Little Baby Nothing: Framing the Invisible Child
Little Baby Nothing: Framing the Invisible Child
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines uncategorizable texts by NDiaye which refuse the ‘adult’ framework of novel or theatre, and in which the child figure is prominent. These texts, in some way or another, carve out a potentially new space for that child figure to inhabit. This new space may arise through the unusually ‘child-like’ form assumed by the text – these are short stories or some kind of picture- or photo-book – or else by the way in which the text addresses itself directly to a child reader. NDiaye’s books for children are amongst her most radical works, reworking the endlessly depressing scenarios of the plays and longer prose fiction in such a way that their child figures can, at last, find empowering new relationships through which they may get ‘properly born’. In some of the texts examined in this chapter, empathic coalitions spring up between similarly animalized child and adult subjects; in others, the parent figures learn to perceive the child in their care as a separate being who is nevertheless deserving of love and respect. The spotlight shone on the parent-child relationship in these texts might be described as more conducive to the emergence of ‘evolved’ parental consciousness in the reader.
One day, the child’s mother had been away for several hours and on her return was met with the words, ‘Baby o-o-o-o!’ which was at first incomprehensible. It soon turned out, however, that during this long period of solitude the child had found a method of making himself disappear. He had discovered his reflection in a full-length mirror which did not quite reach to the ground, so that, by crouching down, he could make his mirror-image ‘gone’.
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle and other Writings
The novels, plays, short stories and children’s books of Marie NDiaye are littered with unwanted, hated, invaded children. Even in the enigmatic textual and photographic ‘self-portrait’, Autoportait en vert (2005), children, including the narrator’s own ever-proliferating brood, wander, unsupervised and often vaguely feared by their caregivers, through peculiar stories and images of hostile, reluctant or merely ghostly parenting. The figure of the child as universal scapegoat has always been prominent in NDiaye’s world: one thinks of the hapless Bébé in La Femme changée en bûche (1989), burned up by his mother in a coat specially commissioned from the Devil, or Fanny’s little messenger-girl at the end of En famille (1990), scalded and maimed by the family who sees in her an emanation of the hated Fanny herself. In the second novel cycle, the child becomes more significant still, as all the protagonists begin, as NDiaye herself was doing, to reproduce. This group of texts heralds the arrival of NDiaye’s most iconic infant victims: La Sorcière’s Steve (1996) and Rosie Carpe’s Titi (2001), both boys sacrificed on the altar of their mothers’ need to be free of the burden of parenting, even if this means abandoning the child to perish among rats and rotten guavas.
(p.143) If the meat-loving adult son Ralph of Mon cœur a l’étroit (2007) signalled the dangerous possibility of a grown-up child’s vengeance on his abuser, by the time of Trois femmes puissantes (2009) NDiaye had returned to portraits of children as utterly devoured by their parents, both Sony and Djibril (little boys again) reduced and defeated by their selfish, predatory or merely depressive ‘caregivers’. NDiaye’s theatre, as we have just seen, takes the child into more frightening territory still. The various abandoned, sickly, dying or spectral babies, foetuses, infants and children of Hilda (1999), Providence (2001), Papa doit manger (2003), Les Serpents (2004), Rien d’humain (2004) and Les Grandes Personnes (2011) are overwhelming in their ghostliness. Not only deadened, they are also rendered less than human. In these dreadful plays, children are often casually associated by their parents with beasts, this conflation reaching its climax once the adult protagonists reach the stage of being unable to distinguish the child in question from an animal (often an unnameable one). This stage is usually accompanied by the child’s enforced promiscuity among actual animals (snakes, pigs), instruments of abuse (dildos, belts), and is followed by the child’s sudden or gradual psychic or physical disintegration. Stigmatized even more harshly than the adult protagonists (who themselves struggle with marks of various kinds), NDiaye’s children are forced to bear not only their own stigmata but also those of their parents, or of people older still, sometimes dead, which are projected onto them with intolerable psychic violence. NDiaye’s children must literally carry the ghosts of unresolved torment that has taken place prior to their own birth. This trial reaches its apotheosis in the macabre photo-poem Y penser sans cesse (2011), published in French and German in the same volume, in which the Berlin-dwelling narrator notices that her young son has been taken over by the ghost of a Holocaust deportee who once lived in the same building. While this situation is exceptional,1 it nevertheless serves to illustrate, in especially horrendous fashion, the recurring NDiayean problematic whereby a child is made to serve as the ‘container’ of the traumatic energy of those who have preceded him or her.
While, in the ideal course of events, parents will ‘contain’ their children’s unmanageable fears, converting them, as Wilfred Bion (1962) proposed, into tolerable feelings to be returned to the child as she journeys towards an authentic emotional experience of herself, in NDiaye’s world children are used, illegitimately, as ‘containers’ by those older than them. Having a child becomes, for NDiaye, a means of getting rid of unpleasant sensations for which one would otherwise (p.144) have to take full responsibility. The child serves as a kind of short cut, a way of not having to look properly at oneself. Titi becomes the sickly emblem of Rosie Carpe’s inability to work through her own likely childhood experiences of abuse and neglect. In the same way, Stéphane Ventru’s unnameable pet in La Femme changée en bûche becomes the bestial representative of his disavowed feelings of social marginalization and inadequate masculinity. Both child and pet must pay the price of such effective work of symbolization by their own sacrifice. Like the disabled Bébé of Papa doit manger, who must ‘disappear’ in order for Papa’s feelings of racialized inferiority to lessen, all NDiaye’s small creatures might be described in Jung’s terms as having never been properly born.2 They have instead been stifled before birth, prevented from developing as individuals in their own right, set on a predestined path of horror-baby, spectral and ghostly from cradle to grave. It is no wonder that in tandem with these hapless child-figures there exist a whole host of ‘pre-babies’ in NDiaye’s fictions and plays, babies that are literally never born. From Lili’s magically aborted foetus in La Sorcière, to Rosie Carpe’s miscarried ‘immaculate conception’, to Djamila’s phantom infant in Rien d’humain, there remains the suggestion that to get ‘properly’ born is no small feat, manageable only in exceptionally fortunate circumstances.
In this chapter, I examine a number of uncategorizable texts by NDiaye. In these texts, all of which refuse the ‘adult’ framework of novel or theatre, the child figure is prominent. More significantly, though, the text, in some way or another, carves out a potentially new space for that child figure to inhabit. This new space may arise through the unusually ‘child-like’ form assumed by the text – these are short stories or some kind of picture- or photo-book – or else by the way in which the text addresses itself directly to a child reader. Three of the texts I consider in this chapter were written for non-adult readers. NDiaye’s books for children are, in some ways, her most radical and disruptive works, reworking the endlessly depressing scenarios of the plays and longer prose fiction in such a way that their child figures can, at last, find empowering new relationships through which they may get ‘properly born’. In some of the texts examined in this chapter, empathic coalitions spring up between similarly animalized child and adult subjects; in others, the parent figures learn – finally! – to perceive the child in their care as a separate being who is nevertheless deserving of love and respect. In almost all of them, the spotlight shone on the parent– child relationship feels slightly gentler than in the novels and (p.145) plays. And, if not gentler, the light could perhaps be described as more conducive to the emergence of ‘evolved’ parental consciousness in the reader. The brevity of the texts, as well as the images deployed in many of them, reinforce an effect of absorbable healing. And when that is not the case – some of the stories of the 2004 collection Tous mes amis are horrific – there is instead a Grimm-like quality which conveys the short, sharp shock typical of the finest kind of fairy tale.
