Quant au riche avenir (1985)
Young Z is a teenage boy who lives with his aunt (known simply as ‘Tante’) in a suburb of Paris, having lost his parents when he was very small. Divided into three sections, under the headings ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Tante’ and ‘School’, the third-person narrative explores, in meticulous detail, young Z’s relationships with these three entities. Each is fraught with anxiety and endless reflection. The Girlfriend lives in a faraway province, only visiting Paris occasionally, and most of the relationship is conducted by letter. Young Z is frustrated by the amount of time it takes the Girlfriend to respond to his letters and also, when a letter from her does finally arrive, by the relatively bland nature of its contents. When the two of them do meet from time to time in Paris, young Z finds the anticipation of the rendezvous overwhelming, while the actual time they spend together is flat and passes too quickly. Separation is intolerable since young Z finds he has nothing substantial to cling to. Gradually young Z finds himself getting more and more skilled at shutting off his emotions, which seem to bring him nothing but grief. His relationship with Tante is, on the whole, depressing, and young Z experiences the woman as chilly and impenetrable. He spends much of his time trying to work out what the nature of the love they share for one another consists of. Occasional flashes of communion and mutual solidarity suggest that something real exists. At school, young Z is ostracized for being eccentric, although his extreme intelligence gives him a certain pride. He enjoys a brief friendship with another boy, Blériot, but this does not work out owing to young Z’s increasingly perverse, mistrustful and contemptuous disposition. He experiences himself as increasingly false and insincere, and is unable to distinguish (p.177) real feelings from feigned ones. The sudden death of a popular female classmate leaves him perplexed at the way in which myths of lovability get created in the wake of irretrievable loss. Increasingly depressed by daily existence, young Z runs out of school one day with the intention of effecting some radical separation from his own life, but is prevented from taking whatever action he was going to take by the memory of the good, calm face of Tante.
Comédie classique (1987)
The young narrator relates, in one breathless sentence, a particularly madcap and trying day in his complicated Parisian existence. His bizarre younger sister Judith has asked him to help her kill their mother, whom Judith seems to hate, following the mother’s marriage to a boorish boyfriend, Hubert. The children’s father died some time in the past. Their cousin Georges is about to arrive in Paris. Events become more and more overwhelming: Judith’s pressure increases; Georges arrives at Saint-Lazare station, but has been precipitated into a zombified state by the loss of his suitcase. The narrator’s vacuous and unattainable girlfriend Sophie betrays him with his good friend Fausto. Wandering in a state of alternating paranoia and affectless torpor, the narrator (having discovered that he has won the lottery) goes to talk to Judith, who informs him with mild amusement that their cousin Georges has been found burnt to death in the narrator’s apartment.
La Femme changée en bûche (1989)
Discovering her husband’s infidelity, the twenty-year-old narrator decides to kill their baby in order to punish its father. Aided in this project by the Devil, to whom she has written for advice, and with whom she has already done unspecified business in the past (on behalf of her husband), she subsequently flees to the Devil’s abode for protection. Eventually gaining access to the Devil’s quarters, located in a shabby hotel in Kalane, she is treated with contempt, lasciviousness and indifference by the secretaries Pesta, Nisa and Edna, and by the talking cat Mécistée. Whilst waiting, increasingly anxious and hungry, in the Devil’s drawing room, she is begged by a man hanging onto the window ledge outside to help him inside to safety, but she refuses, citing the Devil’s strict rules of entry, letting the man plummet to his death. The constantly metamorphosing Devil himself proves inhospitable, consequently banishing the humiliated and increasingly nebulous narrator. Switching to the third person, the text tells the story of Valérie, the former narrator’s abusive (p.178) friend, and of her powerful position in a telephone call centre. Valérie’s friend and inferior Esmée is getting married to a frail young man named Stéphane Ventru, the owner of an unrecognizable, and deeply shameful, animal, whom his aunt finds a dishonour to their family. Following (through a variety of different narrative voices) the wedding preparations of the couple, Esmée’s burlesque infidelities with better-built men (including the original narrator’s husband), the bourgeois preoccupations of Stéphane’s aunt, and the aunt’s wilful destruction of Stéphane’s unnameable pet, the text flits back and forth between these events and the increasingly outlandish fortunes of the original narrator, who describes her mysterious transformation into a log, then a pebble, and the eventual recuperation of her original form. After a chance meeting with Valérie and her current boyfriend – the Devil – on their way to Esmée’s and Stéphane’s wedding in Kalane (where Stéphane’s aunt lives), the narrator accepts the Devil’s offer to become his fourth secretary.
En famille (1990)
Arriving at her maternal grandmother’s house after some time away, eighteen-year-old ‘Fanny’ (her real name is kept secret) is met with embarrassed non-recognition and barely polite indifference by the various members of her (absent) mother’s assembled family. Her mother’s sister, her Aunt Colette, is especially unfriendly. Having decided that her awkward positioning outside the family group is somehow linked to the mysterious disappearance of her mother’s sister Léda before her birth, Fanny embarks on a voyage with Aunt Colette’s son, her cousin, the listless and narcissistic Eugène, to find the unknown aunt, bring her back, and enjoy a second, ‘complete’ family party in honour of Fanny’s birth. Eugène, bored and contemptuous, soon abandons Fanny to return home. Her circular lone quest comprises a number of absurd encounters, each more humiliating than the last: at her wealthy father’s home, located in an unbearably hot region of the country, she is treated coolly; her random encounter with another aunt, Clémence, in the village of M., is brief and cursory; her job as a dogsbody in a café in M. is degrading, her colleague Lucette mocking and abusive; a vaguely lustful farmhand leaves her waiting in a barn all night for information regarding a Léda he claims to know: it turns out to be the farm dog; Uncle Georges, a regular café customer, fails to recognize her but molests her in his car instead. Eventually her gentle, young ex-fiancé, (another) Georges, arrives at (p.179) Fanny’s café; embarrassed her by his non-specified physical similarity to her, she sends him away. Travelling to the capital’s suburbs Fanny starts working in a fast food restaurant, where her colleagues, superficially similar to her and young Georges, fail to understand why she does not act like them. She, meanwhile, takes advantage of the job to ask every customer if they know anyone or anything by the name of Léda. Her mother casually drops in to buy some burgers. Young Georges arrives to ask her to marry him, apparently on Aunt Colette’s instruction; his mother and sisters make clear their fondness for her, but she is unwilling to join their family. Aunt Colette eventually arrives to explain to her in clear terms that she can never be part of the family because of her wilful paranoia and arrogance. Returning nevertheless to the grandmother’s village (the grandmother has just died), Fanny hides in a kennel in the family house, watching her mother and Aunt Colette prepare for Eugène’s wedding as her mother slips her scraps of food. On the wedding day she sees not only her father arrive, and be welcomed, but she hears that Léda is there too; jumping out of her hiding place she is torn apart by the family dogs, and her remains are thrown by Aunt Colette on the rubbish heap. Taking over the narration briefly, Aunt Colette comments on her son’s wedding, on the negative social and demographic changes that have taken place in the village over the years, and on her discovery in the woods of Fanny, now transformed in such a way that she resembles the family and can be provisionally admitted. The reborn Fanny is taken home. Taking over the narration, Fanny herself relates the consequences of her rebirth and new incarnation. She accepts Georges as Aunt Colette had wished, since he will no longer be confused with her; neither Georges nor his mother notice any change in her, however. Her own mother disowns her, furious at news of the transformation, and interpreting it as an unforgivable transgression. The village remains fairly indifferent, the mayor’s secretary refusing to grant Fanny official citizenship since she now has no mother. Georges leaves the village, unable to endure its overt hostility towards him. Fanny leaves to find Aunt Léda again: this time Aunt Colette gives her the address, telling her not to bother coming back without Léda. Shifting back into the third person, the narrative relates how Fanny strangely finds herself back in her father’s part of the world. Delighted at the change in her appearance, and insisting on the impossibility of his being her blood relative, the father attempts to take Fanny as his new wife; she escapes. Finding herself back in the village of M. she goes to (p.180) stay with Aunt Clémence (who is unconvinced by Fanny’s alleged transformation) and her husband. Aunt Clémence tells her the story of Léda, how Léda was the only member of the family to defend the marriage of Fanny’s parents, was consequently banished, and might even be Fanny’s real mother. Fanny decides to give up on the quest for Léda, since association with this outsider will only hamper her chances of acceptance by the family. She remains unsure, however, about how seriously to take Aunt Colette’s order to find Léda. Aunt Clémence suddenly dies, and Aunt Colette and Fanny’s mother arrive at M. for the funeral, from which Fanny is excluded. A little girl messenger tells her that Aunt Colette is unwilling to readmit her to the family in light of her parents’ complaints about her behaviour: Fanny must get both parents to sign an official pardon. Obtaining signatures from a now indifferent mother, and from the servant of the still besotted father, Fanny sends the little girl several times to Aunt Colette’s house with explanatory letters. Each time the child ambassador returns more ill-treated than the last, eventually having boiling water spilt on her, and sections of flesh torn off by Eugène’s dog. Aunt Colette finally tells the child that Fanny must forgive herself, at which point Fanny decides to give up on the family once and for all. Aunt Clémence’s husband turns her out, and she seeks refuge in the little girl’s house, which turns out to be a brothel. Some months later Fanny is accosted by the grandmother’s spirit in the form of a tree, a bottle of water, and a tap, and is accused by the spirit of arrogance, paranoia and a fundamental inability to understand the family. She sees her mother and Aunt Colette at Aunt Clémence’s grave, but they fail to acknowledge her. The narrative is taken over by an elderly distant cousin, who has been asked by Aunt Colette and Eugène to travel to M. and report what Fanny has become: Eugène, abandoned by his wife, would now like to marry Fanny on condition that she has not changed back to her old form. The cousin finds Fanny changed back as she was before her first death, using her original name, working as a prostitute, and unwilling to fight any longer for acceptance by the family. Eugène, angry, demands that the cousin try her again, and that Fanny transform herself favourably; this time Fanny accepts, despite the cousin’s anxiety at her still unacceptable appearance. Aunt Colette narrates the final chapter, which tells of Fanny’s arrival at the family home as an almost unrecognizable, nearly dead, shadowthing. Aunt Colette deposits the shape in the shed and tells Eugène the bad news. Fanny’s mother comes to dinner, and talks about the (p.181) naive romanticism of her youth, and about her failed marriage to Fanny’s father. A few days later, Aunt Colette and Eugène travel to see Fanny’s father, in the hope of advancing Eugène’s flagging career.
