This is my first encounter with Marie NDiaye, who was recently a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, and who has received quite a bit of acclaim in the English-speaking world for her novel Three Strong Women, which won the Prix Goncourt. NDiaye has written a lot more, though, so with open arms we welcome to the world of publishing Two Lines Press, a new publisher centered on literature in translation, and its new translation of NDiaye’s All My Friends (Tous Mes Amis, 2004; tr. from the French by Jordan Stump, 2013). May there be many more.
All My Friends is a collection of five stories, each featuring characters and situations grotesque and unconventional, yet fully realized. Each is narrated by or closely follows characters fighting — foolishly fighting — their situation in a world that, in more cases than not, despises them.
The opening tale, “All My Friends,” is seductively told by a narrator who reminded me of a variety of my favorite obsessive, paranoid, peevish, self-pitying, self-congratulating narrators: the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Humbert Humbert of Lolita, Charles Arrowby of The Sea, the Sea, David Lurie of Disgrace.
This narrator is around forty-five years old. Sometime in the last few years his wife and children left him and now shun him — no, they nearly become sick at the sight of him and flee as they would from a man with a noxious disease. We never know exactly what occurred, but now he is alone in this house which feels almost haunted, as if the house itself knows its occupant is a disgusting man and wants the wife to return.
Fifteen years ago earlier we get the sense the narrator had a lot more going, though he was probably a buffoon then as well; he just hadn’t suffered all of the consequences. At that time he was a school teacher. Now, three of those students have grown up, threateningly. The story opens with the narrator chuckling because he may finally render speechless the great Werner, at one time his protégé now his rival. Then we meet Séverine, his reticent maid, who pretends she never before met his acquaintance, never had him as a teacher. Later, the narrator learns that Séverine married one student he couldn’t stand, the one he reduces to the appellation “the Arab.”
As is so often the case with these types of men, the narrator is lovesick and lusts after Séverine. He’s furious that she pretends she doesn’t remember him, furious she shows so little gratitude for the education he bestowed upon her, furious that she seems to be erasing him from her life:
My idea is that Séverine had chosen to sacrifice her education simply so as to receive nothing from me, and when a rational voice, rising from some spot in my empty house, assures me that this scarcely seems likely, I remain convinced all the same, however powerless to prove it.
Yes, he loves her and wants to continue her education, wants to rescue her from wherever she is — and she remains aloof (truthfully, she remains repulsed):
How many times, in this very house that Séverine now halfheartedly cleans, saving her strength for activities unknown to me, how many times did I await her in vain, to give her, free of charge, the supplementary lessons she so sorely needed, and how many times did I drift off to sleep as I waited, beside the window where I’d been watching for her, and such a bitter, lost sleep it was?
As you can glean from the ironic title, “All My Friends” is fun, funny, and disturbing.
Two other stories — “The Death of Claude François” and “Brulard’s Day” — also deal with the present’s failure to live up to the past, or, rather, the characters’ failures to become who they thought they already were. In “The Death of Claude François” two women who were best friends as children come together again when one decides it’s time to commit suicide. Each were once devastated by the death of a pop star thirty years earlier, and each vowed to live life in mourning. One has moved away from this nonsense; the other decides she cannot exist in the world for longer than the pop star did. In “Brulard’s Day” a film star becomes disconcerted as she looks over her life.
As much as I liked these two stories, though, for me they were the weakest in the collection. Bringing us to the one that is the most grotesque and probably my favorite: “The Boys.”
When we enter “The Boys” we find our narrator, the young, malnourished boy René, sitting quietly in a corner while he watches his neighbors, the Mours, eat. Father, mother, and two sons ignore René, as they do every day, but he doesn’t mind — he just likes watching them:
The Mours’ eight lower limbs undulated dreamily, and all the while, up above, a battle was being waged between the stubborn mouths and the forks plunging into those mouths’ most secret depths.
After this particular meal, though, a wealthy woman shows up to purchase the more attractive son. Matter-of-factly, the family completes the transaction while René watches how each member responds: the father, sad, mute; the mother, tired, relieved; the remaining son, smug, vindictive; the sold son, the attractive one, quiet, reticent, yet willing.
When René returns home, he finds his own exhausted mother.
He looked at his mother and realized that the mute, outraged question he was asking her (And why shouldn’t you find the same sort of lady for me?) was being answered in kind, by her unhappy, resigned, realistic glance, by a small, dubious shake of the head (What have you got to sell, my son?).
With that introduction, we move into even darker territory. I’d like to take this moment to talk about NDiaye’s sentences. Perhaps you noticed that each of the quotes above, even the longer ones, are single sentences, wonderfully constructed, taking us through a process. Below is a long quote that is nearly one sentence. It reflects René’s dillemma, his conflicting thoughts, his pain even while he tries to put forward a strong face:
Every morning, after walking those of his brothers and sisters who still went to school as far as the bus stop and leaving them on the narrow strip of grass between the road and the cornstalks, he hurried onward down that same road, already hot and dry, soon seeing the bus pass him by, glimpsing his brothers’ and sisters’ faces pressed to the windows, their noses flattened, their eyes too close together, and raised one hand toward those unlovely faces in an attempt at a jaunty wave, thinking “They look just like me,” with pity and disgust, for how was it that such varied progenitors had each time produced this same sort of child, without spark, without strength, without qualities? There was some kind of . . . something in that . . . a cruel trick, an injustice? Or else . . .
You know, up above I said that each story was grotesque and unconventional, yet fully realized, but, truth be told, “Revelation,” the final story, which clocks in at a mere six pages, is actually rather conventional, by which I mean it could take place anywhere in this world exactly as it is told. The basic premise is this: a mother boards a bus with her son and asks the driver for one round-trip ticket and one one-way ticket. Such is the state of our mind by this point, though, that we fill in all of the story’s holes, come up with a variety of terrible, even outlandish, reasons this mother is about to abandon her child because “there was no way to live with a son such as hers.”
The truly terrible thing about this story is that it isn’t, as far as we know, unrealistic — this terror happens all of the time. It’s a clever ending to this collection that keeps us on the fringe of acceptability, already well past the point of disgust. It’s here we realize that each of the stories is realistically terrifying in its own grotesque way.