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Marie NDiayeBlankness and Recognition$

Andrew Asibong

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781846319464

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781846319464.001.0001

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‘C’est justement qu’il n’y a rien!’: Introducing NDiayean Blankness

‘C’est justement qu’il n’y a rien!’: Introducing NDiayean Blankness

(p.1) ‘C’est justement qu’il n’y a rien!’: Introducing NDiayean Blankness
Marie NDiaye

Andrew Asibong

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents some of the key contexts for understanding NDiaye’s mysterious deployment of ‘blankness’. It considers aspects of her biography and public persona, with particular reference to the place (or rather non-place) of ‘race’ in her declared understanding of her own life and work, before going on to analyse ways in which her developing stardom has contributed to an unsettling yet fruitful dynamic of splitting, paradox and denial. It moves on to explore psychoanalytic discourses which may shine new light on the role of disavowal in her fictional and theatrical universe, paying particularly close attention to the function of trauma and social stigma in her protagonists’ need to negate both psychical and physical reality. The haunting presence of the ‘spectral family’ and in particular psychoanalyst André Green’s concept of ‘the dead mother’ are considered as unavoidable dimensions in this theorization of NDiaye’s blanks, as is the author’s deployment of a ‘fantastical’ aesthetic in communicating a vision of existence predicated on constant uncertainty regarding racialized and ontological status.

Keywords:   ‘race’ and racialization, whiteness, hybridity, stigma, trauma, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, denial and disavowal, André Green, the dead mother, the fantastic

He turned toward me, and looked into my eyes with two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication. ‘Nitre?’ he asked, at length. ‘Nitre,’ I replied. ‘How long have you had that cough?’ ‘Ugh! ugh! ugh! – ugh! ugh! ugh! – ugh! ugh! ugh! – ugh! ugh! ugh! – ugh! ugh! ugh!’ My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes. ‘It is nothing,’ he said, at last.

Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’

My first encounter with Marie NDiaye’s world was traumatic. It was a production of her play Papa doit manger at the national theatre, the Comédie-Française, in 2003, an event which had been receiving a great deal of publicity in France at the time. As the lights came up and the audience began to applaud, the two women sitting next to me asked me if I was going to be all right. It was an embarrassing situation. Juliet Mitchell provides us with a useful working definition of that over-used term ‘trauma’:

A trauma, whether physical or psychical, must create a breach in a protective covering of such severity that it cannot be coped with by the usual mechanisms by which we deal with pain or loss. The severity of the breach is such that even if the incident is expected, the experience cannot be foretold. We cannot thus make use of anxiety as a preparatory signal. The death of a sick relative, the amputation of a diseased limb may be consciously known about in advance, but if they are to be described as traumatic then the foreknowledge was useless. In trauma we are untimely ripped.

(Mitchell, 1998: 121)

(p.2) What could I tell these strangers who were so politely inquiring after my well-being? That the play we’d just seen had ripped me wide open? That a ghost had stuck its tongue in my ear? Couldn’t they feel it inside them too? They seemed just fine. All the people clapping furiously around us seemed fine, in fact, uplifted – perhaps – by the humour, novelty and charm of the unprecedented multicultural spectacle they had just enjoyed in the house of Molière. Perhaps they were pretending. After all, wasn’t that just what I was doing when I eventually reassured the women that I was perfectly all right? Only I could know that time had stopped, for me, the moment the curtains went up. The dead-eyed performers had bonded with a buried part of myself, something as blank and ghoulish as they were. And life would never be the same again.1

A reader unfamiliar with the plays and prose fiction of Marie NDiaye might conclude from my slightly mystical testimony that her narratives and situations must themselves contain some kind of deep intensity, glowing, in the manner of classical tragedy, or 1950s Hollywood melodrama, with a wild and cathartic potential for pure feeling. It is true that her plots are, on the whole, rich, overwhelming, bizarre. As Pierre Lepape puts it in his review of NDiaye’s 2001 novel Rosie Carpe:

Voilà en tout cas un roman à qui l’on ne pourra faire le reproche de n’être pas romanesque. Il s’en passe des choses dans Rosie Carpe! Il y a des intrigues multiples, des personnages qui vivent des aventures, des rebondissements, des surprises, de la couleur, des décors, des atmosphères, des sentiments et même des meurtres […] On a moins l’impression de lire Marie NDiaye que de se laisser séduire par une sirène qui ne craint pas d’abuser les charmes de sa voix. Elle vous entraîne dans les entrelacs de ses phrases pulpeuses et asymétriques, elle vous fait croire l’incroyable, tire du magique de l’ordinaire.

(Lepape, 2001)

And yet, despite all this fantastical movement and colour, in NDiaye’s world something is always missing.2 There are holes, at the level of narrative, character, psychology and tone. These holes gape, but they do so in a discreet and disarmingly winsome manner and, as a result, can go unnoticed by the reader or spectator. At one level, it appears that all is well: characters speak in impeccably constructed sentences, frequently bursting with imperfect subjunctives, and describe intriguing worlds of magic, mystery and burlesque happenings. At another level, however, we are confronted with a set of seductive, incomprehensible blanks.

One way of beginning to think about NDiaye’s ‘blank effect’ – or ‘blank affect’ – is to consider her protagonists’ reluctance to talk, or even to appear. Some of NDiaye’s characters keep themselves blank (p.3) and hidden by being literally, physically absent. Others never speak. Others still, having both appeared and spoken, inexplicably dematerialize. The vast majority of NDiaye’s protagonists, though, perform their blankness via a strangely cut-off, unemotional demeanour, a deadness which seemingly nothing can wake up or make come alive: ‘Elle semblait être là, avec son corps onduleux et fin, son beau visage encore lisse, comme poli, satiné, et cependant sa personnalité était ailleurs, captive d’il ne savait quoi, hors d’atteinte’ (L, 377). These zombified characters frequently participate, apparently without malice, in the psychic – and sometimes physical – ‘deadening’ of others, at the same time as they themselves are psychically, and sometimes physically, ‘deadened’. In the opening scene of Papa doit manger, little Mina – a vampiric name if ever there was one – powerfully replicates the ‘undead’ demeanour of her mother, as she authoritatively chatters with her father on the doorstep of the family apartment over which she holds guard. As the play progresses, however, we watch Mina herself become more and more violently dehumanized, along with her younger sister Ami, by the blankly deranged adults around her. The child thus finds herself in the paradigmatic predicament of the NDiayean protagonist: having been groomed to practise a modus operandi that systematically denies the reality of her own and other people’s feelings, it is the passive experience of this absence of emotion that will cause her to crumble, disrupt her sense of being a living human, and precipitate her descent into depression. Members of NDiaye’s ‘blank community’ find themselves thrust at birth into mechanical modes of behaviour, and they are often wiped out by a slightly modified (often fantastical) strain of inhumanness.

In this book, I want to argue that the aspects of Marie NDiaye’s writing with which we, as her readers and spectators, need to engage most urgently are not so much its many satisfying riches – classical, medieval and modernist intertextualities aplenty; compelling, complex and witty deployments of syntax; bold experimentations with narrative form and perspective – but rather their zones of representational and affective impoverishment.3 NDiaye’s repeated performance of different forms of traumatic absence contains something more obscurely powerful than her talent, knowledge or charm, something which, given the chance, may connect to repressed dimensions of the reader’s emotional and ethical core. Her depictions of a blankness at large in contemporary Western systems, force us to consider how various ‘dead’ aspects of our societies, from cradle to grave, via school, family and so-called (p.4) community, cultivate the development of internal holes that, if left ignored and untreated, become too yawning to fill. Quite apart from being remarkable works of art, then, NDiaye’s plays and fictions could be said to perform a crucial therapeutic – and potentially political – act, namely, in Jed Sekoff’s words, that of ‘constituting absence, in place of an adherence to deadness’ (1999: 122). In giving her readers and spectators new signs and symbols with which to conceive of unmourned emptiness and loss, NDiaye’s blank art offers fresh and disturbing images with which those readers and spectators may, perhaps, be sufficiently stimulated to move forward towards new forms of life, colour and presence.

In approaching NDiaye from the perspective of emptiness, negation and spectrality, I shall draw on both psychotherapeutic and ‘political’ discourses, ways of examining the world which her peculiar depictions of absence both expand and, crucially, join up in a powerful and unusual manner. NDiaye’s strange stories force us, incredibly, to glimpse connections between parents’ unnoticed internalization of their own parents’ ghosts and their need, as adults, to make ghosts of their own children and the children of others. They build bridges between a person’s sense of herself as ‘not really there’ and her subsequent participation in systems of annihilation and extermination that depend on framing others as non-existent. They prevent us from separating the private from the political, compelling us instead to hold simultaneously in our minds the various ways in which a person might make the journey from full aliveness to virtual deadness, or how s/he might impose that horrific experience on somebody else. And yet, at the same time, and quite unlike most other texts for which we might claim similarly weighty implications, her stories glitter, remaining magical and witty, fantastical and gay. In the remainder of this introduction I shall attempt to present some of the key contexts for understanding NDiaye’s mysteriously brilliant deployment of blankness. I shall first consider aspects of her biography and public persona, with particular reference to the place (or rather non-place) of ‘race’ in her declared understanding of her own life and work, before going on to analyse ways in which her developing stardom has contributed to an unsettling yet fruitful dynamic of splitting, paradox and denial. I shall move on to explore psychoanalytic discourses which may shine new light on the role of disavowal in her fictional and theatrical universe, paying particularly close attention to the function of social stigma in her protagonists’ need to negate both psychic and physical reality. I subsequently consider the (p.5) haunting presence of the ‘spectral family’ as an unavoidable dimension in our theorization of NDiaye’s blanks, before, finally, reflecting on how her deployment of a ‘fantastical’ aesthetic is effective in communicating a vision of existence predicated on constant uncertainty regarding one’s social and ontological status. Some of NDiaye’s texts will be referred to briefly in the course of the introduction for illustrative purposes – and the reader is urged to consult the plot summaries at the back of the book for greater familiarity with the stories from which these examples are taken – but more detailed readings of the œuvre, treated for the most part chronologically, will be reserved for the book’s subsequent chapters.

