My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[With Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine all the rage and some claiming that the French author is about to have a Ferrante-like breakthrough in the U.S., I thought I would post here my 2013 review of NDiaye’s story collection, All My Friends; it also considers her novel Three Strong Women at length. I have not read Ladivine yet, but I hope to do so. This first appeared in print in The Rain Taxi Review of Books.]
Prolific and celebrated French author Marie NDiaye—she published her first novel at age nineteen and in 2009 became the first black woman to win France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt—is beginning to get the recognition she deserves in the U.S. All My Friends, a superb short story collection first published in French in 2004, is the third of her books to be translated into English. It quickly follows her acclaimed novel, Three Strong Women, released last year by Knopf as Ndiaye’s American debut with a major publisher.
A triptych moving between perspectives and locales, Three Strong Women tells the loosely intertwined stories of a lawyer on a disastrous visit to her dissolute father in Senegal, a down-on-his-luck white professor from Senegal reduced to selling kitchen appliances in a French suburb and haunted by the crimes of his father, and a Senegalese woman forced by poverty and the hostility of her late husband’s family to make a harrowing attempt at immigration to France. To these fearful symmetries of cross-cultural migration, familial oppression, and economic deprivation, NDiaye adds an immersively subjective style of third-person narration that filters the novel’s events through the hopes, expectations, fears, and delusions of her characters. This unsettling combination of stream-of-consciousness narration with existentially insecure and sometimes literally hallucinating characters creates Three Strong Women’s unique effect of generating readerly compassion and anxiety in equal measure—it’s as if Kafka were re-written by Virginia Woolf or the magic in Toni Morrison’s magical realism were only in her characters’ heads.
All My Friends, published by the smaller Two Lines Press and translated sensitively by Jordan Stump, offers a chance to revisit in English this contemporary giant of French letters. The collection’s title, derived from its first story, is as bittersweetly ironic as that of Three Strong Women. In the story, a high school teacher estranged from his family hires a former student as his maid and becomes obsessed with her personal life, including her relations with her ex-boyfriend and the man she married, both also former students of his. The “friends” of the title, then, are the teacher’s former students, as well as the self-serving and paranoid images of them he has created in his lonely, obsessive mind, images he is able to exploit due to his economic power over them. The mutual implication of social exclusion and psychological disturbance is the most pervasive theme of the collection, whose characters find themselves exiled from their own ideal of human community and consequently in urgent need of aid from friends real and imagined.
In the second story, a successful doctor returns to the housing project where she was raised. There she visits a childhood friend who was, as a girl, the prettier and more glamorous of the two but who never left the project and, more disturbingly, never abandoned the vow they kept as children not to outlive the beloved French singer Claude François, dead at thirty-nine. The even bleaker yet even more grimly comic third story, “The Boys,” takes place in the French countryside, where a teenager is determined to get himself sold to a sex trafficker to escape his impoverished life on a farm where his mother’s grotesque lovers come and go. The longest story, “Brulard’s Day,” is a brilliantly paranoid and mordant account of a fading film actress’s frustrated attempt to escape her awareness that her most glamorous days are behind her—and that her present life amounts to a set of lies she tells herself to avoid the difficult realities of her broken relationships with her estranged family and a lover who has apparently died before the story’s beginning.
The final, shortest, and perhaps best story, “Revelation,” narrates a mother’s bus journey to abandon her son in a distant town; the son has recently become mentally ill or impaired, and the mother can’t bear his “stupid, appallingly stupid” behavior any longer. But the enthralled reactions of their fellow bus passengers to the son’s charismatic face hints too that his beauty, which the mother notes has been enhanced somehow by his cognitive deficit, is what she truly cannot stand: it provokes both guilt and resentment in the woman who cannot simply appreciate his angelic appearance but must also carry the burden of his needs. Given NDiaye’s characteristic use of a restricted viewpoint, we might also wonder if the mother is not projecting her own rejected love for her son, expressed as wonder at his face, onto the passengers.
“Revelation,” appropriately enough, reveals the pattern underlying NDiaye’s stories by depicting with masterful psychological insight and subtle literary style—and in only six pages—its protagonist’s bitter resentment, guilty self-justification, possibly aberrant perception of reality, sub-conscious shame, and almost religious awe. An extended quotation from “Revelation” will demonstrate NDiaye’s rare ability to capture, without judgment or falsely “realistic” clarity, our bewildering tangle of emotions and desires, pride and vulnerability in a world that is sacred and profane at once:
This woman thought that she couldn’t bear the beauty of that son’s face one moment longer—and that, in the old days, when he was still right, his face was never as handsome. No one would have turned to look at her son back when there was no need to keep from him where he was being taken. His face then had no reason to be as beautiful as it was now, since it expressed only ordinary thoughts. Nevertheless, thought the woman, rebelling, no one had the right to demand that she feel grateful or pleased at this change, no one could ask her to admire that face herself, however handsome and calm it may be.
NDiaye’s characters, whether male or female, white or black, well off or poor, are lonely wanderers unable to attain the “normal” lives that seem to come so naturally to others. But her stories invite us to ask if their confusion isn’t our own, if it isn’t in fact the subterranean cave that runs beneath national borders, unequal neighborhoods, and sexual difference, an underworld where we may all meet on the equal ground of our own self-alienation and abjection. In this way, her oneiric tales suggest a necessary truth about contemporary life that explains why she is increasingly—and justly—recognized as a major world writer.