Un temps de saison (1994)
Herman, a Parisian maths teacher, is on summer holiday with his wife Rose and their young son in an unnamed provincial village. Having stayed in the village just one day extra this year (they normally leave on the last day of August), Herman sees the sunny weather change dramatically into ceaseless cold and drizzle; at the same time, his wife and child suddenly disappear. Trying in vain to locate them so that the family can return to the capital, Herman is confronted with the (exclusively blond) villagers’ polite indifference and unhelpfulness. The police refuse to co-operate, the mayor is unattainable, and Alfred, the only official who agrees to an interview with Herman, and himself a former Parisian who came to the village some years ago, never to leave, his hair now dyed blond, advises him to accept the situation, to check into a hotel, and to wait and see what happens. Herman spends the next few weeks gradually learning and adapting to the village culture: its rigorous classifications of different types of woman, its obsession with money and social progress, its exclusion of non-conformists, its tacit acceptance of child abuse, its powerful system of surveillance. Constantly watched in his hotel room by a smiling old lady across the way, Herman starts to experience feelings of inner liquefaction. The cold, damp weather continues. Herman starts to feel increasing attraction towards Charlotte, the landlady’s resigned and passive daughter, who is rented out to Alfred, and towards Métilde, an ambitious worker in the town hall. The foppish Gilbert (Charlotte’s brother and Métilde’s lover) wants Herman to play tennis with him and another man, Lemaître, in a town called L., hoping that Herman’s being Parisian will impress the influential Lemaître and so help Gilbert advance in his career. Finally gaining an audience with the mayor, Herman is informed by the latter that his wife and child have remained in the village, but in dematerialized spirit form: a not uncommon phenomenon, certain holidaymakers are thus transformed when they, or possibly their partner, so desire to remain in the village that a return to Paris becomes impossible. Alfred’s was such a case: his dematerialized wife is Herman’s old neighbour, whose form one day wanders into a village meeting but is ignored by everyone including Herman. Some days later, Herman sees Rose and his son in their new form on the (p.182) street, and feels guilty at not really wanting them back. Increasingly lustful, he considers renting Charlotte from Alfred, but worries about the expense. Eventually deciding to track down Rose and his child at their new abode above the shoe shop, Herman perceives their intense sadness. Herman goes with Gilbert to L. for the much-discussed tennis match, but feels increasingly liquefied. He runs into Métilde, who has come to save him from melting completely, and also meets, randomly, his anxious parents-in-law, who comment on his dramatic physical transformation. He leaves L. in a taxi with the parents-in-law, heading for the village, but the taxi, driven by a noseless drunk, breaks down amid the terrible storm.
La Sorcière (1996)
Lucie, the narrator, lives in provincial France with her husband Pierrot, an ambitious sales rep, and their young twin daughters Maud and Lise. The daughter of a gifted witch, Lucie herself has only mediocre powers of divination, but feels compelled nonetheless to pass on her heritage to Maud and Lise, who both reveal a great aptitude for magic. Lucie’s brutal neighbour Isabelle takes a great interest in the family, often dropping by with her frail and psychologically abused child Steve to spy on the household and to have her fortune told by the deferential Lucie. Pierrot suddenly abandons the household (following the example of a work colleague Monsieur Matin), and flees to his mother’s house in Poitiers, having emptied the couple’s savings account. Lucie meanwhile decides to try to reunite her own recently divorced parents, travelling to Paris in order to persuade them of their mistake. Her much changed mother has a new partner, Robert, from whom the family witchcraft must be kept secret; the father, youthful, tanned, quite transformed by career success, is no more keen than his ex-wife for a reconciliation, and asks Lucie instead to return the large sum of money he recently gave her, since he is in danger of being sued by his company for fraud. A mysterious crow, which reminds Lucie of Isabelle, keeps suddenly appearing. Before leaving Paris, Lucie and the girls randomly meet Isabelle, who has deposited Steve in an institution there. Lucie and the girls now head for Poitiers, Lucie concerned not with saving her marriage but rather with recuperating the money Pierrot has taken, hoping to please her father and thus increase the chances of the latter agreeing to a reconciliatory weekend away with the mother. At her mother-in-law’s home in Poitiers, Lucie discovers that Pierrot has fled with the money, and that Pierrot’s glamorous, (p.183) confident, radically transformed sister Lili is pregnant, by an unknown father. Lili, Maud and Lise go out for the night, but when they return, Lili has mysteriously miscarried. Lucie’s mother arrives to warn Lucie of the folly of the reconciliation project, but Lucie refuses to listen. On the way home, Maud and Lise suddenly metamorphose into crows and fly away, leaving Lucie alone for good. Lucie pursues Pierrot to Bourges, where she discovers his new life with a new wife and children, before he sharply dismisses her, still empty-handed. On the road, she encounters a much-altered, blonde, powerful Isabelle, who now owns an exclusive boarding-school for girls training in mysticism, and who offers Lucie a teaching post there, demanding that she devote her entire existence to the new ‘family’. Finding the full-time deployment of her already weak powers of witchcraft excessively draining, Lucie discovers that it is easier to bluff her way through lessons, since this is what Isabelle expects of her staff in any case. One day Robert arrives and presents her with a snail, claiming that it is her transformed father, punished by her angry mother for the immorality of his new life. Lucie takes charge of the snail, but is soon arrested under charges of fraudulent teaching. Whilst briefly in prison, where she is insulted and abused by a policeman for being a witch, she loses the snail. Alone, and consumed by feelings of guilt, she runs into Pierrot, his new wife and children, and his mother, who explains Lili’s descent into madness, before asking Lucie if she has any holiday plans.
