Wednesday 2 January 2019

Leïla Slimani Chanson Douce

With Chanson Douce, Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt in 2016. The novel has been translated into English by Sam Taylor; published in England as Lullaby in 2018, and in North America as The Perfect Nanny. At the end of last year, the New York Times said it was one of the ten best books of 2018. Here’s a quote, from what was said, there: “Slimani writes devastating character studies, and also raises painful themes: the forbidden desires parents project onto their nannies, racial and class tensions” (New York Times, Book Review Section, 5 December 2018, p. 10).

Slimani was born into a Muslim family in 1981, and grew up in Rabat, Morocco. At the age of 17 she moved to Paris, where she lives now with her husband of ten years, who is a banker. Six years ago she got the idea for this, her second novel, from reading in Paris Match about a nanny in New York who killed two children who were in her care. At that time Slimani was herself starting to look for a nanny for her six-month-old son because she wanted to get back to work.

Throughout Slimani's childhood she was looked after by a live-in nanny, whom she remembers as strict but very affectionate. Her father was an economist and had been successful. Before she was born, for two years, he had been a Minister of the Economy in Morocco. Then, when Slimani was twelve years old, he was fired from his position as CEO of a bank, and sent to prison on charges of corruption. The family fell apart, and the nanny was let go. Slimani’s mother supported her and her two sisters by working as an otolaryngologist. A bit more than ten years later her father died, supposedly of lung-cancer. Slimani thinks he died of grief. Posthumously, he was acquitted.

Lullaby starts with a horrible jolt. Its first two-and-a-half pages are about the death of two young children whom their nanny kills. This makes it impossible for some people to read on; if you think you may be one of these, please read no further here. 

In a fundamental way, however, this killing is not what this novel is about. What it’s really about is how and why a person who is employed in an intimate position in a family as a nanny, and does absolutely everything for this family, first feels useful and very worthwhile, but then starts to experience the parents’ disdain and distrust of her and, in utmost despair, behaves in such a destructive way.  

In the novel, Myriam Charfa is the mother of the two young children: Mila, a toddler, and Adam, a baby. She is married to Paul Massé. They live in Paris, in the Tenth Arrondissement (at the center of which is the Gare du Nord). In her training as a lawyer Myriam has been brilliant. Then, after being very absorbed with her babies, she starts to feel trapped, and becomes very bitter towards Paul. Then, Pascal, who had been a student whom she knew in law school, encourages Myriam to come and work with him in a firm he has just started. She is excited at the prospect. So she and her husband look for a nanny. They find Louise, who has an excellent reference from a former employer. 

Louise comes to work for the  family. She does everything for the children. She loves them. She looks after them in the warmest way, cares for them, plays with them affectionately. She also does everything for Myriam and Paul: tidies up, mends clothes, cooks meals, stays overnight when necessary. She could not be better. She becomes indispensable. 

On page 89 of Lullaby, we read that one afternoon Louise has been playing with Mila, and has put lipstick and make-up on her, painted her finger nails and toe-nails with nail varnish. The little girl loves it. When her father comes home early from work, she says  “Look, Papa … Look what Louise did!”

Then we read this:
He had been so pleased to get home early, so happy to see his children, but now he feels sick. He has the feeling that he has walked in on something sordid or abnormal. His daughter, his little girl, looks like a transvestite, like a ruined old drag queen. He can’t believe it. He is furious, out of control. He hates Louise for having done this. Mila, his angel, his little blue dragonfly, is as ugly as a circus freak, as ridiculous as a dog dressed up for a walk by its hysterical old lady owner.

In an interview with Lauren Collins (in the New Yorker on 1 January 2018), Slimani said “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter … It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” 

Slimani is fascinated by how people can devote themselves fully to a particular activity. Whereas Louise devotes herself to her job as a nanny, the protagonist of Slimani’s first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (In the Garden of the Ogre) to be published in English this year with the title Adèle, is a woman who devotes herself to sex. She wants to be wanted. Slimani said to Collins: “There are people who give themselves over to their sexuality, there are people who lose themselves in it, but, for me, sex is something very painful, very melancholy, because one sees oneself.”

Among themes to reflect on in Lullaby (The Perfect Nanny) are these.

The first is that Slimani enables us to know her protagonist, Louise, and the circumstances of her life. Of course, you might say, that’s the novelist’s job. But here it’s significant in more than the usual way. We read how Louise’s husband had abused her, then died, leaving her in the most terrible financial mess. She is no longer in touch with her grown-up daughter. Now she lives in a sleazy one-room apartment, and her landlord terrorizes her. She makes her job as a nanny into her whole life. So, then, we may ask ourselves: “Who are we?” “To what do we devote our selves?” And, in this life, whom do we come to know? We can sometimes come to understand a literary character, such as Louise, better than most actual people in our day-to-day lives. Slimani is astute at letting us readers know that Myriam and Paul have no idea who Louise is. The extent of their care for her is zero. At the same time they have her look after their children, in one of the most intimate and important relationships one can ever have. 

A second theme is that Louise’s care for the children of Myriam and Paul enables both of them to thrive in their careers. They both earn good incomes, but the amount they pay Louise is so little that she can scarcely afford to live. They come to think they are entitled to what she does for them, and they exploit her. In an article (on p. 69 of the New Yorker of 20 August 2018) Adam Gopnik wrote, “of the truth that we always resent most those to whom we owe most.” On page 130 of Lullaby, we read that because of the hopeless financial situation in which Louise’s former husband left her, Paul received a letter from the Income Tax people, who were trying to trace her. The letter says that Louise owes back taxes. Paul speaks to Louise in a malicious way. He says: “we are very upset by what we learned. There are certain things that cannot be tolerated.” Myriam and Paul become fed up with Louise, and think about how to fire her. In turn, Louise becomes despairing. She comes to think that she will no longer be able to love. 

A third theme is based on how Myriam Charfa is an immigrant. In contrast, Louise is not an immigrant, and she is white. Slimani said to Lauren Collins, that Louise is “a white woman doing an immigrant’s job, which is extremely demeaning.” Myriam is a non-white woman, from North Africa, as Slimani is herself. By means of these contrasts, Slimani invites us to think, perhaps in some new ways, of our relationships with people we employ. Among the issues are both social class and ethnicity. How far do we know people we employ who are from different social strata than ourselves? How far do we know people we meet who are different from us, in the work-place, or anywhere? How far do we want to?

Leïla Slimani (2018). Lullaby (Sam Taylor, Trans.). London: Faber & Faber. (In North America the title of the translation is The Perfect Nanny, Penguin Random House).

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