Nothing Much to Speak of: NDiaye’s ‘Unremarkable’ Origins

In the central chapter of NDiaye’s fourth novel En famille (1990), a section entitled ‘Les accusations de Tante Colette’, the protagonist Fanny is confronted by her maternal aunt who, via a bizarre mixture of rhetoric and insult, attempts to enlighten her as to some of the reasons for her ostracism by the family:

Mais qu’es-tu donc, toi? Qu’es-tu donc aujourd’hui? Comment définir clairement ce que tu es? Es-tu quelque chose? Es-tu seulement quelqu’un dont on puisse dire précisément: elle est ainsi, de telle région, son origine est celle-là? Faut-il croire que tu n’es rien de dicible?

(EF, 155)

Quite apart from the comical ferocity of her attack and its expression, Tante Colette’s strange series of ‘questions’ is notable for the way it situates Fanny as a defendant charged not with a failure to explain who she is but what she is. The Kafkaesque aunt-judge has little interest in finding out about the personal particularities that make Fanny truly Fanny, but is committed to a discourse that seeks to frame the young woman only in terms of objectifying identifications, ultimately condemning her for her failure to fit into its system of dehumanizing classification. I want to suggest that Marie NDiaye herself, in her capacity as a somehow ‘ungraspable’ French cultural figure, has been subjected to precisely those procedures of attempted objectification from which Fanny suffers at the hands of her family. While not always necessarily injurious in their tone or content – on the contrary, the terms in which NDiaye is encased are often dizzyingly effusive – the structures used to present her as both woman and writer nevertheless (p.6) deploy considerable violence in both their oversimplifying intensity and internal contradictions. The end result is a public figure who might well be described as the ultimate poster-girl for a ‘postmodern’ era in which the subject has been ‘decentred’, and ‘identity’ is old hat. And yet NDiaye’s seeming inability to be coherently represented by the signs and symbols at the disposal of the French culture from which she emerged, a culture that prides itself on its seemingly intrinsic lucidity and politicization, provides us with a potential source for her writing’s alliance of paradox and blankness.

The story of NDiaye’s birth in Pithiviers in 1967 to ‘un père sénégalais’ and ‘une mère beauceronne’ is generally well known, not least because this strangely precise information is so often given in the opening sentences of articles and interviews with the author.4 While there is, of course, nothing reprehensible about precision when it comes to situating a writer in her biographical context, it is nevertheless interesting to note the frequency and insistence with which the bodies and origins of NDiaye’s parents and grandparents are evoked, despite the fact that NDiaye herself was born and grew up in France (she spent her childhood and adolescence in the Parisian suburb of Bourg-la-Reine with her teacher mother and her elder brother, the historian and sociologist Pap Ndiaye).5 From the outset, the need to situate NDiaye, to make clear what she is, quietly suggests itself. However innocent or well-intentioned the information provided may be, it sets out, I suggest, to answer two unstated questions: if this author is ‘really’ French, why is her skin brown and, if she is ‘really’ French, why does she have that strange surname? It is not that these questions are necessarily offensive in themselves. More troubling is the fact that the questions are never directly posed as such. They hover, spectre-like, behind the surfeit of biographical information offered, designed, perhaps, to produce an ‘Oh, so that’s it!’ response in the reader or listener, while never acknowledging the nature of the query the listener may (or may not) have had in the first place. The information offers itself as relief for a racialized anxiety that has never been diagnosed as such and, what is worse, fails to provide much relief, since we are still none the wiser about what NDiaye really ‘is’.

NDiaye herself has always been at pains, at least in interviews, to stress her affiliation to her mother’s land, that is, to provincial France:

Je suis née dans un milieu, dans une famille, extrêmement ordinaires et même populaires puisque les parents de ma mère étaient agriculteurs. Toutes mes vacances d’enfant je les ai passées dans un village de la Beauce, dans des intérieurs typiquement populaires français […] La (p.7) campagne beauceronne est une campagne vraiment âpre et dure. Mais c’est celle qui m’a formée, qui a modelé en grande partie mon esprit.

(Argand, 2001)

NDiaye’s parents separated when she was aged one, and subsequent contact with her father was minimal. Discussing the first trip she made to her father’s country, Senegal, aged twenty, NDiaye states: ‘Je me suis sentie étrangère [dans ce pays-là]. Je n’ai pas de double culture, c’est malheureux, mais en même temps je n’ai pas souffert du déchirement qui va souvent de pair’ (Payot, 1996). It has been important to NDiaye to insist on the absence of any meaningful connection to her father’s country, and one can certainly understand why. Not only is it indisputable that she never knew her father or his world, but this fact is called into question by those seeking to ‘other’ NDiaye inappropriately, either by assuming because of the way she looks and what she is called that she must know something about her ‘roots’, or, just as bizarrely, by reading (or, rather, hallucinating) exotic styles and themes in early texts such as La Femme changée en bûche and La Sorcière.6 It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that NDiaye, especially in her younger years, felt compelled to elaborate on the truth of her Frenchness in a somewhat over-compensatory manner. In an essay entitled ‘Mon quatrième roman’, she carefully explains, once again, the all-important details about her Gallic upbringing:

Élevée en France, n’ayant pas de contact avec ma famille sénégalaise, uniquement avec celle de ma mère, famille on ne peut plus traditionnelle et typique, j’étais, je me sentais exclusivement Française […] À l’étranger je ressens très fortement mon appartenance complète, amoureuse, à la culture française, aux paysages français. Je le ressens dans l’absence de la France, sans nostalgie mais avec une sorte d’attendrissement au souvenir de tout ce que j’aime en France et qui m’a formée essentiellement. Je ne me sens ni cosmopolite ni d’une double culture, ce qui, à divers points de vue, serait plus intéressant, mais principalement l’héritière culturelle de Molière, de Rousseau ou de Proust […] [J]e suis exclusivement Française.

(NDiaye, 1997a: 65– 8)7

Even ten years later, when questions of ‘difference’ threaten to creep up in an interview, NDiaye is quick to thwart any attempt by the interviewer to impose an ‘othering’ label on her. ‘Je n’arrive pas à me voir, moi, comme une femme noire’, she told me in 2007 (Asibong and Jordan, 2009: 199), despite my open question about attitudes to ‘race’ not, in fact, having asked for any such self-definition.

(p.8) What I find more intriguing – and crucial for my understanding of the emphasis on blankness I find throughout her writing – is NDiaye’s insistence, again often before the question has even been asked, that her cultural and bio-political situation has made her in no way vulnerable to the potential pain of unwanted racialization. On the rare occasion that she does acknowledge an imposed sense of difference, NDiaye prematurely squashes the notion that this feeling could possibly construed as painful: ‘Je ressens l’étrangeté […] en tant que métisse, mais pas d’une manière douloureuse, d’une manière objective’. Earlier in the same interview, she is categorical about her absolute removal from suffering: ‘Je n’ai pas enduré grand-chose’ (Argand, 2001). The emotional experience of being considered black in a white-dominated society emerges, for NDiaye, as a truly imponderable phenomenon. It was only after reading her brother’s book about the ‘black condition’, NDiaye claims, that she began, aged forty, to ponder the subject of racism for the first time:

Je ne m’étais jamais posée cette question avant de le lire et qu’il m’en parle. Oui, je m’y intéresse de plus en plus et en même temps je me sens un peu étrangère à cette problématique car je suis dans une situation tellement originale que je ne peux absolument pas me plaindre de quoi que ce soit […] Je ne me sens pas du tout visée par les problèmes que de nombreux Noirs rencontrent, même si ces problèmes sont réels.

(Kaprièlian, 2009: 32)

Pap Ndiaye confirms his sister’s expressed attitude of surprise at his burgeoning interest in issues of skin colour (he eventually wrote the sociological work La Condition noire: essai sur une minorité française in 2008, a book for which Marie contributed the short story ‘Les Sœurs’). The subject had apparently, for her, remained ‘livresque’, never, in the words of Pap, to be ‘appréhendé de façon émotionnelle ou intime’ (Boltanski, 2007). NDiaye would appear to offer a perfect mimicry of the Republican, anti-communautariste French subject, whose interest in the petty agendas of special interest groups and peculiar subcultures is precisely nil.8

NDiaye’s public statements have, from the beginning of her career, and apparently long before, then, combined to create a declaration of not only unstigmatized national belonging, but also a most definite non-belonging to any potential identity of blackness, not even of a hybrid, purely political, ‘strategic’ or otherwise deconstructed variety. But could it be that there are two or more Marie NDiayes, and that their respective positions on such issues are in bizarre contradiction (p.9) with one another? The language and tone NDiaye adopts in order to stress both the authenticity of her Frenchness and the painlessness of her experience seems at times to parody that of Fanny in the novel En famille, a character whose vain determination to prove that she belongs non-problematically to her maternal grandmother’s provincial village is in fact the source of much of that novel’s sadistic humour. Fanny’s insistence on her ordinariness is delusional, flying in the face of endless, indisputable, often cartoonish experiences of exclusion, humiliation and betrayal. Later protagonists such as Nadia (in Mon cœur à l’étroit, 2007) and Victoire (in ‘Les Sœurs’, 2008) will cling in an even more pathological fashion to a crumbling fantasy of painless integration, fighting off would-be-helpful friends and neighbours who seek to bear witness to their racialized injury as if they were particularly repulsive crows. NDiaye is clearly, as a writer, acutely aware of the phenomenon of ‘blanking out’ an experience of pain that would otherwise be intolerable. As the narrator of Ladivine (2013), refracted through the consciousness of the increasingly split-off and mythomaniacal little girl Malinka, so disingenuously puts it, ‘même incolore une princesse ne saurait mentir’ (L, 27). NDiaye’s public statements, however, reproduce precisely the positions of blankness which her art seems committed to pulling apart.

