Blankness/(Re)generation: The Second Novel Cycle
Blankness/(Re)generation: The Second Novel Cycle
Abstract and Keywords
The novels of NDiaye’s ‘second cycle’ (1996-2013) initiate new tendencies at the level of thematic concern, form of representation, narrative and underlying psychic ‘shape’, use of symbol formation and lexical, grammatical and syntactical style. At the crux of the new protagonists’ narratives is their failure to provide secure environments for the creation of lasting bonds with their offspring, a failure that proceeds from their difficulty in resolving issues of youthful blankness and disintegration set out in the first cycle of novels. The price to be paid for this lack of resolution is the loss of the family the protagonist has created to compensate for the failure of her ‘original’ one. This loss emerges as the supreme terror haunting NDiaye’s second cycle of novels. Nothing truly alive can be effectively transmitted to the new generation so long as the trans-generational trauma of the first familial relationships remains clogged and untreated. The only things NDiaye’s new mothers and grandmothers can pass on to their anxious (later, hostile) children and grandchildren are trauma and despair. However, a few of these later protagonists manage to convert the blankness from which they have emerged into strange but potentially warm and useful symbols, which they behold, play with, gestate and occasionally merge with in a series of strikingly creative and therapeutic metamorphoses.
I saw some piglets suckling their dead mother. After a short while they shuddered and went away. They had sensed that she could no longer see them and that she wasn’t like them anymore. What they had loved in their mother wasn’t her body, but whatever it was that made her body alive.
Confucius, quoted in Manic Street Preachers, Generation Terrorists
At the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first, NDiaye’s place in French culture underwent a significant metamorphosis, shifting from being a rising star of the avant-garde literary scene, adored by the critics but little known by the general public, to being a household name. The publication in February 2013 of her novel Ladivine was a highly anticipated cultural event, discussed in newspapers and magazines, on the television and on the radio. On the day of the novel’s release, NDiaye’s image was featured on the front page of the daily Libération. Her snowballing celebrity was certainly helped by winning the Prix Femina for Rosie Carpe in 2001, as well as the much-reported event of the hyper-traditional Comédie-Française taking on her multi-ethnic play Papa doit manger in 2003; but it was her Prix Goncourt win for Trois femmes puissantes in 2009, together with the incredibly high-profile spat the same month with the right-wing politician Eric Raoult (discussed in the Introduction) that made her famous.1 Perhaps more importantly, it was during this period that NDiaye matured as a novelist, as well as developing into a playwright of note. If it had been clear from En famille onwards that NDiaye was not only an accomplished writer but one of no small cultural significance, (p.70) the novels La Sorcière (1996) and Rosie Carpe (2001), the play Papa doit manger (discussed in Chapter 3) and the strange 2005 photo-novella Autoportrait en vert (discussed in Chapter 4) established her as an artist who had carved out a truly original niche, no longer dependent on homage of any kind in the increasingly disturbing stories she was telling about family, identity and alienation. Michel Crépu wrote of Rosie Carpe that this was an
étape majeure, étape de mutation qui relègue les précédents romans au rang de préludes avant l’entrée en matière véritable. Un grand livre? Assurément, et comme il s’en trouve peu dans cette région dite du ‘roman français’, où l’on ne se lasse pas de guetter les signes du renouvellement. Eh bien, en voilà un, de signe. Un vrai.
Rosie Carpe was a greater critical and commercial triumph than anything NDiaye had hitherto published, resplendently occupying a mysterious, multi-faceted cultural niche – at once Parisian, provincial and Antillean, feminine, masculine and divine, futuristic, contemporary and retro – and exemplary of the then thirty-four-year-old NDiaye’s gift for writing intellectually brilliant and emotionally devastating prose. If NDiaye appeared to remove herself from the spotlight in 2007, moving to Berlin with her husband Jean-Yves Cendrey and their three children, she nevertheless maintained a central place in the culture of the France she had left behind, appearing on the front covers of popular and ‘cool’ magazines such as Les Inrockuptibles with bewildering frequency for a personality generally considered to be ‘retiring’. The immense popularity of Trois femmes puissantes in 2009, together with the much-discussed Claire Denis film White Material (starring Isabelle Huppert), for which NDiaye co-wrote the screenplay, cemented her position as an extremely high-profile ‘name’.2 It was also during this period that academics, particularly in the US and the UK, began to work in earnest on NDiaye’s writing, turning it into an object of remarkably intense study. Dominique Rabaté’s short but penetrating monograph, Marie NDiaye, appeared in French in 2008, accompanied by photographs, excerpts and a compact disc of interviews, whilst international conferences devoted to the discussion of NDiaye as writer and cultural phenomenon took place in London (2007 and 2013), Mannheim (2011) and Paris (2013).3
I want in this chapter to continue my close reading of the texts themselves, maintaining my focus on the question of ‘blankness’. For blankness too undergoes something of a transformation, even if it never, ever, goes away. NDiaye’s simultaneously droll and depressing (p.71) sixth novel La Sorcière (1996) marks the start of the major shift. The book initiates new tendencies at the level of thematic concern, form of representation, narrative and underlying psychic ‘shape’, use of symbolism and lexical, grammatical and syntactical style. These new tendencies are developed and intensified in Rosie Carpe, Mon cœur à l’étroit (2007) and Ladivine, as well as in the less impressive – though much-garlanded – Trois femmes puissantes. NDiaye’s earlier novels La Femme changeé en bûche, En famille and Un temps de saison had showcased vain and intelligent protagonists, struggling to attain recognition by social and familial structures whose refusal to hold, see or reflect them precipitated their ineluctable unravelling towards total psychic and physical disintegration. The Woman, Fanny and Herman all grapple with essentially adolescent – even if potentially politicizable – concerns. Youthful, solipsistic and, to all intents and purposes, single, these characters are far removed from the future-orientated preoccupations of parenthood.4 Dwelling, in the main, within nameless or mythical realms and locales such as ‘Kalane’ and ‘les villages’, they present the reader with little hope for the possibility of attaining a sense of reality, ending as they do in states of vegetation, gaseousness and semi-liquefaction. The novels of the second cycle, however, beginning with La Sorcière, carry out ever-deepening explorations of what it might mean to come closer to forms of reality and responsibility. Their protagonists must bring up children. At the crux of these protagonists’ failure to provide secure environments for the creation of lasting bonds with their offspring is the glaring fact that they have not managed to resolve the issues of youthful blankness and disintegration set out in the first cycle of novels. The price to be paid for this lack of resolution is the loss of the family the protagonist has created to compensate for the failure of her ‘original’ one. This loss emerges as the supreme terror haunting NDiaye’s second cycle of novels. Nothing truly alive can be effectively transmitted to the new generation so long as the deadness of the first familial relationships remains clogged and untreated. The only things NDiaye’s new mothers and grandmothers can pass on to their anxious (later, hostile) children and grandchildren is trauma and despair.
Framed in this way, it would appear that this second cycle of novels by NDiaye is even bleaker than the first in its treatment of material and emotional unravelling, adding parental disappointment to the already significant ‘curse’ of individual dissolution. However, even if parent– child relationships in La Sorcière, Rosie Carpe, Mon cœur à l’étroit, (p.72) Trois femmes puissantes and Ladivine are generally blighted by the protagonist-parent’s non ‘worked through’ neuroses, certain elements of that protagonist’s subjectivity – elements lying outside her specifically parental function – are nevertheless offered occasional chances of something like ‘healthy’ development. A palpable emotional advance is made on the all-consuming, ghoulish horror that gnaws away at young Z, Judith’s brother, Fanny, Herman and the unfortunate Woman of the earlier novels. These chances and advances take the form of glimpses of something I would like to call, following Giorgio Agamben (1993), a ‘coming community’. Perhaps it is simply the beginning of a politicized consciousness. In this second cycle of NDiaye’s novels, marginalized figures who are not members of the marginalized heroine’s (non-marginalized) family but instead resemble dream-family figures, call out to her with ever greater insistence, practically shaking her into waking up, if only for an instant, to the (often explicitly dark-skinned) community that she has unconsciously rejected, whether or not she herself is dark-skinned, or sees herself as such. The motif is a fascinating one, at its peak of emotional power and nuance in the depiction of relationship between Rosie Carpe, Lagrand and Titi. It occasionally grates from an aesthetic point of view, and fails to convince from an ethico-political one: by the time Trois femmes puissantes appears, alienated métisse Norah’s early glimpse of unrealized sorority in the form of the ‘authentically’ African housegirl Khady Demba has become a slightly bland trope. The topos is handled brilliantly in the flawed masterpiece Ladivine (2013), however, in which the second Ladivine’s growing awareness of a connection to a world of inexplicable beings, both human and non-human, is persuasive precisely because it eschews cultural specificity, essentialism or exoticizing sentimentality. If Ladivine Rivière is increasingly drawn towards strange women and dog-people, this is less about her ‘finding her roots’ (to deploy a well-worn cliché) and more about the inescapable, personalized return of aspects of her past which have been systematically buried, silenced or otherwise repressed.
However one assesses the politicized persuasiveness of the second cycle’s trajectory towards a swarthy and ‘positively’ spectral community, what it underlines is a general tendency in NDiaye’s writing towards new possibilities of naming. Her later novels work towards the representation of things that previously had been forced to dwell within the textual psychosis of blank non-symbolization. At the level of geography, for example, from La Sorcière onwards, places are suddenly able to be (p.73) articulated in real terms, whereas NDiaye’s characters had previously drifted through generally unnameable regions of speechlessness.5 Thus Lucie moves between a perfectly locatable Poitiers, Bourges and Chateauroux; Rosie moves from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Paris’s fifth arrondissement, and from Antony to Guadeloupe; Nadia begins her narrative in the chic, named streets of central Bordeaux,6 having begun her mostly blanked-out life in the working-class suburb of Aubiers; the characters of Trois femmes puissantes occupy locales that are totally recognizable (and sometimes named) as Dakar and Aquitaine; and Ladivine Rivière and her family find themselves in locations as diverse as Langon, Berlin and Warnemunde. Even if the unbearably hot holiday destination of the Global South in which Ladivine’s family find themselves adrift is (like Nadia’s climactic island destination) deprived of a name, there is a growing sense in the post-1996 writing that concepts and entities that were perhaps too embarrassing or overwhelming to be expressed linguistically in the earlier texts have somehow become more manageable. NDiaye’s gradual shift towards the provision of shapes, names and signifiers for those aspects of existence which had previously eluded representation provides opportunities for a more directly politicized and therapeutic writing.7
This is a writing that is finally equal to the task of ‘symbol formation’ (cf. Segal, 1957), of naming the pain (or joy, or growth) of a subject whose ongoing oppression was perpetuated, in the earlier texts, precisely by his or her coy – or psychotic – speechlessness. Defying the republicanist ‘ban’ on the representation of blackness, a ban she had previously respected, NDiaye seemed to find a way to move forward that nevertheless did not force her to join the ranks of those ‘postcolonial’ French writers considered to be not French but ‘francophone’. She retained her right to ‘full Frenchness’, at the same time becoming more commercially successful, getting better known by the general public, and cannily digging out a previously unoccupied hole on the cultural landscape, one that was recognizable as ‘different’, yet not so recognizable that it had to undergo immersion in racialized stereotype. In these later novels, the racialized bodies (of Lagrand, of Nadia, of Fanta) can be specified in their racialization, and the psychic violence of the act of racialization can – potentially – be more robustly critiqued. On the fiftieth page of Ladivine, the narrator – surveying the world from the white racist perspective of Clarisse/Malinka’s patronne in the Bordeaux bistrot where she works – commits a shocking and unprecedented transgression in NDiaye’s linguistic universe, in describing Clarisse’s mother, Ladivine (p.74) Sylla, as a ‘négresse’. The gendered and sexualized body can be spoken about too (the phrase ‘mon vagin’ appears on p. 248 of Mon cœur à l’étroit with startling, strangely satisfying audacity), as can a richer, more diverse set of modern interactions, such as the unembarrassed gay relationship of Nadia’s son Ralph with the policeman Lanton (the possibility of same-sex desire tends, in the earlier novels, to lurk anxious and unspoken). That is not to say, of course, that in finally naming these concepts and entities NDiaye’s writing automatically graduates towards a greater level of insight or politicization. I would strongly argue, for example, that the nebulous accusations of Tante Colette in En famille reveal significantly more about the logic of racialized wounding than the rather heavy-handed subplot involving Rudy Descas’s murderous, colonialist father in the central section of Trois femmes puissantes, even if the family’s machinations in the earlier novel can never be demonstrably proven to be grounded in racialized psychosis.