The texts I explore in this chapter, all written after 2000, offer something less desperately sad, then, than the novels and the plays. They are more optimistic too than earlier short stories and picture books which NDiaye had tried her hand at. If the tale ‘Le Jour du Président’ (1997) had placed at its centre a character who embodied more effectively than any other of NDiaye’s protagonists the horror of psychic and physical vulnerability, it was not able to offer her any way out of her nightmare. Olga, the teenage anorexic and would-be ‘pur esprit’, is a child-ghost and nothing-person, captured in NDiaye’s text at her gravest stages of disintegration: she fades away in the course of the story to a state of ghoulish evanescence. By the tale’s final paragraphs, Olga’s head has been drained empty of life and thought, and is instead flooded with sunlight. Believing that she is finally receiving her mother’s love, she finds herself gazed upon by the idiotic face of none other than former president Jacques Chirac. Olga is NDiaye’s most Flaubertian victim, sacrificed by the author herself, too early for the rescuing raft of later, more-generous texts.
Similarly, the hapless ‘femme-poisson’ of La Naufragée (1999), adrift in a sea-less Paris and a clutch of disorientating Turner paintings, is a minoritarian monster whose fate is similarly sealed by her coming out too soon. Her experience of life is confused, impossible to picture, a synaesthetic mix of indescribable sound, blurred vision and fragmented language which perfectly mimics that of a baby. With her blank, colourless hair, bloodless lips and unfocused, unintelligible gaze, the woman-fish is the ultimate figure of the NDiayean infantile sublime, beyond description, on her last legs (or crutches), and the victim of pitiless adult human violence. How did she get here? The mystery of her arrival on land is akin to that of being born into the world. Both ‘mer’ and mère’ are long gone. All she knows is: ‘J’arrive quelque part’ (N, 25). The woman-fish’s world is a terrible dream, silent, violent and confused; her life is ‘bare’, beyond the law, in a space of permanent exception; and her strategies of survival – immobility, silence, communication, charm – all fail to save her.3
(p.146) The texts explored in this chapter pursue the theme of child-like helplessness as experienced by Olga and the femme-poisson, but reinsert it, for the most part, within a framework in which that helplessness may stand at least some chance of survival. While it is true that the stories of Tous mes amis are, for the most part, ghastly, the collection nevertheless concludes on a moment of parent– child redemption – in the tale named ‘Révélation’ – that is unprecedented. Being born, even being orphaned, is, these tales seem to suggest, where all true adventures begin. The narrator of Autoportrait en vert, however neurasthenic she may appear, seems, by the end of her strange photographic tale of ghost-chasing, to be emerging into a space in which she may at last be able to perceive her children’s unpalatable visions of truth for what they are. Finally, the adoptive parent-figures of the three books explicitly conceived for children – La Diablesse et son enfant (2000), Les Paradis de Prunelle (2003) and Le Souhait (2005) – all arrive for their endangered charges in the nick of time, saving the little ones from expiry just when it might have appeared that rescue was impossible. As NDiaye once put it, ‘on ne peut pas se plaindre que quelqu’un soit né. Peut-être que le pire, c’est de ne pas naître. Ça me semble impossible de regretter pour quelqu’un qu’il soit né’ (Argand, 2001). In the texts we are about to explore, at least some clues are offered as to how to make the best of that ambiguous gift of birth.
The Living Dolls: Tous mes amis (2004)
NDiaye’s only published collection of short stories has not been widely discussed, but it contains some of her funniest, most disturbing and original writing. It may be considered as her own brood of ignored yet magical ‘little ones’. The five stories are horrific fairy tales for grown-ups, all miracles of economical narration, all containing a mesmeric power of suggestion so strange and frightening that NDiaye merits comparison with the masters and mistresses of the genre. If the first three stories (‘Tous mes amis’, ‘La Mort de Claude François’ and ‘Les Garçons’) are shockingly cruel, all of them turning around the themes of children in danger and missing – yet simultaneously abusive – fathers), the final two (‘Une journée de Brulard’ and ‘Révélation’), ugly though they also are, seem to contain the seeds of some kind of redemption: Brulard’s husband Jimmy and the final story’s fantastical son are almost ineffable figures of love and forgiveness, leaving the (p.147) reader with the distinct impression that, even if NDiaye’s is a world heavily populated by ghosts and ogres, it also has room for at least one or two angels.
‘Tous mes amis’ is a tale of blank psychosis and escalating class war that culminates in an unspoken act of racialized violence. It is difficult to imagine a starker – or, strangely, more hilarious – snapshot of the psychosocial diseases of contemporary France, all refracted through the self-pitying narration of yet another middle-aged schoolteacher. This Poe-like narrator’s increasingly desperate attempts to analyse and invade his white working-class housekeeper and former pupil Séverine, married to Jamel, another former pupil (generally referred to by the narrator as ‘le Maghrébin’), drive the housekeeper towards ever more frustrating displays of coldness, contempt and silent superiority. An intriguing cross between the taciturn maid Hilda and her angry sister Corinne, Séverine is a figure of unreadable proletarian resistance who, in one of the most remarkable images of all NDiaye’s writing, sheds her skin, snake-like, an organic gauntlet hurled at the feet of her impotent would-be-master (TMA, 20). The narrator is the ultimate failed abusive father, furious at his inability to hang onto the putatively smaller creatures (pupils, social inferiors marked by class and ‘race’, his wife, his actual children) on whom he would like to practise complete control. In keeping with the ultimate perversity of the colonizing bourgeoisie, and following in the footsteps of Mme Lemarchand and her ‘mission civilisatrice’, he dreams not only of dominating his little ones, but of receiving their eagerly expressed gratitude for the favour he is doing them, boasting of having acquired ‘une certaine maîtrise dans la manière de séduire mes élèves. Dans le collège, dans le lycée, s’était établie depuis longtemps ma belle popularité’ (TMA, 14). He longs to play everybody’s favourite Daddy, yet doubts constantly whether he could ever wield enough authority to make people obey his command:
Ils sont maintenant tous trois dans ma maison, docilement conduits par une invitation innocente qu’a lancée et signée ma maison elle-même – c’est ce que, les voyant là, je me figure, ne pouvant imaginer qu’ils soient venus à ma seule demande. Si ma maison intrigue, ne peut-elle intriguer parfois et par hasard dans le sens de mes désirs?
It is the narrator’s ire at being confronted with situations in which his abusive paternal function is categorically rejected that will drive the nasty tale towards its frightening denouement. Constantly confronted with the horrified repellence his own children – pupils at the school (p.148) where he teaches – feel when they clap eyes on him, he experiences his parental failure as a form of symbolic death: ‘Est-ce que ton père est une charogne? je crie parfois dans son dos’ (TMA, 32). As usual with NDiaye, it is unclear as to whether the schism that appears to have taken place within the family has any sexual abuse lurking at its root. Ex-wife and estranged sons treat the narrator with a disgust everybody appears to accept as perfectly reasonable, leaving the reader with vague suspicions that will never be confirmed one way or the other. ‘Tous mes amis’ is a wonderfully complex, teasing narrative, removed from manichaean pronouncements or black-and-white morality. The narrator is, despite his myriad failings, oddly touching in his alienation and his abject terror of life, his anxious voice conveying a far more vivid, complex and transgressive portrait of rage turned in on itself than the later, better-known tale of Rudy Descas in Trois femmes puissantes. If this narrator longs for dutiful children he also longs for a caring mother; if he despises the working classes (especially in their non-white form) he also feels disgust for upper-class ostentatiousness. He is, like all the most successful of NDiaye’s creations, radically ‘in between’, in need of the idealized and aristocratic son-figure Werner to father him, hateful of his dependence on the fantasized strength of others, increasingly experiencing himself as a pathetic, imperceptible non-entity: ‘Mais personne n’entend ni ne prête attention à mon filet de voix. Je ne suis plus nulle part’ (TMA, 39). By the story’s closing pages, he is as broken down and worn out a husk of a person as any of NDiaye’s most zombified earlier protagonists: ‘Oh, tout est passé, me dis-je, et tout s’est fait en dehors de moi’ (TMA, 43). He has nowhere to go but into a form of neo-Nazism, a position that will become concretized by his invasion of Jamel’s family home, where he waits to commit untold horrors. Racialized contempt, insists NDiaye, more compellingly in this story than almost anywhere else, proceeds ineluctably from the already anxious subject’s tumble into an irretrievable loss of true self.
