Reviewed by Lara Vergnaud
Tense, horrified, apprehensive–the reader is anything but indifferent to Ladivine, the latest offering from French author Marie NDiaye. The novel, translated by Jordan Stump, and nominated for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, follows three generations of women from one family through mysterious and tragic circumstances.
From the first encounter with Malinka, who goes by Clarisse Rivière, the reader is on edge. Malinka/Clarisse is making her monthly secret trip to Bordeaux to visit her mother, Ladivine Sylla, whose existence she has hidden for her entire adult life, including from her husband and daughter. The stage is set for a dramatic declaration or mystery. The reality is more prosaic and more terrifying: Clarisse is ashamed of her mother, a poor, black cleaning lady. (Her rejection of her birth name, Malinka, is the most obvious manifestation of this shame.) This dynamic colors Clarisse’s every interaction and will have far-reaching repercussions. The first third of Ladivine is dedicated to Clarisse Rivière and her mother; the later parts of the novel will focus on her husband, Richard Rivière, and daughter, also named Ladivine. We will also meet Freddy Moliger, Clarisse’s lover and (apologies, spoiler) murderer.
Rather than spinning a traditional, expository narrative, NDiaye focuses on her characters’ thoughts, motions, and emotions:
Then her thoughts wandered, little by little she forgot why she was trembling, though her trembling went on and she couldn’t think how to still it, in the end vaguely putting it down to the vibrations of the train, which, beneath her feet, in her muscles, in her weary head, chanted the name that she loved and despised, the name that filled her with both fear and compassion, Malinka, Malinka, Malinka. (4)
Our unease from the start is perhaps due to the main character’s lack of likeability. Though we bear witness to her internal torment, Clarisse Rivière remains impenetrable. The narrative is encased by a sense of formality, notably by the use of the characters’ full names. A coldness dominates. Characters act and emote fiercely, but the whole is conveyed in an oddly antiseptic manner:
When, at afternoon’s end, they said goodbye to the servant and started back to the station, she thanked Freddy Moliger for his thoughtfulness towards her mother. […] He stiffened a little. Malinka half felt the wing of an indistinct fear graze her cheek. (78)
Physicality is important, highlighted by descriptions that often appear several pages after a character is first revealed. Flashes of literal human warmth remind us of a character’s weakness or vulnerability: clammy hands, warm breathing, moist skin. This is especially visible with Ladivine Rivière’s children, who serve as physical manifestations of their parents’ varied torments and anxieties. In a critical passage, which echoes the water themes of NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green, also translated by Stump, Clarisse Rivière finds herself “floating back and forth on a warm, syrupy swell, whose thickness stilled any move she might try to make” (89). The main character, which, despite the title, is neither Ladivine, is dying.
Less important is location. We never learn where Ladivine the mother was born— “a place Clarisse Rivière had never been and would never go”—nor the vacation destination that plays such an important role in the second half of the book (7). (Ladivine Rivière and her husband Marko Berger find themselves on vacation, likely in an English-speaking African country.) Physical landmarks carry more value in NDiaye’s world: an armchair in a small apartment, a particularly ominous Alpine mountain, etc.
The writing style is immediately familiar, which is a testament to both author and translator. Stump, who has translated several of NDiaye’s works, maintains the cold yet visceral essence of her voice in all its strange glory. Indeed, the translation is so impeccable as to appear largely invisible, while at times, it enhances the reading experience. Take, for example, a repeated phrase that crystallizes the tormented mother-daughter relationship at the novel’s heart: “bitter bread.” More so than the original French expression “pain amer,” the translated phrase lingers on the reader’s tongue, forcing us to trip over the consonance.
The author revels in paragraph-long sentences, which one imagines Stump, after so many NDiaye translations, casually rendering into English at this point. Indeed, absent are those halting, awkward transitions that can designate a translation from French as a “Translation.” Sentences read quickly, but often demand a second look. They settle just so: “This left him sullen and irritable. She noticed, and took to listening in silence” (74). Sometimes they are devastating in their simplicity. After her mother’s murder, Ladivine Rivière is in a park, observing two nearby women, “whose mother’s blood no one had spilled” (116).
You can’t be a lazy reader with Ladivine. Alternately beset by anxiety and anticipation, I had the curious sensation of watching a horror movie as I read the book (more Guillermo del Toro’s The Orphanage than any Hollywood bloodbath). This has much to do with the novel’s fantastical elements, which are all the more jarring for interceding on a starkly realistic portrait of human psychology. Here, as in much of NDiaye’s work, we can’t entirely trust our narrator.
Deep in the novel, we encounter a big, brown dog that follows Ladivine Rivière around during her family vacation and to which (to whom?!) she attributes a not entirely benevolent force. (The metamorphosis from human to animal is recurrent in NDiaye’s oeuvre.) During this same vacation, a local will be killed (we think) and later reappear, alive and well. Doppelgangers abound, both in name (Richard Rivière divorces Clarisse, only to marry another woman with the same name) and in body. The fantastical elements intensify as the book progresses in the aftermath of Clarisse Rivière’s murder, when the attention turns to her daughter and ex-husband, both struggling in different ways. There are ghosts, a haunted forest, a fantastical wedding, and the ever-present mysterious brown dog.
Nonetheless, the most compelling element of the novel remains’ NDiaye’s unsettling ability to detect and capture those fleeting feelings that we ordinarily suppress, ignore, or reject. For all the characters’ remoteness and strangeness, the result is intimate. Imagine being thrust deep into someone’s most private musings, anxieties, and half-formed thoughts. You don’t like or dislike the characters (or at least I didn’t) but do feel a vaguely unsettling commiseration. Thoughts and feelings are presented with limited commentary. A wife feels her husband’s anxiety in her very bones. A daughter directs her grief over her mother’s death against her father: “It was cruel, it was unjust” (113). A father’s frustration with a stepson is immediately followed by a resolution to ‘be nicer’. Children, motherhood, marriage are frequent themes: “Oh, she loved them all, but not without torment” (144).
Amidst this torrent, the reader can be forgiven an occasional sense of fatigue. It’s exhausting enough to mine one’s own psyche, let alone three fictional ones. In a benevolent gesture, however, NDiaye offers us an ending that is almost, well, happy, if ambiguous. This leaves the reader simultaneously satisfied and unsure, hungering for more. Of course, if I were to re-read Ladivine, I’ve no doubt that nothing would be the same.
NDiaye, Marie. Ladivine. Translated by Jordan Stump. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.