The Provocateur’s Spirit

By Tara CheesmanAugust 21, 2017

The Provocateur’s Spirit

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye

WE’RE ALL WAITING for Marie NDiaye’s breakthrough book in English. You’re waiting, too, whether you know it or not. Despite being an award-winning French writer (she won the Prix Femina in 2001, the Prix Goncourt in 2009, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and shortlisted for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award) whose first book was published when she was 17, whose work is both regularly translated into English and generally well reviewed by American critics, NDiaye has yet to gain traction with American readers. At 50, she still hasn’t established the niche audience of, say, Michel Houellebecq, a writer with whom she shares nationality, a tendency toward the cerebral, and a provocateur’s spirit (though the nature of her provocations is more earnest and less performative than Houellebecq’s).

Why this failure to connect? Perhaps because she has always written unapologetically as a woman and a person of color (NDiaye is of both French and Senegalese parentage), and does so in a way that doesn’t quite fit with traditional marketing strategies. Today her subject matter could not be more fascinating, high stakes, and of the moment, but a few years ago it was just as likely to have worked against her. She writes stories about female characters grappling with race and assimilation into Western society; women who struggle with their relationships — romantic, familial, and social — but who do not always do the right, or even the courageous, thing; women who often too willingly sacrifice the most important parts of themselves for things of lesser value. While easy to identify with, NDiaye’s women are often hard to like — a challenge, in other words, for readers who turn their noses at unsympathetic female characters.

Her latest book to be translated into English, My Heart Hemmed In, begins with a violent crime. A man has a portion of his side brutally carved out and pieces of the flesh safety-pinned to his wife’s coat: “Three safety pins (or were they hairpins?) thrust through shreds of flesh, bits of some meat like pinkish, fibrous pork (because that’s what it was, wasn’t it?), and their size and look made me think of human flesh and so bits of Ange’s flesh, since this morning I saw — yes, you saw it, admit it — that they’d thoroughly carved up his side…” Gruesome in the extreme, this otherwise vague reference to Shylock’s pound of flesh never gets developed any further than that. This crime of mutilation, attempted murder or, at the very least, misdemeanor assault, is only there to nudge the book’s heroine (in true Joseph Campbell hero’s journey fashion) onto the path toward self-awareness. The incident is never reported to the police. No doctor is summoned. No lasting effects are incurred.

Nadia, whose husband Ange is the unfortunate victim of the attack, is a middle-aged schoolteacher who one day wakes to find that she and Ange are being ostracized, persecuted even, by everyone around them. They are no longer welcome at the school where they’ve taught for 15 years, a place where they believed themselves to be respected members of a community. The residents of their building have all vanished. Strangers on the street inexplicably treat them with contempt.

When Nadia wanders into a pharmacy after getting lost in the once-familiar streets around her apartment — the implication being that even the city she loves is complicit in her betrayal — it seems we might get answers. She is there to buy compresses for the wound in Ange’s side, which has begun to putrefy. The pharmacist is kind, but nervous. Pitying Nadia, she offers to fill the order but first swears Nadia to secrecy. She, too, is aware of the conspiracy against them. At first, Nadia’s pride keeps her from asking questions:

But just as I reach for the door handle, the swift, silent tram glides past the pharmacy with our school’s principal on board, alone in the first car, her face turned toward the street, a calm, austere, very white face frozen in the bright lights of the tram. And all at once, as her eyes meet mine through the two panes of glass, that very still, very white face erupts in an expression of horrified surprise, of aversion and terror. She goes on staring at me until the tram turns the corner of the avenue, still with that same look of dismay, a look I’ve never in any circumstances seen on her face before.

The wind howls past the dark shop windows. All at once a driving rain begins to fall, lashing the pharmacy door, and I let go of the handle, turning back to her, still shaken by my face’s effect on the principal’s — or was it something other than my face? Was it my being here, in this place and at this moment? Was it a menacing, furious, rebellious look I’d shown her without knowing it?