The second story, ‘La Mort de Claude François’, is as successful as ‘Tous mes amis’ in capturing a disintegrating subjectivity that is ready to sacrifice more vulnerable beings for the sake of hanging onto the dream of validation by a glamorous parent-figure. Zaka will drag her only daughter Paula into the jaws of a nightmare sooner than let go of the possibility of winning her insane former best friend Marlène’s approval: like the narrator of Autoportrait en vert, when she takes her young daughter Marie on an ill-advised pilgrimage to see her father (or is it really her former best friend she wants to see?), Zaka is prepared (p.149) to overlook her child’s safety if it means satisfying her own unmet needs, themselves stuck in traumatized infancy. The entire narrative spins around spectres of sexuality and suffering that refuse to make themselves properly visible. When Marlène initially comes to see Zaka, a doctor, it is so that she can inspect her flesh for marks she claims she ought to have following a physical run-in with her adult son.
- Je ne vois rien.
- Tu ne vois rien?
- Rien du tout, dit-elle, légèrement tremblante.
- Tu devrais voir quelque chose […] Comme il y a quelque chose, tu devrais le voir, docteur Zaka.
As spectral as the bruises (and indeed the phantom son who is claimed to have caused them) is the eroticized curiosity that hovers on the edges of the scene between the two women: ‘Et le docteur Zaka eut le temps d’observer que les seins de Marlène étaient très pâles sous la dentelle rouge et que l’un de ses seins portait quelques petites cicatrices parfaitement circulaires’ (TMA, 50). The women are linked by something unspeakable – and far more transgressive than mere lesbianism. The narrator’s refusal to divulge the nature of this bond pushes the narrative to a place in which the reader feels almost physically stifled by the tantalizing closeness of knowledge which nevertheless refuses to make itself visible. Zaka, close to emotional breakdown, is driven to repeat something with Marlène that is ostensibly linked – as the story’s comical yet macabre title makes clear – to the popular French singer Claude François, but that is clearly rooted in something unspeakably traumatic.
Like the wild goose (or swan) chase that was the quest for Léda in En famille, the whole Claude François intrigue seems to exist as a rather silly cover story for painful experience that the protagonists cannot bring into language. Why does Zaka’s daughter Paula resemble Marlène so intensely? The reader’s mind flits uncomfortably, once again, to the possibility of rape – was Zaka impregnated by Marlène’s father, just as Djamila in Rien d’humain was impregnated by the father of Bella? The theme of female best friends being linked by the sexual involvement of the father of one of them hovers, after all, over more than a couple of NDiaye texts.4 The story’s final sequence is as terrifying as it is unreadable. Has Zaka finally lost her mind? Who is the spectral male figure who sweeps young Paula away? Zaka’s ex-husband? Marlène’s father? The ghost of Claude François? The figure of a missing, menacing father-figure dwells within so much of NDiaye’s writing, exuding a (p.150) horribly perverse energy. If Marlène and Zaka struggle to find joy or meaning in their lives outside the blank worship of idols, they have been well-versed in organized deadness by their own mothers. Upon Claude François’s death, we are told in flashback, a strangely ungraspable mourning seized the entire banlieue:
Les mères avaient été longues à quitter la pelouse pour remonter chacune chez elle. Elles s’étaient attardées, vacantes et vides, piétinant l’herbe desséchée dans un sentiment de solitude, d’effondrement et d’incompréhension si puissant que les enfants, mal à l’aise, apeurés, s’étaient éloignés de ce coin jaunâtre, y étaient demeurés en lisière assis sur le trottoir, suivant d’un œil hébété les pieds chaussés de pantoufles ou de savates qui foulaient quelle tombe? quel corps? dans une gigue d’amour désespérée, les fines chevilles pâles, légèrement piquetées, de leurs mères encore jeunes et brutalement méconnaissables. Zaka se rappelait que la mort de Claude François avait enveloppé la cité d’une mélancolie sans issue.
Along with every missing father, there lurks, as we have come to expect in NDiaye, a ‘dead’ mother, and this tale is no exception: at bottom it is yet another story about pseudo-fantastical maternal depression.
‘Les Garçons’, the third tale in the Tous mes amis collection, stands up as one of NDiaye’s finest achievements. The story of a young boy’s identity crisis, precipitated by poverty, his abandoning father and a sense of his own corporeal worthlessness, ‘Les Garçons’ reads, in some ways, like an obscene homage to Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie’s tale of fetishized youth reconfigured in terms of child pornography and paedophile tourism. NDiaye’s fascination with parents’ complicity in the sexualized marketing of their children grows as an increasingly unavoidable theme from Un temps de saison onwards. The last pages of Rosie Carpe contain the unforgettable image of the second Rose-Marie, a supernaturally glowing, eroticized shape, simultaneously resplendent and debased, by her own pimp-mother, Diane. In ‘La Mort de Claude François’, Zaka suddenly notes with regret that her daughter Paula ‘n’avait pas l’âge d’être habillée comme elle l’avait habillée. Oh oui, elle le savait’ (TMA, 61). ‘Les Garçons’ will take the theme of parents consciously or unconsciously prostituting their offspring as far as it can go. Mme Mour, the mother of René’s rival, the envied child sex-slave Anthony, reacts to her son’s sale with characteristically NDiayean blankness: ‘Elle eut un petit rire sec. Elle demanda à René ce qu’il y avait de si terrible dedans’ (TMA, 97). M. Mour refuses to express an opinion, except by an act of sudden animal-slaughter and subsequent departure. (p.151) Both parents manage, in their way, to eradicate all emotional representation of their sacrificed child, the father spelling out the post-Anthony rules of the house very clearly: ‘Vous ne parlez plus de lui. Vous ne prononcez plus son prénom chez moi. Il est mort. Il a disparu. On ne sait plus qui il est, où il est enterré, on ne l’honore pas’ (TMA, 88). None of the parents of these boys is available for protection or meaningful response of any kind to their child’s exploitation. As for the grotesque ‘new mother’, the predatory, middle-aged buyer E. Blaye, who carries the lost boys off to the pornographic land inside the computer, she is as robotic and unreal an adoptive parent as can be found in NDiaye’s world: ‘Sa chair semblait être de cire, ses cheveux, de laine. Elle souriait d’un air un peu contraint, sans ouvrir la bouche, tandis qu’Anthony paraissait profiter de toute occasion d’exhiber ses dents plus blanches et plus régulières que ce dont René se souvenait’ (TMA, 97). The fact that young Anthony is furthermore entangled in sexual positions with this wax-and-wool mummy completes reinforces the reader’s growing suspicion that, in NDiaye’s world, the ‘dead’ mother, to make matters even worse for her child, is always, consciously or unconsciously, an incestuous one.
René’s one true moment of what we might term ‘aliveness’ comes in the visceral shock he feels at beholding the internet images of the naked Anthony and E. Blaye: ‘René eut l’impression d’avoir reçu un coup de poing en pleine poitrine’ (TMA, 96). It is an instant of non-negotiable affect not unlike one that occurs halfway through En famille – one of that novel’s most intensely memorable – in which Fanny, having just been on the receiving end of an especially blithe and racialized contempt from an old school-friend’s husband, is suddenly and uncharacteristically sickened by the situation in which she finds herself: ‘Pouah! songea Fanny, écœurée tout d’un coup’ (EF, 167). Such moments, in which the abused and increasingly ‘deadened’ child actually feels the obscenity of what is being done to him or her, are rare in the work of NDiaye, and they are short-lived. Like Fanny, René will shift back almost immediately to his default stance of alienated envy, conformity and longing, desperate for consecration in the hegemonic order of things: ‘René se mit à rire. Comme il aimait les Mour, tous les quatre, même le frère d’Anthony sans lequel la grâce d’Anthony aurait été moins éminente – comme il aimait, se répétait-il, les bonnes petites familles!’ (TMA, 99). And, like Fanny on the day of her interview for the position of cook at Le Coq Hardi, or like the eighteen-year-old NDiaye herself, perhaps, as she set about writing the would-be-dazzling, one-sentence (p.152) show-piece that would become Comédie classique, René, on the eve of his career in boy-porn, will utter the legendary words, ‘Je peux tout faire’ (TMA, 100). The rest is a grotesque and terrible free fall, depicted, Flaubert-like, as a synthesis of mental breakdown and erotico-religious ecstasy. René – the ‘reborn’ – devotes himself body and soul to the project of being swept away by something bigger and stronger than he is. ‘Faites que je sois acheté, acheté, acheté’ (TMA, 102), he pleads with the Lord, before hallucinating Christ in the pornographic form of Anthony Mour himself. Like Zaka and Marlène, prostrated before the tacky deity of Claude François, like Olga in ‘Le Jour du Président’, obsessed with salvation by the Chirac whose first name she cannot remember, René is waiting for an idealized Daddy, seeking it in an elusive, normative and sexualized affirmation of his essential self-worth. In the story’s spine-chilling final moments, of course, René at last gets what he has unconsciously wished for: for who is the ghostly punter at the steering-wheel, if not his long-lost, pederastic father? Never has NDiaye’s sense of irony been more devastating, more obscene.
