When Marie NDiaye won the Prix Goncourt in November 2009, the event incited two discrete histoires scandaleuses in France. The first, decidedly smaller in magnitude, was that NDiaye refused to accept the title of “first black woman to win the prize.” “I don’t represent anything or anyone,” she told Agence France-Presse. “I grew up in a world that was 100 percent French. My African roots don’t mean much, except that people know of them because of the color of my skin and my name.” The second, more shocking story was that after NDiaye won the prize, an official in Nicolas Sarkozy’s party sent a letter to the French culture minister, asking him to see that, in light of her newly symbolic role with regard to French literary accomplishment, NDiaye recant her recent criticism of the Sarkozy administration. NDiaye, who moved to Berlin following Sarkozy’s election in 2007, had told the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles that she finds France under Sarkozy “monstrous” and “hateful.” She cited the names of two of his most prized political protégés and decried their anti-intellectualism. “For me,” she said, “these people represent a sort of death.” NDiaye allowed that she does not normally make political statements of such an “excessive” nature, but she graciously declined the request to retract them nevertheless.
Beyond their inherent PR value, these events were notable in that, first, NDiaye’s writing is very much about Africa. That the half-French, half-Senegalese writer outwardly distances herself from discussions of Africa, while being intimately tied to them in her work, is an almost too-tidy summation of the larger contradiction that multiculturalism confronts in France today. Secondly, and ironically, for whatever she may say aloud, NDiaye’s writing is not overtly political, unlike that of many of her contemporaries. Still, she has expressed abhorrence at certain policies, such as the Sarkozy administration’s practice of going into public schools to find students whose families are in the country illegally (the better to deport them), and has noted that her Goncourt-winning novel was conceived in part to bring “humanity” to the stories of the many African migrants who end up in France. The awarding of the Goncourt to this particular work could therefore be viewed as a political act in itself. But more essentially, in a country where the integration of immigrants from the former colonies has become even more of a cardinal issue in the last five years than it was during the last fifty, NDiaye’s rise to prominence can be celebrated as a victory on both sides of the debate: the advancement of a woman of mixed background within the nation’s fossilized cultural institutions, and the promotion of someone who seems more concerned with literature than with outrage at the failures of integration. Perhaps in an ideal world NDiaye’s work would be allowed to stand on its own, but amidst the fever of France’s growing anxiety, she is an ineluctable target for appropriation and debate.
Despite NDiaye’s success (and notoriety) in France, Americans are unlikely to be familiar with her work unless they have seen Claire Denis’ film White Material (2009), which the director co-wrote with NDiaye. In White Material, Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, the manager of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country, who fights irrationally to keep the plantation running in the face of an approaching bloodbath; the fractious government and rebel forces are preparing to purge the country of postcolonial corruption, and of each other. The tense images are Denis’, but the elementary particles of the film are NDiaye’s: a woman alone in a foreign country except for her family, which is falling apart around her, as she struggles to hold onto what she has. Amidst mostly positive reviews, David Denby described the film in the New Yorker as “dreadful, in an aimless, intentionally disjointed way that some people have mistaken for art.” It is an interesting if slightly misguided jumping-off point into the texts of Marie NDiaye.
At 43 years old NDiaye has, in addition to the film, eleven novels, four plays, and three children’s books to her name, along with two of France’s highest literary prizes, the Goncourt and the Femina. NDiaye’s Femina-winning work, Rosie Carpe (2001, trans. 2004), is one of only two of her novels that have been translated into English, and it does tend toward dreadfulness, aimlessness, and disjointedness because these are, in some ways, the topics of the book. It isn’t that these qualities are tossed together and served up under the pretense of “art,” but rather that they are used to express the discordance of a decaying, underclass world. NDiaye is hardly the first writer to undertake the task of stepping outside the bourgeoisie into an appalling underworld, but the distinction of her work lies in its use of high literary style to delve into some of the basest human dramas, and in her almost compulsive attention to psychological minutiae, in prose that is diffuse but always controlled.
Rosie Carpe, the eponymous title character, is the young mother of a sickly, fatherless 5-year-old boy, and is pregnant with another illegitimate child when she arrives, at the beginning of the novel, in Guadeloupe. She is in pursuit of her beloved brother and less beloved parents, who moved from France five years earlier. Rosie has left to escape some initially undefined humiliation, “to rid herself of these feelings of shame and embarrassment.” But it turns out Rosie is herself an incarnation of humiliation and shame, which is why everyone in her life seems so desperate to be rid of her. The internal logic of NDiaye’s world is one of perverse interrelatedness, a zero-sum game of energy exchange in which the characters selfishly take the good from each other and pass along the bad. This injurious sport heightens the sense of emotional alienation, of relationships as merely one more tool to be used in the quest for self-preservation, that pervades the novel. Rosie’s parents have left her behind, with her poverty and hardship, to start over in Guadeloupe because, Rosie thinks, “they didn’t want our rotten luck, any of them, in this land of success; they want us back in France . . . condemned to our problems, which are as many as they won’t have.”