A Blank Star is Born: NDiaye’s Brilliant Career

If it has clearly been important for at least one of NDiaye’s selves to insist upon its smooth assimilation into national structures and institutions, that particular self has been assisted in its endeavour by not only a string of superlative literary accomplishments but also a career trajectory that has made of ‘Marie NDiaye’ the epitome of a certain kind of cultural brilliance. Much of her instantly mythical status in the French literary world of the late 1980s was in no small measure connected to the extreme precocity of her emergence. Her first novel, Quant au riche avenir, was published in 1985 by the avant-garde publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit (publishers of Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet), when she was just seventeen years old. According to the legend, Minuit’s director Jérôme Lindon went in person to find NDiaye at her lycée (the Lycée Lakanal in the Parisian suburb of Sceaux) to ask her to sign the contract, so taken was he with the talent that oozed from the pages of that manuscript and its strange (p.10) story of a lonely schoolboy, ‘le jeune Z’.9 NDiaye’s writing, not unlike young Z’s impeccable Latin prose translations, was hailed, from the outset, as structurally, stylistically and linguistically sublime. Pierre Lepape wrote in Le Monde:

Marie NDiaye utilise avec un brio confondant la langue, la lancinante phrase classique, polie, chantournée, docile pour peu qu’on sache la maîtriser à toutes les hésitations, apte à ramasser dans ses méandres les infinies variations du sentiment et les développements les plus subtils de la proposition logique.

(Lepape, 1985)

Meanwhile, Michèle Bernstein gushed from the review pages of Libération:

Je m’en veux – nonobstant ne le faut-il pas? – d’insister sur l’âge tendre de l’auteur. Nous ne sommes pas au cirque, l’ombre de Minou Drouet ne flotte pas sur les tirages. Ce n’est pas non plus la projection poétique et visionnaire du génie adolescent incontrôlable, incontrôlé (suivez mon regard). La recherche maniaque de rigueur dans le style et de précision dans la pensée indique plutôt un talent adulte précocement mûri, avec ce je ne sais quoi en plus qui n’est pas encore fané.

(Bernstein, 1985)

From the start, then, NDiaye was feted by the French literary establishment as an indisputable prodigy whose claim to genius was not only legitimate but beyond all fault and qualification, and certainly beyond any potentially insulting reflections on her sex, social class or ‘race’. As Lydie Moudileno (1998) has pointed out, Minuit’s predilection for almost entirely blank white covers and no authorial information whatsoever certainly helped in ‘dematerializing’ NDiaye, removing all traces of a physicality which might otherwise have hampered the institutional construction of a bodiless and socially de-contextualized ‘pur esprit’.10 NDiaye’s literary strategy during the 1980s and 1990s was, according to Sarah Burnautzki (2013a: 155), ‘marquée par un jeu esthétique astucieux de dissimulation et de dévoilement de différences ethniques fidèle au dogme républicain de l’indifférence à la couleur’. It was NDiaye’s skill in playing this game, suggests Burnautzki, that allowed her literary consecration by the Parisian establishment, but also facilitated – I would add – a relative obscurity in those early years: adored by the critics of Le Monde, Libération and even Le Figaro, NDiaye’s tasteful gifts of apparently universalizable anxiety were nevertheless largely unrecognizable to the general public.

Following a prestigious Académie Française bursary in 1987 to study at the Villa Medicis in Rome, NDiaye published a string of novels, (p.11) each receiving greater critical acclaim than the last, the only possible exception to the uninterrupted stream of encomia being reserved for her second novel Comédie classique (1987), its stylistic bravura – it consisted of a single, one-hundred-page-long sentence – being felt in some quarters to smack of arrogance. In general terms, though, NDiaye has, since 1985, been hailed as an almost supernaturally charming storyteller and stylistician, a literary ‘sorcière’ (Harang, 2004) or ‘sirène’ (Lepape, 2001), who holds in her possession a magical talent for creating narrative intrigues that positively gleam with mordant wit and keen social observation. Quoting another breathless reviewer, Madeleine Cottenet-Hage and Christiane Makward note, in their significantly entitled Dictionnaire littéraire de femmes de langue française, de Marie de France à Marie NDiaye, that NDiaye’s is a ‘talent incroyablement précoce, incroyablement libre, plaisant, assuré, qui mélange tous les genres – roman anglais, conte philosophique, mélo familial – avec une virtuosité confondante […] maîtrise invraisemblable pour un écrivain de 23 ans’ (Cottenet-Hage and Makward, 1996: 433). According to Bertrand Leclair,

L’écriture avait la pureté cristalline de la belle langue française, puisant sa respiration aux chefs d’œuvres du XVième siècle (Mme de Sévigné, Mme de Lafayette) pour installer un imaginaire que, déjà, l’on pouvait deviner d’autant plus singulier qu’il en appelait à la plus grande lucidité. Et ce n’était qu’un début. Seize ans plus tard, au printemps 2001, alors qu’elle n’avait encore que 33 ans mais déjà sept livres derrière elle, un magazine littéraire dérogeait à toutes ses règles: dans la double page qui ouvre systématiquement chacun de ses numéros sur ‘l’avis des libraires’, permettant à cinq d’entre eux d’élire un livre différent et de le commenter, les cinq invités avaient tous élu le même, Rosie Carpe.

(Leclair, 2009)

NDiaye went on, in a succession of dazzling literary accomplishments, to prove herself as truly the best in show. Her monumental Rosie Carpe (2001) would go on to win the prestigious Prix Femina, whilst in 2009, at the age of forty-two, her critical canonization would at last be matched by public popularity and commercial success, when she was awarded France’s most coveted literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for her book Trois femmes puissantes, which went on to be the highest-selling novel in French that year, shifting a remarkable 450,000 copies (Aissaoui and Guiou, 2010). At the time of writing, four international conferences (in France, in Germany and two in the UK), and three edited volumes of academic writing (Asibong and Jordan, 2009; Bengsch and Ruhe, 2013; Motte and Moudileno, 2013) have been devoted to the (p.12) investigation of her work, whilst her emigration in 2007 to Berlin with her husband, the writer Jean-Yves Cendrey, and their three children was the subject of serious political polemic in France (an event on which I shall elaborate in a moment). The inclusion of Papa doit manger into the Comédie-Française’s repertory in 2003 (she was only the second woman in history to be accorded that honour), her winning of the Académie Française’s Grand Prix du Théâtre in 2012 and her nomination for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 (she is the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted), together with her increasing public exposure (the release of her novel Ladivine in February 2013 was heralded on the front page of the national daily newspaper Libération), have combined with the success of the novels and plays themselves to give her a strong claim to the title of most celebrated French literary figure of her generation.

But Marie NDiaye is not a straightforward French ‘national treasure’, however much a narrative such as the one I have constructed above may suggest that she is. Nor, as Lydie Moudileno (2009) points out, is she ‘n’importe quel honnête homme français’, a formulation whose applicability to herself NDiaye insists upon in her 1997 essay ‘Mon quatrième roman’. It is in the various cracks and fissures within these stories of acceptance and normality that we must look if we are to understand better the socio-political context of the blankness that seeps from so many of her protagonists. A spectre hovers over NDiaye’s exemplary ordinariness, and this spectre shows itself with reasonable regularity. The most spectacular example of NDiaye’s spectral ‘othering’ is the bizarre series of public quarrels that took place between her and various French politicians, via the French media, in November 2009, shortly after she won the Prix Goncourt for her novel Trois femmes puissantes. Having been alerted to the fact that, in an interview with the magazine Les Inrockuptibles in August of that year, NDiaye had described Nicolas Sarkozy’s France as ‘monstrueuse’ and had deplored the ‘atmosphère de flicage, de vulgarité’ (Kaprièlian, 2009), Eric Raoult, the right-wing député for Seine-Saint-Denis, called upon the French government to censure the writer, claiming that as a Goncourt winner she had a duty to represent France in a positive light and to exercise what he termed ‘un devoir de réserve’. The entire affair was deeply peculiar, its various twists and turns getting reported on the television and radio and on the front pages of many of the dailies in France for several consecutive days. While the minister for culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, refused to condemn Raoult’s strange action, several major political figures from the left, including Martine Aubry, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Ségolène (p.13) Royal, as well as eighty prominent writers, rallied to NDiaye’s defence, insisting upon her right to exercise free speech in whatever critique of the regime she liked.