Rosie Carpe (2001)
Rose-Marie (‘Rosie’) Carpe, a young white woman from the French provincial town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, arrives in Guadeloupe with her small, sickly son Etienne (‘Titi’), in the hope of joining her older brother Lazare who has been living on the Caribbean island for five years. Rosie is pregnant, but claims that the conception has taken place outside her presence, at the hands of an unknown entity. Met at the airport by an unknown, light-skinned Guadeloupian man, Rosie is worried that Lazare has been somehow transformed since he has been away, but the stranger turns out to be Lagrand, Lazare’s friend and former colleague. Lagrand drives Rosie and Titi to meet Anita, the schoolgirl mother of Lazare’s little girl Jade, before depositing all four at Lazare’s house, even though Lazare himself is away on business. An extended flashback tells of Rosie and Lazare’s upbringing in Brive. Whilst Lazare remembers only the splendour of the white magnolia in the family garden, Rosie dimly remembers a childhood of stifling ‘yellowness’. The flashback (p.184) continues: moving to Paris for their university studies, both Rosie and Lazare fail their exams, whereupon their parents lose the little interest they had in them. Rosie starts working in a hotel in the suburb of Antony; Lazare disappears. At the hotel, Rosie is seduced by the blond deputy manager Max. Max persuades Rosie to allow their sexual acts to be filmed by a middle-aged woman director; over the course of several recordings, Rosie becomes pregnant with Titi. Max, already married, arranges for a new flat for Rosie, where she lives alone with the baby Titi. A transformed Lazare, thin, hungry and destitute after a year alone in Paris, makes a brief reappearance in Rosie’s life, and asks her for money, before invading the home of Max and his wife, where he stays for some time, eventually leaving, without a word, for Brive-la-Gaillarde, with Max’s clothes and some money. One day on the streets of Antony, Rosie runs into her mother, quite transformed – blonde, tanned, incredibly youthful, smelling strongly of boxwood – and living with M. Carpe and Lazare in a blindingly white house in Antony. Some time later, Lazare and his friend Abel visit Rosie and Titi. Lazare announces his plan of moving to Guadeloupe with Abel to market sex apparatus, and asks Rosie for money. Lazare, Abel, and M. and Mme Carpe all move to Guadeloupe to start a new life, leaving Rosie alone in Antony with Titi. Rosie gradually drifts into an alcoholic depression, increasingly uncertain about who she actually is. One day, a Guadeloupian hotel guest named Marcus Calmette asks her out for a drink, but she refuses, overcome by fear of Max and the Carpes. Deeply ashamed of this fear and its consequences, Rosie associates her refusal of Calmette with the huge failure that is her existence. Max remarries, and invites Rosie and Titi to the wedding; in an inebriated abyss of humiliation Rosie loses all consciousness and becomes mysteriously pregnant. At the end of her tether, Rosie asks everyone she meets who the baby’s father might be, but is met only with disgust; Titi, for whom Rosie feels a mounting hatred, may have witnessed something, but she cannot be sure. Sick of her life, Rosie decides that she and Titi must leave for Guadeloupe. Back in the present, Lagrand drives to pick up Rosie and Lazare’s parents from their holiday flat. On the way he reflects on Rosie’s strangely negligent treatment of Titi and on his own inexplicable repugnance for the child; before arriving at his destination he is sexually molested by an old white woman tourist. The Carpes are in a new domestic arrangement: Mme Carpe, having changed her name from Danielle to Diane, is pregnant by her lover Alex Foret; M. Carpe has become the partner of Foret’s mixed-race daughter (p.185) Lisbeth. Monsieur Carpe and Lisbeth will be godparents to the new baby. Diane explains that she is at the start of a truly new life that has nothing to do with her old children. Lagrand reflects on his own mother’s sudden and inexplicable rejection of him when he was a child, and her descent into madness, and realizes that he loves Rosie. Increasingly tired, anxious, guilty and fragile, Lagrand drives the Carpes to Lazare’s house, where Rosie, Titi, Anita and Jade (but still not Lazare) are staying. Lagrand feels suddenly scared of Rosie, who appears radically altered: more beautiful, powerful and aggressive, she has left the feverish Titi to lie unattended out in the blazing sun. Lagrand becomes convinced that everybody wants Titi to die. Leaving the family, he goes looking for Lazare, whom he increasingly believes to be the human avatar of his old mother’s yellow stray dog. In a local restaurant, Lazare, suddenly gone bald, tells Lagrand the terrible story of the business trip with Abel, from which he has just returned. Lagrand returns alone to Lazare’s house, where he finds Lisbeth and an abandoned, sicker Titi, lying in the garden surrounded by rats. Rosie, Anita and Jade have gone to the cinema to see the new Asterix film. Seizing Titi, Lagrand drives to the hospital, on the way considering the story Lazare has just told him: Lazare and Abel went hitchhiking in the countryside, picked up by an elderly French tourist couple, and Abel killed the man with a machete, claiming that Lazare had already stifled him to death. The old woman, who reminded Lazare of his mother as she should have been, escaped. Feeling as guiltily implicated in Lazare’s crime as in Rosie’s abandonment of Titi, Lagrand arrives at the hospital, where he deposits Titi as his own son, and explains to the nurse that Titi has eaten unwashed guavas soaked in rat urine. Leaving Titi in the emergency unit, Lagrand makes his way to the psychiatric wing, where his mother has been incarcerated for the past twenty years. He goes to visit her in the television room, but she fails to recognize him, eventually sending him away in a cloud of humiliation. Lagrand wets his trousers in despair. Meanwhile, Rosie, Anita and Jade have left the cinema, where a distraught Lazare comes looking for them. Rosie, feeling increasingly radiant and powerful, and having determined to cut all ties with her parents and with the (hopefully dead) ‘lamb’ Titi, considers Lazare with contempt. All four get a taxi to Lagrand’s house, where Rosie makes a phone call to Marcus Calmette, telling him that her son is dead, that she loves Calmette, and requesting a meeting. Lagrand’s lover Renée watches her in fear and loathing. Lagrand arrives and contemplates Rosie with repulsion, though Rosie feels he is mistaken in (p.186) his perception. Lazare relates to a white policeman interrogator how he and Rosie stole Lagrand’s Toyota, and drove off, she in search of Calmette, whom she insists is the unborn baby’s father, he in search of the old woman tourist whose husband Abel killed. Rosie has a miscarriage, and Lazare watches her in repulsion. Seventeen years later, Lagrand runs into Titi at a demonstration. Titi is now a maths teacher, still living in Guadeloupe. Lagrand is in a bland and guilt-ridden marriage with Renée. Driving Lagrand to his lovely home, Titi relates how he was brought up by his grandparents the Carpes and their respective partners, the father and daughter Alex and Lisbeth; when his grandfather died Diane Carpe instructed him to marry Lisbeth, which he did. They have several children together. As Lagrand wanders around their house, he meets Rosie, who has put on a lot of weight and gone totally grey, skin as well as hair. Rosie tells Lagrand that Titi worships her despite everything she did in the past, but also how he forbids her to go out, and prevents anyone from touching or going near her. Lagrand tells Rosie how he visited Lazare in prison every week, until his release, whereupon Lazare went back to Brive-la-Gaillarde with Jade. A young, blonde, resplendent figure arrives, who turns out to be the second Rose-Marie Carpe, the teenage daughter of Diane Carpe and Alex Foret. Lagrand asks Rosie to come away with him, which she does, to Titi’s chagrin. Lagrand, having suffered from a lack of love or family, feels happy to be with Rosie, despite her extreme passivity and indifference, and strange claim to have lost her baby from a punch administered by Marcus Calmette. He drives over to Diane Carpe and Alex Foret’s house, where he is warmly welcomed, but gently mocked for having chosen to marry Rosie rather than the incomparably better Rose-Marie. Diane dismisses her son Lazare as a total failure. A fat old man arrives, and gives Diane some money in exchange for time with young Rose-Marie. Lagrand dines with his new parents-in-law.
Mon cœur à l’étroit (2007)
The narrator, Nadia, a middle-aged primary school teacher who lives in a well-to-do area of central Bordeaux, finds that she and her husband Ange, a teacher at the same school as her, have suddenly become the targets of a widespread and inexplicable campaign of fear and hatred. Their pupils run away from them, their colleagues avoid them, and a complete stranger spits in Nadia’s face. They try to ignore whatever is going on and to carry on as normal, but one day as they are returning home from school Ange is attacked. He turns out to have a horrendous (p.187) wound, just above his liver. Nadia is caught between wanting to care for Ange and a terrible fear of acknowledging how bad things have become. A elderly neighbour, Richard Victor Noget, arrives to offer his support, which Nadia tries her best to refuse, finding the eccentric Noget abject and repellent, but he insists, insinuating himself into the couple’s home, where he prepares delicious, buttery dishes and freshly baked bread on a daily basis. Returning to school, Nadia finds the harassment to have calmed somewhat, only to discover, as she returns home, that her coat has been lined with the pieces of Ange’s flesh that were cut from his body during the attack the previous day. Life at home grows more bizarre and isolated with every passing day. Ange grows thinner and thinner; Noget’s power over him grows stronger and stronger; Ange’s grown-up daughters Gladys and Priscilla refuse to have anything more to do with their father and Nadia. Nadia decides she must leave: she will go and stay with her own estranged son Ralph, who lives on a distant island with his wife Yasmine and baby daughter Souhar, a name Nadia finds repugnant. Nadia visits the police station, hoping to have her identity card renewed by Inspector Lanton, Ralph’s former boyfriend. She notices that the police station is full of people in whom she recognizes a certain similarity to herself, including her former husband, whom she considers to be a failure, but for whom she still feels pity. Lanton is delighted to see Nadia, and asks her to deliver a letter to Ralph, with whom he is still in love, warning her that if he does not receive a response he will not arrange the renewal of her card or that of her ex-husband, whom, in any case, he hates. Nadia has a number of disquieting experiences in Bordeaux. The streets appear to grow and shrink, swallowing her up, as she becomes increasingly disorientated. The already thick fog grows thicker. Nadia herself is growing fatter and fatter, gorging daily as she is on the rich food prepared by Noget. She receives a long letter from Ralph, who is aware of her plans to visit him, even though she has told him nothing. He accuses her of failing his father, of trying to seduce Lanton, and of numerous other hateful behaviours, all the while claiming that, as a ‘new man’, now partnered with a certain Wilma, he is capable of forgiveness. Furious at the letter, Nadia finds herself at her ex-husband’s house, and remembers her betrayal of him when she began her affair with Ange; she remembers Ralph as a child and teenager, as well as flashes of his sexual relationship with Lanton. She talks at length with her ex-husband, before discovering that he is living off the earnings of their old schoolfriend Corinna Daoui, a woman Nadia despises, who is using (p.188) the spare room to do sex work. Nadia leaves Bordeaux at last, bidding the now unrecognizable (and hostile) Ange farewell, but promising that she will send for him. Noget sends her on her way. Although the trams refuse to stop for her, Nadia eventually catches the train for Toulon, where she sits opposite a young woman, Nathalie, who tells her a sad story that she instantly forgets. The train stops at Marseilles and refuses to continue until Nadia gets off, so Nathalie hires a car and drives them both to Toulon, although she appears to transform briefly into a living skeleton during the journey. On the ferry, Nadia distances herself from Nathalie, whom she increasingly experiences as irritating, and eats at the captain’s table, drinking in the surprising acceptance she gets from him and his other first-class guests. Returning to her cabin, she finds a middle-aged cleaning lady weeping: Nathalie has told her the story she told Nadia but which Nadia forgot: she has lost her husband and daughter in a fire, and her only surviving child, a boy, is badly burned in a hospital on the island they are heading towards. Nadia feels guilty for her failure to listen to Nathalie, and tries to comfort the weeping cleaning lady. Arriving at the port of C., Nadia knocks into in a breathtakingly handsome man in khaki shorts: it is Ralph, who drives her to the secluded mountain abode he now shares with Wilma, an older woman, and their dog Arno. There is no sign of baby Souhar. Wilma and Ralph appear to eat nothing but meat; keen on hunting, they have masks and heads a-plenty on display. Wilma, a gynaecologist, examines the now huge-bellied Nadia, and is unable to say what she sees inside her, implying that it is a diabolical foetus. Nadia and Ralph bicker constantly, the man’s hatred for his mother barely masked. He refuses to contemplate obeying Lanton’s epistolary request that he return to that relationship in Bordeaux, and accuses Nadia of being responsible for Ange’s downfall. Nadia accompanies Ralph to the hospital where he works as a doctor, discovering that he is treating the burned child of Nathalie, before whom Nadia prostrates. Wandering alone in the streets near the hospital, she discovers her own long-estranged mother singing lullabies to a baby in a house, but is unable to believe that it could really be her. She wanders into a bar, where she urinates and defecates helplessly. Later, Ralph admits that his grandparents do indeed live in a house nearby, where they are bringing up baby Souhar. Nadia pleads with him to respond to Lanton’s letter. Nadia goes for an interview at a local school, but is told she is unsuitable to teach as she cannot speak the local language, even though she suspects that this is a language she once knew but has forgotten. She discovers that Noget is due to (p.189) give a lecture at the school, and that Noget is, in fact, an extremely famous philosopher of pedagogy, whose articles Ange has plagiarized. Nadia telephones her old house in Bordeaux, and speaks to Noget, who appears to be holding a party at which both Corinna Daoui and Nadia’s ex-husband are present. Nadia finds hundreds of bones in Ralph’s and Wilma’s backyard. Nadia’s contractions become more and more painful, and her memories of treating certain pupils badly – those who most resembled her – more and more insistent. At last, Nadia returns to the little house near the hospital, and is reunited with her old parents, who introduce her to her granddaughter Souhar, explaining that Wilma has ‘taken’ the child’s mother Yasmine, and that the meat prepared in that house must not be eaten. Nadia meets Noget after the lecture at the local school, and he explains that Ange is fully recovered and is now in a relationship with Corinna Daoui. Meanwhile, Ralph informs Nadia that his father, her ex-husband, is dead, and that Lanton is responsible. Nadia calls Lanton, who seems to confirm that this is the case. Whilst staying at her parents’ house, Nadia gives birth to a darting, black creature, which runs away, leaving only a trace of blood on the floor, which Nadia quickly wipes up. Pushing baby Souhar along the beach in her pram one day, she runs into a youthful-looking Ange, who frolics with Corinna Daoui. After a polite conversation, Nadia bids them farewell, and sings an ambiguous lullaby to her granddaughter.