I blurt out the question I’d been trying to hold in: “What did they do to my husband?”

When the pharmacist begins to explain, Nadia decides she no longer wants to hear the answer. She rushes out.

Like Ishiguro, Simenon, and Murakami, NDiaye plays around the edges of genre. She deconstructs and repurposes the components of the traditional noir novel, transforming them into something new and fresh. The labyrinthine city streets through which Nadia walks in search of answers, the heavy atmosphere of paranoia and fear which pervades the text, and Nadia herself, a flawed protagonist motivated by a shame that is revealed only in pieces as the story progresses, all feel hauntingly familiar. Readers exist in a persistent state of literary déjà vu. NDiaye understands that atmosphere, psychology, and the journey are all more important than a neatly packaged solution at the book’s end.

The only person willing to come to the couple’s aid after the attack is a neighbor whom, in their old life, they looked down upon and avoided. This slovenly man named Noget forces his way into their tastefully appointed apartment to tend to Ange and ply Nadia with the rich delicacies he prepares in their kitchen. Ange and Nadia distrust, loathe, and eventually come to fear Noget. Yet the people Nadia encounters outside of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of her home, men and women who despise them just as they once despised Noget, are in awe when they learn the name of the couple’s “good” Samaritan. He is a famous and revered author: the great Noget. And it seems only Nadia is unaware of his reputation.

“You mean the Noget?” one of the women snaps impatiently.

My colleagues have all turned their eyes on me. Their fervid expectancy seems to fill the foggy air with a menacing hum, a strident buzz whose silencing depends on my answer. I grimace a smile, push my glasses to the very top of my nose.

“Yes, I mean him,” I say, masking my perplexity.

Unable to help care for Ange, Nadia soon realizes that she has no choice but to leave. She is told that her staying endangers them both and so she abandons him, not without trepidation, to the tender mercies of Noget. She goes first to visit her ex-husband and then to reconnect with her estranged, adult son. She asks to meet her granddaughter. Her unwillingness to say the child’s exotic-sounding name aloud, “Souhar,” provides another clue into what is going on. “Occasionally half-opening my eyes, I see holes appear in the fog, which soon turns to rags as we put the Gironde behind us.” Nadia leaves the city to go stay with her son. As she physically distances herself from the life she created with Ange, the fog of their shared paranoia lifts (both literally and figuratively) to reveal memories of a past life that she has ruthlessly tried to expel. A life she was, in fact still is, willing to go to any lengths to escape. Like the fog, Ndiaye allows holes to form in Nadia’s story. A stray sentence here. A memory there. Reactions Nadia does not know enough to hide but instead brandishes as badges of honor, hoping that they identify her as “the right sort of woman”:

“Yes, I come from Bordeaux, I’ve never lived in Paris…”

“You know, I had the same upbringing you did, I often told my ex-husband back then…”

“My refusal to go anywhere near Les Aubiers, where I lived as a child, to go anywhere near those streets lined with crumbling sidewalks and public housing developments…”

“Today I’m a respectable middle-class woman, always carefully dressed, coiffed, and made-up, and my speech is fast and slightly high-pitched, with only the briefest of pauses between sentences…”

An accident of geography can be the determining factor in the direction our lives take. Places breed opportunity. Nadia and Ange live in a respectable, upscale neighborhood. They are too well bred to be ostentatious, and they look down upon those who do not submit to the same tyranny of good taste. When Nadia goes to visit her husband in the apartment they once shared, she looks contemptuously at how he has reversed the careful decor she had established there. Her son, Ralph, lives in a Mediterranean villa with a woman named Wilma. Their home is built into the side of a mountain, like a stone fortress, obscuring their neighbor’s view of the valley below. Filled with weapons and taxidermy trophies from their hunting trips, it has the looming, gothic presence of Julien Gracq’s Château d’Argol. As she describes Nadia’s reactions, NDiaye is looking at us out of the corner of her eye, gleefully mocking a very specific kind of bourgeois snobbery. When she has Nadia repeatedly telling everyone who will listen that she and Ange do not watch television, NDiaye dares us not to be in on the joke.