The outre-mer territories become peripheral space, a refuge wholly outside of and other to the mainland, in which the laws that govern so-called “civilized” society fall away. Here the characters are absorbed into a fantasy world that offers them opportunities to escape the social structures and hierarchies that were so restrictive to them in France. They are also free to indulge taboo desires, including polyamory, interracial marriage, and even murder. The decaying institutions of the mainland have, after all, begotten an utter collapse of the Carpe family, and Rosie is its pathetic product. After beginning in Guadeloupe, the novel lurches back to Rosie’s childhood, a “dreary” and “uniformly pale yellow” affair in a small, unremarkable French town. When Rosie and her brother Lazare move to Paris to attempt to continue their studies, each quickly discovers a profound ineptitude for the demands of adult life. After failing out of her classes, and with no friends, lovers, or other connections to the city, Rosie leaves Paris for a gray industrial suburb, happens onto a job as a hotel clerk, and takes a room in the hotel, arranged by her supervisor, Max, who also visits her nightly at his pleasure. One evening he arrives at Rosie’s room in the company of an older woman who has come to videotape them for commercial purposes and who, upsettingly, resembles Rosie’s mother. Rosie develops a sickeningly filial, compensatory attachment to the woman, who calls her “lovey,” which causes Rosie to feel “a pang as she thought that Mrs. Carpe had never called her ‘lovey.’”
Even as the story’s gruesomeness builds and builds, it retains a sour beauty, which arises partly from NDiaye’s eloquence and partly from the text’s affecting strangeness. NDiaye employs a bizarre symbolism that is vivid and pervasive, though never entirely comprehensible. The seagulls Rosie imagines hiding beneath the polo shirt of her brother’s friend and the “blue-tinted indifference” of her parents seem to contain meaning that we are never entirely able to pin down. Despite these pleasures, Rosie Carpe is a tragedy, deriving largely from the fact that, in this novel, femaleness is passiveness, an inability to express or realize desire. When Rosie and Max conceive a child together against Rosie’s will, and he leaves her alone to raise it, her solitary life deteriorates silently, she nearly kills the child out of negligence, suffers a bout of alcoholism, and finally finds herself impregnated once again, at a party during which she has no recollection of any sexual encounter. Finally, she decides to go after her family in Guadeloupe.
Rosie Carpe is a difficult read, not only because the plot at times surpasses most people’s tolerance for depravity, but also because NDiaye’s prose can be obsessively introspective. In one scene, for example, Lazare comes with his sleazy business partner to visit Rosie outside Paris and ask to borrow money for a new sex shop they will open when they move to Guadeloupe. Lazare’s demand is a catalyst that sends Rosie off into an emotional reverie, of which there are many, about the world of abuse into which she has so shamefully brought her son, Titi, and of her indelible sadness:
She clasped Titi to her chest, and, feeling the child’s heart beating frenetically against her, she imagined their two faces one above the other, different but both of them, hers and Titi’s, dark and dramatic, sad, distraught, and fearful, and Titi’s fat, white face like the indelible image of her own shame and resentment, as though the conviction she had of having done the child wrong had given up distorting her own features and had blighted Titi’s so that she, Rosie, might see it better still and never forget what Titi was owed. She was filled with confusion, and this confusion was deforming Titi’s face without much altering her own; she was full of embarrassment before the child, and it was this embarrassment that was disfiguring Titi and thus reminding her forever of herself. It must be like that. It was certainly like that, and, what was more, it had to be like that.
These responses to the lewd stresses in her life are incantatory and dissociative: there is poetry in the way they illustrate Rosie’s disengagement from the unbearable demands placed upon her. NDiaye is also a methodical and masterful emotional portraitist, relentlessly exploring each psychological twist and turn borne out of a given encounter. At times, though, there is just so much text and so many words, in the translation as in the original, and the perspective is so excessively myopic that the reader feels a little oppressed. Rosie’s constant concessions to the people around her, who use her for the few things she has, are more frustrating than enlightening. Moral satisfaction is served up at the end with so much ambiguity that it is hardly felt as a victory. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the work does not cohere into something whole. For all the difficulties it presents, NDiaye succeeds in creating an ethereal and rhapsodic postmodern odyssey, even if it is one that immerses itself in banality, poverty, and failure before arriving at its questionable destination.