Finally, in this second cycle of more simply, more starkly written novels, the unspeakable inner deadness of protagonists such as the Woman – a deadness that is impossible to shift since it refuses to name itself or to be seen, until it is too late, until the self has literally turned into wood – begins to be converted into abjectly concrete, even corporeal symptoms.8 These symptoms can at last be seen and investigated in the body of NDiaye’s new naming and showing text. They are symptoms that can precipitate, through horror, a kind of genuine recognition, and perhaps even lasting psychic change. Rosie’s and Nadia’s inexplicable, pseudo-fantastical foetuses are more than mere postmodern homage to the Immaculate Conception crossed with Rosemary’s Baby, just as the streams of Lagrand’s and Norah’s urine at key moments of insight function – like Lucie’s streams of watery blood-tears in La Sorcière – in a more specifically soulful manner than the various instances of transgressive oozing in the writing of Georges Bataille. In these later novels, some of NDiaye’s protagonists finally start to convert the blankness from which they have emerged into strange but potentially warm and useful substances, fantastical solids and liquids which they may behold and expel, and even merge with. And when Ladivine Rivière finally finds herself entering the muddy, sweaty skin of the brown dog who has tracked and watched over her, the abjection of the experience is resurrectional in its concrete, sensuous realness.
In the unforgettable opening sentence of La Sorcière, NDiaye sets out in clear and unambiguous terms what will prove to be a thematic constant in all the novels that follow – the difficult challenge of transmitting knowledge, love and survival skills to one’s children: ‘Quand mes filles eurent atteint l’âge de douze ans, je les initiai aux mystérieux pouvoirs’ (S, 9). The narrator Lucie’s immediately foregrounded concern with her twin daughters’ physical growth and cultural development – how they will or will not take whatever it is that she may be trying to give them – highlights the fil rouge running through NDiaye’s writing from La Sorcière onwards: the question of whether or not a clearly disturbed protagonist will manage to rise to the parental challenge of producing healthy, functional, non-rejecting offspring, with whom an inter-generational bond can be demonstrated. Sadly, the parent– child couples or groups explored in this series of novels tend to be largely unsuccessful in meeting the requirements of such wholesome union. If the hapless Lucie finds that she has literally ‘raised ravens’ in the cold and rapacious form of her abandoning witch-daughters Maud and Lise, the mothers and fathers of subsequent texts fare little better in the establishment of loving links with their children.
Careful dissection of the familial phenomena depicted in La Sorcière reveals this short novel to contain all the paradigms of abandonment, indifference and abuse that are played out in more macabre form elsewhere in NDiaye’s œuvre. La Sorcière also reveals more effectively than all the other texts – perhaps precisely because of Lucie’s curious quality of bland, blank understatement – the essential deadness that is to be found at the heart of the NDiayean family. Lucie’s portrait of her own family life – her relationships with husband Pierrot and twin daughters Maud and Lise and with her own divorced parents – is shadowy, blurred and increasingly suspect. The more Lucie’s tendency to ignore, repress and deform reality becomes clear, the more difficult it becomes to accept as truthful her account of the various changes, fragmentations and scenes of abandonment which take place. Instead, the reader is offered a patchy tale of inexplicable coldness and casual betrayal, beneath the surface of which seems to lie a pain that, not unlike the stigmatized shame of witchcraft itself – metonymically captured in the fleeting image of a half-glimpsed serpent’s tail – simply cannot be represented head on.
Lucie’s sudden and unexpected idée fixe (S, 64) regarding the necessity to reunite her divorced parents is what functions, in the last two-thirds of (p.76) the novel, as the narrative’s indication that something in her perception and understanding of her own life is awry. Her commitment to the forcible reconstitution of a family unit that has come apart of its own accord, and to the fantasmatic re-instigation of an idealized parental security, even as her own marriage falls apart, her daughters slip away from her, and her capacity for economic survival breaks down, is related without the least reflection as to the folly of the enterprise. Despite everything in the narrative pointing towards the inappropriateness – the insanity even – of her attempting to bring two people back together who have chosen to continue their lives separately, Lucie pursues her project to the end, ignoring warnings from her distant mother, the manifestly untrustworthy attitude of her father, and the emotional and material traumas currently taking place in her own life, which are, on the whole, experienced by her without discernible reaction.
That Lucie’s attempts to reunite her parents will culminate in her father’s transformation (by her mother) into a snail – and her already chilly mother’s wordless disappearance – is a typically cruel instance of NDiayean irony. It demonstrates, as do so many of the unhappy fates of her protagonists (who usually end up alone, despite their best efforts to hang onto something unsalvageable), the ultimate ludicrousness of an attachment to the icy bonds of a ‘dead’ family. For Lucie’s families – both the one she comes from and the one she creates with Pierrot – are rotting, in fact, long before they officially break apart. What pain or horror lies beneath their deadness is impossible to know, since it is buried beneath the defences erected by Lucie’s blank narration. It may be, of course, that no horrors as such exist, merely years of repressed unhappiness, isolation and rage. The important point gradually brought out by NDiaye’s emotionally ungraspable narrative, however, is that Lucie’s is a consciousness that has developed with the purpose of nullifying all feelings that exceed its increasingly affectless capacities.
In her interactions with her parents, husband, daughters, neighbour and mother-in-law, Lucie’s attitude is one of a near-constant passivity, martyred masochism, false gaiety, and silent, fearful resentment. Her infantile admiration of the bullying, abusive neighbour Isabelle manifests itself in a simpering smile, spontaneously designed to reassure Isabelle of the impossibility of any potential hostility, no matter how rude, invasive or abusive Isabelle shows herself either to Lucie or to Isabelle’s defenceless child Steve. NDiaye’s skill in normalizing the narrator’s acceptance of (and collaboration in) her own – and others’ – abuse is startling in its understated naturalness. The reader in turn (p.77) quickly accepts the implied violence and menace of Lucie’s encounters with Isabelle, sometimes giggling before Lucie’s hypocritically timid politeness, but more often simply turning the page in order to see what will happen next in the cringe-worthy encounter. The ‘working through’ of an emotional reality is subordinated, then, by both Lucie and the reader, to the dubious pleasures of following a demented and often plain silly ‘shaggy-dog story’. Lucie’s attitude towards both her husband Pierrot and his mother – this character is referred to throughout as ‘la maman’ – is also stifled, repressing any expression of anger or confrontation. When Pierrot is aggressive with her in the presence of his colleague Monsieur Matin, Lucie refuses all open discussion with him, merely confiding to the reader her indifference (‘Je me moquais bien de Pierrot à cet instant’, S, 45) or nervousness (‘Mais pourquoi diable avais-je peur de Pierrot, me demandai-je pour la énième fois’, S, 35). As for ‘la maman’, her assertions that Lucie has no right to complain about Pierrot’s theft from the couple’s savings account is met with a resounding silence. Lucie is preoccupied, above all, with maintaining a reassuring cordiality of relations between herself and the domineering old woman: ‘Je ne voulais pas me fâcher et lui caressai la main’ (S, 109).
What soon becomes clear is that there is in Lucie a behavioural mechanism that makes acknowledgment or discussion of any difficult emotional reality impossible. The reader watches this charming narrator dodge argument after argument, refusing all discussion of how she or anybody else might be feeling. She prefers, at all times, to feign harmony and joy, always with the goal of placating the vaguely threatening – and potentially abusive – ‘grown up’ to whom she can play ‘good little girl’. Offering the rabid Isabelle another martini (one thinks of Fanny’s mother in En famille, serving aperitifs as her daughter is ripped apart by the grandmother’s dogs), Lucie half-explains her masochistic logic: ‘Et je parlais avec enjouement, ne pouvant encore m’affranchir du besoin dégradant de contenter cette fille peu aimable, acrimonieuse et rusée’ (S, 21). While one might argue that such a personality is simply restrained and non-confrontational (there being no need to condemn peacefulness after all, especially in fictional characters), the point that needs to be underlined here is the way in which NDiaye subtly exposes the link between Lucie’s ‘niceness’ and her capacity to collaborate in the most alarming forms of abuse. It is because Lucie is so desperate to please Isabelle – and herself to remain in the role of helpless child – that she is not able to intervene in Isabelle’s sadistic torture of Steve. Confiding only to the reader the reality of her nobly appalled sentiments (‘Qu’as-tu (p.78) fait là, Isabelle, pensai-je alors, soudain glacée’, S, 92), and all the while acknowledging in her narration that she actually conceives of poor Steve as a ‘malheureux garçon’ (S, 72), noting his ‘visage apeuré, déformé par l’appréhension constante’ (S, 91), to Isabelle herself Lucie continues to speak ‘doucement, le cœur serré’ (S, 73). By allowing her narrator the observational skills to notice the child’s abuse in the first place, but denying her the strength to do anything to register her opposition to it, NDiaye manages to create a dully sickening reading experience, in which both reader and narrator become trapped within a collusive situation which they cannot ignore but which they are somehow too listless to intervene in.
Lucie’s energy is positively boundless when placed in the service of the hare-brained parental reunion plan. But when it comes to taking responsibility for the abuse of Steve, her inexplicable fatigue (‘je me sentais trop lasse pour tâcher de le rassurer’, S, 25) not only prevents her from intervening on behalf of the child, but also seems capable of itself metamorphosing into vague cruelty. In what is one of the most oddly upsetting passages in the novel, Lucie goes to attend to Steve in her toilet: he has, according to Maud and Lise, ‘pissé partout sur le siège’ (S, 25). Despite an initial attempt to smile at the terrified boy, Lucie finds herself displaying involuntary anger when suddenly assailed by a supernatural future-vision of Steve as a young man:
Et l’expression de son visage à ce moment me parut si veule, sa bouche si aigre, que je ne pus réprimer un mouvement d’humeur envers le petit Steve dont je devrais encore essuyer l’urine sur le siège des toilettes, sur le carrelage, tout de suite avant que Pierrot ne rentrât […] Je le secouai un peu et lançai:
Oui, tout de même, tu pourrais faire attention, tu es grand maintenant. (S, 26)
Even if she is overcome immediately by feelings of shame at her words and actions, Lucie’s expression of aggression towards the child remains shocking, not least in a character who apparently lacks all capacity for anger or aggression in situations where such things might actually be appropriate.9 Incongruous moments such as this, nested, then buried, within a larger, self-created narrative of basic kindness and ‘good’ maternal feelings, are clues that something is not quite right, that Lucie’s psyche contains feelings which are unacceptable to her and which are accordingly ‘split-off’ in such a way that she will not have to confront them. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the reader’s (p.79) attentiveness when approaching a self-deceiving narrative like Lucie’s: it is all too easy to ape the way in which she ‘blanks out’ what she does not want to see (or to have seen). The result of such denials and repressions is an ever-growing confusion in attempting to follow the logic of a story in which the other characters appear to treat Lucie with such inexplicable meanness. For while it is perfectly possible that Lucie genuinely does find herself on the receiving end of various intolerably cruel or ungrateful interactions, it is crucial to point out the function of her own paranoid fantasy-work in the creation of relationships from which she will emerge, ineluctably, as the harmless, abandoned victim.
The way in which Lucie represents her relationship with her ‘rejecting’ daughters Maud and Lise is particularly interesting when we try to scratch beneath the surface of her narration and to gauge what kinds of thoughts and emotions it blocks the reader from experiencing. Taking Lucie’s narration at face value, the reader comes away with the impression that she is a devoted mother, aiming to cater to the whims and caprices of two pre-pubescent minxes, while at the same time making sure that she hands down to them the precious supernatural gifts that were once handed down to her. Rewarded for her efforts with ever-mounting coolness and disdain, and finally abandonment, Lucie cuts a sad figure indeed, a sort of postmodern, suburban Mère Goriot or Mildred Pierce, punished for wanting to do good, for trying to be a kind and generous mother, the well-meaning victim of two cold, cruel and ungrateful daughters. There is something odd about all this, though. Lucie’s portrait of her daughters is dishonest in the way it sets the girls up as fundamentally sinister, callous – in short, unlikeable – while never actually admitting that this is what it is doing. Lucie never utters a word in explicit terms that might suggest that she is judging her daughters and finding them morally wanting, or that she is disappointed with them, or sad, or angry. Instead she insists at one level of the narrative on a sort of pure, unsullied love for Maud and Lise, a love that is seemingly indestructible despite the many slights and knockbacks it appears to receive, while at a disavowed level of the story-telling she creates a caricatural portrait of two pretty, little, over-privileged she-devils whom she at times fears, envies and hates.
