To Know Thyself Is to Grieve
The stories in Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends are delicate and multifarious. You can never be sure-footed in a Marie NDiaye story. Realities twist—very slightly—and narrators seem just short of being unreliable. Once you have entered a particular character’s point-of-view, you’re quite certain that things are not what they seem and yet you persist, filled with a sense of foreboding that the story is unlikely to end well. And it rarely does, in NDiaye’s world; if a “happy” ending is to be had, it usually comes at the expense of an enormous sacrifice or loss.
All My Friends was originally published in French as Tous Mes Amis in 2004; this English edition, translated by Jordan Stump, comes hot on the trails of the success of NDiaye’s 2009 Trois Femmes Puissantes, which won the Prix Goncourt in France. The English translation by John Fletcher, Three Strong Women, was published in 2012, and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize 2013. Although NDiaye’s output is prolific, besides these two works only one other book, Rosie Carpe, has been translated into English. Judging from the critical reception of Three Strong Women and All My Friends, however, one can hope that more of her writing will be made available to English readers.
The characters in All My Friends seem to be on the brink—of what, we’re not quite sure. The characters themselves might feel close to some sort of revelation, epiphany, or breakthrough, and maybe they are, but it’s interesting to note how similar the signs are to imminent chaos, collapse, or breakdown. A recurrent theme is the idea of reckoning with what one has not become. The past colludes strangely, jarringly, with the present. Characters in NDiaye’s stories attempt to project a self that they imagine to be smooth, whole, and well-adjusted, yet somehow realise that these attempts are less-than-successful, possibly even tragic, ridiculous, and flawed.
In the titular story, the narrator, a former schoolteacher and now an aging man shunned by his wife and children for reasons that are never made clear, employs a former student named Séverine as his housekeeper. His desire for her is clouded by his former hate; or perhaps all desire is informed by hate: “How troubling it is to remember the loathing I felt for my student Séverine, and to think of the affection I feel for my maid Séverine. Are they even the same girl? I sometimes wonder”. I
t’s particularly strange that the narrator employs his ex-student, whom he lusts after, and spends most of his time with another ex-student, Werner, who also lusts after Séverine. Séverine is married to yet another ex-student, whom the narrator contemptuously refers to as “the Arab” because he can’t remember his name. In this sense, sexual jealousy and longing is neatly woven into the narrator’s seemingly latent racism. The narrator is so ill at ease with the world that no space is safe or comfortable, especially not his own home. “My house doesn’t like me”, the narrator tells us. The memories of his former family are in every room: “My wife and children made an ally of my house, where they once lived, where they no longer live”. The narrator seeks out Werner and enjoys spending time in Werner’s immaculate, expensive house—but is disgusted with his own duplicity, he once cursed Werner for having come from money, for having lived in the “town center’s finest neighborhood”.
Similarly, in “The Death of Claude Francois”, the past crashes in on the seemingly-calm present through the appearance of an old friend, an incident that sends the narrator, Zaka, reeling through the memories of a shared childhood in a poor neighbourhood, where average-looking Zaka and her beautiful friend Marlène Vador had lived and loved a famous pop star. Zaka, now a doctor who has, one might say, “made it”, takes her young daughter Paula back to the neighbourhood of her childhood, only to be shocked by the suburbs of outer Paris and their “blighted gray concrete buildings”.
It’s important, for Zaka, to be able to show off Paula, to have her former friend realise that her daughter is as beautiful as she is, even if Zaka never was, that “they were both, mother and daughter alike, true bourgeoisies, refined and invisible”. But when she goes up to meet Marlène, ready to forgive her “tinge of vulgarity” and her “overeagerness to display her body” (“traits, Zaka reflected, that she might have shared had she stayed on and lived there”, in that neighbourhood), she finds Marlène to be beautiful in a way that might even intimidate a true bourgeoisie like Zaka, who is of course not at all a true bourgeoisie at all, having renounced her working-class roots. “Today she’s middle-class and magnificient,” Zaka thinks of Marlène when she sees her. And so the reader learns that the Zaka of the beginning of the story may not have been wholly truthful, or alternately, we learn more of Zaka by the end that renders the start of the story doubtful.
When she sees her ex-husband at the start of the story, she’s contemptuous of him and embarrassed because he reminds her “of what she’d had to do to conceive her little girl” and the reader is made to imagine an unattractive, desperate and lovelorn former spouse. But by the end of the story we learn that it’s her ex-husband, a “fine and upstanding man”, who stopped loving her, who “had lost all regard for her”. The power relations shift and it’s Zaka who appears to us as the lovelorn former spouse, cast aside. “What did she have to do,” Zaka wonders, “to turn regret and nostalgia into indifference?” Even attempting to remember the past differently offers no respite for Zaka in her present situation.
In “The Boys”, the best story in the collection, poverty, hierarchies of beauty, commodification, and sex work are some of the themes that NDiaye stirs up and troubles through the perspective of one young boy named René. René watches a business transaction in his neighbour’s house as the beautiful teenage boy Anthony is sold off to a wealthy woman by his parents (here it’s never quite clear if the mother is in the instigator and the father the reluctant tag-along) while Anthony’s “uglier” older brother is ignored. René is aware of what’s going on:
Anthony had been chosen because he’d turned out well, while the other was an inferior product, deeply and irreparably disgraced. Devoid of commercial value, he seemed of no use, and relegated to lowly and inessential tasks: bringing his brother to the woman, remembering the bag, keeping an eye on his brother. And all this with the insincere simpering of one who strives to anticipate authority’s needs, who seeks only to please that authority, and who knows that it never even sees him.