The collection’s final two tales, equally bleak in their way, nevertheless offer the long-suffering reader some crumbs of something resembling hope, although the resemblance might, of course, be a mocking one.5 Ève Brulard, the faded filmstar heroine of ‘Une journée de Brulard’ finds herself, like all the rest, it is true, in a state of near-constant coldness, sinking into psychosis, her subjectivity splitting wildly into guardian and persecutor, dead woman and living: hers is a fundamentally ‘false self’ gone completely haywire. By the story’s end she is, like all the protagonists of this collection of horrific stories, in a state of total despair, her identity completely broken down, her voice evaporated (TMA, 157), her sense of time shrunk to nothing (TMA, 161). And yet her despised husband Jimmy is still there on those final pages, he will still care for her, even if nobody else will: Brulard, the frightened, traumatized little girl in an ageing woman’s body is not alone. It is not clear whether or not the knowledge of that fact will do her any good in the long run – it may simply be too late – but the story’s final sentence leaves us in no doubt that Brulard has, at last, been made conscious of being held: ‘La dernière pensée tranquille, presque froide qui vint à Brulard fut que jamais personne ne l’avait regardée avec autant de compassion ni d’amitié’ (TMA, 166). This vision of being held by someone benevolent – an adoptive (or rediscovered) parent who will not abuse his or her position through exploitation – is NDiaye’s ultimate emotional horizon. It is present in the figure of Tante in the final pages of Quant au riche (p.153) avenir, penned when she was sixteen, and it is there in the final pages of Mon cœur à l’étroit, which she wrote when she was forty. All of her stories can be seen, in the final analysis, as variations on the fantasy of the new guardian. Sometimes s/he is monstrous, staring at the petrified child with a pair of ghostly, glass eyes whilst thumping a wooden tail; sometimes she is lascivious or enslaving, packing the child into a car or a crate, and carrying her off to terrible, unknown lands; sometimes, as here, she is simply kind, constant, containing.
The last story, ‘Révélation’, takes the calming image of an unexpected form of containment to a celestially reassuring new level. Here, the conversation between mother and son may begin as mad and fundamentally ‘blank’ – no communication appears to be possible – and the scene is certainly one of traumatic, treacherous abandonment. The child, however, stigmatized though he is by the label of mental illness, is ‘insensible aux menues humiliations’ (TMA, 170). And it is through this child’s miraculous capacity to contain not only the fact of his own imminent abandonment but also his mother’s guilt in abandoning him that he renders the world fantastical and sublime, drawing the eyes of the strangers in the bus towards him not in disgust but in rapt, adoring fascination. There is beauty in strangeness, the boy’s calm acceptance of himself, despite everything, seems to suggest. If he does not ‘see’ himself, or his ‘trauma’ or his ‘stigma’, if he revels fantastically in his self-contained blankness, this does not make him mad or self-deceiving – like Fanny, Herman, Nadia, Victoire and the rest – but radiant and almost holy: ‘[C]ette figure était si belle et si calme parce qu’elle était incapable de percevoir l’attention dont elle était l’objet, et si belle et si calme qu’il fallait maintenant l’enfermer …’ (TMA, 173). The failure to perceive is, for this boy, his salvation. This is the fable of a damaged child’s psychic survival and self-parenting against the odds. Reminiscent of the story of Khady Demba in its elevation of its central figure’s ‘cœur simple’ to the status of an almost mythical topos, ‘Révélation’ is, from an aesthetic perspective, far more successful than the prize-winning Khady. One reason for this is its concision: NDiaye here chooses a pleasingly miniature canvas on which to paint this particular idealized wise fool. Even more importantly, though, this story, focused as it is on the compelling relationship between two people – parent and child – at a key moment in their experience of one another, hangs on a killer hook: the fantastical process by which a child, labelled by his parent as impossible and mad, suddenly becomes, for himself, both possible and lucid. He achieves this miracle by a remarkable process of separation, (p.154) calmly detaching himself from the mother the moment before she actually abandons him:
Elle lui murmura à l’oreille: je rentrerai sans toi à Corneville.
– Je sais, dit-il.
The boy of ‘Révélation’ manages what few of NDiaye’s children manage: he prepares for his abandonment with equanimity, with grace. He calmly refuses to internalize his mother’s rejecting vibrations, her own madness and damage and confusion. To top it all, he forgives her, Christ-like, even as she betrays him:
Il lui sourit gentiment, pour la rassurer. Il alla jusqu’à lui tapoter le bras, alors elle ne put s’empêcher de lui confier qu’elle aurait aimé que le car ne s’arrête pas, ce que le fils comprenait, lui dit-il parfaitement. Les autres fils qu’elle avait ne l’auraient pas compris du tout, elle y pensa et, déjà, ce fils-là lui manquait. Elle reviendrait seule, tant mieux – comme il lui manquerait!
Total, triumphant reversal has been achieved. The ‘mad’ baby forgives his ‘sane’ mother, exposing her, in a divine act of revelation, as more deluded, needy and ‘child-like’ than he himself has ever been able to be.
Giving up the Ghost: Autoportrait en vert (2005)
The garishly pink-covered ‘self-portrait in green’, neither novel nor novella, neither autobiography nor autofiction in the way it has generally come to be understood, false family photo album and haphazard, lackadaisical joke of a shaggy-dog ghost story, has become one of NDiaye’s most intensely analysed texts.6 Its disorientating quality – at the levels of genre, narrative, characterization, tone and even medium – seems to have entranced scholars in a way that even the most acclaimed of NDiaye’s novels have not. The exciting possibility, aroused by the book’s tantalizing title, of perhaps gaining access to NDiaye’s enigmatic personal fortress no doubt accounts for at least some of the fascination, as must the collection of bewildering photographs scattered throughout the text. The narrator’s hypnotic repetition of her attraction to the ghostly ‘femmes en vert’ (recalling Lorca’s poetic union of greenness, trauma and spectral desire in his 1928 ballad ‘Romance somnámbulo’), a colour and association both nefarious and irresistible, draws the curious reader in further still. What does this outlandish text and its (p.155) strange series of photographs – of blankly staring landscapes, mothers and their infants – want from us?
Situated a long way from the usual conventions of novelistic storytelling – the influence of Flaubert on the contemporary French novel notwithstanding – the episodic narrative resembles nothing so much as a series of vaguely psychotic episodes, a sort of Nervalian Aurélia (1855) for the twenty-first century. Despite her ghostly frequentations, the narrator’s absence of a discernible personality makes even bland earlier protagonists such as Lucie in La Sorcière and Rosie Carpe seem positively effervescent. This narrator’s ‘void-like’ tendencies are especially troubling given the reader’s desire to identify her, despite multiple reasons for not doing so, with the ‘real’ Marie NDiaye: like NDiaye at the time of writing, she lives near the banks of the Garonne; like NDiaye, she is a published novelist with an estranged African father; like NDiaye, her husband’s name is Jean-Yves.7 Doll-like and robotic, she acquiesces with every whim of the various femmes en vert, rarely expressing an opinion or a judgement regarding even the most shocking of events, yet at certain moments appears to act quite out of ‘character’, her attitude suddenly one of utter contempt:
Alors je me mets à sautiller d’un pied sur l’autre en fixant sur Jenny un regard dénué de tendresse. Je demande:
De quoi cet imbécile ne s’est-il pas remis?