Again and again, the reader is silently invited to condemn the girls’ rapaciousness, materialism and blasé indifference to the world and its wonders – but the accumulation of such nasty characteristics ends up feeling unconvincing. How did Maud and Lise develop characters such as these? And if Lucie really does care for her daughters in emotionally (p.80) real terms, why is she so incapable of describing them in any way other than the most flagrantly inhuman? Lucie seems convinced of the girls’ unshakable sense of their own superiority over her, of the essentially condescending nature of their feelings – these are things she never questions for an instant – but it is difficult to say how much of this conviction is grounded in paranoia or self-fulfilling prophecy. All we can say is that, as far as Lucie is concerned, her girls are surrounded by an air of impenetrability, an incapacity for disinterested love, and a potential for sudden acts of violence. Lucie will never be allowed into their private world. And yet, given that these experiences of exclusion and abandonment are precisely the kinds of problems that Lucie contends with vis-à-vis her own parents, one must wonder whether she is not repeating the very feelings she has failed to name and work through in her capacity as a daughter onto those she now relates to as a mother.
The problem is insoluble. Lucie is, in a way, even more resistant to analysis than physically neglectful or abusive mother-protagonists, such as the eponymous Rosie Carpe or Nadia, the delusional narrator of Mon cœur à l’étroit. All we can say of Lucie’s account of maternal experience is that it is peculiarly one-dimensional, and that she is the one who emerges from it as the ‘child’, the one who needs looking after, rather than the actual minors of the narrative, Maud and Lise, who are assumed by their parents (just as Monsieur Matin’s son Nounou is, and just as Isabelle’s Steve is) to be tough, strong and not in particular need of love, guidance or protection. Blankly reflecting on Pierrot’s hostile feelings towards his half-witch daughters, Lucie proclaims that
Je ne me faisais guère de souci pour les filles, tant il me semblait que nulle différence de nuances dans les confuses manifestations de tendresse qu’il avait pour elles ne pourrait affecter leur vitalité opiniâtre, avare, tendue vers des promesses et des espoirs qui allaient bien au-delà de nous deux, leurs parents, et se moquaient de nos propres petits objectifs laborieusement atteints. Non, de ce point de vue, rien ne les toucherait.
Lucie’s random encounter in town with a woman ‘au long vêtement jaune’ (S, 55), who inexplicably hails her as ‘ma sœur’ (S, 55), functions as the text’s whispered suggestion that there may be a world of potential ‘sisters’ outside the confines of Lucie’s failed kinship and non-community, people by whom she might actually be welcomed. Such figures had, of course, existed for Fanny in En famille in the form of ‘ethnic’ young (p.81) Georges and his friendly family, but they she had experienced with more or less revulsion. Lucie’s reaction to the strange woman, while still ambivalent, is nevertheless tinged with something rather closer to desire and regret, as she finds herself waiting outside the woman’s crumbling building, ‘frissonnant dans mon imperméable, espérant vaguement je ne sais quoi – que la femme ressorte, qu’elle m’apostrophe encore de cette manière si agréable, sûre d’elle et désintéressée? Pouvait-elle être, cette étrangère, ma sœur d’une façon ou d’une autre, et comment le savait-elle?’ (S, 56). Even if neither the reader nor Lucie will ever meet the uncanny dark ‘sister’ again, she lingers, like Lucie’s watery, bloody tears of effort and occasional insight, in the margins of the text’s unconscious, offering the spectral glint of a belonging that Lucie might have had if only her circumstances had been different, if only she could have blocked out less of her own experience, if only she could have acted in her own best interests.
A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother: Rosie Carpe (2001)
At the centre of the monumental Rosie Carpe cowers Rosie’s heartbreaking relationship with her only son Titi, a child conceived in the Parisian suburbs while his parents are shooting a pornographic film, consigned to oblivion by his soulless shell of a father, Max, and exposed to death by starvation, battery, sunstroke and poisoning, all before his sixth birthday. That Rosie, herself a victim of unnamed parental horrors, is so often clearly ‘doing her best’ by the child is perhaps the most distressing aspect of the relationship, in which mother and son drift across the world together in an eerie pseudo-alliance that resembles neither love nor loyalty but instead an eternal pact of ghostly depersonalization. I want to focus on what I consider to be the most remarkable feature of Rosie Carpe, namely its epic evocation of Rosie’s hollowed-out consciousness. I want to consider the implications of that hollowness for thinking and writing about a subject who has been damaged not only by the unspeakable injuries of her own childhood but also by her adult collusion with the rules of a psychotic society that insists on the blanking out of whatever abuse its subjects may have experienced, or may still be experiencing. Rosie’s blankness cries out to be read within a context of unarticulated childhood suffering, not least since one of its major narrative repercussions is the suffering of her child Titi.10 I shall consider first the gaps in Rosie’s sense of self and in the narrative (p.82) itself, before exploring how those gaps enable the text’s and the protagonist’s preparation of a boy-child who will be made psychically (and nearly physically) to ‘die’ in the same way as his self-effacing mother. Finally, I shall consider the Carpe family’s blankness in conjunction with its whiteness: the two differently false – psychic and social – states coagulate, in NDiaye’s provocative and radically politicized vision, to form a new state of racialized zombification, which only the relatively ‘alive’ – and significantly ‘black’ – figure of Lagrand comes close to outrunning.
Perhaps the first area of deadness we need to note in Rosie Carpe is to be found at the level of the text itself. The various branches of the novel’s structure, lexical patterns and even grammar and syntax are unstable and often hollow, at times giving the reader little or nothing to perch on or cling to. As Lydie Moudileno (2006) points out, especially with regard to conjunctions and connectors, so much of the language in this novel is useless and ultimately confusing, appearing superficially to perform a meaningful function but, upon closer inspection, disintegrating and ‘discombobulated’, the container of nothing but its vain hopes for signification. Pierre Lepape notes that while the expected contract between reader and fictional text is that the latter will offer the former some vaguely solid narrative which s/he may hook on to, the hapless reader of Rosie Carpe ‘ne colle pas’ (Lepape, 2003: 43). I would argue that NDiaye’s shifting, tantalizing text thus acts upon the reader in the same way as the unstable and tantalizing parent figures within the world of the novel act upon their children. Appearing to offer solidity to the confused beings who depend upon them, both parents and language reserve the right to collapse or disappear at the moment when they are most needed. Maud Fourton (2004) claims that the novel’s bizarre opening word ‘mais’ – harking back to a prior statement that can be neither shown or known – announces a false start that mocks the notion of origins or the possibility of grasping them, while the book’s insouciantly ‘tacked-on’ denouement, in which Rosie finally gets to have her wedding, equally mocks the epic-romantic-novelistic fantasy of closure, solidity and resolution. Fourton’s article brilliantly analyses the way in which this novel’s structure seems to be splintered at every possible level, at one point dissecting a fourteen-line sentence that appears to be in the throes of self-decomposition. Ultimately, Fourton underscores a horrible irony: while the protagonists Rosie and Lagrand, haunted by the fear of their own lack of firmness, seek a safely familial place in which to house their increasingly fragmented self, the ‘family (p.83) home’ in which they eventually find themselves – a strangely ‘un-dead’ novel called Rosie Carpe – is itself false, unanchored and disintegrating, yanking and tearing at its vulnerable characters with such a ferocity that on the final page Lagrand must fantasize Old Man Carpe’s floating, disembodied head with the kind of helpless passivity that characterizes nearly all NDiaye’s wretched protagonists.
Never in all NDiaye’s writing does she so methodically explore the failure of the textual container to do its work of containment. If the novel’s deceitful forms and shapes serve as a grimly ironic reminder that the external structures sought out as shelter by the subject in disarray may prove to be his or her undoing, the protagonists’ ‘insides’ are no more securely joined up. Rosie Carpe takes NDiaye’s trope of generalized amnesia, a mental-emotional state of such radical disconnectedness that it is difficult even to speak of a real or meaningful self, to terrifying new heights. As Elisabeth Arnould-Bloomfield puts it,
Si tous [les protagonistes chez NDiaye], comme Rosie, vivent la difficulté de leurs rapports familiaux comme la catachrèse d’une relation tendue avec un réel énigmatique et arbitraire, aucun n’atteint un tel degré d’aliénation et de passivité […] Rosie n’est donc pas, dans le roman, la narratrice de son propre trauma. Elle a beau parler, se raconter, elle n’a accès ni à son expérience, ni à la littéralité d’un véritable témoignage.
Throughout the novel, the reader is given the sense that Rosie’s consciousness is cosmically split, that she has so thoroughly buried a part of herself that what remains of her is zombified, ghostly, swathed in thick layers of disquieting forgetfulness. Immense sections of personality, affect and the capacity for living relationality appear to have been lost for ever. If some of NDiaye’s earlier protagonists (En famille’s Fanny being the paradigmatic example) resembled novelistic cousins of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, Kafka’s K. or Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman in their odd combination of psychic emptiness and simultaneously obsessive focus on objects of fantasmatic desire, Rosie Carpe comes one step closer to epic literary blankness, her desires never attaining the coherence, concentration or drive even of those earlier ‘zombies’, instead merely dribbling out at odd moments of misplaced determination, as when she resolves to discover the name of the father of her third foetus, to telephone the mysterious Marcus Calmette, or to see the new Astérix film as her young son lies dying.
The opening lines of the second section of Rosie Carpe, evoking a (p.84) future (quasi-) memory via imperfect habitual and past anterior tenses, bears a resemblance to the opening lines of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (another novel about a perverse family in the colonies and afflicted with a terrible compulsion to forget and repeat):
Bien longtemps après que les années de Brive-la-Gaillarde se furent écoulés, et même longtemps après que les années de Brive se furent réduites à une longue période constante, brumeuse, d’un jaune pâle et uni, dans sa mémoire, Rosie devait prendre l’habitude de parler de cette époque de Brive, et d’y penser, comme à la plus harmonieuse de son existence, malgré le peu de souvenirs qui lui en restaient, malgré l’incertitude particulière, la sorte étrange de voile jaune qui enveloppaient le passe de Brive.
While readers of García Márquez’s novels have become – perhaps excessively – accustomed to reading that author’s textual emphasis on moments of remembering and forgetting through a larger cultural narrative about Latin America, collective amnesia, blocked out genocide and compressed time-zones, the reader of NDiaye’s novel may find it more difficult to filter the text’s allusions to Rosie’s ungraspable history through a handy anthropological lens.13 Chronic amnesia, blackouts and the ignorance of origins and childhood remain, in Rosie Carpe, a personal affair. Why can Rosie not remember anything about Brive apart from its ‘yellowness’ and the fact that back then she was called ‘Rose-Marie’? The narrator’s insistence on the simple, non-negotiable resistance of Rosie’s past to present itself in clearer terms is unsettling, and is one of the many things about this narrative that the reader is simply forced to accept if s/he wants to carry on reading. Rosie’s world is one in which the past’s elusiveness will render the present perennially blurred and disconnected. She drifts through her own psychic and physical landscape ‘lointaine, l’œil vide, ne se comprenant plus très bien et indifférente, vide’ (RC, 56). Unable to remember the surname of Max – the father of her child Titi – even though her relationship with him lasts a number of years, Rosie is framed by the narrator in quasi-psychotic terms, appearing unable, on occasion, to grasp even the fact that she is this woman named Rosie Carpe: ‘Il lui semblait que l’existence de Max n’avait pas d’autre but ni d’autre sens que celui-ci, ce jour du mois d’août: faire comprendre à Rosie Carpe qu’elle était bien Rosie Carpe’ (RC, 79).
The narrator’s characterization of Rosie – her failure to experience (p.85) herself as herself, her feelings of unreality, the way in which her default mode is to be cut off from feelings, affect and emotions – at times so closely resembles writings by psychotherapists on blank psychosis, the false self and schizoid dissociation that NDiaye’s text demands to be considered as a remarkably careful account of highly specific forms of personality death. The symptoms Rosie displays are classic hallmarks of the adult whose experience of childhood has been so traumatic that the only means of a kind of psychic survival lies, paradoxically in killing off feeling, ego and often representation itself. Like a number of other NDiayean protagonists, Rosie’s intense spots of pain and odd flashes of rage lurk so obscurely beneath the layers of opacity piled high by character and narrator alike that when they emerge they do so within a context of mystery and non-explication. A suicidal image comes to Rosie in a moment of particularly acute despair, but it is quickly snuffed out, the spilled red throat-blood of her fantasy – at last a concrete representation of pain! – instantly channelled back into the more socially acceptable smiles and blushes of mild embarrassment (RC, 144– 5). When, towards the end of the main part of the novel, Rosie looks in a mirror and sees ‘une tête de brebis aux yeux foncés, aux petites oreilles aplaties, au regard effaré et implorant’ (RC, 349), the reader can be in no doubt that this is a protagonist for whom psychotic breakdown is a real and terrifying possibility. But for the vast majority of the novel Rosie’s madness is neutralized, deadened, blank, expertly diverted into the unreadable confusion of a smiling face that remembers only that its childhood was ‘yellow’.