The grotesquely racialized dimensions of Raoult’s attack on NDiaye (not to mention the numerous online commentators who wrote of the need for Mme NDiaye to ‘retourner chez elle au Sénégal’ if she was not in favour of France’s regime) were rarely discussed in public, though. An important exception was Bertrand Delanoë (2009), writing on his blog: the left-wing mayor of Paris wondered why Raoult felt the need to mention the footballer Lilian Thuram and the tennis player Yannick Noah in the same breath as NDiaye when expanding on the reasons for his patriotic outrage. Surely, mused Delanoë, Raoult could not be implying that the three French-born public figures were comparable in their shamefully treacherous negativity vis-à-vis France because they were all ‘black’?11 The Raoult– NDiaye controversy burned out within a few days of course, but Raoult’s attack serves as a shockingly visible symbol of just how vulnerable the ‘assimilation’ of Jérôme Lindon’s brilliant young protégée into a universal, colour-blind Frenchness really was. In many ways the tenor of his discourse – supported by thousands of bloggers – mimicked the ‘accusations de Tante Colette’ laid out by NDiaye with such nightmarish precision in En famille: ‘Tu sèmes le trouble dans notre famille, ce que nulle famille, tu le sais, n’est tenue d’accepter’ (EF, 150). NDiaye’s own response to the force of the attack was far more spirited than that of poor Fanny, but comes across, as usual, with a characteristically ‘unemotional’ objectivity. Asked whether she was surprised and affected by the polemic, she responded: ‘Surprise par les propos d’Eric Raoult, qui dépassent en ridicule tout ce qu’on peut imaginer, oui. Affectée, non’ (Leménager, 2009).

Throughout this book I argue that NDiaye’s work explores the violence done to the subject’s capacity for feeling and knowing. This violence is carried out by systems which muddle and split the subject beyond a point s/he can reasonably tolerate. The much-discussed cruelty at the heart of NDiaye’s work (cf. Samoyault, 1999; Rabaté, 2013a) may be read, I suggest, as the recurring symptom of what it means to have one’s life split into non-cohering sections; to be repeatedly stripped of the complexity of one’s ‘true’ self, but to be actively complicit in that stripping; to be constantly ‘blanking out’ humiliating experiences that demand to be spoken, yet at the same time to be drawing attention to them obsessively, in a double-movement of affirmation and denial. NDiaye’s work has, from the outset, (p.14) emphasized the strangeness of a splitting that cannot be acknowledged as such. Her protagonists oscillate chaotically between different states of having and not having, recognition and non-recognition, integration and exclusion. And their oscillations invariably lead them to a place in which they no longer feel anything at all, in which they become simply blank. Donald Winnicott (1969) suggests that identifying as ‘nothing’ becomes, in infancy, the self’s ultimate defence against a caregiver’s insistence on causing various kinds of unmanageable ‘muddle’ in his or her representation of reality. For Harry Guntrip, meanwhile, the only way, for many people, to cope with intolerable experiences of what he terms ‘“in and out” oscillation’ is ‘to escape from it into detachment and loss of feeling’ (1968: 48). My own intention is neither to celebrate nor to pathologize the subject’s multiple strategies for psychic survival but rather to explore the myriad aesthetic implications of how NDiaye’s paradoxes get converted into literary and theatrical forms of glittering blankness, constantly reflecting on their own zones of dissimulation. Like her various protagonists, the public NDiaye is constantly masking and unmasking different versions of what she claims to know and not know, to feel and not feel. Sometimes the act of revelation and concealment seems playful and banal; at others, especially in more politically charged contexts, it seems irresponsible and almost offensive. Whatever the truth of the ‘real’ NDiaye’s knowledge or feeling, NDiaye in her capacity as artist is able to take emotional and epistemological paradox to unprecedented heights of fascination.

Le travail du négatif: Psychodynamics of the Need to not Know

The approaches I have found to combine most productively with NDiaye’s worlds of denial and obfuscation are generally psychotherapeutic in perspective.12 Psychoanalytic psychotherapy, especially those branches of it that focus on the traumatized subject’s need to ‘split off’ those parts of itself that are too painful to hold in consciousness, has generated fascinating accounts of the different ways in which we wrap intolerable psychic and/or physical perception in clouds of dead, unfeeling nothingness. A brief analysis of some of NDiaye’s most nullified characters reveals that a reading of their various flights into blankness bears interesting fruit from juxtaposition with the greatest psychotherapeutic thinkers of psychic negation.

(p.15) A character like Nadia, the middle-aged narrator of the novel Mon cœur à l’étroit (2007), becomes easier to understand if we consider her need to deny the various forms of catastrophe that bubble beneath the surface of her life in the light of Freud’s writings on the so-called defensive process. Freud focuses his analysis of ‘splitting-off’ on those he labels as ‘fetishists’, those male ‘perverts’ who create new systems of sexuality in order to distract themselves from their terrible observation that women, penis-less as they are, have apparently been castrated. Freud suggests that ‘perverted’ subjects engage in psychic processes of disavowal in order to cope with the intolerable knowledge of a loss they think they risk. One part of the ‘perverted’ subject’s psyche acknowledges and accepts rationally that women have no penis and never did have one, while another part of the same psyche insists on creating a fetish that will make up for the hallucinated loss. This fetishistic part of the subject refuses the fact of sexual difference (a difference which, for various reasons, it finds traumatic) and instead insists, in a quasi-fantastical attempt to defend itself from anxiety, on an approach to (sexual) life that is predicated on negation. As Susan Rubin Suleiman (2010: 104) points out, Freud’s analysis of the ‘fetishist’s’ defensive system of disavowal is perhaps less interesting for its reflections on the psychic and physical phenomena of sexual difference than for its elaboration of a subjectivity that turns to denial in order to preserve it from the pain of real or hallucinated loss. NDiaye’s Nadia lives her life within such a system of refusal. Hers is a mode of existence predicated on the silent dissimulation and replacement of all the various traumatic elements of her past and present experience, elements that could be described, in Freudian terms, as forms of both real and hallucinated castration. In his original article on ‘splitting’, Freud (1938) refers to the artfulness of the fetishist. And Nadia is indeed artful in her various conversions of anxiety and loss into empty simulacra of personal contentment and socio-political privilege, facades which all depend for their flimsy shadow-existence on the blanking out of unfortunate realities: a working-class (and probably non-white) family background; a sudden and apparently inexplicable exclusion from bourgeois Bordeaux; a queer and hateful grown-up son. Hers is the supreme artfulness of the defensive blank. It is the breakdown of Nadia’s various processes of knowing and yet not knowing with regard to the traumatic phantoms lurking behind her initially polished account of herself that forms the subject of Mon cœur à l’étroit, a novel which, in many ways, acts out a fantastically psychotherapeutic ‘coming-to- (p.16) terms’ (via the inter-uterine growth and delivery of an unnameable black creature) with the buried truth of denied trauma.

As we explore the various ways in which NDiaye’s protagonists attempt to avoid the pain of emotional knowledge, we discover fascinating overlaps with some of the twentieth century’s most exciting thinkers of denial. We are in no way obliged to remain in the sexual (and ultimately normative) domain of Freud. Wilfred Bion’s writings explore the different directions in which the mind can travel as it opens itself up to (or, conversely, closes itself down against) the knowledge and the truth of its own psychic reality. Using the term ‘K’ to describe the capacity to experience the knowledge that comes from exposure to real emotional experience, Bion uses the opposite term, ‘minus K’, to convey ‘not just ignorance but the active avoidance of knowledge, or even the wish to destroy the capacity for it’ (Parsons, 2000: 49). NDiaye’s texts illuminate methods – and, crucially, socio-political contexts – involved in the cultivation of a lifestyle and mindset predicated on the blankness of minus K. Bion’s account of potential psychic change is especially useful when we attempt to give words to the trajectories of NDiaye’s later protagonists, characters who do seem to develop a capacity for moving, even if only for a miraculous instant, to a place beyond blank disavowal. Figures like the anguished mixed-race lawyer Norah in the opening story of Trois femmes puissantes (2009), or the celebrated novelist narrator of Autoportrait en vert (2005) are both privileged with (or assaulted by) wild flashes of unstoppable K. It descends upon them against their will, taking various forms: hot streams of embarrassing urine (Norah), or the terrified sighting of an unnameable ‘forme sombre’ (Autoportrait en vert). These encounters with K may be experienced by the characters involved as anything but pleasant, but they convey the sense of a non-negotiable psychic propulsion forwards in the NDiayean œuvre. NDiaye’s later writing seems increasingly capable of ‘containing’ – to use another Bionian concept – the cathartic horror of its protagonists’ uncomfortable brushes with K. These later works display the same drive towards emotional transformation that can be felt when reading Bion himself, for whom ‘learning from experience’ is the one activity the human being needs to discover if s/he is to avoid the zombified numbness of psychic stagnation.

The vast majority of characters in both NDiaye’s novels and plays, however, never come close to learning from experience, or indeed to anything resembling emotional growth, tending instead to disintegrate in a messy morass of Freudian fetishism and Bionian minus K. The (p.17) eponymous heroine of Rosie Carpe, constantly unsure who or what she actually is, frequently unable to access emotions, sensations and memories, and veering unnervingly between feelings of complete non-existence and an intoxicating experience of herself as preternaturally powerful, brilliantly illustrates Donald Winnicott’s preoccupation with the ‘false self that hides the true self, that complies with demands, that reacts to stimuli, that rids itself of instinctual experiences by having them, but that is only playing for time’ (1958: 304– 5). Rosie emerges from a vague and forgotten childhood as a fully fledged nonentity, ignored, acted upon, manipulated, but also uncannily shifting and adapting (like her parents, but somehow less powerfully) to new, frequently abusive situations, silently complying with their often intolerable demands. Rosie appears to have no inner sense of herself as a real person, nor is she able to take an ethical position within a given predicament, no matter how urgent the circumstances.