Trois femmes puissantes (2009)
Norah, a French lawyer of part-French, part-Senegalese parentage, arrives reluctantly at her estranged father’s house in Dakar, where she has been summoned in the wake of some unknown emergency. She finds her once-powerful father relatively impoverished, though he has a servant, Masseck, a young maid, Khady Demba, and, surprisingly, two little daughters, whose mother is nowhere to be seen. Norah has left her own young daughter Lucie in France, in the care of her vaguely unreliable German partner Jakob, who also has a child, Grete, from a previous marriage. Norah’s father is as cold and perturbing as ever, but eventually tells her why he has asked her to come: she must try to advocate on behalf of her younger brother Sony, who has been arrested for the murder of his father’s young wife, and now languishes in a Dakar jail. Norah remembers traumatic events from her and her siblings’ childhood: following their parents’ separation, their father kidnapped Sony, then a boy of five, taking him to Senegal for good, but leaving Norah and her sister in the care of their French mother. Norah’s (p.190) mother entered a deep depression from which she never recovered, becoming a prostitute, before marrying for a second time. Sony himself was destroyed by his separation from his mother and two older sisters, excelling in his studies, but becoming emotionally disconnected and impenetrable. Norah visits Sony in prison, where he cries only one word, the name of their other sister, herself now also an adult ruin. Norah, overwhelmed, spontaneously urinates. On her way back to their father’s house, Norah runs into her partner Jakob and the two little girls Lucie and Grete: they have come to Dakar to surprise her. They all return to Norah’s father’s house together where, after dinner, Norah’s father insists that some years earlier Norah had lived in Senegal, eventually producing a photograph showing somebody who looks uncannily like Norah in front of a house in Grand-Yoff. Norah visits Sony in prison again, where he tells her that it was not he but their father who strangled their stepmother. The young wife was killed because she and Sony were in love. Norah resolves to save her brother and in so doing to confront the demon that has blighted their lives since childhood. At the dinner-table, her father continues to torment Norah with the story of her alleged stay in Senegal; Norah wets herself once again. That night, she confronts her father with Sony’s version of the murder. The father does not deny his guilt. Norah devotes herself to the case now, allowing Lucie to return to France with Jakob and Grete, resigned to the fact that she will not leave Dakar until she has saved Sony. Her father, who transforms nightly into a bird, feels Norah’s bird-presence in his tree.
Rudy Descas, from whose point of view the narrative is related, is a white Frenchman in his middle age, married to the Senegalese Fanta, with whom he has a young son, Djibril. Rudy is bitter, dissatisfied and permanently anxious: a vendor of fitted kitchens, he is employed by the smooth and virile Manille, who once had sex with Fanta, and may even still be having an affair with her. Rudy and Fanta had been happier some years ago, when they lived in Dakar and both were high school teachers of French literature. They left their life there when Rudy was dismissed, following a fight with one of his pupils, who had insulted him for being the son of a killer, an accusation which is in fact true. In the course of a stressful afternoon spent driving around provincial Aquitaine, Rudy worries about the argument he has just had with Fanta (the racialized details of which he remembers but dimly); tries to remember terrible events from the past (did he really witness his father’s crime?); insults his old neighbour Mme Pulmaire on the telephone; feels haunted by the presence of his depressed, interfering, angel-obsessed mother; is (p.191) tormented by a horribly itching anus; is visited on a number of occasions by a mysterious buzzard; and fears lest he has been abandoned by Fanta and Djibril. Both his wife and his son seem silent and impenetrable in his presence, making him increasingly paranoid. Rudy contemplates killing Gauquelan, a local sculptor who has designed a statue that Rudy is convinced is modelled on him, but decides against it, going instead to pick up Djibril from school. Rudy drives to his mother’s house, where he is going to leave Djibril, but thinks better of it, having found her in the middle of drawing a young, blond neighbour boy, whom she thinks is an angel. Rudy and Djibril drive home to Fanta and, despite running over a buzzard on the way, Rudy feels happy. The neighbour, Mme Pulmaire, observes Fanta looking happy for the first time, and the two women greet each other, also for the first time.
When Khady Demba’s gentle husband dies, leaving her childless, she moves in with his unfriendly family, who make it clear to her that she is nothing but a burden. They tell her she is to leave the country and to travel to France, where a distant cousin, Fanta, is apparently making a good living. Khady sets off with a strange man, who forces her to walk a long distance, before bundling her into a car. During the journey, Khady notices a number of ravens, which she conflates with the children she has never had. Khady has no idea where she is going, but carries on regardless. She gets into a boat, then jumps out of it, running for the beach. Waking up on the sand, she meets a young man, Lamine, who is kind and takes care of her wound. Khady and Lamine decide to head to Europe together, as a couple. They travel some distance in a lorry, but are soon captured. Khady is forced to prostitute her body in order to pay the woman who is putting them up. She keeps herself going by repeating her own name to herself and by reminding herself that she and Lamine can travel to Europe with the money she is saving. Lamine steals all the money, however, leaving Khady alone and penniless. Her body is ravaged from hunger, fatigue and sexual violence. Khady joins a group of people who are aiming to climb over the wall separating them from Europe via ladders that they are building. Khady’s physical state gets worse and worse, but her sense of self seems as solid as ever. Khady falls from her ladder. As she dies, she sees a bird flying high, and thinks that she and the bird are one. Lamine, now living and working as an ‘illegal immigrant’ in France, often thinks about the girl he betrayed in Africa. He hopes that she has forgiven him.