In Rosie Carpe, all paths of inquiry lead back to the blankly perverse Carpe family and to its bizarre power, whether in absence or in presence, to make Rosie experience the world in alternately panic-stricken and ‘split-off’ modes. The colour yellow functions in the text as a perplexing catalyst for feelings (or non-feelings) – apparently associated with Rosie’s childhood – which are simultaneously intolerable, overwhelming and inaccessible to knowledge.14 These feelings cling to Rosie even when she and Lazare have moved to Paris, or Antony, or Guadeloupe, sticking in her throat like ‘bourre jaune’ (RC, 60), penetrating her skull in ‘une fulgurance de lumière jaune […] cherchant à lui rappeler quelque chose’ (RC, 76), or else clogging up her mouth, eyes and nose with their figurative ‘boue jaunâtre’ (RC, 328). When Lazare speaks the place-name ‘Brive’ – his metonymic expression for the parents who can be directly alluded to even by him only with difficulty – we are told that ‘l’esprit de Rosie se combla de jaune’ (RC, 109), whilst upon encountering (p.86) her blank-gazed ‘new’ mother in the quiet streets of Antony, Rosie has ‘l’impression qu’un objet chaud, jaune, pelucheux lui barrait la gorge’ (RC, 149). In addition to provoking these strange feelings of invasive penetration by yellowness, encounters with her mother in particular appear to cause Rosie such (largely unarticulated) emotional distress that she experiences herself in a state of dissolution, a suddenly fragmented subject being torn to pieces, even though, in this text, there are no dogs to do the work of literal dismemberment.
Commentators on NDiaye’s work rarely discuss child sexual abuse, except if they are referring to her husband Jean-Yves Cendrey’s real-life citizen’s arrest of a local ‘paedophile’ in their Normandy village.15 This general reticence in discussing the prominent role of (often incestuous) attacks on children and teenagers throughout NDiaye’s writing itself is surprising, though, especially given its increasingly explicit representation in a number of texts (e.g. En famille, Un temps de saison, ‘Les Garçons’, Les Grandes Personnes). When reading Rosie Carpe, it is difficult, unless one is trying particularly hard, not to experience the Carpes as a family who, for unspecified reasons, are soaked in an atmosphere of virtual incest. The dizzying configurations of inter-generational coupling and marriage in the second half of the novel are perplexing enough, as Monsieur and Madame Carpe amicably ‘re-partner’ with a teenage girl and her father, Lisbeth and Alex Foret.16 Lisbeth will go on to marry Titi, the grandson of her former partner Old Man Carpe and once the small boy for whom she acted as nursemaid. Titi will meanwhile keep his now ageing mother Rosie as a prize untouchable possession, guarding her with a jealousy that borders on dementia. Yet even before the familial relationships have reached this advanced stage of quasi-incestuous strangeness, the reader is confronted with glimpses of behaviour which may strike him or her as troubling, yet resistant to interpretation. When Rosie and Max are filmed having sex (and conceiving Titi) by the middle-aged female porn producer, for example, we are told that this kindly yet sickeningly invasive woman reminds Rosie of her mother (RC, 83). It is an incongruous association which would doubtless pass unnoticed were it not for the multitude of similar moments which either border on incestuous fantasy or signal a propensity within Rosie to find herself in sexualized situations that are both linked to family members and experienced as indigestible. When, one night, her brother Lazare has a girlfriend over to visit the flat he shares with Rosie in Paris, the (non-?) event is again wrapped in a three-layered membrane of potential abuse, spectral incest and blanked-out (p.87) oblivion. Whatever Lazare does to make the girl flee so abruptly is never explained, and Rosie ‘s’endormit sans doute’ (RC, 66) during the elided – we presume sexually violent – activity. Prior to the (non-?) event, Lazare’s bedroom door has been, we are told, left half-open, so that a horribly inappropriate ray of light emerging from it falls on Rosie’s bed ‘comme une invite’ (RC, 66). Rosie’s subsequent sleepy contemplation of her fearful, fuming, naked brother in the doorway ends the literally shadowy episode, about which we shall never find out anything more, but which nevertheless insinuates itself impertinently into the brief period of Rosie’s and Lazare’s domestic life together.
Rosie (often accompanied by the simultaneously prudish and perverse narrator) ‘blanks out’ constantly whenever she is close to sexual activity, and it seems to make little difference whether she is physically involved in it or not. She becomes momentarily deaf as one snowy morning Lazare discusses his project for selling sex toys in Guadeloupe with his best friend (or alter ego?) Abel:
Puis il lui sembla qu’elle portait les mains à ses oreilles dans une tentative ultime pour ne plus les entendre, que, de nouveau, elle s’attachait à fixer des yeux la fenêtre sombre et immobile (« il ne neige plus », se dit-elle) au-delà de Lazare, son frère Lazare que était revenu la voir […] Et elle se rendit compte qu’en vérité ses mains ne bougeaient pas […] mais c’était comme si elle avait bouché ses oreilles réellement car elle ne les entendait plus ni l’un ni l’autre […] de même qu’elle ne les voyait pas, regardant et regardant la vitre obscure, humide, figée, son cœur et le cœur de l’enfant mêlant leurs pulsations furtives et alarmées.
Her passive involvement in the filming of pornography (during the conception of Titi) and a drunken orgy or gang rape (during the conception of her third foetus) does not seem to be in conflict with this radical psychic ‘absence’ at the moment of sexual activity (or sexual violence) . It is as if Rosie’s sexualized being has become so supremely divorced from the rest of her (whatever that ‘rest’ can be said to consist of) that it can only exist pornographically, as it were, obscenely split off from any more joined-up, coherent, ‘human’ conception of self. When she becomes pregnant for the second time, both the conception (with a neighbour) and the abortion (which is briefly misremembered as a stillbirth) are buried beneath ‘l’alcool absorbé à cette époque-là, l’espèce de brume dense et lente qui avait enveloppé son esprit’ (RC, 182). So casual and fleeting are the allusions to these events (which are nested within a gerundive clause and brief parenthesis in a single sentence of a three-page paragraph) that the reader too struggles to remember (p.88) that Rosie was ever pregnant in between giving birth to Titi and the mysterious gestation she announces upon her arrival in Guadeloupe at the beginning of the novel. NDiaye’s writing itself mimics and elicits the processes of blankness and repression, then, drawing the reader into precisely the same problems of forgetting and foreclosure that afflict her protagonists. As for the third pregnancy, it too comes about at a moment of radical unconsciousness and splitting: ‘Etait alors arrivé, hors de sa conscience, au corps de Rosie Carpe davantage qu’à elle-même, ce qui l’avait fait, incroyablement, se trouver enceinte’ (RC, 188). The mystery of this third conception is one of the most disturbing episodes of a novel full of disturbing episodes. Rosie’s uncertainty as to how and by whom she has become pregnant is horrible enough, but to that must be added her uncertainty as to whether or not her son Titi has witnessed the conception, but is simply refusing ‘pour sa sauvegarde, obstinément, de comprendre ce qu’il savait’ (RC, 193). And so the cycles of real or imagined sexual abuse, terrified silence and alarming amnesia continue to seep into the next generation. Titi (himself conceived under the gaze of a porn camera), may or may not have witnessed his mother having sex with (or being raped by) a man (or several men). Titi’s mother Rosie resents (or hates) her son for maybe knowing what did or did not happen, but is unable, in any event, to talk to him about this thing that he may or may not know, or may once have known, but has now, perhaps, ‘un-known’. The swirls of amnesia that afflict the characters and relationships of Rosie Carpe are not the mere indices of a ‘postmodern’ sensibility, but revolve around evocations of unknowable – perhaps sexualized, perhaps not – mental and emotional damage.
Rosie’s repression of almost every feeling of pain will come to embed itself at the heart of her relationship with Titi, a relationship that seems to accrue more and more potential for horror the blanker and less specific the prose describing Rosie’s consciousness becomes. A good example of how the narrator falls worryingly silent at precisely the moment when the reader (and Rosie) need most to know exactly what is going on is during the period of Titi’s infancy in Antony, when Rosie’s milk mysteriously dries up; Titi refuses to drink from the bottle, and as a result nearly dies of starvation. While the sequence’s events begin clearly enough – ‘Dans la nuit, Rosie constata que son lait s’était tari brutalement’ (RC, 125) – things become progressively foggy in the pages that follow, as the state of mind of the isolated and impoverished Rosie begins to get blanker and blanker. A radical psychic split is taking place: ‘Mais pourquoi, songea-t-elle, portait-il le pyjama jaune qu’elle (p.89) ne lui mettait plus depuis quelque temps déjà ? Si c’était le cas, alors, se dit-elle, elle ne l’avait pas vu réellement’ (RC, 129). And then a part of the screen, as it were, fades to white. The narrator’s sentences become suddenly shorter and more robotic; Rosie’s movements around the tiny basement flat become more and more machine-like, her thoughts more and more delusional: ‘“Mon lait va revenir,” songeait-elle’ (RC, 130). By the time the reader begins to dread the possibility of the child’s death, it is far from clear what exactly is going on in Rosie’s brain. All we are told is that ‘elle sut autre chose encore, mais de manière si trouble et si moite qu’elle pouvait oublier aussitôt qu’elle le savait. Elle avait Titi dans les bras’ (RC, 131).17
Titi’s first near-death comes, then, via a series of psychic and textual absences at crucial moments. Titi will come close to eradication two more times in the course of the novel and, each time, the ambiguous act of neglect or assault will be rendered mysterious by the narrator’s tendency to ‘blank out’ in weird complicity with the abusive parental environment. NDiaye creates a textual world of deadening and deadened accomplices in the harming of children: the narrator colludes with Rosie (and the absent father Max) by herself remaining absent when we most need her information; Rosie colludes with the neighbour who dislocates Titi’s arm (as well as leaving him in his own excrement) by forgetting the neighbour’s face and name (despite the fact that he has also impregnated her); even Titi colludes with his own appalling parenting, as most children in his situation do,18 by reducing his demands to a minimum via the development of ‘son tact inconscient d’enfant solitaire’ (RC, 171). NDiaye’s world is one in which physical and psychic damage goes unacknowledged and unhealed because it finds a home within blankness.19 Victims have no access to knowledge about their potential suffering because the suffering is covered up by both the assailant and the victim; the ignorance is transmitted from generation to generation; and emotionally ‘dead’ and/or abusive parents facilitate the growth of similar kinds of ‘deadness’ in their offspring.
By the time we meet the grown-up Titi of Part Four, he is functioning and successful in his career (he is a maths teacher), but, beneath a veneer of cheerful normality, completely and utterly mad.20 The battle that takes place between Titi and Lagrand for possession of Rosie’s body and absent soul is grotesque, and underlines the persistent attachment of these two damaged adult sons to the grey and deathless figure of the ‘dead’ mother. It is Lagrand who will win this strangely zombified oedipal struggle, stealing a miraculously – but all too briefly – (p.90) reanimated Rosie from Titi’s house of wax with an evident satisfaction. Lagrand’s victory over living death is always only provisional, of course. Even if he fights courageously against the encroaching blankness of the Carpes, it is always only a matter of time before they ‘get’ him, and it is with a sigh of despair that the reader finds him chatting on the final pages with his ghastly mother-in-law Diane about the headless Francis Carpe. It is difficult not to see in the figure of Lagrand an avatar of Ben, the handsome (and black) hero of George A. Romero’s classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Like Ben, Lagrand appears for much of the time to be the only character with the capacity to stay psychically alive. Surrounded by supernatural zombies and passive, catatonic or reactionary humans for whom full-blown zombification is clearly just around the corner, both Ben and Lagrand strike out energetically at these walking corpses, desperate to prove that they are different because they are truly alive.21 Finding an alarmingly deadened Lisbeth keeping watch over the dying Titi while everyone else is at the Astérix film, Lagrand is forced to take in a seemingly fantastical truth:
Son visage n’exprima plus rien, pareil, pensa Lagrand, au visage qu’elle aurait dans la tombe, pareil au tombeau lui-même. Ah, se dit Lagrand, consterné, si Lisbeth n’est pas une simple d’esprit, si elle n’est pas une pauvre idiote donnée à Francis Carpe en échange de je ne sais quoi, que peut-elle bien être? […] Il lui semblait que le visage s’éloignait de lui sans bouger, qu’il se fondait dans l’incertitude d’une idée ou d’un rêve incompréhensible, aussi abstrait, mystérieux, qu’un végétal, qu’une plante commune et cependant tout d’un coup inouïe. Les yeux de Lisbeth étaient posés sur lui mais il voyait bien qu’elle n’était plus là, même s’il entendait le frémissement de son souffle, sa respiration de feuilles.