In this story NDiaye deftly highlights the inequalities of a system where everyone is exploited but not all are exploited equally. In this case, René is aware that he has youth on his side—he too can be bought and sold—but he won’t be first choice in the hierarchy of attributes. For René, “his youth was purely theoretical” because of his scrawny and feeble body, his nondescript appearance. Even Anthony’s discarded older brother, despite his plainness, “radiated irrefutable youth from his hard, brutal body”. But René did not even have a body that was able to radiate youth. And so “The Boys” progresses on this trajectory, exploring how poverty and lack shapes desire and ambition and subsequently how, in a capitalist “free market”, self worth is intricately bound up with material worth.
Anthony makes enough money to send home to his family, which allows his mother to acquire a computer and an internet connection, enabling everyone to see endless images of Anthony—even nude pictures of him together with the woman to whom he was sold. The mother can’t stop looking at pictures of her son and showing these pictures to others. René looks at pictures of Anthony and is troubled—Anthony is “more glorious in each image, more assured—still himself, to be sure, but by the end so remade that René scarcely recognized him”. Anthony’s mouth, chin and nose seem to have been slightly reshaped, his teeth “whiter and more regular than René remembered”. The seemingly content and now materially-comfortable Anthony appears to be an improved Anthony.
Even beautiful Anthony can be improved upon! So René starts to dream of this life—to be beautiful enough to be bought seemed a better existence than to toil away in hardship. He imagines that Anthony’s existence could one day be his own, his own physique “duly amended”. “Let me be bought, bought, bought”, he prays. To be an improved image of himself is what René wants; the life to aspire to is one where you can set the terms of your own exploitation. It all amounts to the same in the end, perhaps, but in the meantime this world is a better place for the rich and the beautiful and René, too, like the rest of us, wants to be both.
The fourth story in this collection, “Brulard’s Day” captures the kind of claustrophobic, almost schizophrenic form of internal monologue that takes place in the mind of a person under intense pressure, the kind that NDiaye excels at. The story deftly blurs the line between “organic” internal criticism, stemming from the person itself, and the kind that is reinforced by what others say and do, so much so that it becomes hard to tell whether you’re thinking bad thoughts about yourself that others have made you think about yourself, or that thinking bad thoughts about yourself somehow translates into making others think badly of you.
In Eve Brulard’s case, a minor actress who has run away from her husband and daughter to a hotel in what appears to be a holiday ski town, in love with a mysterious other man who seems to be her source of income (for her and her husband), it involves seeing a past version of herself in every corner, a past version of herself who taunts and mocks her, and who, as the story progresses, begins to look more and more like Brulard’s young daughter, Lulu. It also involves a pair of brown tassel loafers, loafers that doesn’t seem to fit Brulard’s idea of herself: “That she’d been reduced to wearing such shoes tormented and astonished her at the same time”. It also does not please the ghost of young Brulard—“whose eagle eye had not missed those tasseled shoes”—and who, because of these shoes, may or may not be regarding older Brulard with pity, or “reproach, tinged by compassion and alarm”.
Later, it turns out that the loafers have not escaped the notice of her husband, Jimmy, either, who says, “No one who looks at you would ever say you’re wearing loafers, because they couldn’t imagine you wearing such shoes, and yet that’s how it is, and you’re wearing loafers”. Brulard, a woman who should not be wearing loafers, is wearing loafers. The loafers seem to reveal another kind of truth about Brulard. They defeat the picture she has of herself, just like one of the hotel clerks she tries so hard to avoid: “From the start, she’d sense that he thought her neither radiant nor carefree, despite all her efforts to seem just that”.
Is Brulard close to a breakdown? Are there moments in the story where she’s close to one, or having a panic attack? I don’t know if the answer to that is important, because for NDiaye’s characters, mere existence is already an unravelling of the self. Any given life appears to be quietly imploding at any given moment from the various tragedies and abuses its been dealt. When Jimmy tells everyone they meet that Brulard is an actress, and no one recognises her, doubts start entering Brulard’s mind: “What proof did she had that she wasn’t an impostor?”
In the final story, “Revelation”, a sort of exercise in Kafkaesque perfection that comes in at just five pages, a mother who is planning to abandon her son precisely because she loves him, is undone by the reaction her son’s beautiful face elicits in others because it’s a face that doesn’t reveal the whole truth of him, a face that is almost deceitful because of what inspires in others, something that is at odds with the son’s fundamental being:
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 the 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.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, What proof do I have that I’m not an impostor? then NDiaye’s stories are a reminder that not all writing offers itself up as a remedy. There’s no comfort in being oneself; there’s only ever-present anxiety. NDiaye’s stories rattle at the door of complacency; they disturb everything. In her world of maladjusted stragglers and outcasts, seemingly normal on the outside, perhaps, but running riot on the inside, one comes to recognise that no amount of planning for life is any sort of match for life itself. More certainly, you may never become who you thought you would become. You may find yourself wearing those dreaded brown loafers, or willing yourself to be bought, and upon wearing those shoes and being bought, discovering—as many others have before you and no doubt will after you—that you might have wanted your life to go in a different direction, after all.