Clarisse Rivière takes the train to Bordeaux once a month to visit her mother, Ladivine Sylla. Despite the fact that she has a husband and daughter with whom she lives in a nearby town, Clarisse has never revealed this fact to her mother, to whom she tells nothing of her life. The atmosphere between the two women on these visits is strained, Clarisse’s blank refusal to share the bare facts of her existence with her mother experienced by the latter as an insult, although no confrontation ever ensues. The reader is told in flashbacks of Clarisse’s foggily remembered childhood with Ladivine somewhere near Paris: back then, Clarisse was called Malinka. Malinka and Ladivine live an isolated existence. Ladivine, a cleaning-woman apparently without family, originates from somewhere unstated and far away. Malinka grows up aware only that her father was someone allegedly handsome and important, with chestnut-coloured hair, who will come back for them one day. She begins to despise her mother, to whom she secretly refers as ‘la servante’, eventually denying any connection with her when people ask: it has become apparent that she bears no mark by which her blood-ties to Ladivine may be guessed. Malinka leaves school when she begins to fail, and takes the train to Bordeaux, where she begins a new life, not informing her mother where she has gone. Changing her name to Clarisse, she begins work as a waitress, but is eventually surprised by the arrival of Ladivine, who has tracked her down and now herself lives in Bordeaux. Despite the pleasure of the brief reunion, Clarisse resolves to break all official ties with her mother, a decision which is ratified when she meets and quickly marries the handsome Richard Rivière, a young car dealer from Toulouse, who believes that his new wife is an orphan without family. Richard and Clarisse move to Langon and have a child, whom Clarisse names Ladivine. One day Richard’s father’s dog inexplicably runs towards the infant Ladivine, seeming to want to commune with her. Whilst Richard is frightened and furious, Clarisse feels calm, thinking she recognizes her mother’s eyes in those of the dog. Clarisse continues to visit her mother Ladivine once a month, saying nothing to her husband or daughter. The years pass by, and Clarisse’s blankness remains as steadfast as ever. Eventually, after twenty-five years of marriage, Richard leaves Clarisse, perhaps for another woman, and moves to start a new life in Annecy. She is crushed and humiliated, letting her appearance slide and her self-esteem crash. Her only contact with Richard comes via her attendance at the funeral of Richard’s father (who, following a heart attack, has apparently been (p.193) half-eaten by his own dog). Some time later, Clarisse meets Freddy Moliger, a much younger man, with whom she begins a sexual relationship. Finding that she has no fear of judgement with Freddy Moliger – the eccentric survivor of a horrific childhood of abuse and neglect – Clarisse tells him her real name and introduces him to her mother. Freddy seems indifferent to whatever stigma Clarisse thinks she bears, and is, in any case, uninterested in her past. But he reacts furiously to the contempt he senses emanating towards him from Clarisse’s daughter, young Ladivine, who now lives in Berlin with her husband and two children. Shortly after a visit to Langon from Ladivine II, Freddy, humiliated and enraged at not being told of Clarisse’s birthday, stabs Clarisse to death. Clarisse, lost to another dimension, feels herself floating into a deep forest. Her mother Ladivine Sylla learns of Malinka/Clarisse’s death when she sees her photograph in a local newspaper. Some time after learning of the death of her mother, Ladivine Rivière is on vacation in an unnamed, faraway, southern country with her German husband Marko and their two young children Annika and Daniel. They have decided to go somewhere different this year, having grown tired of their habitual visits to Marko’s parents in Lüneburg and the campsite in Warnemünde where they tend to lapse into alcoholic oblivion. Marko’s parents have written him a long, cold letter expressing their disapproval at his decision and their dislike of his ‘false’ attitude in general. Marko experiences the letter as the end of his relationship with his parents. Having spent a long time researching possible holiday destinations on the internet, Marko and Ladivine take Ladivine’s father Richard’s advice to visit this faraway country in which they now find themselves. The trip is increasingly nightmarish. The hotel is poorly equipped and unbearably hot; the children are discontented and peevish. The trial of Freddy Moliger is scheduled to take place soon, and the thought of this weighs heavily on Ladivine’s mind, which also turns back, at length, to her alternately hostile and guilt-ridden feelings towards her parents, her last birthday gift to her mother, her teenage years in Langon as a sort of high-class call-girl (the fact of which was apparently tolerated by both father and mother), her occasionally lascivious solitude in Berlin and her alienated working life as a French teacher. Back in the present, Ladivine and her family become increasingly disconnected. The children make strange, grimacing expressions, and Marko is oddly nervous. Ladivine is convinced, however, that she is being personally watched over by a benevolent brown dog. The family discover their clothes, lost at the airport along with their luggage, spread (p.194) out for sale at a market stall. Ladivine notices an item of her clothing from Berlin which was never packed for this holiday. Inexplicably ashamed, she does not dare to mention this mystery to her husband or children. The kindly dog continues to follow her, however, and she is hailed by a woman on a bus who seems to recognize her as a guest at a recent local wedding. Ladivine herself feels as if she recognizes some of the people she encounters here, and Marko comments on her vague resemblance to many of the local women. Meeting the brown dog again, Ladivine feels a very intense emotional connection as she looks into its eyes, and suddenly wishes she could become it. On a visit to the national museum, the family meet Wellington, a young man who offers to be their guide. Explaining the history of the violent images in the paintings they survey, he seems to be accusing them of something. Despite their malaise, they allow Wellington to take them for dinner at a house of friends of his. Ladivine notices that the dog has followed them there. She ends up relaxing at the dinner. When an old woman begins asking her about the recent wedding she is supposed to have attended, she gives answers so detailed that she cannot be sure if she is inventing them or not. Wellington interrupts her, however, insinuating that the couple whose wedding this was are corrupt and oppressive. Ladivine and her family leave, and Marko criticizes her for having lied. Back at the hotel, Ladivine wakes in the middle of the night to find Marko grappling with Wellington on the balcony. Marko throws Wellington over the railing, and the young man falls six flights, presumably to his death. The family go on the run. They drive to stay with a middle-aged couple, the Cagnacs, friends of Richard Rivière, who have emigrated from France and live in a large house at the edge of a forest. Ladivine is ostracized by the Cagnacs, who appear interested only in Marko and the children, whom they seem to be trying to seduce with food and alcohol. The children behave more and more hysterically and are bizarrely aggressive towards Ladivine. Wandering out into the night, Ladivine meets the rich young couple whose wedding she is supposed to have attended; they are buying a car from M. Cagnac. Ladivine talks briefly with them, and the young woman gives her a new pair of sandals. Back in the house, Ladivine sees Wellington, who is alive and well and working as a servant for the Cagnacs. Marko is distraught upon hearing the news, and seems to lose all the vigour he has recently gained from affirmation by the Cagnacs; they, meanwhile, begin to despise him openly. Ladivine wanders back out into the night, convinced that her mother is calling her from the depths of the forest. Entering it, she feels herself becoming (p.195) the brown dog. Back in Berlin, Annika resents the brown dog who is apparently watching over her and following her to school every day. She knows it is her mother Ladivine, whom she has not forgiven for disappearing on holiday. Richard Rivière lives in Annecy with his partner, another woman named Clarisse, and her hostile, overweight, adult son Trevor. He has never met his daughter Ladivine’s husband and children, but often thinks fondly of them. He is tortured by memories of the first Clarisse and by his total failure to access whatever impenetrable secret she held onto throughout the years of their spectral marriage. One day he telephones his daughter Ladivine in Berlin, only to be told by Marko that Ladivine never returned from holiday, having been swallowed up by the country they were staying in. Richard hopes for a sign from Ladivine, possibly now incarnated in the mountain: she will bring word, he is sure, of the ‘real’ Clarisse. Ladivine Sylla is preparing for the trial of her daughter’s killer, Freddy Moliger. On her way to the courthouse, she notices a brown dog, who seems to be watching her, and who reminds her of her dead daughter Malinka. Back at her house, she prepares coffee for her ex-son-in-law Richard Rivière, whom she has met for the first time at Freddy Moliger’s trial. Richard seems tense, but Ladivine is relatively composed. Something scratches at the door: it is the brown dog, which has come, Ladivine is sure, bearing Malinka’s beating heart.
Mme Lemarchand, a wealthy, self-proclaimed French radical, former ‘revolutionary’, housewife and mother, calls Franck, a local handyman, to her house and demands the immediate domestic services of his wife Hilda, into whom she has already done a lot of research. Franck reluctantly agrees under pressure and promises to send Hilda the next day. Mme Lemarchand calls round the next day to Franck and Hilda’s house, whilst Hilda is busy doing her new, paid domestic duties. She gives Franck the money for Hilda’s services, and tells him in detail of her plans to transform Hilda’s appearance and attitude, which at the moment is too deferential: it is important that she start to act as Mme Lemarchand’s friend and equal. Franck is bemused and irritated. He arrives at Mme Lemarchand’s house one day after an accident at work, but is told that Hilda cannot see him. Mme Lemarchand insists that (p.196) Hilda’s duties are more pressing than her attendance to Franck’s wound. The next day Franck arrives at Mme Lemarchand’s house to complain that Hilda has not come home. Mme Lemarchand tells him that she has the right to keep Hilda since she has given Franck a large financial advance for her services. She promises to bring Hilda over next week, however, so that he can see her. Franck leaves, furious. The next week Mme Lemarchand arrives at Franck’s house with Hilda in the car. Franck goes down to talk to Hilda but returns without her, apparently having failed to convince her to come home. Meanwhile, Mme Lemarchand chats condescendingly with Hilda’s angry sister Corinne, who is helping Franck to look after Hilda’s abandoned children. She announces to Franck and Corinne that Hilda is moving to Paris with the Lemarchand family. Some months later, Mme Lemarchand arrives at Franck’s house. She has changed in appearance, now resembling Hilda when she was first hired. She describes to a hostile Franck that Hilda has become a quasi-zombie, mute, no longer able to work, and no longer paid, a pitied and despised empty shell of a woman. Despite their order that she leave them in peace, the transformed Mme Lemarchand invites Franck and Corinne, who now live together, to come over one day for dinner.