(RC, 280– 1)
Lisbeth is perhaps literally a zombie, then, her conversion hastened, it might be argued, by the plantation-haunted Caribbean setting in which she finds herself.22 ‘Lève-toi!’, shrieks Lagrand at this thing he finds sitting in the grass (RC, 277), horrified by its spectrality: whatever it is, he recognizes that it is blank in a way that is no longer meaningfully human. In the same way, it is only Lagrand who is filled with a ‘malaise indéfinissable’ (RC, 255) at the sight of a hummingbird who inexplicably gives up the ghost while perched on the end of Diane Carpe’s foot, Diane Carpe, whose ‘yeux […] presques blancs’ (RC, 227) are akin to those of a veritable super-ghoul, one, perhaps, with powers over life and death itself.
Lagrand’s life is filled with moments of anti-zombie resistance, even if (p.91) they are sometimes subject to violent overruling. Even if he experiences terrible lapses of agency, allowing himself to be treated like a bewitched zombie-slave by the Carpes, being ear-raped by the disgusting old woman on the beach, or, in the narrative’s final pages, having his ear chewed off by Diane Carpe, he remains, in this novel, the reader’s only hope for a vision of potential aliveness. His own moments of madness are, on the whole, wonderfully productive, revealing an almost shamanic capacity for the sharing of another’s subjective experience. When Lazare relates his and Abel’s murder of the old couple, Lagrand finds the very borders of his own identity dissolving: he becomes the terrified Lazare, he becomes Abel too, taking on – Christ-like – their guilt for a crime they have already committed. In a world of characters that cannot or will not feel the affective reality of others, Lagrand is all empathic emotion: it literally pours out of him, in the form of the urine he leaks after rescuing Titi from his dangerously ‘dead’ mother and, in the process, rediscovering his own. From very early on in his relationship with Rosie, he talks to the troubled woman in the manner of some kind of cosmic counsellor, an impossibly reassuring mixture of father, angel and friend: ‘Très bien, Rosie, dit Lagrand. Si vous pensez que c’est arrivé d’une certaine façon et pas d’une autre, c’est vous qui avez raison à ce propos, et vous seule. Moi j’entends ce que vous dites et je le prends comme vous me le dites’ (RC, 22). Faithful to Wilfred Bion’s (1962) prescription of the good enough caregiver or therapist, Lagrand will also respond appropriately to Titi’s non-verbally expressed fear of dying, understanding it through magical hallucination (RC, 308), and, at the moment that truly matters, able – in stark contrast to a character like Lucie in La Sorcière – to treat the vulnerable child as if it were his own: ‘Je suis le père et le seul père’ (RC, 311), he announces. Lagrand’s is a fantastical sensitivity, and yet, outlandish though it may seem – he is afraid, at one point, of touching his aching head, for fear of the open lips of a wound he’ll find there – it is, handled by NDiaye, stark and convincing. For Rosie Carpe is NDiaye’s postmodern New Testament, and if figures like Rosie, Lazare and the Carpes evoke playful and perverse new versions of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, John the Baptist and Satan; Lagrand, the only character in the novel to feel life in his veins and the sun on his skin – ‘Je ne suis pourtant pas cette vache crevée’ (RC, 234) – is Christ and Christ alone.
It is in his radical propensity for aliveness that Lagrand begins to show a way out of the overwhelming blankness that has clogged the air of NDiaye’s novels up until his appearance. His is a messianic presence, (p.92) then, but one that is complex, riddled with ambivalence, humanity and terror at what he expects ethically of himself. If he is able to behave with decency towards others, it is because he has proven himself capable of looking at those aspects of himself – notably his relationship with his mother – that had previously been too painful to contemplate. Lagrand, more than any of NDiaye’s protagonists, proves himself equal to Freud’s injunction (1914) not only to repeat but, crucially, to remember and to ‘work through’. Even though he is manifestly not Rosie’s fantastically darkened brother, ‘ce Noir qui n’est pas mon frère’ (RC, 30), as the bizarre identity confusions of the opening pages make clear, Lagrand behaves towards Rosie and her little boy Titi with the warmth of ‘real’ family, a warmth that will never be forthcoming from the boy’s actual father Max, nor from Rosie’s biological brother Lazare, and certainly not from the monstrous M. and Mme Carpe. As Rosie observes, ‘[il] se comporte avec moi comme avec un autre lui-même’ (RC, 30). Lagrand reinvents both family and community in the manner of a Caribbean Jesus, offering the pitiful Rosie something like genuine love and kinship, a gift she, for the most part, declines, but which trickles through the white coldness and cruelty of this novel’s perverse world with a gently comforting glow. Unlike Fanny’s fellow-metic and would-be-saviour young Georges in En famille, Lagrand settles strongly into this text, making it his own, usefully hijacking the narrative point of view halfway through, and asserting himself as the ethical centre of this barren world. Against the odds, he makes himself Rosie’s family, forces her to have him, to act in her own best interests, even if she is too bent on self-annihilation to want it of her own accord.23 That the novel’s final pages find him more strangely passive and zombified – under the eerie influence of his new mother-in-law, Diane Carpe – than we have ever seen him, says more about NDiaye’s aesthetic need (at least, at this point in her career) for a nihilistic crushing of hope than about the beauty that has gradually been revealed about Lagrand’s capacity for a self beyond blankness.
Marks of Weakness, Marks of Woe: Mon cœur à l’étroit (2007)
Nadia, the narrator of Mon cœur à l’étroit, will, like Lucie and Rosie before her, bring up a child who grows up to despise her. The pleasure Ralph takes in his adult male ability to punish, castigate and otherwise humiliate his increasingly desperate mother is contextualized (p.93) by a narrative in which Nadia’s manipulative parenting emerges as the emotional cornerstone of yet another ‘dead’ mother– child dyad. This novel is different, though: it is the first novel by NDiaye in which blank psychotic breakdown is not presented as the only conceivable outcome for both text and protagonist. Nadia manages a miraculous psychic and existential achievement, one that sounds normal enough in its banal formulation, but which Wilfred Bion (1962) rightly considered so precious and worthy of analysis that he named one of his books after it: she learns from experience. The sparkling new phenomenon of fresh insight seems to bend the narrative to its healed will, and the novel is able to conclude in a way which, if not exactly happy, nevertheless smacks of something incredibly peaceful: the subject’s acceptance of the way things are and have been. Nadia’s ‘hemmed-in heart’ beats more and more loudly the more determinedly she walls up her shame, and, like the guilty narrator of Poe’s ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843), is eventually forced to spill its ugly secrets, or at least abject traces of them, in the distinctly ‘un-blank’ form of the ‘chose noire’ (MCE, 296) she gives birth to in the novel’s post-catastrophic final chapter. Nadia’s trajectory from comfort and delusion to cosmic affliction and, eventually, some kind of enlightenment is almost biblical in tone, at times resembling a modern, secular version of the Book of Job. In the analysis that follows I shall sketch out the key stages of Nadia’s terrible punishment, and the simultaneously fantastical, political and psychotherapeutic form assumed by the work of her redemption.
When her tale begins, Nadia dwells in a literally fog-filled world that is entirely subjugated to the force of her will to not know what is happening to her and her husband Ange. Having been marked out suddenly and inexplicably for stigmatizing persecution by the community into which they have apparently assimilated, the couple persists in its deranged insistence that everything is normal. Even if it clearly is not – the daily insults and physical assaults are, after all, difficult to ignore entirely – neither the new situation, whatever it is, nor the possible reasons for it can be acknowledged or put into language: ‘Je ne peux pas le nommer’, says Nadia to her step-daughter Gladys. ‘Je ne sais pas comment appeler ni décrire cela. Quand bien même je le pourrais […] que je ne le dirais pas car ce serait céder de manière ignoble’ (MCE, 49). While every vestige of their home, marriage, livelihood and profession comes under attack, while passers-by stare at them with incredulity and revulsion as though they carry the mark of the Beast (MCE, 23; 28), Nadia and Ange keep their eyes firmly to the ground: ‘Aussi nous (p.94) ne parlons pas, progressant tête baissée, les yeux au sol afin de ne rien pouvoir remarquer autour de nous qui nous froisserait ou nous gênerait, toute espèce de vexation à laquelle on sait qu’on n’opposera qu’un douloureux silence’ (MCE, 12). Unable to look strangers in the eye (‘J’esquisse […] un vague sourire, évitant seulement de le regarder dans les yeux’, MCE, 13), Nadia is determined to block out the visual indices of chagrin as well as the aural ones, plugging up her earholes both physically (‘Je porte aussitôt les mains à mes oreilles’, MCE, 32) and psychosomatically (‘C’est comme si, d’un coup, je me trouvais atteinte de surdité’, MCE, 52). It is when Ange is mysteriously wounded that Nadia’s capacity for a positively demented disavowal of reality is really given the chance to shine: ‘J’enlève mes lunettes. Je couvre mes yeux de mes mains et reste ainsi quelques minutes dans l’attitude de la réflexion mais en réalité incapable de faire se succéder logiquement et utilement mes pensées […] Je me sens distraite, de façon déplacée, en même temps que profondément anéantie’ (MCE, 38). As for the vacancy with which she at first fails to see the pieces of Ange’s flesh that are later placed in her coat (MCE, 75), subsequently wrapping the ‘viande’ in tissue paper as though it were that night’s dinner (MCE, 77), it is the cornerstone of a quintessentially NDiayean comedy of the grotesque, practised with more grim hilarity perhaps only in En famille, when Fanny’s mother continues to serve drinks while her daughter is being torn to pieces by the dogs.
In Mon cœur à l’étroit, NDiaye could not be clearer about the fact that both Nadia’s sudden stigmata and her pathological need to disavow them take place within a socio-political context in which persecution and its denial are related to both ‘race’ and racializing conditions. Nadia’s presumably North African background, which she has done everything in her power to render invisible – the novel is, at bottom, a contemporary ‘passing’ narrative24 – becomes gradually more explicit as the novel progresses, but from the very start the reader is immersed in racialized landscapes. The city of Bordeaux, in which the novel’s first half unfolds, is linked historically to the transatlantic slave trade, a phenomenon which may never be overtly remarked upon, but which hovers over the lives of its inhabitants like a phantom. This is a city in which the trams refuse to allow Nadia to board (MCE, 191– 5), in which she is spat at by strangers in the street (‘juste les cheveux un peu mouillés, ce n’est rien, MCE, 14), and in which she is uncomfortably aware of a shameful kinship between herself and the hordes of wretches, her ‘frères de chagrin’ (MCE, 116) who fill the waiting rooms of the local commissariat (p.95) to have their identity card renewed. The train to Toulon – a city inextricably associated with contemporary far right politics in France – will not move until Nadia descends from it. The similarity between Nadia and Bordeaux’s second-class citizens is specified as grounded in the body, exactly as Fanny’s alleged resemblance to young Georges and to her over-friendly colleagues in the fast-food restaurant was in En famille: ‘Il me semble remarquer […] quelques figures et silhouettes du même genre que la mienne […] Cette fraternité navrée me froisse, me fait honte’ (MCE, 193– 5). Just as the novel is a trajectory of growing insight vis-à-vis Nadia’s years of mistreating those closest to her (her first husband, her son, her granddaughter, her neighbour and – for the first time in all NDiaye’s work, and not altogether convincing, since it is so poorly developed – her parents), it is equally one of nascent politicized self-awareness as a negatively racialized subject within a white-dominated society.
