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What We’re Reading: Self-Portrait in Green

2015 March 19

What We're Reading

NDiaye Self-PortraitSelf-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press, 2014)

Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green eludes genre, but is a work of prose, lyrical and elliptical as prose comes, rendered beautifully into English by Jordan Stump. Ostensibly a memoir, Self-Portrait focuses not on narrative, but on the women who shape the speaker. The book opens on an evening in December 2003 along the banks of the Garonne River, which is “rising hour after hour in the dark.” The Garonne, we’re told, can rise above its banks nine meters before it overflows:

We wait, we watch. The object of our vigilance is not some Old Man, it’s not le Mississippi, it’s not le Danube or le Rhône; no one here doubts for a moment that la Garonne’s essence is feminine. She’s brown tonight, heavy, almost bulging. (4)

The threat of a flood sets the tone for the following 100 pages, the possibility of violence just around the corner.

Throughout the book, NDiaye introduces a series of “green women,” among them are a woman standing under a banana tree, the speaker’s mother, and a woman who visits after hanging herself. Some of the women in green are friends, some strangers; all of them are an aspect of NDiaye. This obsession with identity—Who am I? Who is she? Who are we?—suffuses all of her work. Her short story “The Death of Claude François” in the collection All My Friends (Two Lines Press, 2013) features what could be considered a quintessential NDiaye line: “And the woman who looked like Marlène Vador, and who was Marlène Vador, since she’d said so[…]” In Self-Portrait in Green passages like this come up several times:

That’s when I run into Christina, but as soon as I see her I’m not sure it’s her rather than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison. Not that her name escapes me: it’s just that, among those three women, I no longer know which this one is. (14)


I believe that the woman in green, who told me her name is Katia Depetiteville, is not Katia Depetiteville, and I believe that if I asked people in the village for a description of Katia Depetiteville they wouldn’t describe this woman, the woman in green. They’d describe a very different person. But the woman in green doesn’t know that. She sincerely and naturally believes herself to be Katia Depetiteville. And for what reason? Is it so that, at various moments in my life, I might meet up with a woman in green? Because this is only one among many. (25)

NDiaye’s focus on identity speaks to an existential threat of oblivion, more terrifying than the possibility of violence. We fear violence being done to us, but even more we fear being forgotten:

I remember a woman in green from my grade-school days. Tall, brutal, and heavyset, she promises us all a trip to prison if we eat too slowly, if we dirty our clothes, if we don’t raise our eyes to meet hers. […] Because of her, a pall of dread hangs over the school. She carries more than one child off toward a dark hallway, proclaiming that prison awaits at the far end, and cries of terror resound as that stout woman disappears with her little prisoners clamped beneath her green-sleeved arms. The children are never seen again. (11-12)

The fear of being forgotten goes hand in hand with the fear that life has no purpose. NDiaye, like her countryman, Camus, comes seems to come to the conclusion that life is meaningless and we will be forgotten. Her characters roll their stones up the hill and watch them roll back down, but NDiaye doesn’t come to Camus’ conclusion that they might be happy. Ultimately, this meaninglessness is another form of violence her characters are subjected to. NDiaye’s speaker asks, “Was I ever seen again?”

Early in Self-Portrait in Green, when the book’s speaker meets the woman she thinks might be Christina or Marie-Gabrielle or Alison, who tells her about something that has been seen around:

“A bunch of us saw it, in our yards, on the riverbank, in… Apparently there were even people who saw it in the schoolyard. The mayor… the mayor knows all about it. He saw it too. Something black, and quick. Oh, there were plenty of people who saw it. (18)

At the end of the book, NDiaye’s speaker hears children shouting and finds them gathered around “a dark form, moving and anxious” in the street. “The children ask if I saw it, if I can tell them the name of what they saw.”

“Time to come in now,” I say, shivering. “No, I don’t know what that’s called,” I tell them. “I don’t think it has a name in our language.”

There’s something sinister at the heart of Self-Portrait in Green, something intangible and frightening. If asked what it is I would answer as NDiaye does: I don’t think it has a name in our language, whether that’s NDiaye’s French or Stump’s English. With a long list of accolades to her name, NDiaye is surely a writer to reckon with, though too few of her works have been translated. Let’s hope that Stump and others continue to bring her bewildering prose to the English-speaking world.

What other writers are producing brilliant work, but not yet reaching an English-speaking audience?


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