Marie NDiaye is so intelligent, so composed, so good, that any description of her work feels like an understatement. “Stop reading this review, just read her books!” you want to say. For several weeks now I’ve been carrying around NDiaye’s novels, telling friends to pick up her work. “She’s the smartest writer working today!” I say. Or else: “She’s going to win the Nobel Prize!”
Reading her books, you see a voracious, condensed history of much of twentieth-century literature. Here is an “I” reminiscent of what is often called autofiction, cool and probing; here is an interest in every tick of a woman’s mind that recalls the miniatures of French writers like Marguerite Duras. Here, where the women turn into dogs, where the birds may have a human spirit, is what seems like magical realism, though the line between what is happening and what is imagined is never quite clear.
Self-Portrait in Green (2005) promises to be a memoir and then turns into a psychological thriller, with women who may or may not exist flitting in and out of the narrator’s life, as the waters of the river by her home rise. In Ladivine (2013), a family goes to an unnamed country for a vacation and then finds itself surrounded by the supernatural. A man is killed and then appears as a servant in the home of a wealthy oil baron; a family loses its luggage and begins to see others wearing its clothes, even the shirts and dresses they know they did not pack.
NDiaye has written seventeen works of fiction, ten plays, and three children’s books, which have won some of the biggest prizes in France. She also cowrote, with Claire Denis, the screenplay for the film White Material (2009). It’s this kind of versatility that sometimes leads reviewers to call her books “unclassifiable.” But reading NDiaye reminds you: Who wants to be classified? Why not be everything at once?
There’s the evenness of her prose, eminently polished, deliciously rhythmic, that seems to glide over the violence underneath. An assurance of tone that almost seems to hide the fact that what you’ve just read in the preceding paragraph is a description of a young woman who has prostituted herself to rebel against her parents (as in Ladivine) or an account of another young woman who is raped while migrating to France (as in Three Strong Women, for which NDiaye won the Goncourt in 2009).
And then there’s the political content of her books, the way they seem to take in every contemporary political change, without ever displacing their focus on the interiority of the characters’ minds. It’s tempting to compare NDiaye to a more famous French export like Michel Houellebecq, who needs to interrupt every few pages with a long exposition about…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.