Halfway through the novel, Nadia actually begins to see the painful distinctions between different ‘types’ of people that she (like NDiaye herself, apparently) hitherto experienced as invisible:
De même que je sais distinguer sans devoir y réfléchir entre deux odeurs familières ou deux goûts habituels, je peux séparer immédiatement les êtres auxquels je ressemble de ceux dont je croyais faire partie … (MCE, 194)
Pour la première fois depuis longtemps, je me sens violemment humiliée. (MCE, 193)
Nadia’s unnamed stigmata are certainly racialized via a number of clear indices, but ‘race’ is not the only matrix through which her difference demands to be read. Providing a simultaneously more and less readable framework through which to interpret Nadia’s marginalization than she did for Fanny in En famille, NDiaye creates a social situation for her narrator in Mon cœur à l’étroit which infects the woman in all manner of ways. Nadia – and, by association, Ange – are inhabited by a veritable plague of viruses. As Nadia herself puts it, ‘Je suis marquée […] des stigmates évidents d’une ignominie quand bien même elle n’a pas de nom’ (MCE, 265). The way in which the community turns so suddenly against them, violently hostile, is strongly redolent of witch-hysteria (‘les mères de famille pressent contre leur ventre leur enfant rougissant quand j’arrive’, MCE, 10), with Nadia and Ange caught in the role of the town paedophiles or perverts. They are hounded out of the school where they have for so long taught in blissful, respectable (p.96) peace as if they were secret monsters who have been brusquely ‘outed’, finally recognizable to decent folk, and even to children, as sick and twisted degenerates.
The theme of sexualized marginality is more present in this novel than in any other as gay and bisexual male characters suddenly attain a visibility (in the form of Nadia’s son Ralph and his ex-boyfriend Inspector Lanton) which they hitherto had not been granted in NDiaye’s work, outside the dandified figure of Eugène in En famille and the vaguely homo-erotic pairings of Gilbert and Lemaître in Un temps de saison and Lazare and Abel in Rosie Carpe. Here, male bisexuality (in every sense) appears as an omnipresent force. The neighbour Richard Noget is described as an utterly queer creature, both masculine and feminine, ‘à la fois maigre et mou, bizarrement gras par endroits et sec à d’autres, son corps oisif qui semble l’incarnation de sa duplicité obséquieuse et, presque, de son ambivalence sexuelle (car il a malgré sa barbe des airs de femme étrange)’ (MCE, 42). As for Ange, he bears the name of a creature without sex while at the same time growing a wound on which Nadia’s narration confers the status of magical, stigmatized vagina, a Cronenbergian new organ which constantly leaks fluids, confers non-negotiable social inferiority on a previously powerful, conservative man, and which Nadia both longs to look at and cannot bear to see. Nadia herself is constantly involved in ‘queer’ desires and acts, which call to mind the understated female bisexuality of earlier texts and characters (e.g. Valérie and the Woman; Fanny and Lucette; Lucie and Isabelle) while at the same time far outstripping them in explicitness. Longing to seduce her son’s ex-lover Lanton, she is, to her outrage, accused by the same son of desiring his new partner Wilma, a gynaecologist who will, within minutes of meeting Nadia, indeed penetrate her with a speculum (MCE, 246– 8). This is a novel in which sexualized normativity is as openly contested as its racialized counterpart, and Nadia’s and Ange’s sudden pathologization by their community must accordingly be read within a context of both sexualized and racialized stigmatizing frameworks. Over all these modes of potential stigma hovers the spectre of organized extermination. The pharmacist warns Nadia (MCE, 22) of the danger of taking Ange to hospital, where he would most likely be incinerated. The couple’s snobbish refusal to acquire or watch a television is, it is hinted, perhaps at the root of their ignorance of a national situation of grave consequence for them and their ilk (MCE, 187). When Nadia does eventually flee Bordeaux (the city, we should remember, where (p.97) French fascist Maurice Papon was chief of police), her departure, while ostensibly undertaken in order to visit Ralph, assumes the hue of a flight from holocaust: she promises to send for Ange as if she were leaving him in a place of mortal danger (MCE, 188). But the spectre of potential extermination dogs her at every step. For what are Ralph and Wilma, if not a pair of Sadeian ogres, presiding over a castle of meat and death (‘en retrait mais assez proche pour que les habitants de ces pauvres maison n’ignorent rien de ce qu’il s’y passe’, MCE, 238), in whose garden lies a mausoleum of human bones?
The only way to transcend the seemingly ineluctable outcome of internal and external annihilation, the novel implies, is through the acquisition of emotional self-knowledge. Psychic transformation is never so clearly spelled out in all NDiaye’s texts as the sine qua non of socio-political change. The path towards Nadia’s potential true self assumes the unprepossessing form of the abject neighbour Noget. Fulfilling both a therapeutic and a neo-parental function, Noget also carries overtones of the shaman and of the powerful god in disguise. Unable, in the early chapters, even to pronounce Noget’s name, so thoroughly does he and his association with potential stigma and shameful marginality disgust her, Nadia comes to depend on her neighbour in a fundamentally regressed manner. Noget never ceases to be a troubling, even sinister figure, as far as Nadia’s portrait of him goes. But what her narration is nevertheless forced to accept is the truth of Noget’s insistence that it is her inability to confront her foreclosed layers of knowledge (of familial trauma, of her acts of abuse and of her racialized stigma) that will perpetuate her misery. ‘Vous ne voulez pas comprendre d’où vient le mal’, he tells her (MCE, 79), warning both her and her husband Ange of the folly of denying their shared injury. This injury, which takes physical shape in the form of Ange’s endlessly seeping wound, must, on the contrary, remain horrendously visible, resistant to rationalization, erasure or disavowal, until such time as it disappears of its own accord: ‘Il ne faut pas le soigner, dit-il avec agitation. Il ne doit rien oublier de qu’on lui a fait!’ (MCE, 84) Nadia is revolted by the ‘intimité détestable’ (MCE, 63) that Noget seems intent on creating with her, by his horrible determination to keep her pain in the open. But it soon becomes clear that it is intimacy per se – intimacy with anyone – that she finds truly frightening.
As Noget gets closer and closer, entering Nadia’s home, feeding her and Ange with his impossibly delicious meals, his function starts to become explicitly maternal. Contemptuous, at first, of Noget’s determination (p.98) to ‘jouer à la petite maman’ (MCE, 67), Nadia is soon dependent on the nourishment he brings, registering, with shame, that his mere presence causes her to salivate. ‘Il ne nourrit que pour mieux nous soumettre’ (MCE, 132), she tells herself angrily, in the manner of an adult baby, furious at her undeniable physical dependency on her mother’s milk. But the relationship that springs up between Nadia and Noget, not unlike a psychotherapeutic one, is predicated on his refusal either to stop nourishing her or to collude with her in her denial of her buried feelings. Each activity reinforces the other, combining in the practice of what Wilfred Bion named alpha function, the quasi-magical process through which caregiver or therapist ‘contains’ the baby’s or patient’s anxiety. She does this via her unmitigated readiness to take in the weaker partner’s unprocessed and intolerable fears and feelings, and to return them, in manageable form, to that partner, who can now use them in her own process of psychic growth, her journey towards a radical openness to her emotional truth:
The infant projects a part of its psyche, namely its bad feelings, into a good breast. Thence in due course they are removed and re-introjected. During their sojourn in the good breast they are felt to have been modified in such a way that the object that is re-introjected has become tolerable to the infant psyche.
(Bion, 1962: 90)
Both the pus generated by Ange’s wound and the living creature swelling up in Nadia’s belly appear to be the by-products of Noget’s alpha function. Noget’s acts of feeding cause his reluctant patients Nadia and Ange to change in ways they neither desire nor understand. While Ange gets thinner and thinner, stops both urinating and defecating, and appears to shrink and liquidize in his sick bed, Nadia becomes fatter and fatter, her desire to excrete and egest soon uncontainable. ‘Je suis gorgée de mangeaille, sur le point d’éclater de toutes parts’ (MCE, 257), she remarks with horror, and yet it is this disgusting corporeal metamorphosis that emerges as the corollary of her eventual acquisition of internal clear-sightedness. When the black creature Nadia has been growing – and which Noget explicitly owns as his baby – eventually bursts out and escapes, the ‘birthing’ takes place against the strains of a song sung by her mother, containing the line ‘la misère est sortie de moi’. Noget’s combination of ruthless honesty and nourishment would appear, fantastically, to have converted Nadia’s and Ange’s previously unshakable commitment to self-deception into something physically repellent, which, having exited the body in physical form, leaves both (p.99) of them psychically reborn. Ange’s youthful reappearance in the novel’s final pages (in a chapter significantly entitled ‘Tous guéris’) confirms his passage towards a new form of lucid selfhood, while Nadia’s quiet acceptance of her triple incarnation as grandmother, mother and daughter offers her the chance of a family life which the likes of poor Fanny would have killed to obtain.
The novel’s sudden ‘happy ending’ feels, in a way, somehow too good to be true.25 Where have these lovely old working-class parents of Nadia’s suddenly appeared from? Would she really have abandoned such warm-hearted caregivers, no matter how snobbish and self-hating she was? And how exactly did Ralph find them? These questions fade away on the sunshine of the beach along which Nadia pushes her suddenly acceptable baby granddaughter Souhar. It is as if NDiaye has grown too old for the sadness and isolation to which she condemned the likes of Fanny, Lucie, Herman and Rosie. This novel’s loose ends are left to their own devices, proliferating in the text’s darker recesses. We will never find out if the emotionally under-nourished Ralph’s insatiable adult appetite for (human?) meat may move into abeyance, now that his abusive mother Nadia has come to join him on his distant island and, furthermore, appears to have turned into a better person. If Nadia’s initially helpless attitude at her adult son’s house had seemed to indicate that he, once again, would be expected to do the parenting of his own mother, it may be that his vengeful dishes of blood and bones signalled a refusal on his part to perpetuate the cycle of perverted nourishment. By the end of this deeply strange, perhaps warm-hearted novel, Nadia is at last eating the food prepared for her by her magical mother. We can only hope that Ralph too – not to mention little Souhar – will be permitted, at some stage, to eat in the manner they deserve.
Blank Power! Trois femmes puissantes (2009)
Trois femmes puissantes is far and away NDiaye’s most successful book in terms of commercial triumph and public accolade. A triptych of stories, loosely and often unconvincingly stitched together via the heavily marketed themes of ‘women’, ‘strength’ and ‘Africa’, the book can be compared from a structural and iconographic perspective both to Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) and – even more interestingly, since the work is so little known – Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1968 Haitian masterpiece, Amour, colère et folie.26 Translated into English (unlike (p.100) the vast majority of NDiaye’s work) by John Fletcher in 2012 as Three Strong Women, it received favourable reviews in the Anglophone world, the New York Times calling it ‘the poised creation of a novelist unafraid to explore the extremes of human suffering’ (Eberstadt, 2012), the British newspaper the Guardian meanwhile enthusing about ‘three heroines [who] have an unassailable sense of their own self-worth, while their psychological battles have an almost mythic resonance’ (Jaggi, 2012). It is clearly thanks to the worldwide success of Trois femmes puissantes in French and English that NDiaye was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 – and yet one cannot help but feel frustrated at the irony that incomparably better-conceived work published by NDiaye between 1985 and 2007 remains obscure in comparison. As for the svelte return to artistic form that is Ladivine, her magnificent novel of 2013, its assured and baroque brilliance does make the fêted triptych predecessor look somewhat raggedy in comparison.
Trois femmes puissantes undoubtedly has its merits: scholarly articles by Christophe Ippolito (2013), Shirley Jordan (2013) and Anne Martine Parent (2013) tease out fascinating aspects of the text, including its ambitious use of symbolism (Ippolito), its reinvention of concepts of power (Jordan) and its corporeal evocation of uncontainable affect (Parent). The book taken as a whole is, however, relatively unconvincing, at least when considered in the context of NDiaye’s breathtaking, if less commercially successful, earlier and subsequent work. It is worth noting that as many scholarly articles have been devoted to the analysis of paratextual phenomena surrounding Trois femmes puissantes as have been written about the text as an aesthetic object deserving of careful study. Dominic Thomas (2010), for example, investigates the strange furore that exploded around NDiaye in November 2009 immediately after her Goncourt victory. Meanwhile, Clarissa Behar (2013), Sarah Burnautzki (2013) and Lydie Moudileno (2013) argue, in a set of brilliantly complementary and politically lucid articles, that the novel represents a turning point in NDiaye’s self-representational strategy, transforming her from an artist generally characterized by relative invisibility, ‘ordinariness’ and republican-style Frenchness into a brown-skinned poster girl for difference and diversity.27 In the rapidly growing academic context of NDiaye studies, Trois femmes puissantes may well end up being considered as more noteworthy, then, for what it reveals about French society and its racializing spectacle a decade into the new millennium than as a novel of true literary importance.
