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The Metamorphoses of Marie NDiaye

In “Ladivine,” the French writer promises a perfect psychological novel—before blazing a new path entirely.

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“She was Malinka again the moment she got on the train, and she found it neither a pleasure nor a burden, having long since stopped noticing.” Rarely does an opening line of fiction so succinctly capture the strange new world we are about to enter. By the final page of Ladivine, the newest novel by the French author Marie NDiaye, this woman will have spent time as both Malinka Sylla and Clarisse Rivière, both alive and dead, both human and, possibly, a dog prowling around her mother’s house. And these transformations are neither a pleasure nor a burden, but rather something wholly unseen before.

These are not the only doublings in a book positively teeming with them. The title alludes to both Clarisse’s mother and Clarisse’s daughter, each of them named Ladivine. A wild dog detested by Clarisse’s first husband seems to reappear much later as a protector of the matriarch Ladivine Sylla. Recurrence, repetition, pure déjà vu—these phenomena make up the pulsing heartbeat of Ladivine, one that becomes manifest as the book’s chapters, like an EKG, zip up and down the generations, from Clarisse up to her mother, down to her daughter, further down to a granddaughter, back up to Clarisse’s husband, and finally back to Ladivine Sylla. Each chapter cleaves to yet another character and unfurls idiosyncratically. The book is less a linear story than a corpus of memories connected by chance, omission, and happenstance.

In this way, Ladivine—like rest of NDiaye’s œuvre—is perfectly suited to the disjointed ethos of contemporary Francophone literature. But whereas her compatriots Michel Houellebecq and Jean-Philippe Toussaint create characters who seem unreal or flat in order to focus their attention on ideas and theories, NDiaye’s women (and she almost always writes about women) are so psychologically rich that their ever-roving minds are more the story than the unreal worlds in which they move. From her ghostly first novel, published when NDiaye was just 17, to her Prix Goncourt–winning Three Strong Women, mystery and uncertainty have proven integral to her style. Names and facial features become malleable, and identities resist any degree of stability. People within Self-Portrait in Green, for example, insist that they do (or don’t) know each other, despite evidence to the contrary. And in Ladivine, when deaths occur they are handled so obliquely that it takes a second or third reading to understand exactly when and how somebody moved from one realm to the next.

Yet her novels undeniably belong to a tradition of literary realism, which can be seen in the way autobiography firmly anchors her works. She is the daughter of a French mother and a Senegalese father she barely knows, and married to a white Frenchman. Her Senegalese last name (which she prefers to be spelled with two capital letters, and pronounced “en-dee-ie”) belies her thoroughly French upbringing; she was raised an hour south of Paris, and confessed in a 2009 interview with Le Monde that she had only spent three weeks of her life in Africa, two of them in Senegal, and that she felt “wholly foreign” to the continent. NDiaye’s novels frequently feature biracial couples, absent or distant fathers, and strained filial relationships. Her characters often feel ill at ease within their communities, and struggle with doubts that they are not who they believe or wish themselves to be.

LADIVINE by Marie NDiaye
Knopf, 352 pp., $26.95

All of this is apparent in Ladivine, as Clarisse steps in and out of her life as Malinka Sylla—her mother’s daughter, somebody who never fully escaped the poverty of her small-town past. When she first prepares for her regular visit with her mother, we see Clarisse push her present life as a successful waitress and wife, polished and poised, back into the recesses of her mind. The trip lasts less than a day, but it is enough to reveal the immense amount of effort required to ensure that her primordial self never impinges upon the sophisticated persona she has so carefully crafted for herself. She takes such care not to be noticed, we learn, that she ultimately married a man whose main attraction lies in being as handsome as he is incurious.

NDiaye’s readers are forced to endure this same emotional distance, as Ladivine’s prose, brought into exacting English by her frequent translator Jordan Stump, insistently refuses them full access to her characters. Gustave Flaubert is widely celebrated for fully exploiting the technique of free indirect discourse. By eschewing such phrases as “he thought” or “she wondered,” free indirect discourse submerges readers directly into a speaker’s mind, and establishes a beautiful middle ground between the cold impersonality of third-person narration and the feverish proximity of first-person narration. But Ladivine rejects this convention, accentuating the character’s otherness: “She saw herself sobbing in the armchair, she thought herself mediocre, she thought herself an ordinary woman and a heavy-handed actress like her mother. ...” NDiaye’s refusal to immerse us within her characters’ minds makes it seem as if something crucial is being withheld, as if we are continually being presented with mere veneers—a sensation at odds with the sheer amount of attention NDiaye devotes to thoughts, feelings, and impulses.