NDiaye’s Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women, 2009), the book that won the Goncourt, is more conventional than Rosie Carpe, in its subject matter and its style, which also makes it more broadly accessible. The “novel” is in fact three tenuously related short novellas, which prompted the Nouvel Observateur, France’s attempt at an answer to the New Yorker, to contemplate whether Marie NDiaye had won the “Prix Goncourt of the short story.” Two of the novellas are close cousins to Rosie Carpe, tales about African women who make the fatal choice of attaching themselves to men who ultimately fail them deeply. These are stories about resistance, often through the women’s internal efforts to preserve their autonomy by refusing to give themselves fully to the controlling wishes of their partners. (They are the postcolonial progeny of Marguerite Duras if ever there were any). The first novella follows Norah, a French woman in her late thirties, traveling to Senegal at the request of her Senegalese father, who moved back with her younger brother Sony when she was a child, and whom she has hardly seen since. When Norah arrives at her father’s house, she is forced to confront their acrid relationship, which immediately reignites the rage she feels at “having for a father a man with whom one literally cannot get along, and from whom any affection had always been improbable.” Norah’s anger is opaque and sedimentary, driven by an unforgivable sense of abandonment, and by the grudge she holds against her father for imposing such immense pain on her mother. Perhaps most distressing is Norah’s morbid resentment that, though he “kidnapped” her brother, “their father never wanted to take on the two girls.” Norah’s father had always found her and her sister, as daughters and girls and women, undesirable, and even as a 38-year-old woman Norah suffers from rejection, or at least from its memory.
It may be worthwhile to note that NDiaye’s Senegalese father left her French mother and family in France when she was a young child to return to Africa, and that NDiaye did not meet him until she was an adult, nor travel to Africa until she was 22. If one is not armed with this piece of information, Norah’s story is about a family divided by culture, continent and education. Granted there is a twist—again the (former) territories, and not France, represent a land of opportunity of sorts. Norah’s father takes Sony back to Senegal to provide him with an exquisite education and cultivated life, far away from, and high above, the sordid lower-middle class existence of Norah’s mother, a hairdresser, who feels so inferior to her son by the time she visits him as a young adult that the intended project of estrangement is sinisterly completed. If one does, however, possess knowledge of NDiaye’s own story, it adds another, more painful layer of meaning to the understanding of the novella—certainly Norah’s range of emotions should not be conflated with anything NDiaye might herself have experienced at the hands of her father. Still, the information adds a bizarre angle to NDiaye’s assertion about the insignificance of her African roots, as it could easily be viewed, on the contrary, as evidence of a relationship between her ties to Africa and her writing that in reality is quite intimate. It is a paradox that might offer a different kind of insight into the murkiness of the traumas of postcolonialism.
It sometimes seems that NDiaye is more comfortable inside the fantastical interiority of the characters in her other works than with telling more straightforward family morality tales such as those in Trois Femmes Puissantes. In these stories she seems to struggle to tame her impulse toward intense introspection, and by doing so sacrifices some of the traits that, problematic though they may be, lend her voice its strange but sometimes marvelous, incantatory quality – her wordy lyricism, the pervasive feeling of mystery, the exhaustiveness with which she takes to emotional response. The characters of Trois Femmes Puissantes and their tribulations feel almost generic when contrasted with the deep exploration of NDiaye’s other characters. Rosie Carpe, for all its flaws, has a richness that Trois Femmes Puissantes lacks. One wants the two combined—NDiaye’s singular stylistic capabilities applied to something more readable and penetrable.
At the same time, in Trois Femmes Puissantes NDiaye disciplines herself into exploring broader postcolonial themes with far more clarity. Toward the end of Norah’s tale, she observes that her father is “everywhere at home, lodged within each of them in total impunity, and, even dead, would continue to damage and torment them.” Such is the definition of trauma, which, as it happens, is an apt allegory for the “situation” that so plagues France at the present moment. Like Norah and her father, France and Africa are tied together by a violent history that follows each player interminably as it tries to separate itself, psychologically if not fully politically and economically, from the other.
Perhaps in part because of her middle-class upbringing, NDiaye avoids obstacles that snag some of her contemporaries, such as falling into the one-note melody of deep anger at France, which spent a century uprooting other countries and now is less than welcoming to its victims. Anger is an unarguably vital element of current French literary production, but because NDiaye can surpass it she pushes deeper and more complexly into trauma as an alternate narrative of this particular moment in the trajectory of France. The injury of decolonization (though that’s not to say of colonization) is only just now beginning to heal and the nation has entered a new phase of soul-searching as it tries to figure out what one of the most diverse countries on the European continent will look like. NDiaye extracts the confusion of the moment, its geographical, racial, and above all emotional messiness. “A new age wants new imaginations,” it has been said, and on that front NDiaye’s contributions are decisive.