Everything about the marketing of Trois femmes puissantes combined (p.101) to make three quite separate novellas into one worthy pronouncement about ‘African women’, their long suffering and their indisputable puissance. The title itself is the first element in the process of the triple-text’s conversion into a single, artificially coherent, readable and uplifting unit, its putative positivity reassuringly bound and sealed in by ‘proud’ femininity. Apparently non-ironic, this title establishes women and their alleged strength as the central theme of the book, despite the fact that the three very different stories could be taken to be ‘about’ all manner of very different issues. Norah’s tale of reunion with her perverse father addresses so many different phenomena – abandonment, isolation, psychosis – that it seems arbitrary, to say the least, to insist that la puissance féminine is the overarching concern. Even more bizarre is the co-opting of the central tale, that of the Aquitaine-dwelling literature teacher Rudy Descas, into the apparently straight-faced ‘strong women’ project. This section of the book is by far the longest – 150 pages of a 300-page book – and the narrative focuses on and is narrated from the perspective of a depressed and paranoid (white) man. Even if we read obliquely – sensitive to the largely absent spectre of Rudy’s long-suffering Senegalese wife Fanta – to repackage the tale as one that somehow focuses on Fanta’s alleged strength of character rather than Rudy’s own emotional (and specifically paternal) transformation smacks of nothing so much as wilful invention. And yet this is precisely what the book’s blurb invites us to do:
Trois récits, trois femmes qui disent non. Elles s’appellent Norah, Fanta, Khady Demba. Chacune se bat pour préserver sa dignité contre les humiliations que la vie lui inflige avec une obstination méthodique et incompréhensible.
It is hard not to wonder if the publisher has made some kind of mistake, managing somehow to print the blurb for a different book altogether on the back of NDiaye’s volume. Such a flagrant disregard for reality suggests an instance of seriously absent-minded blankness. And yet the same mantra is repeated everywhere, drone-like, from newspaper articles to magazine spreads, from interviews with literary critics to interviews with NDiaye herself: Trois femmes puissantes, we are told, is a unified, coherent novel, and its indisputable and reassuring ‘theme’ is the strength and indefatigability of African women.28
The figure most frequently deployed to justify such a skewed presentation of the fragmented, multi-dimensional text is the heroine of the third story, the young widow and would-be-migrant, Khady Demba. (p.102) Khady is made to serve as the connector between the three otherwise disparate stories within the book itself. We see her first, briefly, as a maid and babysitter in the house of Norah’s father. We later learn that she is a distant cousin of Fanta, Rudy’s long-suffering wife, before diving fully into her story, a final tale which sees her exploited, injured, raped and finally killed in the attempt to escape African poverty and reach fortress Europe. Khady’s deployment as narrative connector is unconvincing to say the least. And NDiaye’s descriptive, prescriptive prose – itself blank and, for perhaps the only time, somehow leaden – also encourages the simplification of Khady Demba. Khady seems to represent the saintly final stage in a developing series of working-class, ethnic minority secondary characters who, unlike NDiaye’s typically neurotic (or indeed psychotic) protagonists, are impervious to identity-confusion or shame. These dignified métèques are dotted all over the various texts. Track-suited young Georges in En famille, prefers to lose his one true love, Fanny, than to submit to the indignities of the grandmother’s racist village. Corinna Daoui in Mon cœur à l’étroit would rather scrape a living as a sex worker than aspire to the bourgeois pretentions of white Bordeaux. They will pop up in the plays and short stories too, in the form of Hilda’s sister Corinne, or the petulant (though white) maid Séverine (another track-suited character, however) in ‘Tous mes amis’ (2004).
The problem with Khady Demba, though, is that her noble ‘puissance’ is so blandly and skimpily drawn, so unconvincing when compared to the spine-chilling skill with which NDiaye evokes the Christ-like struggle taking place within the soul of Lagrand, say, or even the different, swirling levels of bovine spectrality in the character of Rosie Carpe. One thinks back to the infinitesimal mood-shifts and paradoxes described in such microscopic detail by the seventeen-year-old NDiaye as rolling around the heavy heart and fevered mind of young Z in Quant au riche avenir (1985), and one cannot help but wonder: what is going on here? Why, when it comes to Khady, is NDiayean nuance in such short supply? The narrator seems to expect us simply to accept a series of rather twee statements about how Khady experiences herself as a human being, as fully alive, as an indisputable ‘true self’:
Son propre visage passa dans le faisceau de lumière brutale et elle songea: Oui, moi, Khady Demba, toujours heureuse de prononcer muettement son nom et de le sentir si bien accordé avec l’image qu’elle avait, précise et satisfaisante, de sa propre figure ainsi qu’avec son cœur de Khady, ce qui se nichait en elle et auquel nul n’avait accès en dehors d’elle-même.
(p.103) Whilst there is some attempt to ground this remarkably strong sense of self within a wider context of healthy psychological development and relationality – Khady, we are told, enjoyed true emotional connection with her kindly grandmother and with her late husband, and communes ecstatically with the physical world – so much of what the narrator tells us about the functioning of the character’s heart and head reads like a recipe for ‘mindfulness’ and ‘healthy self-esteem’ written on a series of post-it notes rather than a convincing literary portrait of a complex being.
It may be argued, of course, that Khady Demba, like Félicité in Flaubert’s ‘Un cœur simple’, for example, simply is not a complex being, this being the reason for the extremely simplistic nature of her portrayal. We may have to accept that we have drifted into the fairytale dimension of the optimistic children’s stories that I shall consider in the final chapter. This is where the marketing of the novel becomes problematic, however: for this third story of Khady Demba is represented time and again in the press articles and interviews not as an experiment in the depiction of ‘un cœur simple’ but instead as emblematic of some kind of politically significant African realism. Moreover, the extreme violence of the narrative, as well as NDiaye’s decision to set it within the context of migration and asylum-seeking, suggests that there is a truly adult dimension to the ideas the text is attempting to discuss. There is thus a disturbing contradiction between the child-like portrayal of Khady’s secure little soul and the putative gravity of the tortures she must undergo. The story’s final pages, in which Khady gradually relinquishes her grip on the physical world, while at the same time finding that she is as immune as ever to the sensation of humiliation or shame, feel simply disingenuous. There is something problematic, for me at least, about how much the figure of the dark-skinned Khady Demba is made to ‘carry’, in terms of physical destruction and accompanying ideological ‘optimism’: it is though she is nothing more than the result of a condescendingly Africanized – and strangely blank – projection.
More persuasive literary creations are Rudy Descas – the cuckolded white Frenchman of the book’s long, sometimes very powerful, second section and Norah – the French mixed-race daughter of the masterful first story – both of whom tend to be occluded from the vast majority of the market representation of the novel, failing, as they do, to fit in with the much-repeated yet essentially false ‘strong African women’ motif. Their stories are (like NDiaye’s follow-up novel of 2013, Ladivine) (p.104) compelling and unashamedly melodramatic murder mysteries and family tragedies, from which both emerge as flawed detective-heroes and metamorphosed saints. Norah and Rudy share the same depression mixed with a thin sliver of ‘core aliveness’, as well as a haunting, punitive superego, which constantly whispers and shouts at them about the things they have done but should not have, as well as the things they have not done that they should have, causing them to piss themselves (Norah) and scratch at their behinds (Rudy) in grotesque dances of self-disintegration. Unlike Khady Demba, Norah and Rudy present the reader with the more interesting challenge of trying to glimpse the potential for a ‘true self’ which always skips just out of reach of the hapless protagonist, never quite solid or secure enough for her or him to take refuge in. And, unlike Khady, who is miraculously able to remember everything that has happened to her over the course of her confusing and disempowered life (‘elle l’avait en tête précisément et s’efforçait, calmement, froidement, de le comprendre’, TFP, 297), Norah and Rudy are the victims of horrible blanks in their consciousness, maddening gaps of memory during which they may or may not have lived in Africa, may or may not have witnessed their wicked father in the act of killing. For both Norah and Rudy are the children of murderous fathers and blankly denying mothers and, like all the intriguing protagonists of NDiaye’s second cycle of novels with the exception of Khady Demba, they are themselves the parents of children they somehow cannot love quite well enough.
The story of Norah, her psychically annihilated sister and brother, and their French mother and African father, is as powerful and frightening as anything NDiaye has ever written. In its 100 odd pages, this tale succeeds in capturing the strange ‘emptying out’ of affect between damaged parents and their damaged children with an eeriness unmatched even in texts as fine as La Sorcière and Rosie Carpe. The conversation that takes place in prison between Norah and her zombified brother Sony, as they try to remember what they were like before they both died inside, is unbearably moving. Sony’s sudden spark of aliveness, as he recalls past moments of happiness and emotional interaction, operates like an electric shock on the reader: ‘Il gloussa de bonheur, et Norah reconnut immédiatement, violemment, le petit garçon à la bouche grande ouverte qu’elle lançait sur son lit couvert d’une chenille bleue’ (TFP, 83). One way of reading the story is as one of Norah’s attempt to repair the ungrievable disjunction that springs up between her increasingly robotic mother and the family’s youngest (p.105) child and only boy, Sony. Meeting several years after Sony has been snatched away to Africa by his diabolical father, the middle-aged white mother and her ‘mixed-race’ teenage son attempt to converse, all the while exuding a sad, stiff artificiality that is, in NDiaye’s precise prose, weirdly exacerbated by their different hairstyles:
Sony était, comme toujours, superbement vêtu d’un costume de lin sombre, sa peau était fine et douce, ses cheveux taillés en afro courte. Leur mère avait sa nouvelle figure figée, sa bouche un peu tordue, son casque de cheveux laqués blond-blanc et Norah voyait qu’elle prenait garde, en interrogeant Sony sur son collège et ses matières de prédilection, de ne pas faire de fautes de syntaxe ou de grammaire, car elle pensait Sony bien plus instruit qu’elle, et elle en était humiliée et malheureuse […] Norah remarqua que son frère ne considérait jamais personne directement. Son regard affable, impersonnel, allait d’un visage à l’autre sans s’arrêter sur aucun et il fixait avec attention, lorsqu’on lui parlait, quelque point invisible de l’espace, sans pour autant cesser de sourire ni de donner à ses traits une expression d’intérêt formel pour tout ce qu’on pouvait lui dire […] Le déjeuner fini, ils se séparèrent et bien qu’il restât quelques jours avant le départ, Sony et leur mère ne se revirent plus et leur mère n’évoqua plus jamais Sony.
(TFP, 55– 6)
Ghostly familial awkwardness hovers over the story from start to finish, as parents and children find themselves trapped together in situations that are at once overwhelmingly, embarrassingly intimate and yet desperately disconnected and lonely. Norah’s father (‘nimbé de brillance froide’, TFP, 11) acts towards her from start to finish in a way that exemplifies cold, rejecting distance, and yet there is also something invasive and inappropriate in his sly observation of her micturition (‘Tu t’en es pissé dessus, tout à l’heure’, TFP, 87) which suggests a fundamentally abusive mode of bonding. The only way father and daughter seem able to dwell together is within the space of a shared secret that is at once shaming and unspeakable. This interaction reaches its weird climax in the space of the tree and the bizarre bird-metamorphoses which take place within it:
Il la voyait comme elle le voyait, lui, à croupetons dans ses vêtements clairs, la figure effacée par sa propre obscurité.
En elle luttaient la satisfaction de l’avoir découvert et l’horreur de partager un secret avec cet homme.
There are, perhaps, echoes here of the classical story of Myrrha (who was transformed into a myrrh tree after having sex with her father), (p.106) but what strikes me most about the details of what transpires between Norah and her father during their perverse interactions is the sense of ‘disorganized’ child– parent attachment (cf. Main and Solomon, 1990). Utterly repulsed by her father, Norah is nevertheless compelled to seek out uncomfortable, improbable closeness to him, whilst at the same time determined to achieve some kind of impossible vengeance (‘elle lui ferait rendre gorge’, TFP, 85). Daughterly feelings are, in Norah’s world, an impossibly confused and disorientating affair, as is her very experience of her past (did she really live in Grand-Yoff? is that really her in the photograph?), her present (why is she allowing her daughter Lucie to remain in a potentially dangerous situation with Jakob and Grete? is her maternal love somehow draining away from her?) and her future (how will she ever return to France?). Norah’s experience of family life has been such, it seems, that the only conceivable representation she can have of it – and of herself – is an impossibly muddled one, characterized by the strange kinds of fugues and dissociations described by Laing and Esterson (1964) in their pioneering work on the potential role played by environment and family in the development of ‘schizophrenia’. In Norah’s own terms, her sister, her brother and herself have spent their lives fighting ‘un démon assis sur le ventre’ (TFP, 77), a demon that has fed on the trauma of the various forms of hate-free abandonment, neglect and abuse to which their father and mother have constantly, and with seeming nonchalance, subjected them.