Les lèvres de Jenny tremblotent. Comme elle me semble usée, frappée à mort par les désillusions, les pertes multiples, les convictions ineptes et terrifiantes!
Une telle absurdité me déplaît profondément. Je ne suis pas loin de détester Jenny, de la trouver bête et médiocre.
(AV, 58– 9)
Rarely capable of expressing emotion, then, this narrator is simultaneously liable to shift from the most servile veneration (she sits and listens to Jenny’s horrendous tales of depression, suicide and haunting in apparently rapt attention, over a period of years) to something resembling hate, with no reason offered for the disturbing lurch in disposition. It is possible that the change in attitude towards Jenny comes precisely because the latter is not, it seems, a femme en vert, despite resembling this category of women in her pallid melancholia.
If there is one consistent aspect of the narrator, it is her prioritization, above all things – husband, sisters, children – of the bona fide femmes en vert. One way of reading the narrator’s need to expose herself (p.156) to spectral, maternal, ‘green’, feminine (non-) presences is by seeing her as somebody who is psychically attached to embodied feelings of emptiness. ‘The negative of him is more real than the positive of you’, one of Winnicott’s patients once told him (Green, 1999), as she tried to explain why she could not give up her attachment to a previous analyst in order to focus on her relationship with Winnicott. NDiaye’s narrator, disdaining so much of the living present in favour of the tantalizing femmes en vert, appears to act out her attachment to ghostly negativity in a not dissimilar fashion. Like a masochistic version of the dominatrix Mme Lemarchand, the timid narrator seeks destabilizing, quasi-supernatural experiences in other women for two more or less explicitly stated reasons: first, to insist upon her own fundamental difference from them (their disappearance, she remarks in panic, would leave her ‘dans l’impossibilité de prouver […] ma propre originalité’ (AV, 77); and secondly, to repeat something terrible left over from childhood and encapsulated in the ‘inquiétant souvenir d’une femme en vert, au temps de l’école maternelle’ (AV, 15), an image that may be either a real memory or a ‘screen’ one, behind which hides the narrator’s own mother. This narrator is also, we should note, the adult daughter of fantastically disengaged parents and the often infantile mother of literally countless children.
In the book’s opening pages, the narrator finds herself drawn towards the ‘présence verte’ of Katia Depetiteville, a presence that is, in the early stages of her acquaintanceship with it, indistinguishable from its environment (AV, 9). It is difficult not to think of the narrator as a newborn, discovering its mother for the first time, irresistibly drawn towards her and the things she can provide, yet unable, for the time being, fully to grasp where she begins and ends. The narrator will later add another key piece of information, reinforcing the idea of Katia Depiteville (and the women who will follow her) not only as an irresistible mother figure, but specifically as an irresistible mother figure whose face she can reach out and touch with wandering, infantile fingers, but to whom, paradoxically, she can never feel truly close: ‘malgré le visage de la femme en vert si proche que je pourrais avancer les doigts et le toucher, quelque chose d’impalpable, un voile, une lueur d’irréalité me rendent réticente à lui livrer qui je suis. Je ne crois pas tout à fait à ce qu’elle est’ (AV, 26). The fact that the narrator’s actual mother will later ‘metamorphose’ not only into a full-blown femme en vert but into one of ‘les plus troublantes, les plus étrangères’ (AV, 64) of this strange race (one is reminded of poor Lucie’s mother in La Sorcière (p.157) being an especially witchy witch) reinforces the idea of the women in green representing frustratingly un-maternal substitutes for a frustratingly un-maternal mother. This ‘real’ mother is, as the book’s blurb (taken from a truly astonishing passage on page 72) informs us, ‘intouchable, décevante, métamorphosable à l’infini’. She also seems to be wildly unstable (‘ma mère, debout, un pied placé perpendiculairement à l’autre, tente, me semble-t-il, de maîtriser l’effarement et la confusion de son regard’, AV, 69), uninterested (‘pas un mot de mes enfants, de la santé des uns et des autres’, AV, 66) and treacherous in an uncomfortably racialized manner: while it will become clear only later that the narrator is probably not white, her mother has entered into a relationship with a man, Rocco, who ‘a régulièrement contre les Arabes des sorties belliqueuses’ (AV, 69).
The narrator’s Christmas visit to Marseilles to see her mother, Rocco and their mysterious daughter Bella (leaving her own children behind, presumably in the care of their father, though, of course, nothing is mentioned) is a horribly depressing episode, just as her later visit to see her father and his new family in Ouagadougou will be. Both visits bear the stench of an absolutely broken set of affectional bonds (cf. Bowlby, 1989), the adult child interacting with parents whose sense of love or responsibility seems non-existent. More than anything, the parents in this text emerge as figures that are simultaneously frightened and frightening. The mother’s eyes flicker nervously with ‘un désarroi dont elle ne se rend pas compte’ (AV, 68), ‘ses yeux roulent follement, cherchant une aide qu’elle ne aurait définir’ (AV, 70), yet she also cuts an alarming figure, sometimes lump-like, and ‘végétative’, her breath ‘si lourd, si masculin’ (AV, 78), at others disquietingly feminine and sexual, as when she grabs the narrator’s gift of a green silk scarf and wraps it ‘bizarrement autour de ses hanches’ (AV, 72). As for the father, he seems hysterically vulnerable and afraid – of what is never made clear – and is sinking into a grave state of anorexia (AV, 89), yet he is also given to fits of rage, during which he throws plates of food out of the window (AV, 87– 8). He is, above all, as devoid of love as any of NDiaye’s ‘dead’ mothers, the abiding image of him being one of listless inaccessibility: ‘[U]ne sorte de film blanchâtre sur la cornée rend son regard opaque et vide’ (AV, 85). If the narrator’s attachment (or lack of it) to these distant parental figures is inexplicable and not altogether coherent, such seeming inconsistency gains a great deal of theoretical context when viewed in the light of Hesse and Main’s (1999) important work on ‘disorganized attachment’, a phenomenon arising specifically (p.158) in children whose caregivers display this peculiar combination of the frightened and the frightening, and a conceptual framework which could potentially bring a lot in our understanding of almost all the parent– child relationships in NDiaye’s writing.
Ultimately, the one constant theme around which the sprite-like Autoportrait en vert might be said to dance is that of parents’ and caregivers’ relationships with the babies, infants and children they watch (or do not watch) over. Many of the photographic images in the book’s second half are of (white) women and (white) infants; the repetition of the same sets of unknown mothers and children in infinitesimally altered arrangements contributes to a mounting, almost subliminal, unease in the reader/viewer. The narrator exudes the same ungraspable anxiety vis-à-vis both the unfamiliarity of her father and mother – they act towards her as if she were a stranger – and the way in which they keep mysteriously changing, without the changes being able to be satisfactorily tracked. It is the father who most resembles the river Garonne – despite the narrator’s insistence on that river’s essentially feminine nature (AV, 8) – in his refusal or inability to contain himself, much less act as a container for the emotions of the brood of miserable children (‘graves, mal à l’aise, maussades […] tristes, AV, 86– 7) who still look to him for a paternal function. Proliferating wives and children (in addition to the narrator and her sisters in France, there are in Ouagadougou ‘trois ou quatre jeunes gens […] les enfants de mon père […] tous nés de femmes différentes, dont je ne connais aucune’, AV, 86), the man provides so little in the way of an anchor to those lives he has generated that they appear all, in their different ways, to have gone quite mad from instability. The two sisters in Paris are depressed and on the fringes of society (‘on me parla de la toxicomanie de l’une, de l’alcoolisme de l’autre’, AV, 65), while the half-brother encountered in the father’s restaurant (an eatery mockingly named Ledada) appears to have gone berserk with rage and a sense of abandonment, smashing up the place with a golf club (‘Tiens, il fait du golf, celui-là, me dis-je avec indifférence’, AV, 35), before prostrating himself in front of the uninterested patriarch (‘mon père a l’air absent, las, vidé’, AV, 35). This father, so cold and distant, is at the same time emotionally overwhelming: the narrator worries lest ‘les ennuis de mon père s’accumulent, nous engloutissant tous’ (AV, 35). Like the implacable, flooding river, he offers his panic-stricken, ‘disorganized’ offspring the worst of both worlds.
