I first came across Marie NDiaye’s writing in 1993, by way of her magnificent novel En famille (Heather Doyal’s translation, Among Family, is alas out of print), and my reaction, I confess, was that I wasn’t quite sure I got it. Which troubled me more than a little: at the time (before she moved on to Gallimard) NDiaye was nominally associated with the “jeunes écrivains de Minuit,” a little circle of writers published by the Editions de Minuit—Éric Chevillard, Marie Redonnet, and Jean Echenoz, for example—whose stylish, deadpan, inventive books spoke to me in a way that nothing else being written at the time did. I loved those Minuit writers; I got them. All of them, I now had to realize, except one.
With Echenoz or Chevillard I always knew what the novel promised me, what it expected of me, how I was supposed to perceive the voice speaking to me: for all their brilliance, those novels respect the terms of a readily definable pact between author and reader. To read a novel by NDiaye, on the other hand, is to become acutely aware of the absence of the guideposts that ensure our untroubled progress: realities change, understandings are thwarted, characters appear and vanish, endings come out of nowhere, and through it all an unforgettable narratorial voice hovers between earnest and baroque, analytic and musical. NDiaye gives us no maps; we can only follow along as her narratives stubbornly refuse to stick to an unswerving path, seem always just about to disappear around a corner ahead of us. If at first this disconcerted me, I soon came to find it delightful, exhilarating, and rich, to see her books as an experience (like something lived, something gone through), not just a reading. Maybe I didn’t get them straight off, but they got to me.
And with that was born an insistent desire to translate her. My first attempt—on the novel that would eventually be published as My Heart Hemmed In—was so sadly unworthy of the original that I abandoned it after a few pages; maybe, I concluded, I wasn’t the right person to translate her books. But then I taught Autoportrait en vert in a course on recent French writing, and the itch came back stronger than ever; I had to translate it, and this time not give up, even if it was terrible, even if, as seemed likely, it would never be published (too short, too unpigeonholeable). I didn’t care about that; I just wanted to figure out how to translate Marie NDiaye.
There’s nothing beautiful or uplifting about the translating process; it’s ninety-nine percent revising, as banal as can be. Oh, but that moment when you’re reading through the latest draft and hear the stirrings of a voice very like the one you know from the book! There are few greater happinesses to be had in this world. Fate eventually put my finished manuscript in the hands of the keen-eyed, intrepid CJ Evans at Two Lines Press, to whom I am forever grateful, as I am to every reader who has since found in that book what I did.
I haven’t looked at Self-Portrait in Green for ten years, and it’s moving to see it again in the context of the other NDiaye novels I’ve translated since. There’s a haunting unity to her work as a whole, just as there is a profound diversity. None of her books really resembles the others, but a continuous current runs through them all, or rather a series of currents, from broad themes (the perverse unknowability of other people) to dreamlike leitmotifs (shoes, falling, the gesture of tucking back a lock of hair). All of those are present in Self-Portrait, and with every new book she writes they take on a new density: we can see Katia Depetiteville’s not-exactly-fatal leap from the second floor of her house as an echo-in-advance of Wellington’s fall from the hotel balcony in Ladivine, or the visit to the father in Africa as an anticipation of the first chapter of Three Strong Women. Just as in a dream, no incident in a NDiaye novel is ever without meaning, but the nature of that meaning can be stubbornly opaque; one way to read Self-Portrait is as a quietly relentless compendium of such incidents or moments, joined together more by association than by plot. Hence, perhaps, the very particular, very unshakable spell that it weaves.
But there’s another constant in NDiaye’s work, which first struck me when I read her recent novel The Cheffe. There’s a lovely moment in that book where the title character (who I think it’s not too presumptuous to see as a conduit for NDiaye’s thoughts on her writing), asked to explain the experience she wants to impart with one of her meticulously-designed meals, answers by sketching out a sequence of enigmatic shapes with her hands. Reading that passage felt like a small revelation; it showed me something I’d always felt in her books but never quite seen. What I mean is something hard to pin down, an intricate interlacing of shifting relations between characters, spatial and geographical movement, acceleration and deceleration of time, and the long, wandering arc between the first moments of the story and the last, an amalgam of moving parts that work together to create something that feels to me very like a shape, irregular and indefinable but real.
Just as in a dream, no incident in a NDiaye novel is ever without meaning, but the nature of that meaning can be stubbornly opaque.
It’s hard to explain that feeling without falling into purple-prose subjectivity, but let me at least try with Self-Portrait in Green. For one thing there’s the refrain of the rising Garonne, for another the bookends of the two appearances of the mysterious snakelike creature (which shows up again, perhaps, in My Heart Hemmed In); inside those two symmetries lies a fuzzily-delineated parade of “women in green.” Some of those women flutter into existence only for a moment before disappearing from the narrative; another stubbornly refuses to disappear even after she’s gone. The very definition of a “green woman” is unstable, evolving and blurring as the procession goes on. And then, finally, a classic “return to the origins” with the visits to the mother and then the father (the latter involving an abrupt trip to a faraway place, another recurring element of her stories, as in the forthcoming Vengeance Is Mine) before we find ourselves back before the Garonne. Think of this book’s shape, then, as a convolution of order and chaos, direction and wandering, an unknowable writhing inside a recurring known: inevitability and (in, as) mutability, rigor and (in, as) instability. The shape of the book is in other words as elusive as its subject—maybe, in fact, that shape is those green women’s very nature. Is, to extend the narrative’s final words, this book itself a green woman, as productive of meaning, confusion, and sad, strange beauty as they are?
I don’t mean all this as any kind of a key. There are many ways to read a novel by Marie NDiaye, and in truth my favorite is to drift along on the current, let the book take me where it likes, and marvel as the landscape mutates before me. I hope this new edition will give a new crowd of readers that joy, and many others.
Self-Portrait in Green: Anniversary Edition by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump, is available now via Two Lines Press.