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 the decline of manhood and the disaster of French politics. We get it! You read the paper, you want to say.
In NDiaye’s work, the history is real because it’s what the characters live. The cruel world they inhabit is big, centered around France but often traveling to the outre-mer. Her characters move from one continent to another and back again; they bear the marks and memories of those voyages.
In Three Strong Women, a lawyer named Norah returns to Senegal after her father has summoned her. She hates her father. He left her and her mother, a hairdresser, because he felt that the life of working-class Paris did not offer enough for his son, Sony—a genius, in his view.
Now, Norah learns, her brother Sony is serving time for a murder he claims he did not commit and she, the sister, the competent one, is expected to come in with her law degree and pick up the pieces. The story stops there and turns to Fanta, a cousin, who has left Senegal and is now living in small-town France. Her husband, Rudy Descas, spends his days hawking kitchen remodels, a job he only has thanks to his mother’s intervention. The book shifts again: it turns to Khady Demba, a young maid—she used to work for Norah’s father—who is trying to escape her home to travel to France, where, she is told, her cousin Fanta is rich. Her travels are dangerous. When she takes a boat across the Mediterranean, her leg is torn on a nail. She crosses the Sahara in a truck; in a checkpoint town, she is enclosed in a room with a foam mattress, where she is forced to prostitute herself to men waiting to leave. Another migrant shows her kindness, then steals her money. As the book closes, she climbs a large fence to the beyond:
She tried to go higher, remembering that a boy had told her you must never, never stop climbing until you’ve reached the top, but the barbed wire was tearing the skin off her hands and feet and she could now hear herself screaming and feel blood running along her shoulders and down her arms.
One way of describing these stories, as some have, would be to say that many of the women in them have survived traumas, and that what we’re reading now is a trauma response. The experience of this trauma comes across as a kind of absence, an inability to connect with the world that the characters are living in. Norah, in Three Strong Women, finds herself wondering when, exactly, she was last in Senegal. Her father brings her photos that seem to show her living in his house: Isn’t that her, wearing that dress? Her husband and children seem to agree. No, she says:
She wasn’t sure of having spoken, or if she had, of being listened to.
She cleared her throat and repeated more loudly, “I’ve never lived in Grand Yoff.”…
Norah, dismayed at appearing to beg just so they’d believe her, felt obliged to say, yet again, “I’ve never lived anywhere but France, you ought to know that.”
Yet, her father tells her, “You must know why you came.”
It is a particularity of NDiaye’s books, and one of her strengths, that she often focuses on women who are uneducated and unlikely to be publishing accounts of their own experiences. Her work is populated by women of the working class, servants, maids, cooks—the kind of people whom certain readers might only want to hear from when the book they are reading comes stamped with the words “Prix Goncourt.”
Clarisse Rivière in Ladivine is one of those women. She uses her birth name, Malinka, only when she visits her mother, a woman who has emigrated to France and works as a cleaner. The rest of the time she is Clarisse, a waitress working in a small restaurant, married to a man who does not even know that her mother is still alive.
She is hiding other aspects of her identity, too. At fifteen, Clarisse “heightened the natural pallor of her face with wan makeup.” As an adult, she sheds any sign of her blackness or even of any particular past at all. When she sees her mother, Ladivine, she sometimes thinks of her as “the servant,” or even as “a body.” NDiaye writes, “She had deep, inexhaustible reserves of coldness inside her.”
Clarisse does her best to live a boring, middle-class French life, and this coldness seems to take over her mind. She thinks with a spirit whose nuances and life seem to have been bleached out:
It tortured her that she couldn’t hold back the numbness gradually overtaking her household, the cold torpor exuded in spite of her by her artificial, oblique self, until in the end she grew used to it, and came to believe this was how things were supposed to be in happy families.
You don’t really realize the strength of this characterization until, a third of the way through the novel, NDiaye shifts the voice to Clarisse’s daughter, herself named Ladivine, now an adult working as a teacher in Berlin. Ladivine knows nothing of her mother’s history. Her mother’s past is blank to her, and so, in a sense, is her mother herself. She cannot imagine what is going through the head of the person you have spent the preceding hundred pages living with. She describes Clarisse without understanding, as if she were describing an imbecile:
A vague, lost smile would come over her, like the smile that parted her hesitant lips when someone spoke to her in a foreign tongue, her damp eyes seeming about to well over with the anxious tears always set off in her by a failure to understand, whether the German language or other people’s behavior, but the tears never flowed, and her smile took root and bloomed on Clarisse Riviere’s delicate, mobile, scarcely wrinkled face like an ephemeral flower of innocence.
