:: Article


By Rebecca Rosenberg.

Leïla Slimani, Adèle, translated by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber, 2015)

In her first book to be translated into English, the Goncourt prizewinning, Lullaby Leïla Slimani presented readers the nightmarish tale of a nanny-gone-bad in Paris. With Adèle (Faber & Faber, 2019), she offers her readers another inscrutable female protagonist who suffers (ostensibly) from a rampant appetite for casual, often rough sex. She could be described as a sex addict but she is not diagnosed as such, and though ‘she’s thinking like a drug addict, like a gambler’, the language of psychology is generally avoided. Adèle appears less driven than crafty, at least at first: she conducts her masochistic hookups and casual affairs with a second, secret phone, and a friend provides her with a ready excuse when she ends up staying out too late. Adèle’s comfortable life is an aspirational façade, with a doctor husband, a small child, a job as a journalist, and an upscale Montmartre apartment. On the surface, Adèle’s life is satisfying in its normality and bourgeois ease. And yet, she is not satisfied, and her every moment is taken with sex: thinking of it, dreaming about it, pursuing it. She fucks men she meets online, a colleague, her husband’s boss. More troublingly, though the possible implications of this episode are left to readers’ speculation, she had sex with her parents’ upstairs neighbour when she was still a teenager.

The lack of detail about this presumably decisive event is typical of Slimani’s cold, spare approach when relating Adèle’s sexual proclivities. Desire is described viscerally, but without eroticism or titillation. The prevailing tone is of ambivalence or boredom, even as sexual interactions devolve into violence and abuse. There are frequent reminders of the aftermath of her trysts, the bruises, aches, and scratches, as well as of Adèle’s having asked for them. Her appetites seem rooted less in the thrill of duplicity and deceit than in a desire for brutality and domination in their pure form.

The lack of judgment from the men she meets, their willingness to play along, might be construed as openness, even complaisance in the face of female desire, were it not for the ingrained violence that often ensues. Once, Adèle asks two men she finds online to knee her repeatedly in the pubis. The men hesitate at first, but then start to enjoy it, and improvise, violating her in novel ways. When Adèle wakes up in her bathroom, hung-over and sick, the blue contusions covering her body confuse her, until she remembers what she had instructed the men to do. She is hurt, but unoffended by what they have done. Who has control in these situations? Adèle’s explicit desire for rough sex marks her as an independent, self-conscious agent. But her masochism seems to have overpowered her, and pushed her humanity aside. Further complicating matters is her frequent resort to alcohol or drugs before sex, and the clearly compulsive nature of her hunger. Of a potential hook-up, she says, ‘He’s ugly. He might do.’ Early in the book, we read ‘Adèle has been good. She has held out for a week now. She hasn’t given in.’ But thoughts of being abused intrude upon her routine, no matter how much she runs, rests, avoids alcohol, and her need becomes a kind of extra-conscious force closing in on her.

When Adèle deprives herself of sex, she starts to want it rougher. From her opening vignette, Slimani seems intent on shocking us: ‘[…] she wants to scratch herself, to rip her body in two. She bangs her forehead against the wall. She wants someone to grab her and smash her skull into the glass door. [….] She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole.’ Slimani litters the book with references to Adèle’s longing to be an object, a pretty thing subject to the admiration and control of her husband and other men. She wants to be looked at, and to see and know that she is bringing men pleasure. ‘She wants to be a doll in an ogre’s garden,’ as she says, in an allusion to the book’s French title and as an observation, if not an indictment, of male sexuality. In contrast to Angela Carter’s fairy tales, with their role reversals and strong women, Slimani’s Adèle wants a dark, male-dominated fable that allows her to be abused and defiled.

When the violence and domination goes far enough, Adèle finds it satisfying, even calming. The release she feels provokes the question: ought we judge her for her seeking to satiate her desires? Her husband, Richard, is not interested in sex. His movements are clinical and repetitive, and he knows nothing of carnal passion. He is proud of not placing sexual demands on Adèle, of not dirtying an independent, intelligent women with base desires. His Christmas gift to her –an Hermès brooch– described with such protracted awkwardness and smug ignorance of Adèle’s character that it divests Richard of his patina of innocence vis-à-vis Adèle’s sexual double-life, marks him as a boring prig, and almost justifies Adèle’s pursuit of passion elsewhere. His gift is emblematic of other painful misapprehensions. Richard is a nice man. He is educated, hardworking, and he loves his family. And yet nothing, from his wife’s drinking to the clothes she wears, is immune to his judgment. He seems to want to desexualise Adèle, and as we see at the end of the novel, he is waiting with ominous patience until––in his words—she is ‘old’ and undesirable to have her all for himself.

After choosing to have sex with a man instead of attending an editorial meeting at work, Adèle begins to unravel, going to more extreme lengths to satisfy her hunger while trying to keep her cover at work and at home. She needs novelty: new bodies, new sex, new abuses. As she pushes herself further, her health begins to suffer: she loses weight and misses sleep and work. When her secret comes out, Richard makes her submit to a closely monitored programme of avoiding sex and temptation in exchange for staying. This leads to a short-lived recovery-cum-redemption, until one night when she stays out in Paris after her father’s funeral, misses her train home, gets drunk, and parties with strangers. Richard’s reaction to her relapse is not rage or despair, but fiercely veiled frustration at having been duped. Trying to keep up appearances like a chess-player of bourgeois expectations. The book ends neither with a ‘cure’ nor an affirmation of Adèle’s sexuality; that side of her remains inscrutable – unexplained and unlabelled. She is a mother and wife, a masochist and a willing sexual object, and Slimani dares us to claim that these are discrete categories. Does Adèle, however, participate in and perpetuate preconceptions of female identity by keeping her sexual life separate from her family life? Is she right to do so given her husband’s has clearly pegged her as his Madonna? Adèle outwits her controlling husband with her sexual rendezvous, yet he is also not entirely clear-cut as a character. He is neither an ostensible perpetrator nor a suffering victim. His insipid, incorrect yet innocent impression of Adèle in the first half of the book, and then his transformation into an insidious gatekeeper in the second half, underscores how he is just as ambiguous as Adèle. She hides her desire to be a sexual toy while Richard hides his desire to control a doll-like, sexless wife. In the ogre’s garden, Adèle’s body and sex come to stand in for her identity, and putative struggles over her physical desires seem aimed, in a larger sense, at establishing who has the right to tell her who she is or ought to be.

Rebecca Rosenberg is a PhD candidate in French studies at King’s College London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 22nd, 2019.