Other protagonists in NDiaye do not go through such a dizzying array of ‘false selves’, but their capacity for emotional response to a traumatic situation is instead obscured by an all-consuming vagueness. Herman, the passive, melting protagonist of Un temps de saison (1994) and Lucie, the blandly agreeable narrator of La Sorcière (1996), are such protagonists, their psychic (non-) responses to various trials of social and familial alienation and loss being more accurately described, rather than via reference to the Winnicottian ‘false self’, in Peter L. Giovacchini’s term of ‘blank self’. Giovacchini investigates subjects who ‘[use] blankness as a defense against […] underlying rage and self-hatred (as well as to demand magical salvation)’ (1972a: 376). Comparing such characters to Helene Deutsch’s (1934) notion of the ‘as-if personality’, Giovacchini provides a fascinating analysis of the frustration inherent in any attempt to construct relationships with people who are not ‘really’ there:

I couldn’t find an anchor upon which to organize my understanding […] of these patients. I felt there was nothing I could ‘grab hold off’ [sic] – that there was nothing to analyze. I felt a void within myself when I tried to view each patient in terms of unconscious processes and defense mechanisms […] My patients, however, were perfectly composed and relaxed and (on the surface at least) did not appear defensive. Although there seemed to be a paucity of analytic material (transference projections), my patients were not boring. I had the distinct impression that I was being confronted with a baffling phenomenon, but one that might eventually be understood in analytic terms.

(Giovacchini, 1972a: 371)

(p.18) Arriving at the conclusion that these people have developed ‘blank selves’ not only as responses to aggressive and/or neglectful parenting but also to screen off disavowed hatred of their own children, Giovacchini offers rich material for further investigation of the blankness of protagonists such as Herman and Lucie, who greet the disappearance of their variously gaseous and crow-converted children into the ether with a characteristically muted response. His ‘blank self’ is the political and familial hook upon which NDiaye’s ungraspable tableau of ‘nothing characters’ is hung.

Blankness/Blancness: Skins, Stigmata, Shame

There are, then, a number of psychotherapeutic models we can use to probe NDiaye’s protagonists in order to gain greater insight into their propensity towards the blankness of not knowing. However, we need to develop these psyche-based observations while bearing in mind the socio-political context within which her texts are created. Her repeated analyses of dissociation and self-erasure also cry out to be approached from the perspective of the minority subject’s experience of stigmatization, especially in its racialized form. In a bizarre and fascinating passage from his article ‘The Unconscious’, Freud himself appears to racialize the problem of anxious fantasy. Attempting to describe unconscious fantasy formations, he bewilderingly declares:

We may compare them with individuals of mixed race who, taken all round, resemble white men, but who betray their coloured descent by some striking feature or other, and on that account are excluded from society and enjoy none of the privileges of white people […] To this species belong the fantasmatic formations of normal men as well as neurotics, in whom we have recognized the preliminary degrees of the formation of the dream and the symptom.

(Freud, 1915: 191)

NDiaye’s writing, thoroughly saturated as it is with the vexed questions of ‘mixed-ness’, ‘striking features’, exclusion and neurosis, might be seen as the ultimate literary response to Freud’s under-developed simile. If her protagonists are characterized by their need blankly to negate, this tendency usually takes place in tandem with an unshakable sense of themselves as ‘marked’, excessively and hatefully recognizable as a member of a shameful social category with which they seek no association and to which they are, in any case, only distantly (p.19) connected. The hateful social mark becomes the unavoidable horizon against which the NDiayean protagonist’s drive towards the fantasy of total blankness must be viewed, even if more ‘universal’ contexts of traumatized infancy and familial haunting (of which more later) remain equally pressing.

NDiaye’s short story ‘Les Sœurs’ (2008) serves as the most explicit exploration of a racializing trauma to which she alludes in enigmatic form throughout her œuvre. Through the character of Victoire, NDiaye explores how a subject’s movement towards psychic blankness serves as a defence against an ideological procedure of corporeal objectification. The dark-skinned Victoire, constantly misrecognized, over-simplified, categorized and labelled by her lazy peers as ‘black’, despite her mixed parentage and exemplary, smiling assimilation, develops a social persona that enjoys success and eventual popularity, but which is, as her admirer Bertini discovers in horror, both impenetrable and strangely robotic:

[O]h, se dit Bertini désemparé, ce n’était qu’artifice, jeu social, stratégie d’évitement […] Elle avait été contrainte de jouer et de dissimuler bien au-delà de ce qu’on peut raisonnablement admettre. Elle était devenue une femme implacable et sévère, sous ses dehors amènes, et en quelque sorte inaccessible.

(SO, 14)

Victoire’s peculiarly strategic falseness is, NDiaye’s narrator suggests via Bertini’s interpretation, a behavioural disposition that she has devised for coping with a social situation of corporeal over-exposure that is simply intolerable and on which she is, perhaps, at some level, reflecting ‘sans cesse’ (SO, 14). Unable to find meaning in a black identity, Victoire is not in a position, unlike her light-skinned but paranoid sister Paula, to ‘pass’ as white. Her solution is to dwell in a realm of resolutely non-representational, smilingly ignorant, would-be ‘post-racial’ blankness, not unlike the various forms of negation we have already discussed, but with the specific function of blanking out the traumatic evocation of racialized difference.13

Playing on the English word ‘blackness’ and the French ‘blanc’ (meaning both ‘white’ and ‘blank’), I would like to propose a new word for Victoire’s attempted attainment of absolutely ‘post-racial’ being: blancness. Blancness is the typically NDiayean state, most often achieved only provisionally or else in fantasy, of being no longer recognizable as a racialized minority. While mere ‘blankness’ tends to replicate the Freudian, Bionian, Winnicottian or Giovacchinian forms I have already discussed, blancness is a phenomenon specific to (p.20) those who are recognizably racialized as minority subjects and who are attempting to evade this unwelcome (mis)recognition. Blancness is always a symptom of an unwelcome racialization, though it need not necessarily be expressed in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’. Indeed, it rarely is represented thus. In En famille, Fanny’s blancness is the ‘new and improved’ appearance she attains after her first death, during which some people seem no longer to notice her ‘singularité’. In Un temps de saison, Herman’s blancness is his shaky sense of the possibility of integration into the blond village community in which he unexpectedly finds himself following his family’s disappearance. In Mon cœur à l’étroit, Nadia’s blancness is embodied in the normative niche she and her husband Ange occupy in bourgeois Bordeaux prior to their inexplicable persecution. The problem, of course, is that the (un)comfortably numb condition of blancness can neither last for long nor, in an obsessively racializing society, be truly post-racial. As Bertini so annoyingly points out, Victoire does experience racism: he has seen it. And while she is prepared, in the story’s one miraculous moment of ‘non-blank’ communication, to acknowledge that painful fact, it is not an acknowledgment she is ready to repeat or to integrate into an everyday narrative about herself. She would prefer to flee: from Bertini, from the possibility of intimacy, from the very pages of this awkward little parable about actually feeling black.

Victoire’s response to Bertini’s well-meaning observation can usefully be read with reference to Giorgio Agamben’s account of shame and the human subject. Considering the case of an Italian student who blushes following his random selection for death at the hands of an SS officer, Agamben notes that ‘it is as if the flush on his cheeks momentarily betrayed a limit that was reached, as if something like a new ethical material were touched upon in the living being’ (1999: 104). The student cannot contain the shame of being designated in so violently intimate a way: the force of it overwhelms him, announces itself on his body, spreading out visibly on his cheeks. Agamben frames it brilliantly:

The ‘I’ is thus overcome by its own passivity […] yet this expropriation and desubjectification is also an extreme and irreducible presence of the ‘I’ to itself. It is as if our consciousness collapsed and, seeking to flee in all directions, were simultaneously summoned to be present at its own defacement, at the expropriation of what is most its own. In shame, the subject thus has no other content than its own desubjectification; it becomes witness to its own disorder, its own oblivion as a subject. This (p.21) double movement, which is both subjectification and desubjectification, is shame.

(Agamben, 1999: 105– 6)

These moments of radical shame are experienced as so intolerable for ‘marked’ NDiayean subjects such as Victoire that they far prefer to take refuge in fantasies of eternal blankness – and blancness – even if the consequence of this is isolation from all relationality. Fanny, the protagonist of En famille extends the hopeless attempt to avoid this feeling of racialized shame over hundreds of pages. One moment in particular, halfway through the novel, illustrates the vain hypocrisy of her attempted evasion especially well. Having returned to the familial village against the express orders of Tante Colette never to do so again, Fanny is staying as a paying guest at the hotel of a childhood friend named Isabelle. Finally recognizing Fanny after a short period of blankness, Isabelle’s husband recalls the abusive term that was used to designate her during their childhood, his insensitive repetition of which causes Fanny, ‘tout empourprée de honte’ (EF, 166; my emphasis), to hang her head over her coffee in a ‘douloureux silence’ (EF, 166).14

Texts such as ‘Les Sœurs’ and En famille are remarkable for the way in which they paint the emotional and ontological failure of NDiaye’s psychically and socio-politically ‘spoiled’ (cf. Goffman, 1963) protagonists with such nightmarish precision. Horrified at the world’s capacity to label them as something they justifiably do not accept that they are, these protagonists cling fast to the possibility of blancness, the political supplement to an already existing basic propensity towards blankness (disavowal, affectlessness, pretence) that has been inculcated in the familial dimensions of their relational existence. They simply cannot cope with the possibility of the Agambenian moment of shame. In Ladivine (2013), Clarisse/Malinka prefers to withdraw from all interaction with her teacher – and with education itself – rather than run the risk of being ‘outed’ as ‘black’ by the appearance of her mother:

Elle ne dit rien cependant, se contentant de hocher la tête avec son sérieux habituel.

Il en reparla une fois, elle hocha de nouveau la tête, jamais plus, par la suite, elle ne lèverait vers lui son visage avide d’approbation.

