Wednesday 1 May 2013

Marie NDiaye's Three Strong Women: A Review

Marie NDiaye’s Trois Femmes Puissantes (2009), translated into English by John Fletcher (2012) as Three Strong Women, tells stories of three women and the men in their lives. The women, Norah, Fanta, and Khady Demba, are Senegalese, and two have found lives of professional success but deep relationship dissatisfaction in France, while the third experiences a prolonged and horrifying attempt to escape from her homeland. 

The questions raised are broad but treated nevertheless with admirably rich and emotionally true depth: What is strength? What is the relationship between the capacity for adaptation and the quality of one’s imagination or day dream life? What do children really need from their childhood? Do we need the information we think we need in order to overcome childhood anguish? How does one get to the point where it is possible to ask of oneself the right questions, the ones that might allow access to the thoughts and feelings that might, in a tenuous chain, lead to insight? Questions concerning the treatment of African immigrants to Europe, and European immigrants to Africa, the subjection of women by their male intimates, the mysterious trajectories and evasions of memory, dissociation, self-deception, and faith also are woven throughout these narratives.

This book has a strange kind of concinnity, unique even among other examples of modernist prose, and one that arises, I think, in part from its combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical structures. In an asymmetry, the first section is 94 pages long; the second 151; and the third 71. The first and third end with a one- paragraph coda viewed from the perspective of the character who was chiefly responsible for the strong woman’s either long brewing or more recent misery, but the second story’s coda (also of one paragraph) is from the perspective of a disinterested neighbor. The first and third are told from the strong female character’s perspective and the second and much longer narrative is told from the perspective of Fanta’s jealous and controlling partner who is undergoing a radical change of heart. Included in each narrative is a past murder, and a past suicide in addition in the second section. And while the characters are all linked, these are not narratives told from the various perspectives of contemporary intimates. Norah is the daughter of the man who took over the vacation hamlet at Dara Salam on the northern border of Senegal after Fanta’s father-in-law died. Fanta is the cousin of Khady, and Khady is the much younger half-sister of Norah with whom Norah did not grow up. Part of the aesthetic strength of this novel directly results, I think, from Ndiaye’s not giving in to strict symmetries, nor to expected relations among characters, nor to expectations concerning narrative completion or pacing.

There are resonances with Proust in the novel’s sophisticated, honest, and meandering descriptions of the nuances of emotion experienced by characters, and a number of madeleinesque moments of involuntary memory; with Nabokov’s Lolita, in Rudy’s homicidal pursuit of the artist who he believes has used him as a model for a public statue without his consent; with Camus' L’Etranger, in its violent confrontations on sandy expanses; and with Dostoevsky, in its wonderment at the amalgamation in one soul of hyper-empathic feelings and murderous ones, and its concern with the love of individuals versus the love of all. 

Finally, NDiaye’s writing is incantatory in its reliably precise rendering of emotions and intentions. Here is an example in which the emotionally abusive Rudy Descas is considering what actions he could take to demonstrate to his partner Fanta his newfound insight concerning their relationship: 

 “Just as he would never again utter certain cruel and absurd words that only anger made him spit out, just as he wouldn't again fall prey to that particular kind of anger -- humiliated, impotent, comforting, he wouldn't again try to charm her, Fanta, with the aid of seductive and false words, because the remarks that he made in the Plateau apartment sought not to achieve any truth whatsoever but solely to bring her to France with him, at the risk (he wasn’t thinking of that then, almost couldn’t care less) of her downfall, of the collapsing of her most reasonable ambitions” (my translation)*

This novel won France’s most prestigious prize for a literary work, the Prix Goncourt, in 2009, and Maria NDiaye is a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2013, the winner of which will be announced on May 22.

NDiaye, Marie. (2009). Trois femmes puissantes. Paris: Gallimard.
NDiaye, Marie. (2012). Three strong women. (John Fletcher, Trans.) New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

“De même qu’il ne proférerait plus jamais certains mots absurdes et cruels que seule la colère lui faisait cracher, de même qu’il ne serait plus la proie de ce type particulier de colère humiliée, impuissante, réconfortante, il n’essaierait plus de la ravir, elle, Fanta, à l’aide de phrases séductrices et fausses, puisque aussi bien les propos qu’il lui avait tenus dans l’appartement du Plateau n’avaient pas cherché à atteindre quelque vérité que ce fût mais uniquement à l’entraîner en France avec lui, au risque (il n’y songeait pas alors, s’en moquait presque) de sa chute à elle, de l’effondrement de ses plus légitimes ambitions” (2009, p. 220)

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