It’s a somber, bitter moment: the depth of incomprehension between mother and daughter. But NDiaye has also delivered a small jolt to the reader. The woman whose story you’ve been absorbed in is one who, on the street, you might dismiss as unwell, or not even worth taking the time to dismiss.
Who is this writer? And how did she get to be so good? The biographical facts point to a person who would like to discourage being read biographically. The catalog copy for her books, only a handful of which have been published in English, describes NDiaye as “born in Pithiviers, France, in 1967; spent her childhood with her French mother (her father was Senegalese); and studied linguistics at the Sorbonne.”
The parenthesis has an odd questioning quality to it, as if to highlight the apparent un-Frenchness of her name (oh, that’s why). But if NDiaye has insisted on a single biographical fact, it is that she is a French writer, through and through. “My father returned to Africa when I was a year old,” she told Paris Match. “I’ve never lived with him. I lived in the suburbs. I am 100% French.” She has regularly told interviewers that she didn’t travel to Senegal until she was in her late teens.
The statement has been seen by some as a cop-out, since her books so often take place in France’s former and current colonial territories. But the heart of her work is just as often in towns like Pithiviers, population nine thousand, located somewhere between Paris and nowhere, with an increasing track record of voting for the far right. It’s the kind of town that NDiaye evokes in Three Strong Women, where Rudy, the son of a colonialist who works at minimum wage, gets angry when he sees that the local Romani have cell phones: “How come—he wondered—all those people manage to have lives so much better than his?” He becomes paranoid that his Senegalese wife will leave him, that she is sleeping with his boss. Yet he is unable to fully admit what he has threatened her with: “You can go back where you came from.” The book, it’s worth mentioning, was published in France eleven years ago.
NDiaye spoke up once against Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that she hated the police atmosphere that he created as president. A member of Sarkozy’s party publicly reprimanded her, saying that she had not shown sufficient “respect.” She has made few political statements since. She lives in Berlin now with her husband, also a novelist, and their children. She rarely writes commentary or talks to the press. For all further information, we just have her work.
On first read, I was disappointed with The Cheffe. Compared to NDiaye’s other great novels, The Cheffe feels a little simple: it’s the story of a man’s infatuation with his former boss. It’s far more coherent in style and content than NDiaye’s previous works, plays less with genre, lacks the strange plasticity that makes reading her books something like handing over your ticket at the entrance of a haunted house. And yet, as I thought about and reread NDiaye’s mirror-smooth prose, I wondered: What am I not seeing?
The Cheffe of the title (she is introduced this way, without a name) is born in the small town of Sainte-Bazeille. Her parents are poor and pure, in the narrator’s view. As a young teen, she goes and works for a family named Clapeaus, who later hire her as a cook. Her story is told by a nameless narrator, whose love for the Cheffe drives him to memorialize her life.
For the Clapeaus, there is no life outside mealtime. “They loved eating with a fervent, unrelenting love, stronger than they were, that forced them to keep food in the foreground of their thoughts at all times,” the narrator tells us. “The prospect of a meager or mediocre dinner would plunge them into a sadness that she thought in no way trivial or ridiculous, or worthy of reverence either.”
Soon after she takes over their kitchen, the Cheffe becomes pregnant by a man who is not her husband. She leaves her daughter with her parents for a short while and moves to Bordeaux, where she eventually opens her own restaurant. There, she is totally in control. She chooses the setting, the name, what will be served. She is successful, too. She is, the narrator tells us, the first woman to win a Michelin star. That she cannot always devote the necessary attention to her daughter is the price she must pay for her work.
NDiaye illustrates the class dynamics of the kitchen: who sips from a spoon and who wields a knife. Making food means, for the Cheffe, making it for someone else, and every time she walks into the kitchen NDiaye gives us a sense of the tension of this encounter. The Cheffe, we are told,
wanted to illuminate the Clapeaus with the cold, intense, irresistible brilliance of her mastery without having to enter their clammy hearts, without having to brush against their warm, sticky skin, neither provoking nor flattering, neither condemning nor excusing their tortuous emotions.
They worry that she knows their worst quality: their addiction to her. When they ask her what she will make, they are “astir, hopeful, but at the same time expecting a disappointment, and so at once pleading and dissatisfied, frustrated, furious, hating themselves.”
