely soon forget these ill-drawn characters.
In fact, the amorphous quality of the “green women” concept becomes progressively apparent as it emerges in successive iterations. (It would appear no one formulation of the idea in the text is definitive, or I would cite it here.) There seems to be little reason for them to be green and not some other color; they could just as well have been blue women, and nothing too essential would have been lost, only the connection with lush tropical growth, and hence the landscape where the first green woman is glimpsed. The narrator’s mother’s change of lifestyle suggests regeneration too, but structurally that episode is given no greater importance than the book’s gloomier parts. The rich palette of connotations of greenness is on the whole left unexplored; there are no discourses or rhapsodies on green here, nor any encomia to life, growth, and fertility, nor cautions against envy, cupidity. Certainly, the photographs—consisting of portraits and landscapes, and in some cases portraits of women in landscapes—that appeared in the book in its original publication helped to solidify NDiaye’s concept, visually enjoining women to greenness. Unfortunately, these visual materials are absent from the English translation published by Two Lines, and the text on its own fails to sufficiently explore or draw these connections.
Another shortcoming is revealed at the book’s conclusion. After a vignette organized around the narrator’s visit to her father’s house in Burkina Faso, two exceedingly brief passages follow, seemingly intended to dispatch the book and its slipshod unity. These passages resolve the suspense that permeates the book up until that point, and involve (1) a rising river that threatens to overflow and flood the town where the narrator lives; and (2) a black specter (“something black, and quick”) glimpsed by the townspeople in the opening vignette. Both devices are effective at instilling a sense of dread or suspense in the reader, but the way that they are dealt with in Self-Portrait’s final three pages reveals them to have been little more than contrivances by which to suggest suspense, nothing more. (Symbolism, perhaps—but then a most elementary symbolism, without nuance or depth.) For a book that runs to only a hundred pages, both devices feel forced and at odds with the book’s pacing.
If Self-Portrait in Green is not a first-rate work, as I believe it is not, the explanation may reside in the story of the book’s genesis: it was apparently commissioned by an editor to appear in a series of works (Traits et portraits, published by Mercure de France) for which well-established writers attempt a kind of self-portrait, furnishing certain visual or scrapbook materials to be reproduced alongside the text. This helps to explain perhaps the sense I had, while reading it, that it is not a work born of necessity or urgency. The absence of the supporting visual materials—photographs—from the Two Lines English translation edition of the text further contributes to the sense that Self-Portrait in Green is a dispensable and small book.
It would be very hard to say the same of All My Friends: the stories in it are undeniably the work of an exceptionally skilled dramatic writer who is capable of depicting the human plight in all its quotidian variety. Its stories suggest a profound empathy, in the hope, it would seem, that readers extend it not just to fictional beings, but also to those unknown souls we come upon. “Could she see them as friends?” might then be the pivotal question, for not just NDiaye and Brulard, but for all of us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacob Siefring’s articles, often discussing French literature in English translation, have appeared in Golden Handcuffs Review, The Winnipeg Review, Montreal Review of Books, and The Quarterly Conversation. He resides in Ottawa, Ontario.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 16th, 2015.