(L, 39– 40)15

NDiaye’s protagonists refuse, on the whole, to acknowledge the reality of shameful naming, even as their dark (or pale) cheeks continue visibly to burn. Fanny, for example, fails to take the opportunity offered her by a highly intelligent series of reflections uttered by her indescribably (p.22) ‘othered’ fiancé Georges in the wake of his own intolerable experience of racialized shaming:

Je ne suis rien d’autre que moi, Georges, et je ne comprends rien aux noms dont on m’affuble, que j’entends susurrer quand je passe dans la grand-rue, et que pourtant je reconnais pour des noms ridicules et honteux […] puisque je ne suis rien d’autre que moi, Georges, et que ces noms que j’entends sur mon passage sont vieux et convenus, ils n’ont pas été inventés pour moi qui suis contraint, cependant, quoique ébahi, d’accepter qu’ils me désignent […] Mais je sens être Georges, tout simplement, ainsi que je me le répète chaque jour pour ne rien avoir à faire avec ces mots, dont, malheureusement, je devine le sens, car ce sont des mots connus, qu’on ne peut pas feindre de n’avoir jamais entendus ou de trouver plaisants.

– Quels sont-ils? demandai-je d’une voix légère, mais les joues empourprées, le front brûlant.

(EF, 233– 4)

The price that Fanny must pay for her faux-naive pact with both blankness and blancness is radical depersonalization, the renunciation of any possibility of intimacy with those who seek to discuss the phenomena with her, and, to top it off, fantastical disintegration. ‘Shame-deniers’ such as Fanny are almost always rejected by social, familial and legislative structures that have never believed in their precious, only ever provisional blancness in the first place, or else, like Malinka/Clarisse, who ‘passes’ successfully, they are unable to enter into anything resembling honest relationality. Perhaps the ultimate cruel irony is that these protagonists’ anxious attachment to an always insecure blancness means that they can never properly enjoy the stupid, sleepy zombification that their ‘unmarked’ contemporaries take for granted. As the narrator of La Femme changée en bûche obsessively remarks, she will never be granted the ‘ordinariness’ of her empty-headed friend Valérie: no matter how far she advances in her career of blankness, she will always be prevented from falling into a truly blithe state of unrecognizability precisely because of the apparently visible stain she so troublingly carries.

It seems to me crucial, in this protracted discussion of Marie NDiaye’s treatment of blankness, that we maintain an analysis that functions at several levels, acknowledging the ‘universality’ of the situations she describes while at the same time noticing the ways in which those situations accrue a vaguely obscene ‘supplementary’ level of specifically stigmatized anxiety. It is this politicized ‘supplement’ (one that is usually disavowed by NDiaye herself in interviews) that complicates most (p.23) existing psychoanalytic theories of psychic negation, and which makes NDiaye one of the most nuanced painters of twentieth- and twenty-first-century blankness, one who highlights the simultaneously private and public contexts of the self’s anxious flight from visibility and representation. The ‘supplement’ weds blankness to blancness, illustrating how these two ‘invisibilizing’ phenomena work in tandem but also against one another. It is in the tension between the two strains of negation that the socially ‘marked’ subject is prevented from fully enjoying the ‘pleasures’ of blankness, but is also potentially saved from its totally zombifying implications.

Dead Parents: Familial Avatars of the ‘Traumatizing’ (Non-) Event

The colourless personalities of NDiaye’s protagonists are founded, as we have seen, on a need to not know something about themselves. This desperation for ignorance is something NDiaye’s various texts actively collude with. Her texts usually offer the reader just enough information to realise that something is being hidden or denied, but not quite enough to work out what ‘it’ is. The narratives themselves mimic the dead zones of the zombified characters’ masked bodies, discourses and psyches. The holes at the heart of so many of NDiaye’s texts operate not only at the level of character but also at the level of event. Events which may or may not have taken place leave gaps in the narrative every bit as disorientating as those reflected in the protagonists’ disavowing dispositions. Textual blankness derives, in other words, not only from the way in which protagonists refuse to know things that they could know, but also from the way in which they are haunted by non-things that they can never know, no matter how hard they try. These non-things seem to be occluded events floating out of the past, spectral phenomena buried deep within the protagonists’ family history and inter-generational psychopathology. We are no longer talking about the disavowal or repression of unpleasant or humiliating knowledge which the protagonists could, theoretically, allow themselves to know. No: the kind of haunting ‘non-thing’ we are now discussing is placed firmly out of the reach of both protagonist and reader. It belongs to the realm of the properly unknowable. The nature of this kind of haunting event, or non-event, is always difficult to conceptualize, as it is often so abstract, so close to something already formless, never properly born.

(p.24) In the novel Rosie Carpe, Lagrand is driven to distraction by the nagging feeling that there was something that he was supposed to do but has forgotten. The uncertainty dances around his consciousness like a negative sprite, weighing on his brain in all its niggling absence: ‘Qu’aurait-il dû faire qu’il n’avait pas fait?’ (RC, 187) … ‘[i]l se sentait brutalement coupable de tout’ (RC, 205). We later learn that Lagrand’s mother is psychotic, and decided long ago that he, her son, was responsible for her intolerable thoughts and feelings. In Un temps de saison, Herman is confounded by a mysterious absence that is absolutely not his fault: the supernatural dematerialization of his wife and child. As for En famille’s Fanny, while she may well be a psychological study in the ‘blanking out’ of things she could see and know if only she were a little stronger, she is also the victim of an impossibly murky familial past that she is trying in vain to understand. The family’s ‘history’ is, in fact, an ever-shifting set of half-baked stories and incomplete representations, whose various exclusions, erasures and unprovable acts of violence fill her with the sense of emptiness to which she will try to give form in the shape of the spectral Aunt Léda. Fanny, Herman and Lagrand are part of a larger community of NDiaye’s characters who are haunted by a sense of themselves as disintegrating, ‘undone’, riddled with blanks that are truly not of their making. Such protagonists and the narratives which bear them will eventually disintegrate under the violence of textual non-explication.

The family can usually be located as the source of all these unknowable blanks in the world of NDiaye. Already characterized by a series of affectless and indifferent individual members, the family is also defined by a set of non-locatable and unsolvable mysteries which hurt the suffering protagonist without her ever being able to identify the precise nature of the pain. One way of considering the feeling experienced by many of NDiaye’s protagonists, that they carry within them a ghostly ‘blank’ that seems to have been transmitted via a parental figure, is through the lens of André Green’s theory of the ‘dead’ mother. In Green’s vision, the subject’s early internalization of her caregiver’s emotional absence creates a propensity towards a lifelong sense of being haunted by something that is ‘there’, but not ‘there’. Green’s ‘dead’ mother has not actually died, but neither has she been able to create ‘living’ bonds with her infant, absorbed as she is during key sections of the child’s infancy by her own processes of blank mourning (1983: 222). The infant registers the mother’s withdrawal of interest, affection and affect, but also notes her continued material existence: physically (p.25) present, but psychically voided, the mother is now experienced by the infant as somehow ‘dead’, or perhaps more accurately as ‘zombified’, an only half-alive, pseudo-parental shell.16 According to Green, rather than developing a loving, hating or even manageably disillusioned rapport with her maternal object, the infant of the ‘dead mother’ develops a blank rapport with the lifeless imago she carries inside herself: Green speaks of a ‘noyau froid’, ‘qui sera ultérieurement dépassé mais qui laisse un marque indélébile sur les investissements érotiques des sujets en question’ (1983: 230; his emphasis). Green expresses the (non-) affective mother– infant relationship in various terms, but perhaps his most striking formulation is that of the infant’s hate-free ‘murder’ of the maternal object (1983: 231), which it silently ‘buries’ inside itself, cadaverous but still disgustingly alive, without a tombstone to symbolize the loss. The spectral presence has not been eliminated, of course, but lingers, disavowed, just beneath the surface of the growing infant’s consciousness, into childhood, adolescence, and far beyond. The developing subject feels no love, then, and no hate either, just a dull, aching absence: this is the unbearable, negative, psychic (non-) weight, the painful hole, as it were, of the badly buried ‘dead mother’ (1983: 235).

Wherever we look in the world of NDiaye, we find mothers that André Green would indubitably describe as ‘dead’. Consider any ‘hole’-riddled, loveless protagonist hard enough, and her oddly vacant mother will usually be discernible, smiling pleasantly even as she slithers from her furious child’s grasp. There is almost no point in making a list: it would include almost every single one of NDiaye’s main characters. Lucie, la sorcière; the failed film star, Ève Brulard; Olga and René, the anorexic teenagers of ‘Le Jour du Président’ and ‘Les Garçons’ respectively, all display three or more of the classic hallmarks of ‘dead mother children’: obsessive, delusional, forgetful, shivering, permanently guilt-ridden, in constant search of physically induced affect, and drawn to absent, spectral, feminine and feminized love-objects. They also struggle with nightmarishly inaccessible mothers, many of whom fantastically ‘turn’ in the course of the narrative itself, becoming different in a way the child cannot quite put her finger on. When, after a long period of separation, Rosie Carpe unexpectedly encounters her mother one afternoon on the streets of Antony, it is the strange casualness of Danielle/Diane’s ‘Tiens, bonjour’ (RC, 129) that first strikes the reader as uncanny. But the mother – and the world that mother has built around her – have, for Rosie, become overwhelmingly robotic, pallid and unreal. Mme (p.26) Carpe’s hair has turned blond and she smells inexplicably of boxwood (RC, 131); the interiors of her house gleam with a ‘blanc si insurpassable qu’il lui semblait être non pas le simple blanc mais la source même de tous les blancs possibles’ (RC, 132); even her voice has been drained of colour, a ‘voix blanche’ (RC, 135). Rosie, already seriously disorientated by reality, and doubtful even of her own identity, is incapable of fully grasping this fantastically new mother, and is instead stunned into a quasi-infantile stupor, aware only that the unreadable parent she is now being confronted with is ‘autre chose’ (RC, 132).17 A novel written a decade earlier rehearses the same dynamic. Running randomly into her mother at the railway station over 100 pages after the painful familial quest of En famille has begun – 100 pages during which she has been abandoned, abused, excluded and raped twice (once by her maternal uncle) – Fanny is straightaway confronted with a strangely hurtful affability:

Hélas, ma petite fille, s’écria la mère en brandissant une valise écossaise, il faut que je me sauve, je prends l’avion dans une heure!