Rich and complex, upsetting and amusing in equal measure, Autoportrait en vert can be considered as a deliberately ‘intermedial’ (p.159) reflection on what is at stake in a parent’s and a child’s different claims vis-à-vis their capacity for sight, blindness and differently thwarted perception. Early in her narrative, the narrator tries very hard to draw her children into her experience of unverifiable vision. Stopping outside the house where she has seen the ghost of Katia Depetiteville, she asks them the same question several times: are they quite certain that they can see nobody – or nothing – standing in front of the banana tree? The children would clearly like to please their mother, so they try as hard as they possibly can to see whatever it is she is so clearly seeing: ‘Et chacun de mes enfants regarde vers la ferme, et leur attention, leur docilité et leur concentration, ainsi que l’absence de toute arrière-pensée dans leur obéissance, tout cela m’amène au bord des larmes’ (AV, 10). They really cannot see anything, however. Katia Depetiteville belongs to the parent-narrator alone. At the end of the narrative, the roles of seeing subject and blind one are reversed, except that they are not: for the narrator merely pretends not to see what her children see. The narrator’s children are chasing a mysterious ‘forme sombre, mouvante, nerveuse’ (AV, 93) that has already been sighted in the village. The narrator has seen the shape, but she elects to disavow that vision: ‘En vérité je n’ai rien vu, rien du tout. De quoi s’agit-il?’ (AV, 93). Her lie is transparent; she has already told the children that the thing ‘n’a pas de nom dans notre langue’ (AV, 93). The children remain silent: the moment marks, perhaps, the beginning of their mother’s betrayal of their traumatic experience. Parents, in this disquieting world of half-glimpsed apparitions, deny having seen what their children know they have seen; it is a kind of perverse familial inevitability. The narrator’s father claims not to have noticed his new wife’s ‘greenness’, but the narrator is certain he is lying:
Il feint d’ignorer les petits tailleurs uniformément vert amande, les collants de coton vert, les chaussures vert bouteille, plates, à lacet. Ou il feint d’estimer que cette prédilection se rapporte au goût de sa femme, sur lequel il ne veut pas avoir d’opinion, et n’est en rien liée à leur mariage ni au fait que la belle-fille de sa femme a été la meilleure amie de celle-là.
The narrator must bear alone the weight of the horrid, enigmatic signifiers (‘femme verte et père squelettique’, AV, 33). Unable to interpret them, she will never be left in peace by their recurring intensity. Parents claim sudden blindness when it suits them, then, while at other times claiming a sight that they do not possess, as when the narrator’s (p.160) father, years later, denies his encroaching blindness. Mostly, though, parent figures simply refuse to see what they do not want to see. The narrator’s new stepmother and former best friend, as well as her mother and her friend Jenny all resolutely ignore the narrator’s children, as if they are threatened by the very sight or evocation of them. Children and childhood experience attain the status of imponderables, elements of existence which must be banished from sight. Children themselves, meanwhile, are forced by their parents to see what they should not have to see, to soak in adult experience that should not be theirs. The narrator’s strangely mature eleven-year-old daughter Marie is obliged to witness the depressing scene of her grandfather’s furious, anorexic depression in Ouagadougou, as well as the break-up of his marriage, the misery of his numerous children, and her own mother’s chronic discomfort, all the while being ignored by the adults around her: ‘Elle comptait, légitimement, sur de l’émotion, de la sensibilité. Voilà qu’elle découvre une incompréhensible paralysie des sentiments, de l’indifférence et du sabordage collectif: la lente agonie d’une maison organisée autour d’un maître dont le goût pour la mort n’est plus dissimulé’ (AV, 89).
How will the sight of this collective deathliness affect young Marie in the years to come? How will she articulate it, if she ever rediscovers the experience in affective terms? And will her mother, our narrator, confirm her daughter’s feelings, or else deny that any of it ever happened? We shall never know the answers to these questions, of course, but the narrator’s bloodless responses to most of the phenomena she describes, as well as her denial of the ‘forme sombre’, do not bode well for later mother– daughter conversations about that trip to Ouagadougou. All these instances of contested vision cast a new perspective on the book’s many bewildering photographs, however. Reminiscent, at times, of Edwardian ‘fairy photography’, and certainly tinged with an unmistakably spectral air – accentuated in the ‘double’ sets by the slight differences between the two images: now you see it, now you don’t – these images convey a sense of the book’s attempt to catch on film the haunting elements of personal experience that grown-ups are unable or unwilling to see.8
(p.161) ‘Mon petit, c’est la responsabilité de tout adulte’9: The Children’s Books
NDiaye’s three books written for children resemble weird, ultimately happy, but also very frightening dreams. If her adult fiction is nightmarish, these illustrated texts offer at least the glimmer of resolution for the child protagonists. Christiane Connan-Pintado notes the growing place of the troubled child in NDiaye’s texts generally, adding that while the children’s books are no exception to this trend, ‘malgré tout, l’enfant est mieux traité dans les récits pour enfants que dans le reste de l’œuvre, ou il est généralement immolé sur l’autel de l’égoïsme adulte’ (2009: 51). Observing that both NDiaye and the three different publishers aim at children probably too young to appreciate the fact, all three texts revolve around the problems faced by a child struggling to fit into far from ideal community or kinship structures. Connan-Pintado notes that in these tales NDiaye always takes the child’s side. I would add that, crucially, she provides much-needed solutions for these children in the terrible social, familial and psychological challenges that face them. Unlike Steve, Titi, Jacky, Mina, Ami and all the other victims of the novels and plays, Prunelle, Camélia and the she-devil’s adopted child do not have to lose their souls. All these temporarily lost or unwanted children finally get found, by (eventually) responsible adults; they are allowed to carry on existing authentically, psychic life intact, as complex, living people.
Connan-Pintado observes that the first of the children’s books, La Diablesse et son enfant (2000), tells the same story – give or take a gang-rape and a child possibly eaten by pigs – as the play Providence (2001). Dispensing with any reference to the play’s more disturbing events, though, the level of opacity and ellipsis in the prose narrative (duplicated by the artist Nadja’s troubling illustrations) is, Connan-Pintado observes, more intense than it is in the theatrical piece: its multiple ‘child-friendly’ gaps in fact make it troublingly strange. With this story, NDiaye creates a child’s introduction to both trauma (the kindly she-devil’s loss of her child) and stigma (the dreaded goat’s hooves she grows as a result). The way in which she posits the latter as a direct consequence of the former (DSE, 23) is both bizarre and illogical, and yet in some ungraspable manner it does work at an emotional level. The connection between the loss and the hooves subtly suggests to the child reader that real or perceived corporeal difference – so long as it results in social ostracism – is difficult to disentangle from the experience of psychic violence. The she-devil is marked out as physically (p.162) different not because she essentially is different (the processes of racialization being largely fantasmatic), but because her community needs to find some concrete form of representing the otherwise unrepresentable fear of its own destitution.