A woman named Providence wanders through her old village, asking the various inhabitants if they have seen her missing child. The Hotelkeeper and his Wife shut their door on her, appalled at her hooves, but at the same time betray their fascination and desire. The Schoolmistress, questioned by a mysterious Investigator, denies all knowledge of Providence’s story, but does mention snatches of a tale of whipping and transformation. The Solicitor, the Pharmacist and the Professor, also questioned by the Investigator, do their best to mask their shame and their emotion, but let slip their knowledge of Providence’s origins, her upbringing by a couple thought to be sterile, her supernatural appearance. Visiting the Priest, Providence demands that the father of her child make himself known. She and the Priest argue over what exactly happened to the child, Providence insisting that it was taken away from her, the Priest claiming that she fed it to pigs. The Barrister and the Assistant Manager dine with the Investigator, giving him fragments of narrative about the death of Providence’s parents and her subsequent vulnerability to the villagers’ desires. Meanwhile, the Barmaid who serves them chatters about her own sad origins, her mad mother, her abandoning father. The Insurance Salesman and Providence (p.197) are interviewed together by the Investigator. While the Insurance Salesman mocks Providence, she considers whether or not she should sell her whole story to the Investigator. Growing increasingly agitated, she begins to scream that a crowd of villagers is arriving to kill her. In a final scene, the Barmaid talks to the Priest of her sad past and her wish for somebody to know her story.
Papa doit manger (2003)
Papa (formerly known as ‘Ahmed’, now called ‘Aimé’), an African living in France, returns after ten years’ unexplained absence to his French wife and young daughters Mina and Ami, demanding forgiveness and readmission into the family home in the working-class Paris suburb of Courbevoie. Transformed into an apparently successful businessman, and more youthful of aspect than ever, Papa soon wins over Maman, a hairdresser, despite both his former abandonment of the family, and her own new relationship with Zelner, a middle-aged, left-wing, cannabis-smoking French teacher. Maman’s parents, backed up by her aunts José and Clémence, staunchly oppose her decision to take off with Papa and the girls, horrified both by Papa’s mysterious request for money and by his unchanged blackness. Papa has, in fact, been lying to everybody: poverty-stricken and living with another woman, Anna, and their handicapped baby in a slum in Courbevoie (he has never been away), it seems he is merely planning to swindle Maman. Zelner visits Anna, asking her to help him prevent Papa and Maman from leaving them both, but Anna refuses, cursing Papa for his unreliability and for his having wished their baby dead. Zelner, meanwhile, expounds on the moral difficulty of hating a black person. Some time later, the aunts relate that Maman, knowing of Papa’s deception all along, stabbed him in the face and returned with the girls to Zelner. Aunt Clémence prepares a spell against Papa, hoping to bring his fortunes still lower than the mutilation he has suffered at the hands of his wife. Years later, the adult Mina tells of her and her husband’s hardship, having to feed and keep her destitute father, transformed into an aged, weak, humiliated being, whose blackness now appears as a sort of infirmity, and who still visits the magnanimous Maman and Zelner in Courbevoie. She tells of how her sister Ami has become a drug addict, and of how Maman looks younger than ever. She also reports the death of Papa and Anna’s baby, and speaks of the ‘law’ that ties her and Ami to Papa forever. As Maman gets ready to go to Zelner’s funeral, and worries about Ami’s disappearance, the frail and (p.198) unrecognizable Papa asks to be taken back again, since he has, after all, remained ‘Papa’. Maman refuses to promise anything, but admits to an inexplicable feeling she terms love.
Les Serpents (2004)
Mme Diss waits outside her estranged adult son’s isolated house in the blazing sun, hoping that he will invite her in and lend her money. It is 14 July, a day of national celebration, and a firework display is due to take place at nightfall. Mme Diss talks on the threshold to France, her son’s current wife, asking her for help in persuading the son to lend his mother money. France, believing herself to be socially inferior to Mme Diss, agrees to go into the house and to do her best for her contemptuous mother-in-law. Another woman arrives: it is Nancy, the first wife of Mme Diss’s son. The smartly dressed Nancy hates and despises Mme Diss, but begs her to tell everything she knows about what happened to Jacky, the child Nancy had with Mme Diss’s son. Mme Diss tells Nancy what she knows, in exchange for money: upon Nancy’s departure, Mme Diss’s son tortured and eventually killed little Jacky, locking him in a cage with poisonous snakes. Filled with remorse at her abandonment of her child, Nancy announces her intention to visit Jacky’s grave with the boy’s father, to acknowledge their joint fault, and to beg their dead child’s forgiveness. France returns, and tells Mme Diss and Nancy that Jacky’s ghost is still inside the house, haunting the whole family. Nancy reaffirms her desire to move forward by making amends for what she has allowed to happen. France reports that Mme Diss’s son has tied up her (France’s) living children inside the house, but that she, at least, has now escaped, having become conscious of her oppression. Nancy agrees to take France’s place inside the house: she will enter as if she were Nancy, and will rescue France’s children, as well as setting in motion her plan for reparation vis-à-vis Jacky. France, meanwhile, will ‘become’ Nancy, and will start a new life with Mme Diss and her current husband. Nancy enters the house, where she is almost instantly overwhelmed by its horror and by the conviction that she is about to be eaten. Years later, France returns to the house, where she finds Mme Diss guarding the threshold. The two women briefly quarrel over events relating to the years they spent together, before Mme Diss tells France to be on her way.
Bella, a wealthy mother of two, returns home from America to find that her friend Djamila, who has been flat-sitting, will not let her back into her own home. Bella tries to plead with Djamila’s boyfriend Ignace to make Djamila see sense, but Ignace explains that Djamila’s mind is made up and that she will not budge. He also mentions Djamila’s baby, whom he has never seen, but hopes is his. Bella’s speech is peppered with bizarre and obscene outbursts which seem to come from another dimension, and which speak of sexual violence. Djamila confirms her own intransigence, alluding to the unforgivable nature of Bella’s bourgeois condescension. Ignace and Djamila visit Bella in her new abode, a slum once inhabited by Djamila. The story of their friendship emerges: Djamila was taken in when young by Bella’s family, but was raped by Bella’s father and brothers. Bella offers to give Djamila her apartment, but Djamila refuses the act of generosity, insisting that she is proud to have taken the apartment illegally and by force. Ignace allows Bella to stay at his place, but when he returns there, terrified at the unspeakable nature of the entity he has glimpsed at Djamila’s, Bella refuses to let him in, even though she concedes that he is a terrific guy.
Les Grandes Personnes (2011)
Éva and Rudi, a middle-aged married couple, invite their old friends Georges and Isabelle over to discuss recent distressing events in their family life. Having disappeared from their lives nearly two decades ago, their adult Daughter has recently returned. She is, however, in ghost-form, and lurks spectrally underneath their staircase. Georges and Isabelle try to offer sympathy. Meanwhile, their own son, the Schoolteacher, confesses to his parents that he is sexually assaulting the young children in his care, but Georges and Isabelle ignore him. Mme B., the mother of one of his victims, tries to gain justice for her son by denouncing the abuse at a parents’ meeting, but she too is ignored. When she confronts the Schoolteacher, he refuses to acknowledge his crime, and escapes from her by turning into a bird and flying away. Mme B. is accused by the other parents of witchcraft, and is savagely beaten. Meanwhile, the ghost of Éva and Rudi’s Daughter has joined forces with her adoptive brother, the Son, who also left Éva and Rudi a long time ago. The Son is still alive, but is inhabited by spectral Voices – his dead biological parents – who command him to murder Éva and Rudi for having stolen him away from his native culture. The Daughter is able to communicate with the Son’s Voices, as they are on the same (p.200) ontological wavelength as she is. Georges and Isabelle come once more to Éva and Rudi’s house. There, all four parents are confronted by the Daughter and by the Voices of the Son. The Daughter explains that she was unable to live with her parents because of a mysterious fault at the heart of the family, but forgives everybody before finally leaving for good. Georges and Isabelle separate, unable to stand their own son’s disappearance. Georges visits Éva, and the two reveal the secret of their own erstwhile coupling, which resulted in the birth of the Daughter. Finally, Éva and Rudi converse with the Voices in the Son’s chest, and the two sets of parents fill each other in on different aspects of their dear boy’s childhood and infancy.
‘Un voyage’ (1997)
The eighteen-year-old narrator is invited by her cousin Rose for a holiday in China, where Rose now lives, following her marriage to a civil servant in Peking. The narrator’s family, reluctant to let her go, and mistrustful of Rose, a perennial outsider, accompany her to the airport, but consider her departure a kind of death. Upon her arrival in China, the narrator discovers that Rose and her husband occupy a lowly position within the community of civil servants and their wives. The wives live in a nightmarish, harem-like palace, rigidly organized along strict lines of hierarchy and the abolition of all sentiment. Marital relationships are kept under strict surveillance, and even the Emperor appears to be trapped in a cage of spectacle and artifice. Rose, betraying fascination and envy for the narrator – at the same time as expressing hatred and contempt for the family back in France and for France itself – eventually makes a bizarre request. The narrator, Rose says, is considered physically desirable by a high-ranking civil servant: would it be possible for her to transmit her bodily aspect to the wife of this man? If she were to agree to such an exchange of appearance, the status of both Rose and her own husband would be much improved within the community. The narrator reluctantly agrees to a series of metamorphosis sessions, during which the previously undesirable senior wife gradually absorbs the principal dimensions of the narrator’s being. Helplessly attached to the woman who has successfully transformed into her former self, the narrator asks Rose if she may stay on at the palace as the senior wife’s assistant. Rose, now promoted, agrees, even though (p.201) she is no happier than she was before, completely absorbed as she is in scrutinizing the other wives, all of whom remain strangely resistant to her attempts at meaningful sight.