Mais jamais tu n’as pris l’avion, dit Fanny interloquée.

Oui, oui, mais c’est ainsi, aujourd’hui je prends l’avion […] Au revoir, ma petite fille. Si je pensais te rencontrer là!


Quant à elle, Fanny n’eût pas souffert de ne la voir jamais revenir: sans le vouloir, sa mère lui avait causé jusqu’à ce jour moins de bienfaits que de désagréments, tant son indifférence était infinie.

(EF, 126– 8)

NDiaye’s ‘dead’ mothers play a crucial role, then, in the author’s all-consuming evocation of narrative and psychic blankness. Not only does their bloodless presence reinforce the kinds of denial and disavowal we have already considered at length (for they encourage their offspring to withdraw emotionally as much as they themselves have done), but they also exist, like Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s familial ‘phantoms’, as utterly unknowable ‘non-events’ in their own right, ontological embodiments of a blank secret to which the protagonists can never have access. In accordance with the theories of Abraham and Torok, NDiaye’s heroines and heroes are afflicted by familial phantoms which are not the product of their own repressed complexes, but those of their mothers and fathers, and of their mothers and fathers before them:

La préoccupation d’abord contrôlée, puis délirante du patient semble l’effet d’une hantise fantomatique, issue de la tombe que recèle le (p.27) psychisme du père. Le délire du patient incarne ce fantôme et met en scène l’agitation verbale d’un secret enterré vif dans l’inconscient paternel […] Le fantôme est une formation de l’inconscient qui a pour particularité de n’avoir jamais été consciente – et pour cause, – et de résulter du passage – dont le mode reste à déterminer – de l’inconscient d’un parent à l’inconscient d’un enfant […] L’apparition du fantôme indiquerait donc les effets sur le descendant de ce qui avait eu, pour le parent, valeur de blessure, voire de catastrophe narcissique […] Ajoutons qu’il est supporté par des mots occultés, autant de gnomes invisibles qui s’appliquent à rompre, depuis l’inconscient, la cohérence des enchaînements.

(Abraham and Torok, 1987: 429– 31)18

Add to the various ‘dead’ mothers and ancestral ‘phantoms’ a whole host of missing fathers, and it quickly becomes clear how the NDiayean protagonist does not have to go back very far in her family tree in her quest to discover why it may feel as if she is surrounded by blankness. In the world of NDiaye, the father is not only radically absent, he is also, if and when he turns up, every bit as ‘dead’ as his ex-wife, albeit in a rather less affable manner. The fathers of Fanny in En famille, the narrator in Autoportrait en vert and Norah in Trois femmes puissantes all display the same combination of extreme coldness, contempt and indifference towards their adult daughters. Not content with being physically absent for most of these women’s lives, these fathers add to their daughters’ already existing sense of emptiness by removing any possibility of emotional connection when the adult child actually makes the epic journey to visit them in their African (or, in the case of En famille, African-esque) home. The eponymous anti-hero of Papa doit manger positively revels in his refusal to inhabit the paternal function for any of his offspring, going so far as to specify the necessity of his youngest child’s eradication if he, Papa, is to become the man he dreams of being. Meanwhile, the floating head of Rosie’s spectral father, Francis, is the image with which NDiaye leaves the reader in the final sentence of Rosie Carpe. NDiaye reveals paternal ‘deadness’ to be every bit as crucial in the creation of the haunted and disintegrating subject’s set of internalized blanks as its maternal counterpart.19 Many characters – one thinks of René, Lagrand, Malinka/Clarisse, or the variously spectral babies in Rosie Carpe, Providence and Rien d’humain – have no father at all, or, rather, their father could be literally anyone. For these characters, if they ever arrive in the world of action and speech, there can be a choice only between increasingly mad and dangerous quests for daddy – René will pay a particularly high price for the (p.28) sight of his father’s face – and the horrid acceptance of an undeniable abandonment: ‘Mon père s’est barré, dit-il tranquillement’ (TMA, 104).

Holey Books: Fantastical Representations of Uncertainty

Fleeing Bordeaux in the early hours of the morning, Nadia, the narrator of NDiaye’s 2007 novel Mon cœur à l’étroit, comes across an empty square that is brilliantly and inexplicably lit up: ‘Cette abondance de surnaturel me tourne la tête. Une place vide à ce point illuminée – ah, dans quel but? me dis-je’ (MCE, 191). I would like this image to represent the world of NDiaye. Her narratives are paradoxically glowing landscapes of ghostly kinship and spectral community, populated by disavowed trauma, unacknowledged stigma, blank selfhood and unknowable ancestry. This world of deathly emptiness is conveyed by language that is itself full of holes and hallucinations. As we have seen, her writing mimics the mechanisms of unconscious repression and foreclosed familial knowledge. In repeatedly evoking what is not there and cannot be found, NDiaye emphasizes the blank’s importance, its centrality to psychic life itself, more intensely than any representation of the missing object possibly could. But it is her destabilization of the frontiers of realism that contributes particularly effectively to her creation of a world in which the information desired by the reader more than anything else is tantalizingly out of reach.

NDiaye makes use of nearly all the tools available to writers of the ‘fantastic’, that register of aesthetic creation in which, to paraphrase Todorov’s (1970) canonical formulation, the reader is forced to hesitate before the reality of the world with which s/he is confronted. Her reader must hesitate for all kinds of ‘fantastical’ reasons: does the narrator of La Femme changée en bûche really – at least, within the intra-diegetic ‘reality’ of the text we are reading – have a personal relationship with the Devil, or is she psychotic? Does En famille’s Fanny really come back to life after she has been ripped apart by her cousin’s dog? And, if so, has she really changed in some fundamental, quasi-physical manner, as several (though not all) of the other characters in the novel appear to think? Is Lucie really a witch, or is she just tired of being boring?20 Have her daughters truly grown wings and flown away, or is she merely having a breakdown? Rare is the NDiaye text in which the reader does not have to ask herself such questions, even if the author’s deployment of radically different modes of non-realism shifts from book to book (p.29) and from play to play.21 By producing a representational framework in which the reader or spectator must constantly question the validity of her own perceptions and interpretations, NDiaye reinforces with great effectiveness the feelings of anxiety, doubt and panic set in motion for the hapless protagonists by unlocatable non-events, disavowed absences and blankly mourned losses. When Ève Brulard sees herself multiplied and waiting for her at every street corner, all the while terrified by the spectral presence of her dead mother in the village mountain, the reader, at the mercy of ‘fantastical’ hesitation, is forced to experience the same dynamics of schizoid splitting.

The suspension of ‘realism’ at the aesthetic level thus allies with a forced recognition of blank haunting and disintegration at the psychic level. Trauma is embedded within a fantastically reconfigured framing of holey, unverifiable ‘reality’ (cf. Gaensbauer, 2009). But it is important to note that NDiaye’s use of the fantastic conveys not only subjective and familial psychosis but also socio-politically constructed derangement. The lurching shifts of, in particular, racialized ‘mad’ experience are nightmarishly communicated via NDiaye’s withholding of key information throughout her narratives. When, for example, we are not permitted to know whether Fanny’s putative metamorphosis has gone unrecognized by her aunt Clémence because it has not ‘actually’ happened or because her aunt Colette and cousin Eugène are ‘seeing things’, NDiaye conveys a truth about the nature of the minority subject’s racialized experience that is little discussed because majority discourse remains so stubbornly in the realms of so-called ‘common sense’. For racialized perception is inherently fantasmatic. If one human is deemed by another to be ‘different’, it is perfectly possible that a third, differently pathological, human will not see that ‘difference’, indeed will not accept it as a ‘real’ criterion of discernment. Racism, while a system, can be experienced in a fantastically unsystematic manner. As Erving Goffman points out (1963), the stigmatized subject quickly becomes used to the ‘strange’ (yet everyday) experience of her stigma being received with contempt in one quarter, horror in another, and indifference in a third. Moreover, the same stigmatized subject can be perceived differently by the same non-stigmatized subject from one day to the next, depending on mood, circumstances and political context. To be stigmatized is an inherently uncanny experience, replete with doubt, hesitation, paranoia and faulty interpretations. NDiaye’s habitual inscription of informational gaps or bewildering shifts in the perceptions or behaviour of characters responding to another’s alleged (p.30) ‘difference’ may be, for some readers, fantastical; for others it is, like the strange world of NDiaye itself, utterly quotidian.