It is difficult to say how young readers react to the tale (and I myself must confess to not yet having discussed it with any French-speaking children). It is an uncompromising read, even for adults, with NDiaye smuggling in allusions both to Holocaust-era dementia (as the villagers inspect the feet of all the children to make sure that they do not resemble those of the she-devil) and contemporary racism (the she-devil appears to be an immigrant from a hot country, a detail that contributes to her marginalization as much as the loss of her child, her nomadism and her strange feet). The tale’s happy ending – a new child for the she-devil and a new mother for the deformed and ejected village-child – ties up every usually unresolved horror in NDiaye’s complex knot of psychosocial nightmares. There is an easing of the original trauma: the two ostracized characters are no longer alone since they have found each other. There is an end to the visible manifestation of stigma: the she-devil grows ‘normal’ feet. And there is the delivery to the abandoned infant of a good-enough mother, one who actually understands her physical difference, since she has experienced such a difference too.10
Les Paradis de Prunelle (2003) revolves around the troubled interactions of another of NDiaye’s brother– sister couples. Like the narrator of Comédie classique and his sister Judith, like Lazare Carpe and his sister Rosie, little Odilon must deal with the upsetting experience of watching his sister transform into a half-dead person, somebody who is not quite ‘there’, and appears to have left their former brother– sister intimacy behind for ever. Like La Diablesse et son enfant, it is a conceptually ambitious text – one wonders, once again, what actual children make of it – although it swaps the former’s socio-political sophistication for a psychodynamic depth that is altogether overwhelming, as slippery and ethereal as it is hard-hitting. Like Ben Rice’s remarkable English-language narrative for children and adults, Pobby and Dingan (2000), it is a story that hinges emotionally on a pragmatic, ‘down-to-earth’ brother being prepared to believe his fanciful sister’s otherworldly tales in order to save her from depression and, eventually, death.
Prunelle is a child in limbo, caught between incompatible states of being. Following a stay in hospital, she undergoes an inexplicable affective metamorphosis. Exuding an eerie blankness, it seems to her little brother Odilon as if she has become somehow cut off from her (p.163) relationship with him. She no longer seems to hear what he says, and instead stares vacantly into the middle distance, not even registering feeling when he pinches her. Prunelle has, to all intents and purposes, departed from human relationality: ‘En bref, Prunelle avait été là sans être vraiment là’ (PP, 29).11 In Odilon’s terms she is ‘ensorcelée’ (PP, 16), though to the adult reader, alert to Prunelle’s insistence on the pleasures of the near-dead and dematerialized state to which she has been recently exposed, combined with her ‘mélancolie’ (PP, 21) and her conviction that she must return imminently to the unearthly ‘dernier paradis’ she has visited (PP, 25), the girl sounds alarmingly close to a state of severe depression. Prunelle’s miraculous return at the end of the story, ‘un peu pâle et amincie, mais bien semblable à sa sœur Prunelle de toujours’ (PP, 42) is due to the sudden arrival and indefatigable intervention of another ‘familiar stranger’, the children’s mysterious Tante Peggy, an eccentric relative ‘qui vivait très loin d’ici, dans un pays dont Odilon avait oublié le nom’ (PP, 18).
As in so many of NDiaye’s texts, the aunt-figure is portrayed as the holder of powers over the child far more powerful than those of its own parents, and in this story the materteral12 power is, happily, put to good use. Tante Peggy displays an indescribable intelligence vis-à-vis Prunelle’s situation, compared to which the children’s father and mother (‘irrités, mécontents de lui, lui en voulant’, PP, 36) appear small-minded, impotent and aggressive. Not only does Tante Peggy interact with Odilon in a manner that will be conducive to uncovering Prunelle’s deadly truth (‘Contrairement aux parents, elle ne se hâtait jamais pour interroger ou contredire, mais laissait tout loisir à sa réflexion de s’imprégner de ce qu’on lui avait dit’, PP, 37), she follows through on her crucial dialogue with her nephew in a tireless series of visits to Prunelle (once again in hospital, and dangerously close to death). We will never learn exactly how Tante Peggy brings Prunelle back to her former state of aliveness: the process of recovery is, the text appears to imply, beyond the capacities of language. What is certain is that the shift takes place within the quality of interaction, first, between Odilon and his aunt, as he tells her of the strange intelligence he has received from Prunelle, and, secondly, between the aunt and Prunelle, as the former makes fantastical use of that strange, transmitted intelligence in a rapport of true care and intimacy with her endangered niece. A successfully intervening figure such as Tante Peggy is, it seems to me, at once shamanic, therapeutic and neo-parental in her function, not unlike Noget, in his dealings (p.164) with Nadia and Ange, in the novel Mon cœur à l’étroit. Refusing to leave the side of the protagonist in need, no matter how hostile, these figures are prepared also to journey into dark and unknown depths of that person’s soul in order to perform whatever work of revelation, comprehension and connection is necessary to deliver her from her self-imposed dissociation from feeling. Meaningfully intelligent relationality – seemingly impossible to receive, in NDiaye’s world, with a parent or lover – is rare, then, but it does occur. And the sibling relationship, while not the most promising of NDiayean relational frameworks, as we have seen on a number of occasions, has the potential for its development. After all, it is Odilon’s intelligent attentiveness to Prunelle’s attachment to non-life that allows the important dialogues to take place: ‘C’est ce que leur tante Peggy aurait fait, Odilon le comprenait maintenant: s’adresser à Prunelle comme s’il habitait la même réalité qu’elle, et non pas affirmer à tort et à travers que ceci ou cela n’existait pas’ (PP, 23).
NDiaye’s third book for children, Le Souhait (2005), is just as uncompromising as La Diablesse et son enfant and Les Paradis de Prunelle in its determination – like all the best fairy tales – to take the reader to a place of fear, loss and abandonment before providing a solution, of sorts, for the catastrophe. This tale of an adopted (black) child, overwhelmed by her lonely (white) parents’ huge feelings – feelings of love which masquerade as selfless, but which are actually stifling, frightening and invasive – is truly alarming. Little Camélia’s emotional solitude (when in contact with her adoptive parents’ weirdly disembodied, needy, chattering hearts) transforms into physical isolation and unmanageable guilt when she ‘loses’ the hearts. There is no tolerable way of living with or without the caregivers, then: the child seems doomed to despair. The parental hearts are impossible to live with, as their love is impossible to internalize in such a way that the child can feel happy and safe. Never do they ask her who she is, or what she would like from them, instead heaping gift after gift on her in such a way that she cannot value or enjoy any of them.
It may seem strange to suggest, as this story for children appears to, that a parent can poison his or her child with the love s/he offers. So much of NDiaye’s corpus has focused on the nefarious effects of parental hate, envy or, more commonly, blank indifference on offspring, and yet in Le Souhait, as in the play Les Grandes Personnes (2011), she starts to aim her critique at forms of seemingly well-meaning devotion that end up being equally harmful. Once again, the lesson of NDiaye’s (p.165) fiction finds its parallel in contemporary psychoanalytic theory. For, as Michael Eigen points out,
When love poisons, a parent who loves may pour limitless negative energy into the child. This is not necessarily the result of a hidden hatred towards the child. It is more an offshoot of the fact that the child is the spontaneous object of the parents’ deepest feelings. The pent-up energies of the parent flow towards the child, an indiscriminate mixture of bad with good. All that is in the parent floods the child. Thus love is mixed with a variety of tendencies, including anxious control, worry, death dread, ambition, self-hate. Parental love is not pure – it is mixed with everything else.
(Eigen, 1999: xiv– xv)
The love Camélia’s adoptive mother and father offer her is enormous, undeniable, then, but it is also hysterical, unprocessed and so undifferentiated as to be experienced as a sort of swirling blankness. Indeed blankness – mixed with whiteness – is present in this story in a way that is impossible to escape. Camélia lives in a world of omnipresent snow, dazzling and Christmassy, to be sure, but also cold and vaguely alienating. Everything around her is white: the curtains, the bed, her boots, her leather coat, her woollen dress, her silk tights; even Alice Charbin’s illustrations exude a strangely washed-out colourlessness, very different from the gorgeous greens, browns and reds of Les Paradis de Prunelle. ‘Le blanc est ta couleur, Camélia,’ the talking hearts tell her. ‘Ne l’oublie pas’ (SOU, 37).