To break through these surfaces, NDiaye moves from the realm of the realistic to the outright fantastic. Her women wander through Bordeaux and Berlin, every street meticulously name-checked, but in Ladivine’s longest section, the daughter Ladivine Rivière goes on vacation with her husband and their two children to a frustratingly indeterminate English-speaking place outside Europe. Tantalizing hints refuse to resolve into a specific country or even continent, and sequences of events bring into question the reality of the trip. The family has arrived only to find their luggage lost by their airline, but later on they see their clothes set out for sale along the road—both the clothes they packed, and clothes they very decisively didn’t. “She knew she’d left those two things in her dresser in Berlin, the pants because they showed dirt, the blouse because it was corduroy and unsuitably warm. She felt her cheeks and brow redden in embarrassment, in perplexity, and also, odd even to her, in fear.” This experience, like so many other scenarios NDiaye conjures up, forces readers to ask the questions the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov does of fantastic narratives: Did that really happen? Did I understand it right?

But these questions are not easy to answer. Ladivine Rivière, unnerved, insists that those are not their clothes and that nothing is wrong, knowing all the while that she is lying to her children. Similarly, when her husband seems to have killed an intruder into the family’s hotel room, they can see blood stains on the concrete outside the hotel—but then, later, they are shaken when they are served dinner by the same man. In a book filled with many deaths and losses, this invocation of the fantastic offer some possibility of recovery or redemption—but in such a way that the characters question their sanity and their reality.

The three protagonists in NDiaye’s previous book, Three Strong Woman, seemed to have been transformed into birds as a form of escape. But in Ladivine, the transformation is canine in nature. Ladivine Sylla comes to be certain that her daughter Clarisse has taken on a wild dog’s pelt, whereas the daughter of Ladivine Rivière barely questions her mother returning from a mysterious disappearance as a watchful dog. With these transformations—if these transformations did indeed happen, if these transformations have indeed been understood right—the Cinderella story is inverted: The women can go from false finery and false familiarity to true sentiment.

These transformations are also part of a stylistic experiment that may be NDiaye’s most lasting contribution to French letters. Psychology’s role in the novel has become so pervasive that even the most extreme shifts of modernism and postmodernism have been characterized as appropriate depictions of contemporary psychological modes. Perhaps this trend is reaching a point of exhaustion. This resistance to psychological realism is evident even in NDiaye’s two early books, All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green, which are so extraordinarily vivid and controlled as to be perfect introductions to NDiaye. But it is NDiaye’s two latest books that hint at her brilliant reworking of the fantastical mode. NDiaye’s metamorphoses of people into animals—thoroughly hypothetical in Three Strong Women, seemingly actual in Ladivine—are at once a homage to a truly old master, Ovid, and a deeply contemporary swerve away from psychological investigation into pure storytelling. If NDiaye’s novels function in some ways as psychodramas, in which we watch her characters undergo revelation and sublimation, these doublings and transformations and escapes are, like NDiaye’s stylistic rejection of Flaubert, an outright rejection of psychology tout court.

Early in the novel, Clarisse Rivière decides that, in visiting her mother and reverting to her old self, “she’d done what she had to, and would go on doing it until one of them died, and for that she’d dug deep into her reserves—meager, she knew—of intelligence, ingenuity, strategy.” But she will not have to do so many more times. In two of the book’s most enigmatic passages, characters enter forests, which we come to understand are a representation of death or the afterlife. Death and theft are commonly understood as forms of loss, but the fantastical scenes of a family’s clothes reappearing or a loved one being reincarnated suggest that nothing is ever truly dead or lost. When psychology and realism no longer suffice to encompass our world, then whatever goes into the forest can come back out, albeit in a different form. Whatever escapes the confines of the psychological novel will be a fantastical, new aspect of our world. And if this is so, then readers weary of the present-day literary landscape should take notice. By straddling the realistic and the fantastic, by touching on the needs of the present moment and presenting new answers to age-old dilemmas, NDiaye is writing a literature both innovative and incredible.