OCTOBER 29, 2020
MARIE NDIAYE, AUTHOR OF around 20 books and plays, was born in Pithiviers, France, population just a little over 9,000, about 50 miles outside Paris. She was raised by her French mother and didn’t meet her Senegalese father until she was 15 years old. At 18, she published her first novel, and at 42 she won the Prix Goncourt. She is now 53 years old. That Time of Year — originally published in France in 1994 and now translated for the first time into English by NDiaye’s frequent collaborator Jordan Stump — arrives this year as a thrilling new entry in NDiaye’s catalog in English. NDiaye often meditates on a prevailing experience of isolation and alienation, and That Time of Year combines elements she has been turning over and honing throughout her career.
That Time of Year features a family from Paris that stay a day too long past summer season at their getaway in rural France. The novel opens with Herman, wondering what happened to his wife and child who had gone to a nearby farm to buy eggs hours earlier and never returned. Herman, a teacher back in Paris, walks out into the wet and foggy night. “[He] was happy to think he’d be leaving the next day,” NDiaye writes, “because once August was over life here was clearly lived amid unending rain and mist, as he hadn’t known before, as this afternoon had abruptly taught him.”
The tension between city and country people is a line that tautly vibrates throughout the novel. Herman, for example, makes a point to behave with superior civility, intent on revealing his sophistication among the villagers. As his situation of trying to find his wife and child devolves, he starts to suspect that the people in the village don’t like outsiders experiencing their autumn, that maybe they find the intrusion into their life indiscreet. Later, the president of the town says to Herman, “No one will say it to your face, but they despise Parisians here.”
NDiaye’s psychologically unnerving touch conjures, among others, Shirley Jackson. Jackson’s short story “The Summer People,” for example, follows a similar foundational framework to NDiaye’s novel. In Jackson’s story, the characters Mr. and Mrs. Allison also decide to stay at their rural cottage past vacation season. “[E]ach year they recognized that there was nothing to bring them back to New York,” Jackson writes, “but it was not until this year that they overcame their traditional inertia enough to decide to stay at the cottage after Labor Day.” In short order, the townspeople turn on the Allisons. “Nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before,” the grocer ominously tells them. “Nobody.” Then, the kerosene man doesn’t have any oil for them, and tells them they won’t be able to get any anywhere else. Then, somebody tampers with the car and no one will come fix it. Then, the phone goes dead, and the weather starts turning. The story ends with the Allisons huddling afraid together in their summer cottage.
But in NDiaye’s novel — wife and child having already disappeared — Herman is on his own. He tries to follow his family’s path to the farmwoman’s house, where he becomes fixated on getting inside to explain to her that despite what she says, she must have seen his family when they came to buy eggs earlier. NDiaye writes, “Herman could only show her, point by point, as he did with thick-headed students, that her first assertion didn’t stand up to scrutiny.” Herman begins to sense that he is being too pushy, that the villagers will construct their sense of him based on what this woman tells of him. He sets off running to the village, throwing out cries of indignation and fear in the rain.
The situation turns increasingly nightmarish for Herman. The “sad, dowdy hotel” that Herman had told himself he would never spend a night in if he could help it ends up being the only place where he can get a bed. When he asks how much it will cost, he learns it’s far more than he can afford, but he doesn’t have the courage or enough of an understating of what’s happening to make another plan. Across the courtyard from his small hotel room, an old woman endlessly stares at him through her window. The beds also squeak and immediately identify their source through the thin walls. When Herman goes downstairs to dinner, he has the feeling that everyone else has been waiting for him, and he apologizes, even though he wasn’t late. The president tells Herman, “When you’re out, when you’re home, someone’s always watching you, what does it matter? Like I told you, you mustn’t hide, quite the opposite, you have to let yourself be seen, you have to appear. […] Absorbed, melded with the life of this place.”
That Time of Year shares the quality of surreal anthropological and fantastical exploration that characterizes Renee Gladman’s Event Factory, in which a “linguist-traveler,” an outsider, arrives in the shape-shifting city of Ravicka and finds herself grappling to understand every experience. A black queer experimental writer from Atlanta, Georgia, Gladman writes books that initiate motions of traditional storytelling while constantly subverting their own delivery. Rather than resolution, they are far more concerned with basking in the surreal experience of being a body in space. “The hotel was beautiful,” Gladman writes in Event Factory. “Every night we had salmon cakes, and if not those, roast beef (though they do not call it beef there) and eggs. My body grew strong and dependent.”