‘Le Jour du président’ (1997)
Olga, a student in Le Havre, is in an advanced state of anorexia, and is barely able to move or to formulate a coherent thought. Feeling herself to be horrifically light and insubstantial, she is dimly aware of her two housemates’ contemptuous indifference, but is unable to recall their names with any certainty. The housemates, excited at the prospect of President Chirac’s planned visit to Le Havre that day, mock Olga for her seeming ignorance of Chirac’s very identity. Olga becomes determined to attend the President’s event at the town hall later that day, but at the same time is increasingly panic-stricken at the fact that she is not sure of his first name. Wandering along the beach and increasingly removed from reality, Olga is sexually pursued by a xenophobic youth, but is interested only in whether or not this youth knows the President’s first name. Eventually she arrives at the town hall, where she has a vision of her cold and critical mother – herself an enormous admirer of Chirac – in attendance at the event, exuding a fantastical light that feels like love itself. Olga collapses, opening her eyes to find the face of the President over her, although she is still unsure of his name.
‘Tous mes amis’ (2004)
The narrator, a middle-aged schoolteacher who has been abandoned by his wife and two teenage sons, is frustrated by the unfriendliness of his thirty-year-old housekeeper Séverine. He finds Séverine’s attitude all the more infuriating given the fact that she was once his pupil. The narrator’s only source of comfort is another former pupil, the bourgeois Werner, who reassures him that he has nothing to apologize for vis-à-vis his ex-wife and children, while also soliciting his help in seducing Séverine away from her husband Jamel (yet another former pupil), whom Werner and the narrator refer to simply as ‘Le Maghrébin’. The narrator invites Werner, Séverine and Jamel to his house, where Werner declares his love for Séverine. When Séverine rejects Werner, the narrator attacks her, before he is beaten to the ground by Jamel. Werner subsequently condemns Jamel to death, and the narrator goes to Jamel’s family home, where he waits patiently for the condemned man to arrive.
Zaka, a middle-aged doctor, is surprised when her childhood friend Marlène, whom she has not seen for several years, turns up one day at her surgery for a physical examination. Marlène makes Zaka feel guilty for having left their old working-class neighbourhood so long ago. Later that day, waiting to pick her daughter Paula up from school, Zaka remembers details of her childhood, when the death of the pop singer Claude François caused all the mothers of the housing estate, including her own, to enter a deep depression. The twelve-year-old Marlène too had been inconsolable. Noticing her ex-husband, Paula’s father, at the school gates, Zaka is enraged, and insults him. When Paula finally arrives, Zaka, overwhelmed by her daughter’s resemblance to Marlène, falls heavily to the ground. A few days later, Zaka and Paula take the bus to Zaka’s childhood banlieue. Zaka has dressed Paula in a special outfit for the outing. Arriving at Marlène’s high-rise building, Zaka tells Paula to wait for her outside, while she goes up alone. Marlène greets Zaka wearing a pair of blue contact lenses. Her apartment is covered in photographs of Claude François. Zaka tries to tell Marlène how much she loves her, but Marlène reminds her of the fact that she, Zaka, abandoned her own parents in the banlieue, and that it was Marlène who had to care for them. Marlène also announces her decision to take her own life: she has sworn not to live beyond the age at which Claude François himself died, and needs Zaka’s help in committing suicide. Suddenly aware that Marlène is no longer her friend, Zaka runs from the apartment, but Paula is not where she left her. Zaka pursues a shape she thinks is Paula and which seems to be accompanied by the figure of a man. Eventually, she finds Paula waiting alone at the bus-stop.
‘Les Garçons’ (2004)
René, a poor boy in a seemingly poor land, spends most of his time in the kitchen of the Mour family, who tolerate his presence as they would a dog’s. René lives with his mother and multiple half-siblings, but does not know his father, who could be one of several men who occasionally turn up at the house. One day, a middle-aged woman named E. Blaye arrives at the Mour household to take away Anthony, the handsome, eldest Mour boy; René wishes that it could have been him. A few days later, Mme Mour shows René images of Anthony on the internet: he appears slightly modified, and frolics, naked, with E. Blaye. René asks Mme Mour if she can help him get sold like Anthony. He later prays in church that he will be offered the chance to be chosen. Hanging around (p.203) at the Mours a few days later, René notices a workman who he thinks might be his own father. The workman seems mesmerized by the images of Anthony which Mme Mour continues to download proudly off the internet. Mme Mour tells René that she may have found him a buyer. A couple of days later, René waits with his suitcase by the side of the road. A car arrives to pick him up. Upon catching sight of the driver, René whines with fear and regret.
‘Une journée de Brulard’ (2004)
Ève Brulard (referred to by the narrator simply as ‘Brulard’), an obscure, middle-aged film actress, wanders around a Swiss mountain resort, in the throes of some kind of breakdown. She is convinced that her recently dead mother inhabits the village mountain. She is also harassed by menacing telephone calls, and is pursued by visions of different versions of her younger self, all of which mock and deride her. Her husband Jimmy turns up with a dog he has recently adopted, claiming that he thought the dog was Brulard. Jimmy wants to look after Brulard and to take her home; he appears to have forgiven her affair with another actor. They notice their teenage daughter Lulu on holiday with some family friends. Brulard and Jimmy go to visit Jimmy’s acquaintances the Rotors. Brulard feels increasingly disorientated and terrified. The Rotors’ dog eats Jimmy’s dog. Brulard, Jimmy and the Rotors go out to a restaurant for dinner. Lulu, her hair dyed orange, arrives at the same restaurant, but appears not to notice her parents. Mme Rotor reads a newspaper story about a film actor who has recently committed suicide. Jimmy stares lovingly at his estranged wife.
A mother is taking her mentally disabled son by coach to the institution where she intends to leave him for good. She feels guilty both for the imminent abandonment and for her mounting cruelty towards the boy, but she has made her decision. On the coach, she becomes aware that the driver and all the passengers are staring at her son as if they are under a magical spell. The boy seems suddenly unbearably calm and beautiful. When she finally tells him that she will return home without him, he appears to accept the news with lucid magnanimity.
‘Les Sœurs’ (2008)
Paula and Victoire are sisters. Despite having the same parents – a ‘black’ father and a ‘white’ mother – they do not resemble one another (p.204) at all: Paula is extremely light-skinned, and practically ‘passes’ for white, while Victoire is dark-skinned, appearing to have no European heritage at all. The lives of the two sisters are observed from the perspective of Bertini, an unpopular and unattractive boy of their age, who follows them everywhere and becomes their friend. Bertini becomes aware over the years of a web of strange fantasies and injustices surrounding the sisters. Victoire is widely considered unlucky and unattractive, while Paula is thought to be the beautiful and fortunate one, having inherited whiteness when she could so easily have been black. The sisters’ psychological and behavioural development seems to run counter to the path that has been set out for them, however. Paula grows increasingly preoccupied by the question of ‘race’, coming to see herself as doomed to rejection owing to her ‘black blood’; she withdraws from society. Victoire, on the other hand, seemingly makes the best of her slightly inferior starting position, becoming relatively popular and, eventually, successful in her career. Bertini, by now in love with Victoire, one day makes the mistake of discussing with her the many significant instances of racialized discrimination he has seen her undergo over the years. Victoire reluctantly admits to having indeed perceived these disadvantages, but subsequently shuns Bertini, cutting him out of her life completely. A distraught and obsessed Bertini reflects that Victoire has carved out a life of dissemblance and subterfuge for herself and, furthermore, that she will never forgive him for having found her out.
Picture Books for Adults
La Naufragée (with illustrations by J. M. W. Turner) (1999)
A being who is part-fish, part-woman finds herself in the streets of nineteenth-century Paris. She narrates her confused and frightened impressions of a world in which she has no bearings, is tormented by her ‘half-ling’ ontology, and fails to be recognized as a creature invested with any humanity whatsoever. Every page of her narrative is interspersed with a characteristically blurred, light-flooded painting by J. M. W. Turner. Half-blind and unable to walk without the help of crutches, the narrator stumbles from street to street, desperate to return to the sea, but completely ignorant of how she might do so. Verbally and physically abused by the various people she encounters, who see in her only the figure of a monster, the woman-fish is eventually picked up by an English painter, who decides to take her with him by boat back to (p.205) London. The woman-fish no longer narrates the tale, which is instead now related in the third person, from the perspective of the English painter. Entranced by the woman-fish’s indescribable song, the painter is determined to try to transmit something of the quality of the sound into his own paintings. He keeps her locked up in a tub in a water-closet in his London abode, and commands her to sing as he paints. His work is transfigured, but the woman-fish herself is gradually emptied of all semblance of life. When the painter himself dies, his friends are puzzled at the existence of the tub and strange water-closet, which they find empty, mysterious, but ultimately of little consequence.
