I sat down one night a few months ago and read in one sitting Marie NDiaye’s strange, playful novella Self-Portrait in Green (Autoportrait en vert, 2005; tr. from the French by Jordan Stump, 2014). I’ve been wrestling with it ever since. I ate it up, but then when I finished just didn’t know what it added up to.

Self-Portrait in Green

It’s a confusing little book. I was never quite sure what was real and what was imagined, and this is made worse (but effective, as this is the intent) because the narrator — a relatively young woman, based, it seems, on NDiaye herself — acknowledges that she herself does not fully comprehend what is real and what is just a conception. What we are certain of, and what justifies the confusion, is that the narrator (whom I’ll just call “Marie” though she is unnamed) experiences fear and trepidation that are very real, even if their source is imagined.

Self-Portrait in Green is a book that explores the relationships Marie has with other females, invariably green in some way — eyes, clothing, even just an aura of greenness. Marie associates green with cruelty.

It’s true that green can’t possibly be the sole color of cruelty, just as green is by no means inevitably the color of cruelty, but who can deny that cruelty is particularly given to draping itself in all sorts of greens.

No, these female relationships are not positive influences in Marie’s life. They seem to taint everything, running over their own banks and into other relationships. Marie can no more hold back their flow than she can the flow of the river Garonne, that is threatening to flood its banks when the book starts in December 2003. Indeed, Marie herself is afraid of drowning in this green and becoming a woman in green in her own right.

Strangely, though, and unfortunately, the book in the end seems to peter out and fail to live up to what it seemed to promise: a deep introspection. It touches on several relationships, each interesting, but to go beyond an exercise or an essay it needed to flesh these out, become even more conflicted and uncomfortable. As it stands, the parts, incomplete but with portentous events and imagery, add up to more than the whole.

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