There is an element of cruelty in the way NDiaye lays bare the ugliness of Nadia’s prejudices. Remembering the birth of her granddaughter — a granddaughter whose mother she snubbed on the street and whom she has up to now shown no desire to meet — Nadia recalls with pride how she and Ange invited the neighbors over to celebrate the birth with champagne. She loves Ralph’s former lover for what he represents to her: the cultured, Caucasian son she’s always wanted. Whereas the physical appearances of the other characters are described in detail, NDiaye teases out Nadia’s ethnicity. She doesn’t mention her skin color, her features, or her build. And yet we eventually come to understand that Nadia is probably North African. It all points to a particularly mean and hypocritical form of racism — one that places more value on the outward symbols of privilege rather than on quality of character. It is a type of racism which builds upon a foundation of self-loathing. Only when she is faced with kindness from a stranger, a kindness which she realizes she in no way deserves or intends to return, that Nadia begins to recognize the person she has become, and, subsequently, begins to understand why she’s been punished.

That punishment begins to take a strange turn. She grows fatter and her stomach begins to swell. She misses her period and, while she denies the possibility and insists she is experiencing the onset of menopause, Nadia is told she is pregnant. It is just one of the ways NDiaye skillfully weaves threads of folklore into the pattern of an otherwise real-world narrative. Superstition, phantasms, physical manifestations of emotions — all are allowed to exist side by side with the mundane details of daily life. Ralph’s new wife, Wilma, eats only meat. His first wife (the mother of Nadia’s granddaughter) is strangely missing and Ralph is unwilling to talk about her. Holes form in the carefully composed glamour surrounding Wilma and through them Nadia sees something sinister behind it.

Not quite magical realism, or Simenon’s roman durs, NDiaye’s writing populates a No Man’s Land that exists somewhere in between the two. The successful accomplishment of this in English is in part due to Jordan Stump’s thoughtful translation, which manages to be clean in its execution without becoming overly simplistic. This is the third book, though the first novel, of Marie NDiaye’s which he has translated for the publisher Two Lines Press.

The short story collections that came first, All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green, compress the themes and eccentricities of NDiaye’s writing into tightly powerful literary packages. But it was last year’s novel Ladivine, about a woman of North African descent who passes as white, which most closely resembles My Heart Hemmed In. The heroine, Clarisse Rivière, hides the truth of her race from even her beloved husband and daughter. Once a month she travels by train to visit her mother, Ladivine. A mother of whom she is ashamed and who she has, like Nadia, told her family is dead. NDiaye does not pretend patience with either woman’s pretensions. She allows us to recognize ourselves in their flawed and fragile humanity, but she does not provide them with redemption or even applaud their tentative attempts to make amends. She seems unable to forgive her characters their weakness. And so the most she is willing to do, as in the case of Nadia, is point them in the direction of atonement. Whether they will be able to reach it is not guaranteed.

Marie NDiaye’s plots are frustratingly difficult to summarize. They involve people, objects, and events whose relationships to one another are never immediately apparent. Her storytelling is the literary equivalent of a Chuck Close portrait. Up close the painting appears to be of abstract symbols placed inside the squares of a large grid. It isn’t until you pull away and absorb the work in its entirety that these seemingly disparate strokes of garish color come together to form a face. NDiaye expects her readers to put in the work (and there are moments when it feels like work) of reading and finishing her books. The fragments from which they are made, while often quite beautiful, are meaningless in isolation. This integrity is the quality which arguably makes NDiaye one of the most exciting — and challenging — writers working today.


Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic and author of the blog Reader At Large.

LARB Contributor

Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member, and 2018–19 Best Translated Book Award Fiction judge. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, CrimeReads, Guernica, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, and other online publications. She received her bachelor's of fine arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview and Instagram @taracheesman.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!