Reviewed by Lara Vergnaud
Self-Portrait in Green, written by French author Marie NDiaye and translated by Jordan Stump, is a short book, clocking in at 103 pages. Right from the start—as the narrator watches the floodwaters of the Garonne River in southwest France rise—the reader is swept up by a sense of unease. The author reminds us: “What we don’t know this evening is what’s coming tonight, or tomorrow—(3).”
Although the book’s introduction hints at a classic storytelling structure, the narrative itself is nebulous. NDiaye, a literary heavyweight in France, where she was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2009, leisurely introduces us to the women in green that inhabit, or inhabited, her life, focusing on a four-year period from 2000 to 2004, though the book does not unfold in chronological order.
One assumes these women of NDiaye’s “self-portrait” are real. Yet these strange green creatures occupy hazy terrain, alternately ephemeral and visceral, exotic and familiar. Through them, the reader comes to know aspects of the narrator: her fractured relationship with her family, her affection towards her children, and her unabashed sense of self-preservation. However, NDiaye toys with concepts of fidelity and veracity throughout this soi-disant autobiographical work, which is permeated by a sense of doubt experienced by reader and narrator alike: did this really happen? In France at least, self-portraiture is distinct from autobiography. In an analysis of NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green, Elsa Polverel notes:
…self-portraitists ask who they are at the time of writing, not how they came to be who they are. That’s what distinguishes it from autobiography. Self-portraiture puts a spatial structure in place, in which different aspects of the self-portraitist’s identity will then be outlined. What is outlined and produced within this structure is a stranger to the times, and isn’t assigned a particular time or duration. This is why self-portraiture is non-narrative and non-chronological ; it often functions by association of ideas or by themes (Polverel).
The first green woman we encounter is a neighbor who is both there and not there, à la Hughes Mearns’ “man who wasn’t there.” She is seen only by the narrator, but not by her children during their daily drive to school, which brings them past the mysterious woman’s house. The effect is ghostly:
“There’s nothing at all beside that banana tree,” they whispered.
“Sure?” I asked. A shiver ran down my back. (7)
Other notable characters include a harsh schoolmistress from the narrator’s childhood who boasts green eyes and long checked skirts to match. (Childhood is a recurring theme in Self-Portrait in Green, with the narrator’s unnamed, yet vividly described children acting as silent witnesses to their mother’s process of self-discovery). Next, we meet Christina, or rather “this person who might be Christina”—the neighborhood acquaintance who isn’t who she claims to be (or who the author thought she claimed to be)—followed by the unnamed acquaintance of a friend, who kills herself only to periodically return to life (14). There will be more women in green, more women whose identities are vague and confused. Even the narrator’s mother is not who she seems, shifting locations and appearance as the tale unfolds.
Despite this flux, the book’s admittedly untrustworthy narrator expertly navigates the reader through the confused and troubled waters of Self-Portrait in Green. Indeed, water is a constant in the work, in particular the rising waters of the Garonne, which offer a parallel to the narrator’s passage through a world turned green. For the green of the title is in fact literal:
The woman in green fell heavily into the tall, green unmowed grass. Oddly spry, she stood up, patted the dust from her green pants, brushed off her green tee shirt and black shoulder-length hair with one hand. […] She has very pale green eyes, like the ogress in my school when I was a child. (23)
Here, it’s worth noting the book’s terrific cover with a photo taken by Robert Schlatter of a twisting, vividly green plant as entrancing and unsettling as the work itself. One only regrets that the photographs included in the French edition—landscapes, old family photos, and portraits—are absent.
But back to our women in green. As ephemeral as they are, these women remain tangible, and their bodies are described in honest, at times seductive, detail. The reader can sense the woman in green’s “unveiled legs,” (13) her “powerful hindquarters,” (15) “her delicate calves swathed in shimmering hose” (71). It’s not only the green women who come to life in this way but also the skeletal father proudly shrinking away into nothingness as his wife, the narrator’s stepmother and former best friend, balloons—our narrator asks “is it all this green that’s undoing them?” (32)—as well as her children with their plump limbs and “skin packed tight with hard, dense meat” (10).
NDiaye’s prose is simple yet dense, strange but inviting. At times the writing can stop the reader mid-page, startling, almost tear inducing, in its elegance and candor. A sample:
A golden dust floats above their heads. Their foreheads are curved and serene, their napes still pale. Have I mentioned this? My children’s arms and legs are bare, because the air is warm, intoxicating (7).
True, the narrator’s revelations are uncomfortably intimate, particularly the chapters pertaining to her parents. And unfortunately there is little humor amid the catharsis, nothing to break up the pathos.
Self-Portrait in Green is a book to be read on the move, in a bus, on a train, etc., where the reader’s own sense of direction and certainty is disrupted. This is because disorientation dominates NDiaye’s book; cases of misidentification, misappropriation, and misremembering abound. The result of this experimental literary technique could have been confusing, almost suffocating. Yet, NDiaye’s narrative unrolls effortlessly. This fluidity is due in part to the translator’s seasoned pen (ahem keyboard). Stump’s translation of All My Friends by Marie NDiaye (next on my reading list) was a finalist for the French-American Foundation’s 27th Annual Translation Prize. Stump translates NDiaye’s weaving, ambiguous phrasing—so prevalent in French—into a clear English, though not one robbed of its strangeness. The book’s many temporal transitions in particular are seamless, the word choices notable. For a book filled to the brim with physical descriptions of the women in green, there is scant repetition; each portrait is vivid without relying on cliché.
Yes, certain phrases are infused with the original French, from an overt line from the opening chapter—“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” (4)—to more subtle reminders: “Behind [my mother’s] slightly distorting lens an anxiety hovers” (70). This is a compliment. These sentences are subtly resonant of the source language without being provocative or obtrusive.
The book ends where it began, with a glimpse of the tempestuous Garonne and, for the reader, the realization that from an ostensible autobiography, he or she has learned relatively little of the author and what precisely distinguishes a woman in green from any other. And yet one can forgive NDiaye. After all, this is her life, or at least some version of it.
NDiaye, Marie. Self-Portrait in Green. Translated by Jordan Stump. San Francisco: Two
Lines Press, 2014.
Polverel, Elsa. “Overlapping genres, as portrayed in Marie NDiaye’s Autoportrait en vert (Green
self-portrait).” Trans. Esther Cottey. Sens public. 28 Sep 2009.