Similar to Gladman, NDiaye transports the reader through an uncanny world where sometimes space and reality feel as though they function the same as our own, and other times they wobble. For example, in That Time of Year Herman notes that all married women in the region wear the same kind of blouse printed with apple blossoms — that the two laces of alternating contrasting colors indicate what year they married. The president of the village tells Herman that if he ever wants to see his wife and child again, he’ll discreetly work his way into the life of the village, becoming invisible and insignificant and above all erase all memory of the fact that he’s a Parisian. But the president promises to help: “I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this opportunity,” he says,
to take on a worthy project, serving as your guide and at the same time testing observations I’ve made here the past fifteen years. Please don’t let me down. Please, in a sense, be faithful to me. Be docile, learn from me, practice doing as I do. Nothing here is like what you know in Paris, people don’t speak the same way, there are other laws, other customs.
Black experimental writers now living in Berlin and Connecticut respectively, NDiaye and Gladman are, in ways that are both evocative and elusive, rich commentators on the outsider experience. In their stories, race as a variable of estrangement often feels possible but is almost never confirmed. “That’s a fundamental part of [NDiaye’s] work,” NDiaye’s translator Jordan Stump says in an interview with the Center for the Art of Translation,
race is always potentially at work in her narratives, but with few exceptions we can never really be quite sure that’s what’s going on. Her earlier books in particular are continually suggesting that they might be read as allegories of otherness or racism. […] The translation has to be just as vague as the original.
At one dinner in That Time of Year, talk turns to local affairs, which the merchants around the table consider their duty to deal with. Sometimes they banish people, always recent arrivals. On this evening, they decide the three children of one family need to be removed at once from their “depraved parents.” NDiaye writes, “The woman who ran the gift shop earnestly offered her testimony: Those people had bought two pornographic videos from her in two weeks.” The hypocrisy and black comedy embedded in the othering in NDiaye’s books often gestures at a more subliminal prejudice taking place. In NDiaye’s novel My Heart Hemmed In, a similar community-wide rejection takes place toward schoolteachers who one day realize they are despised by everyone in their town. The pharmacist says to the protagonist that it’s not right: “Everything you’re being made to endure […] as if you were guilty, but people were forbidden to punish you and so everyone’s taking their vengeance in their own way.”
The 2009 movie White Material, which NDiaye co-wrote with director Claire Denis, is one of a few items in NDiaye’s catalog where race plays an open driving force. The movie features a struggling coffee-farm owner in an unnamed French-speaking African county in the midst of an erupting civil war. The white farm owner, along with her husband and adult son, are nearly the only white people in the movie. One early exception is the soldier in the helicopter flying over their farm, shouting, “This is your last warning! You have to leave immediately! The French army is pulling out! The French army is leaving! You’ll be totally cut off!” The woman watches him dismissively as he pours ration kits from the helicopter and flies away.
While the stakes of otherness in White Material and That Time of Year are just as pronounced, in That Time of Year a racial component feels possible but evasive, which creates part of the unnerving effect. Toward the end of the That Time of Year, one character explains his own plight of division with an acquaintance in a neighboring town: “The fact was that when you came from the village you couldn’t possibly hope a Lemaître might see you as an equal, however kind and affection he was with you.”
As a Black woman who grew up in suburban France, NDiaye’s experience of otherness was layered and compounded again in 2009 when she left for Berlin because she found Nicolas Sarkozy’s France and his atmosphere of heavy policing too monstrous. When asked about her relationship to Senegal, she says she feels totally foreign to the continent of Africa, that she has spent almost no time there. She says, “When I meet French people who have lived there a long time, I feel they have more Africa in them than I will ever. It is too late.”
In a late scene in That Time of Year, Herman desperately reaches for a way back to his latest version of home, already long displaced from the home where he started. The temperature dropping, Herman leans over a desk and pleads for a taxi to get him back to the town where he started. “No taxi driver’s going to go out in this weather,” the woman tells him.
It’s so cold he can barely move his lips. “Find one,” Herman says, “I’m begging you.”
Nathan Scott McNamara is a nonfiction and fiction writer whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and more.