Autoportrait en vert (with photographs by Julie Ganzin and anon.) (2005)
The narrator, a published novelist, lives in a village near the Garonne river with her husband Jean-Yves and their growing brood of children. The river is constantly threatening to flood the village. The narrator describes her bewildering dealings with a number of strange women, most of whom she classifies in some way or another as ‘femmes en vert’. Having just dropped her children off at school, she is spoken to by another young mother, a blonde woman in green shorts, whom she at first mistakes for her friend Cristina. The woman raves about having left her own children in the care of her parents, before discovering that her father hates and fears his grandchildren. She also mentions the fact that the villagers are in pursuit of a mysterious black shape. Realising that the woman is not, in fact, Cristina, the narrator begins talking with the real Cristina, who also asks her if she is in the know about the black shape. The narrator leaves the school and drives to a house nearby: she is looking for a strange woman she thinks she has seen standing outside the house, next to a banana tree. She sees the woman jump from her balcony onto the grass. Unhurt, the dark-haired, green-eyed woman, who turns out to be called Katia Depetiteville, picks herself up, and invites the narrator into the house for coffee, where she talks at the narrator about her difficult life and disappointing children. When the narrator later mentions Katia Depetiteville to people in the village she is told that Katia Depiteville died a decade ago; the narrator is unsurprised. The two woman carry on seeing one another for a time, nearly becoming friends. The narrator describes the remarriage of her father to her former best friend. Visiting the couple at their restaurant, Ledada, in the twentieth arrondissement of Paris, the narrator notices that her formerly brown-eyed stepmother now wears green contact (p.206) lenses. The narrator starts to think that there is something strange about the proliferation of greenness, and wonders if it is a message directed at her. One day, a man enters Ledada and smashes the place up with a golf club. He turns out to be a half-brother of the narrator, angry at their father’s lack of presence. The narrator goes on to recount the strange tale of Jenny, a depressed, dyed-platinum-blonde woman with whom she is acquainted for a few years. Jenny is at the end of her tether, having been fired, left by her husband, and shunned by her adopted son, all in more or less the same period. She moves back home to her aged parents, themselves depressed, and made sadder still by their daughter’s perceived failure. Jenny runs into an old boyfriend, Ivan, who is now married to a seemingly successful woman, a woman who, according to the narrator, is a ‘femme en vert’. While the narrator devotes herself to listening to sad Jenny, Jenny herself is in thrall to Ivan’s wife, before whom she feels bland and insignificant. One day, she goes looking for Ivan’s wife, but finds her dead, having hanged herself. The narrator loses track of Jenny after this, but runs into her a couple of years later, now married to the widowed Ivan. Jenny claims that she has met Ivan’s dead wife in a green coat with dyed green fur collar. This ghost is elegant and profoundly sexual. Ivan and Jenny split up, both obsessed with Ivan’s dead first wife. Jenny’s mother tells the narrator (whose children she and her husband have frequently looked after during the narrator’s long conversations with Jenny) that the ghost of Ivan’s first wife has visited her too. The narrator has resolved to break with Jenny and her family, when Jenny is discovered dead, having taken an overdose of prescription drugs. A while later, the narrator meets Jenny’s parents sitting happily with Ivan and his first wife. The narrator tells us now about her own mother, who has transformed into a ‘femme en vert’. The mother has gone from being an ugly, reclusive woman, living with the narrator’s two depressed sisters in the Parisian banlieue, to a new life in Marseilles, where she has married a young man, Rocco, and has a young daughter, Bella. The narrator goes down to Marseilles to visit her mother and her new family for Christmas, leaving her own children behind in Aquitaine. The mother is now glamorous but still very distant, refusing all intimacy with the narrator, who leaves after three depressing days in the cold and ramshackle house. The Garonne continues to rise, and Katia Depetiteville telephones the narrator for help. The narrator’s husband Jean-Yves goes to rescue Katia Depetiteville, who leaps unexpectedly from her balcony and lands in his boat. The narrator travels up with Katia Depetiteville to Paris, (p.207) where they visit the narrator’s two sisters. Katia Depetiteville, strangely contemptuous, leaves abruptly, never to be seen again. The sisters seem to be doing better than they were, but the narrator cannot shake off a feeling of sadness. The sisters tell her that their mother has returned to Paris, and now lives downstairs. It is not clear what has happened to their little half-sister Bella. As she is on her way out, the narrator listens to her mother’s heavy breathing. The narrator decides to accept an invitation to take part in a conference in Ouagadougou where her work is being discussed, and at the same time to visit her father, who now lives in that city with his wife, the narrator’s former best friend. She takes her own eleven-year-old daughter, Marie, with her. The father is in a terrible state, practically blind, refusing to eat, and full of nervous rage. The narrator regrets having come. The conference is poorly attended. The ex-best friend sees the narrator and Marie off at the airport, where she announces her intention to leave the narrator’s father, to return to France and to live with the narrator’s mother until she finds a job. She mentions that Bella is now in a children’s home in Marseilles, where the narrator’s mother goes down to visit her twice a month. The narrator imagines Bella coming to visit her in fifteen or twenty years’ time, dressed entirely in green. At home one day, the narrator hears her children shouting in the yard. They are chasing a black shape, although the narrator denies seeing it. Driving through the water-logged plains one day shortly after the river has ceased to rise, the narrator wonders if the Garonne itself is a ‘femme en vert’.
Y penser sans cesse (with photographs by Denis Cointe) (2011)
The narrator, a recent French émigrée to Germany, sits in a sun-drenched Berlin park with her timid young son. He reflects on the fact that he does not know much about who his mother really is. He also asks her about the people who once lived in their house. The narrator comes to realize that her son is somehow inhabited by the spirit of the little Wellenstein boy, who, along with his family, was deported from Germany some years ago, and has now taken up residence in the narrator’s son’s heart. The narrator watches the mothers sitting around them, breastfeeding their children, and observes that her own son will have no breast milk; neither will his old, dark ‘friend’. She notes the boy’s hunger, and the way in which the German language is beginning to take possession of his faculties of expression, before encouraging him not to chase his wandering child ghost-guest from his heart. And she remembers the black-and-white dog of her own childhood, in whom (p.208) she thought her absent father’s spirit dwelt. While at times believing that this spectral father was preparing to kidnap her, she realises that in truth he had little interest in her. The narrator and her son return to their yellow Berlin abode.
Picture Books for Children
La Diablesse et son enfant (with illustrations by Nadja) (2000)
A dark-skinned, bright-eyed, forest-dwelling she-devil wanders from house to house, asking if anyone has seen her missing child. Whilst the she-devil’s face is pleasant, her cloven feet are experienced by the villagers as horrifying, and so she is generally shunned. The she-devil cannot remember how she lost her child and her home, but knows that her feet turned into hooves only after these terrible losses, which took place in a hot country far away. Meanwhile, the villagers begin to worry that the she-devil’s lost child may actually be among them, and so begin a campaign of foot-inspection among the infant population. One day the she-devil comes across a child who has been ejected from the village on account of her deformed feet. The she-devil picks up the child and carries her off, before suddenly noticing that her own feet have taken on human shape again. Furthermore, she discovers a little lit-up house on the edge of the forest, in which she and her new daughter can live together in peace.
Les Paradis de Prunelle (with illustrations by Pierre Mornet) (2003) Little Odilon is perplexed when his older sister Prunelle comes out of hospital after a short illness and tells him that she has been to all the heavens. She has not only experienced existence as a transparent soul during her trip but has also learnt a fundamental truth: in heaven there is always something missing. Stranger even than her tale of fantastical voyage is Prunelle’s new attitude, which is supernaturally calm and indifferent, but also oddly distracted and melancholic. Odilon decides that Prunelle must be bewitched. More worrying still is the fact that Prunelle seems persuaded that her return to Earth is only provisional. Prunelle returns to hospital, and this time she does not return. The children’s parents grow more and more worried, all the while ignoring Odilon’s attempts to talk to them about Prunelle’s story of the heavens. Help eventually arrives in the shape of the children’s aunt Peggy, who lives in a hot country far away. Odilon talks to her of Prunelle’s visit to (p.209) the heavens, and Aunt Peggy listens. She tells Odilon that she will bring Prunelle back home. After several weeks of visits to the hospital, Aunt Peggy does just this. Odilon asks the paler, thinner Prunelle what the final heaven was like, but she just laughs at him, exactly as she would have done in the old days. Odilon kisses his sister.
Le Souhait (with illustrations by Alice Charbin) (2005)
A depressed married couple dream of having a child of their own. It is Christmas Eve, and snowing, but, having no child to buy presents for, the man and woman simply buy piles of gifts for nobody. On Christmas morning a little girl with black hair, black eyes and black skin wakes up in the couple’s house. Her name is Camélia. She finds herself surrounded by presents and in the care of two disembodied hearts, who tell her of their abundant love and joy at finally having a child of their own. Camélia carries the hearts everywhere. They ask her incessantly if she likes her presents, and ask her with equal frequency if she loves them, her parents. If she hesitates, the hearts appear to bleed, split, or break a little. Camélia realizes that these two hearts beat only for her, and have no desire other than that she carry them wherever she goes. One day whilst out in the park, Camélia puts the hearts on a bench so that she may run and play more freely. Enjoying her games more than ever, she leaves the park at nightfall, before suddenly remembering that she has left the hearts on the bench. The park is closed for the night, however, and Camélia must return home alone, overwhelmed by the guilt of perhaps having lost her parental hearts. The next day Camélia finds the hearts still on the bench, but they have grown hard and icy: nothing she can do will warm the hearts up, not even once she gets them home. Camélia finds herself turning more and more cold, blank and listless, eventually falling into a deep, depressed sleep. The next day, however, Camélia finds that a full-bodied man and woman are in the house to look after her and to be her parents. These people – the story’s original married couple – are now prepared to take Camélia for a walk, and no longer seem in need of the child’s constant reassurance.