The first chapter of this book considers the first cycle of NDiaye’s novels, the books she published between 1985 and 1994. In this chapter, I trace the progression of writing which begins, in the early text Quant au riche avenir, by appearing to embody the values of French universalism, irreproachable style and ‘blank perfection’, but proceeds to stage its own particularized breakdown – via incursions into the marvellous, the fantastic and increasingly tainted subjectivity – at the same time as establishing itself as a truly singular body of work. In the second chapter, I move on to explore the second cycle of novels, texts published between 1996 and 2009, as well as considering aspects of Ladivine (2013), NDiaye’s outlandish epic of canine protection and transgenerational shame, and the first novel published by NDiaye after winning the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for Trois femmes puissantes. This is the period during which NDiaye, transformed from ‘cult’ personality to mainstream literary star via a series of highly mediatized events (accolades, ‘exile’, rows), produced what is perhaps her finest work, Rosie Carpe (2001), and began to push her exploration of blankness in the direction of emotional recognition and healing as well as something occasionally resembling politicizable representation. The third chapter addresses NDiaye’s theatre: six plays written between 1999 and 2011. While these theatrical works compress and intensify the themes of human eradication and erasure – facilitated by familial and social structures – already familiar from the prose fiction, they do so in an especially violent manner, as well as insisting on the need for a collective, perhaps revolutionary, response to the abusive dimensions of non-negotiable blankness. Papa doit manger (2003) managed to smuggle a black man, a mixed-race woman and two mixed-race girls onto the stage of the 323-year-old Comédie-Française within the context of one of the most bizarrely classical (and yet also baroque) French plays of recent times. What are the cultural implications of such publicly and spectacularly racialized representations of blank psychosis and abuse? The final chapter focuses on the question of the child, a figure who becomes increasingly important in the course of NDiaye’s writing. Arguing that the child is, in her world, the ultimate stigmatized victim and the conduit par excellence through which pathological processes of deadening and erasure are channelled, I consider a number of ‘minor’ works (neither novels nor plays) published between 1999 and 2011 (p.31) and often illustrated by drawings, paintings or photographs, in which NDiaye increasingly allows the child-figure the possibility of recognizing and representing itself on less glazed terms. Not unlike NDiaye’s own trajectory from schoolgirl prodigy to grand écrivain, the path I trace in the course of this book has a vaguely redemptive feel to it. Let the reader judge for him or herself whether these yellow brick roads from blankness to recognition bear witness to real transformation.


(1) I was later reminded of those strange sequences in certain films by David Lynch, in which the hero finds him or herself watching a singing woman on stage in the middle of the night. These female performers are always semi-monstrous automata who nevertheless provoke unbearably ‘real’ emotion in the weeping spectator-protagonist.

(2) As the half-dead little Prunelle enigmatically puts it in NDiaye’s children’s book Les Paradis de Prunelle: ‘Oui, il manque toujours quelque chose au paradis’ (PP, 28).

(3) My project is thus not dissimilar in its ‘empty-centred’ approach from those carried out by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit in their work on Beckett, Rothko and Resnais (1994) or Ciaran Ross in another study of Beckett (2011), which employs many of the British psychoanalytic models I have found so useful in my work on NDiaye. NDiaye’s own areas of overlap as an artist with Beckett are not negligible, though they should not be overstated. Whilst not wishing to explore the issue at length here, I would argue that she is ultimately a far less depressing writer.

(4) Some articles (e.g. Argand, 2001) go so far as to provide photographic evidence of NDiaye’s white French maternal grandparents. It does seem a little excessive, especially given these grandparents’ allegedly unremarkable lives. Are Marie Redonnet’s grandparents photographed and their specific regions of origin mentioned constantly in their interviews? Or Marie Nimier’s? As for Marie Darrieussecq, it is usually she who invokes her Basque grandmother precisely in order to insist upon a certain abnormality of origin, never more ostentatiously than in her open letter to NDiaye and the world, a missive entitled ‘Sorguina’ (‘witch’ in Basque) (Darrieussecq, 1998).

(5) Marie generally spells her name ‘NDiaye’, while Pap goes by ‘Ndiaye’.

(6) See Bernstein (1989), Lebrun (1991), Motard-Noar (1999).

(7) Both Rousseau and Proust could be considered as hybrid as NDiaye, of course, in terms of their respective Swiss and Jewish backgrounds.

(p.211) (8) Pap Ndiaye’s tone when discussing his own experience of racism is, in fact, not that far removed from Marie’s in terms of its complete refusal to acknowledge pain. After mentioning instances of stop-and-search (twice in one year), scrutiny of his credentials and disbelief in libraries and airports, and constant, incongruous ‘tutoiement’, he concludes by playing it all down. According to Boltanski (2007): ‘Il refuse à lui-même la différence qu’il revendique pour les autres. Lorsque cet homme […] parle de lui tout est toujours “ordinaire”. Il minimise les marques d’opprobre qu’il a subies. “Ce sont des petits indices qui ne pourrissent pas la vie. Je les prends plutôt avec un sourire.” Il se déclare Noir intermittent: “Dans ma vie familial, avec mes collègues et amis, ça ne joue pas. Cela se manifeste à l’extérieur. […] Vous savez, j’ai une vie banale d’universitaire.”‘ I find this last statement, coming, as it does, from a historian and sociologist, somewhat bewildering in the way it appears to split off personal experience from the work of analysis, as if they were two entirely unrelated things.

(9) NDiaye recalls her literary emergence thus: ‘J’avais 17 ans, je vivais en grande banlieue, loin de tout, j’écrivais depuis toujours. Un jour, j’ai eu l’impression qu’un nombre de pages ressemblait à un livre. Je l’ai envoyé à trois adresses prises dans le Bottin, un peu au hasard, Gallimard et le Seuil, les plus connus, et aussi Minuit, à cause de Marguerite Duras qui venait de publier L’Amant. Dès le lendemain, j’ai reçu un coup de fil de Jérôme Lindon, qui souhaitait publier le Riche Avenir. Le samedi suivant, il est venu m’attendre à la sortie de mon lycée avec le contrat. Je crois que j’ai eu de la chance’ (Pascale, 2004).

(10) Moudileno is the critic who has hitherto most systematically explored what may be at stake in NDiaye’s use of textual lacunae (Moudileno, 1998), grammatical disjunction and disconnection (Moudileno, 2006), linguistic ‘excellence’ (Moudileno, 2009) and public (in)visibililty (Moudileno, 2013a). Her important work on NDiayean silence, oscillation, paradox and impeccability has, in many ways, laid the foundations for my own theoretical framework of ‘blankness and recognition’.

(11) See also NDiaye’s husband Jean-Yves Cendrey’s (2009) coruscating critique of the affair, as well as Dominic Thomas’s (2010) scholarly analysis.

(12) With my frequent use of the terms ‘psychotherapy’ and ‘psychodynamic’, I seek merely (perhaps pointlessly) to mark my distance from the increasingly ossified academic genuflection before a form of ‘psychoanalysis’ (mainly the brand marketed by Jacques Lacan and his followers) which displays little interest in the emotional experience of the simultaneously dependent, fantasizing, interactive, instrumentalized, self-shaping, loving, hating, knowing and potentially revolutionary human subject. I find this same lack of interest in complex emotional and relational experience, in fact, within most of the theoretical paradigms that have assumed institutional hegemony in Western academia since the 1980s (e.g. deconstruction, postcolonialism, (p.212) ‘French feminism’ or the more death-driven strands of ‘queer’ theory). I have attempted to read NDiaye in collaboration only with those writers who give the subject’s capacity for conceivable psychic growth and transformation the importance it (in my view) richly deserves.

(13) Interestingly, Lydia Holt Garner evokes the non-politicized concept of minus K to make a point specific to racialization when she writes: ‘As Bion understood, thinking is an emotional experience and, in thinking about race and inequalities in psychotherapy services, minus K can come into force – it can feel easier not to know’ (Garner, 2003: 503)

(14) See Ruhe (2013) for a discussion of NDiayean shame in Sartrean terms.

(15) This moment is, of course, brilliantly evoked decades earlier in Frantz Fanon’s chapter ‘L’expérience vécue du Noir’, in which the narrator listens, appalled, at the observation ‘Tiens, un nègre!’ (Fanon, 1952: 88), all the while nauseatingly aware that he is the creature that is being discussed in this obscene manner.

(16) In his work on the dead mother, Green clearly builds upon earlier research into maternal depression and its effect on infants, by Winnicott in particular. See, for example, Winnicott’s 1948 essay ‘Reparation in Respect of Mother’s Organized Defence against Depression’, in which he writes that children with depressed mothers ‘have a task which can never be accomplished. Their task is first to deal with mother’s mood’ (93).

(17) Rosie’s encounter with the ‘new’ Mme Carpe and her stench of boxwood is reminiscent of Lucy Clifford’s almost unbelievably frightening 1882 ‘children’s story’, ‘The New Mother’, in which two little sisters named Blue-Eyes and the Turkey find that their disobedience towards their put-upon single mother causes her to leave them for ever. She will be replaced, however, by a ghastly ‘new mother’, who stares from glass eyes and drags a wooden tail. Neil Gaiman pays homage to the ‘new mother’ motif in his 2002 novel Coraline, in which the character of ‘the other mother’ has buttons for eyes.

(18) For other studies on transgenerational trauma and ‘haunting’, see Ancelin Schützenberger (1998), Coles (2011) and Fromm (2011). If I have a tendency to compare the predominant ‘atmosphere’ of NDiaye’s writing to the art-house horror films of David Lynch, David Cronenberg et al. as much as to Flaubert, James and Proust, it is because her world is so saturated by this frequently visceral sensation of being haunted or infested by something inhuman. In terms of her intertextual affinities, NDiaye is radically postmodern.

(19) There is a need for more research on not only the ‘dead’ mother but also the ‘dead’ father. The two British edited volumes of essays (Kohon, 1999 and Kalinich and Taylor, 2008) on both phenomena are useful, as is Eva Seligman’s The Half-Alive Ones (2006), on the impact of missing fathers. I have written elsewhere (Asibong, 2013a) on the racialized dimensions of ‘dead’ parent complex.

(20) This question is the explicit theme in George A. Romero’s wonderful (p.213) pseudo-fantastical kitchen sink melodrama Season of the Witch (aka Jack’s Wife, 1972).

(21) See Roussos (2007) and Besand (2013) for more protracted inquiries into NDiaye’s deployment of the various forms of non-realism.