Perhaps by now it should no longer surprise us: it is NDiaye’s depiction of the failure of living love to grow between parent and child that emerges as this book’s most powerful aspect. The stories of both Norah and Rudy manage to capture the development of a grotesque blankness between (white or black) parent and (brown) child that is devastating in its quiet sadness. The sense of unspeakable yet palpable awkwardness between Rudy and his little half-African son Djibril hovers over the central story as surely as the repressed xenophobic insult Rudy yells at his wife Fanta shortly before leaving the house for his day of torment. Rudy’s story is a weirdly undulating affair, leisurely yet at the same time anxious, seeming to mimic the rhythm of the car in which the protagonist angrily cruises around the town and countryside on this seemingly interminable day. If the spectre of Rudy’s deranged and disconnected mother (‘Maman était-elle vivante?’ he wonders at one point, TFP, 140) hovers over his existence, zombified, and yet, just like the ‘dead’ mothers of Green’s (1983) landmark essay, tantalizing, inaccessible, jealous-making (for, like Fanta, she has emotionally (p.107) betrayed him with his nemesis Manille), it is Rudy’s inability to feel something resembling straightforward paternal affection for Djibril that becomes increasingly problematic. NDiaye creates the troubling impression that Rudy’s racialized assault on the boy back in Senegal is a displaced attack on his own – brown-skinned – son, a child to whom he cannot feel close, whose physical difference from him combines with an already existing sense of splitting, to create an unmanageable outburst of ogre-like violence:
Sans savoir ni comprendre ce qu’il faisait, ce qu’il allait faire, il avait sauté à la gorge du garçon.
Quelle impression bouleversante que de sentir sous ses pouces le tube annelé, tiède, moite de la trachée – Rudy s’en souvenait mieux que de tout le reste, et il se souvenait de n’avoir pensé, en appuyant sur le cou du garçon, qu’à la chair tendre du petit Djibril, son fils qu’il baignait chaque soir.
Machinalement il retourna ses mains, les regarda. (TFP, 179)
Rudy’s transformation, the sudden, miraculous growth of a new capacity to love and care for this dark, anxiety-provoking, quiet son of his, is the climax of this long central narrative of Trois femmes puissantes. Emotional metamorphosis is thus the story’s raison d’être and the reader’s reward for having been forced – like poor Rudy – to sit in Rudy’s skin for such a long time without respite. The metamorphosis, when it comes, is presented as the miraculous – yet psychically plausible – effect of a confluence of insights, all involving Rudy’s sudden ability to see his own mother with new eyes. Having brought Djibril to the boy’s grandmother’s house to spend the night, only to find her absorbed in the rapturous worship of a little blond neighbour (there are echoes here of Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie), Rudy finally sees that his mixed-race son will never be adored by Rudy’s own white racist mother in the way she is now adoring her tiny neighbour (‘il n’y avait nul espoir qu’il correspondît jamais à l’idée que maman se faisait d’un messager divin’, TFP, 235). Perhaps even more crucially, he realizes that will she never awaken from the slumber of her emotional deadness to interact with him, Rudy, her own son, in the way he has always longed for. His insight is cataclysmic and it is irreversible:
Rudy se sentait envahi d’un dégoût plein de lassitude.
Elle est cinglée, et de la plus stupide manière, et je ne veux plus ni ne dois plus protéger cela. Mon pauvre petit Djibril! Ah, nous ne remettrons plus les pieds ici.
(p.108) This moment of vision synthesizes all the repressed elements of Rudy’s simultaneously damaged ‘child’ and ‘parent’ self in a way that is truly fantastical, and yet which is at the same time profoundly psychodynamic in its construction. Rudy feels his own repressed envy, an envy which Freud would doubtless describe as ‘oedipal’, when he sees the care his mother is bestowing on the little blond boy, and yet it is an envy which can now be transfigured into concern for his own child: ‘Il en fut jaloux, à la fois pour lui et Djibril’ (TFP, 236). It is thus Rudy’s recognition (manifested in physical sensations: acid tears, the desire to vomit) of previously blanked-out affect which prepares the way for his own rebirth as a father. Offering his child the milk his own mother refuses to give either of them (TFP, 238), he hallucinates his mother’s ambivalent breasts (‘un peu lourds dans l’échancrure profonde du polo’, TFP, 239) in the manner of a vulnerable, hungry (Klein (1946) would say ‘paranoid-schizoid’) and yet ultimately clear-sighted (in Kleinian terms, ‘depressive’) baby: ‘Ils lui parurent gonflés de lait ou de plaisir. Il détourna les yeux, recula doucement pour qu’elle ôtât sa main’ (TFP, 240). His acceptance not only that his mother is incapable of the sort of nourishment he has always wanted from her, but furthermore that her racism is of a kind that will ultimately do damage to his child, pushes Rudy from the ghoulish maternal space (adorned, ironically, with angels) and onto a new path, at the end of which lies the possibility of love, meaningful buzzard-angels and a new kind of family: the Franco-Senegalese one he has helped to create with Fanta.
Complex emotional stories such as Rudy’s and Norah’s cannot adequately be summed up by marketing machines, television interviews, or in soundbites about ‘strength’ or puissance: this is psychic life – and relationality – beyond the deadness of the idée reçue. It is a pity that their fragile, nuanced strangeness was largely drowned out by the commercialized platitudes which accompanied the Khady-dominated entrance of Trois femmes puissantes into the world. As we shall see in the following chapter, the challenge for almost all of NDiaye’s theatrical characters – and indeed for NDiaye’s theatre itself – will be to effect cathartic returns of the blankly buried past with a revolutionary force capable of refusing the machinations of capitalism, spectacularization and exoticizing enslavement.
(1) Another public row which brought NDiaye into the public eye was the one she had with the novelist Marie Darrieussecq, whom she accused, in an open letter to the Libération newspaper (NDiaye, 1998a), of ‘singerie’, claiming that Darrieussecq’s just-published fantastical tale of inexplicable (p.216) disappearance, Naissance des fantômes, bore unacceptable similarities to Un temps de saison and La Sorcière (see also Gaudemar, 1998). Darrieussecq (1998) responded with a well-publicized open letter of her own, as well as a book in 2010, Rapport de police, in which she subjects plagiarism plaintiffs to close psychological scrutiny.
(2) The union of NDiaye, Denis and Huppert irresistibly calls to mind legendary literary– cinematic– star collaborations of the French past such as Marguerite Duras, Alain Resnais and Emmanuelle Riva for the film of Hiroshima mon amour (1959).
(3) The warm and communicative nature of the community of scholars that has sprung up around the study of NDiaye is like nothing I have ever experienced in the academic world. Its singularity bears witness, in my view, to the very aspect of NDiaye’s work around which this entire project revolves, namely the ‘radical aliveness’ provoked in the reader by exposure to the fantastical ‘deadness’ of the writing.
(4) Herman and the Woman both ‘lose’ spouse and child right at the start of their narratives, and quickly ‘move on’ as unattached free agents. As for Fanny, the closest she comes to having a family is young Georges (whom she rejects) and the little girl who latches onto her as messenger (and is brutally maimed for her troubles).
(5) Comédie classique is a key exception to this first cycle rule, representing Paris in iconic detail.
(9) Once again, Lucie resembles Fanny’s mother in En famille, a woman who is constantly tired and cheerful, except when she becomes inexplicably angry and energetic enough to berate and disown her sexually, racially and physically abused daughter.
(10) For a remarkably sensitive reading of Rosie Carpe, from the perspective of Maurice Blanchot’s ‘writing of disaster’ and Cathy Caruth’s and Dori Laub’s conceptions of ‘trauma’, see Arnould-Bloomfield (2013).
(12) The opening line of García Márquez’s novel is ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ (García Márquez, 2000: 1).
(13) While it is true that there is no obvious ‘collective trauma’ holocaust or colonialism paradigm through which to filter Rosie’s interrupted subjectivity, (p.217) genealogy and radical memory loss, the novel’s partial setting in formerly enslaved Guadeloupe may, it might be argued, be ‘infecting’ her consciousness. Sarah Burnautzki raises this idea in an unpublished article.
(14) The colour green will be made to do something similar in Autoportrait en vert.
(16) This scenario is, of course, a knowing or unknowing (as always, with NDiaye, it is impossible to tell) reworking of Freud’s notorious ‘Dora’ case study, in which the teenage Dora and her father are placed in a potential pairing situation with the married couple Herr and Frau K.
(17) I am grateful to Pauline Eaton for our intense discussion of this passage, which really focused my own attention on it, even if we reached different conclusions.
(19) It is fascinating too to note how readily readers ‘blank out’ NDiaye’s horrors: very little mention is ever made by critics of Titi’s terrible suffering prior to his arrival in Guadeloupe.
(20) Unstable teachers are legion in NDiaye’s world, accounting for a significant proportion of her protagonists (e.g. Herman, Zelner, Nadia, Ange, Rudy, Fanta, the narrator of ‘Tous mes amis’ and the child-raping Maître in Les Grandes Personnes). For an excellent extended analysis of the teacher-figure in NDiaye, see Sheringham (2013b). NDiaye’s mother was a teacher.
(21) In the final moments of Romero’s film, Ben will, of course, be shot dead by a posse of redneck law-enforcers who apparently mistake him for a zombie. The ending of Rosie Carpe is almost as bleak for Lagrand. Classic American horror films from 1968 appear to have influenced Rosie Carpe enormously. Sarah Burnautzki (2013b) points out striking resonances between NDiaye’s novel and Roman Polanski’s film version of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. More motifs from Rosemary’s Baby (e.g. an intrusively nourishing neighbour whose food causes the heroine to become supernaturally pregnant) can be found in Mon cœur à l’étroit.
(22) Pauline Eaton points out, in an unpublished paper, that the trappings of vodun, a Caribbean religion associated with ontological transformation, shape-shifting and zombification, are to be found everywhere in this novel.
(24) For an excellent sociological account of the phenomenon of ‘passing’ – a stigmatized subject’s attempt to ‘pass’ as a non-stigmatized one – see Goffman (1963). The specifically racialized version of the phenomenon has been thoroughly explored in American literature in such works as Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929), William Faulkner’s novel Light in August (1932), (p.218) Langston Hughes’s short story ‘Passing’ (in the 1934 collection The Ways of White Folks) and, more recently, in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000). NDiaye’s 2013 novel Ladivine represents NDiaye’s most explicit exploration of the ‘passing’ motif, one which has haunted her writing since En famille.
(25) It is interesting to note the extent to which the ending of Rosie Carpe feels inappropriately ‘nasty’, while the ending of Mon cœur à l’étroit feels astonishingly hopeful. In the first case, the chosen denouement feels like an unreasonable nightmare, in the second a redemptive and reassuring dream.
(26) Christophe Ippolito pointed out the Flaubert connection during his paper ‘Trois contes de Flaubert dans Trois femmes puissantes de NDiaye’ at the 20th- and 21st-century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium in Atlanta in 2013, noting that Norah’s story is linked to ‘Hérodias’ via the theme of the incestuous step-mother and the sacrificed male saint, that Rudy’s story connects to ‘La Légende de St Julien L’Hospitalier’ through its medieval preoccupations and murderous inter-generational curses, while the maid Khady Demba’s simple soul, prone to hallucination, makes her the modern African equivalent of Flaubert’s Félicité. We can draw out similar parallels between each of NDiaye’s characters and each of Vieux-Chauvet’s. Norah the neurotic métisse has strong echoes of Claire in Vieux-Chauvet’s ‘Amour’, her menacing father an avatar of the terrifying Calédu; pseudo-intellectual Rudy has the same quality of paranoid derangement as Vieux-Chauvet’s male poet protagonist René in ‘Folie’, while Khady Demba’s fantastical capacity for surviving limitless sexual violence with her soul unscathed connects her to young Rose in Vieux-Chauvet’s ‘Amour’. I am grateful to Naomi Segal for pointing out to me the clear, ironic connection to yet another classic triptych of short story-novellas: Simone de Beauvoir’s La Femme rompue (1967).
(27) The conference ‘Marie NDiaye: une femme puissante’, held in Mannheim, Germany in May 2011, was a significant turning point in NDiaye studies, bringing together for the first time a number of highly politicized critiques of NDiaye’s ‘recuperation’ within contemporary French culture. The combination of papers by Behar, Burnautzki, Moudileno and others provoked difficult and exciting discussions which have immeasurably influenced my thoughts on NDiaye’s cultural function.