It is, from NDiaye, a powerful reminder that any act of creation requires an act of patronage; there is no pure creation without the audience that consumes it. (Reading this book, I felt led to ask: Is this chef not like NDiaye herself, who manages to devour so many twentieth-century styles—from the pacing of thrillers to the intimate detail of the 1950s French nouveau roman—and create from them something new? The comparison feels stronger as the book unfolds.) The Cheffe builds her success by playing with her power to both delight and threaten. Her most beautiful dishes are also a form of punishment. The meal that heralds her as a genius is a chicken she has ground up, sliced, and put back in its skin, brought out “in its bloodred enameled cast-iron oven dish…massacred and then resuscitated, like a savage joke.” Her dessert is famous because it has no sugar.
Translator Jordan Stump (who has done a wonderful job here, as with NDiaye’s other novels) advises us that “Cheffe is a recently minted word in French; its meaning, of course, is ‘female chef.’ Because no good English equivalent exists, this translation will use the French word”—an awkwardness that stammers throughout the text.
The word for female cook, until recently, was maman—and it is one of the Cheffe’s difficulties that she finds herself in what NDiaye knows is a familiar trap. Her desire to cook seems in constant conflict with her daughter’s needs. She wishes to lose herself in her creations, the narrator tells us. She loves the puzzle of cooking and resents anything that takes her away from it:
At that early age the Cheffe acquired the habit of never going to sleep without first thinking back over all the food that was eaten that day, evaluating, analyzing, judging everything she’d put in her mouth and everything she’d studied with her sensitive eye, the arrangement of colors on a plate, the severe beauty of cast-iron casseroles, already sensing the interest, both for the eye and for the appetite, of bringing the casserole straight to the table rather than, as the cook did, as everyone did at the time, transferring whatever had been simmering inside it—soup, jugged hare, ragout of beef cheeks—to a tureen decorated with fussy, old-fashioned flowers.
But being an artist means selling your art, and being a woman artist can sometimes mean having to sell yourself as a woman. (I’m always surprised how common it is, still, to see the phrase “woman artist,” as though it were a separate category.) This is a compromise the Cheffe hates to make. She resents being photographed, interviewed, approached: “The Cheffe would have rather they not even remembered her name, rather they never saw her face, rather they had no idea if she was plump or slender, short or tall, if her body was pleasingly put together.” We are told that she would have been “happier with no hair at all, and if such a thing were conceivable back then she would have shaved it all off rather than torture and blight it by strangling it in a rubber band twisted over and over.”
Her conflict between a need to exist in the world and a desire to be absorbed by her creations seems to haunt her relationship with her daughter, who cannot stand to be second to her mother’s work. The Cheffe’s daughter interferes in the kitchen in ways that make the restaurant unable to function and eventually leads to its closure. “She would hate the restaurant, yes, but that didn’t mean she loved her mother any more.” The daughter, the narrator assures us, was the cause of the Cheffe’s downfall.
After a while, I began to wonder: Why is this guy talking so much? What’s in it for him? How did he come to learn the intimate details of the Cheffe’s life? And why does he seem to delight in these small nuggets of information, doled out as stingily as sugar in the pie crust? I remembered that someone famous—who?—once said that every first-person novel must be narrated by a lunatic: Who else would speak uninterrupted for three hundred pages?
This man certainly seems to have something wrong with him. He’s talking to someone whom we don’t recognize, answering questions we cannot hear. “Oh yes, of course, she got that question often.” Or: “Forgive me this little boast, but I think I’m fairly perceptive.” Sometimes, he gets defensive and says things like: “It troubles me to think she might already have hoodwinked you, it makes me feel less free to talk to you candidly.” The more facts he gives about the Cheffe, the more we wonder about his own motives—the more it seems possible that his benevolent attempt to rescue the Cheffe from oblivion may well be a way to deflect from his own problems.
It is around the time you notice this erratic behavior that small bits of italicized text interrupt the narrative. We are in Lloret de Mar, a retirement community. It is revealed that the narrator is spending his time drinking. He tells his companions he never cooks. They know nothing of his life. He never speaks about it. All they know and all that he allows us to infer is that he is waiting for his own daughter and that she will soon come to visit.
Information leaks out, as do more questions. The narrator seems to be at once trying to elevate the life of the Cheffe—his idol! the woman he loved—and denigrating her daughter. We are told that the daughter is someone who lies. We are told that she has spread lies. Why is he poisoning our minds with these things?
As his own vendettas come into view, there’s a temptation to read over everything we had earlier easily absorbed. The story he is telling about the Cheffe seems less like a straightforward hagiography and more like a means to achieve control.
I will not give away how NDiaye resolves this. But I will say that, as the book comes to a close, it is up to the Cheffe’s granddaughter to deal with the weight of what has happened before. And so, as often happens in NDiaye’s work, the violence of the past is merely punted to the next generation. For now, they may still hope to do things differently.