Camélia must take care of two hyper-sensitive hearts, which literally break or bleed if she fails to talk to them in the way they need to hear her:
Camélia, disait le cœur de la mère, dis-moi que tu m’aimes.
Et Camélia obéissait, mais si le ton de sa voix n’était pas tout à fait celui qui convenait, le cœur de sa mère se mettait à saigner ou à se fendre ici ou là.
Camélia, disait le cœur du père, dis-moi que tu ne nous quitteras jamais.
The child is invaded by her adoptive parents’ unchecked needs and desires. The story thus anticipates in ‘innocent’ form a motif that will be later pornographized in NDiaye’s theatre. Just as La Diablesse et son enfant looks forward to the sexual horrors of Providence, the theme of the ‘over-stuffed’ child in Le Souhait will be disgustingly echoed in Les Grandes Personnes by images of a small boy’s rape by his teacher’s plastic sex device. Like that play’s child victim, Karim, little Camélia (p.166) knows the way she is being treated is intolerable, but she has no one to corroborate the correctness of her intuition. Her act of self-liberation – removing the parents’ hearts from her coat pockets and placing them carefully on the park bench – is a remarkable fairy-tale depiction of a child’s decision to let go of feelings that have started to become, in the terminology of the British school of psychoanalysis, ‘bad internal objects’.13 Unfortunately, as Camélia will discover, it is not so easy to begin to live happy and free of the parental objects that have inevitably become a part of oneself:
Camélia joua, courut, sauta et se roula dans la neige en émettant de grands glapissements. Cependant, alors même qu’elle poussa des hurlements de rire, une sorte de gêne semblait la contraindre à exagérer sa joie et son plaisir
Qu’as-tu fait des cœurs de tes parents ? murmurait une petite voix dans son esprit.
(SOU, 41– 2)
Along with her parents’ form of loving, Camélia has internalized a particularly cruel, shouting superego – Fairbairn (1954) would call it ‘anti-libidinal’ – which tortures her for her ‘wickedness’, and destroys any possibility of pleasure in her new-found independence from the ‘poor’ parents:
Camélia, tu n’es pas digne de ces cœurs-là, si tendres, si attentifs … Tu mériterais que le cœur de ta mère et le cœur de ton père se transforment en deux pierres pesantes et bien dures que tu devrais coltiner sans te plaindre. Camélia, ma petite, tu mériterais le pire, murmurait Camélia en trottinant vers le parc.
The guilt of having abandoned her parents is unbearable. And yet, at the same time, there is a feeling of lightness, of release, competing with the harsh, reproachful voices: ‘Il est bien agréable de marcher en n’ayant que son propre cœur à transporter’ (SOU, 47). It is not possible for Camélia, however, it seems, to enjoy the feeling of independence without the guilt of unforgivable wrongdoing. The parents’ abandoned hearts grow cold and Camélia’s world becomes hard and icy; like Prunelle, she can no longer feel properly alive: ‘Elle n’aimait pas cette sensation de froid s’emparant de tout son corps: elle avait l’impression d’être prise dans une glace encore fine mais qui s’épaississait au fil des mois et l’engourdissait’ (SOU, 52– 3). Even worse than the cold is her fear that one day she will no longer realize how cold she is and that her body was ever warm; following this anxiety, we are told, Camélia ‘tomba brusquement dans un sommeil blanc et vide’ (SOU, 54). Once (p.167) again, the adult reader can only tremble before NDiaye’s evocation of a form of infantile depression which appears to border on the suicidal. We remember with a shudder the deathly fantasies of young Z and cannot help but feel that, for NDiaye, all roads lead back to this terrible place of childhood loneliness.
The happy ending that awaits Camélia – she wakes up to find ‘de vrais parents au cœur bien caché’, parents who are happy to just take her for a walk! (SOU, 55) – is certainly welcome, but it feels tacked-on, to say the least. There is not even a magical aunt or counsellor figure through whom we can explain the sudden transformation of the parents, a metamorphosis not only from the state of disembodied hearts into that of whole people, but also, crucially, from childish invalids who can only love on the condition of being adored to a mature mother and father who can love without reservation, fully, as parents. Like Nadia’s miraculously rediscovered parents and her mother’s lovely home-cooked meals at the end of Mon cœur à l’étroit, it all seems a little improbably optimistic. But at least in the case of this book – conceived, after all, for children! – NDiaye has a very good reason.
(1) While it is understandable that her adopted city of Berlin provokes NDiaye to allude to the Holocaust, it is interesting that she does not tend to discuss her birthplace, Pithiviers in France – the site of one of the largest internment camps for French Jews and other victims of the Nazis – in the context of racialized persecution. That said, En famille could be interpreted as just such a textual yoking of Pithiviers to genocide.
(2) Samuel Beckett, himself in analysis with Wilfred Bion, and having attended one of Jung’s lectures at the Tavistock Clinic, is reported (Connor, 1998) to have been deeply marked by Jung’s phrase, which inspired elements of many of his subsequent works.
(3) For fascinating studies of La Naufragée, see Termite (2009) and Inglin-Routisseau (2010). Both pay attention to the function of Turner’s paintings in this book in a way that space here does not allow me. I will say, however, that the first time I met Marie NDiaye and Jean-Yves Cendrey was in London in 2006, and that their only request was to visit the Turner collection at Tate Britain.
(4) It is given a new twist in Mon cœur à l’étroit, of course, in which boyfriends Ralph and Lanton have their relationship sexually intruded upon by Ralph’s mother Nadia.
(5) It is worth noting that the very fact of ressemblance in NDiaye’s world – think of Brulard’s spitefully youthful doppelgangers, Rudy Descas’s mockingly phallic statue, or even of the writer Marie Darrieussecq – accused by NDiaye (1998) of the cardinal sin of ‘singerie’ – is almost always fake, insubstantial and strangely contemptuous.
(6) See Delvaux and Herd (2007), Barnet (2009b), Jordan (2009), Connon (2009), Motte (2012), Parent (2013a) and Ruhe (2013). These studies are crucial for a more thorough understanding of this endlessly fascinating book, which I have only been able to approach from a limited perspective here, especially insofar as they pay careful attention to the various functions of the photographs, both those by Julie Ganzin and those from the anonymous collection.
(7) There are many details that are ‘wrong’, of course: this narrator has more children than NDiaye, two sisters on her mother’s side rather than a brother, and a father living in Burkina Faso instead of Senegal.
(8) Cornelia Ruhe (2013) writes compellingly of the relationship between the photographs’ frequently blurry quality and the aesthetic of epistemological uncertainty cultivated à la Todorov in all NDiaye’s texts. I would add that if one of the key anxieties captured by NDiaye in this text is the way in which children’s testimony vis-à-vis phenomenological reality is discredited by adults, the discrepancy between minoritarian and majoritarian (racialized) experience is also spectrally present, as usual.
(p.222) (9) These are Tante’s words to young Z in Quant au riche avenir (80) as she tells him that she always makes sure to look out for children in danger, even ones that she does not know personally.
(10) The middle solution, the disappearance of the hooves, seems to me ethically problematic in the context of a children’s story. Why should the protagonists’ physical ‘difference’ have to vanish in order for them to find happiness and peace?
(11) Odilon’s realization of his sister Prunelle’s sudden psychic ‘disappearance’ is reminiscent of Lazare’s observation regarding his own sister Rosie at the climax of Rosie Carpe: ‘Je ne sais pas, dit Lazare. C’était quelque chose d’indescriptible dont elle était pénétrée maintenant et qui était cause, peut-être, que je ne la reconnaissait pas, mais quelque chose qui interdisait qu’on soit, avec elle, au plus près’ (RC, 362).
(12) ‘Materteral’ is the female equivalent of ‘avuncular’. It is an adjective worth knowing if one is in NDiaye’s world, one in which aunts proliferate queerly.