30 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes. He also moderates a GoodReads discussion group dedicated to the BTBA. Feel free to join and post your opinions and rants and raves.



Ladivine”:http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/234541/ladivine-by-marie-ndiaye/ by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 85%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 17%

NDiaye’s books are illuminating while retaining so much mystery, or, rather, they are illuminating because they retain so much mystery. For example, the lines between characters often feel blurry to the point I sometimes don’t quite know who’s on the page anymore, and yet this confusion is the very moment I see light. NDiaye plays with this mixture of illumination and mystery particularly well in the seemingly straight-forward Ladivine, a worthy inclusion to this years Best Translated Book Award longlist, and, for my money, a worthy winner.

As the book begins, we meet a woman named Clarisse Rivière, but from the first sentence her identity is in flux:

She was Malinka again the moment she got on the train, and she found it neither a pleasure nor a burden, having long since stopped noticing.

When I first read this, I smiled and settled back in my chair, excited to again be in such capable hands. The next paragraph keeps the mystery alive, as we learn this is a woman who has somehow split her identity:

But it happened, she could tell, for no more could she answer without a second thought to “Clarisse” when, rarely, someone she knew took that same train and called to or greeted her as “Clarisse,” only to see her stare back in puzzled surprise, a hesitant smile on her lips, creating a mutual discomfort that the slightly flustered Clarisse never thought to dispel by simply echoing that “Hello,” that “How are you,” as offhandedly as she could.

Clarisse is on the train to Bordeaux, to visit her mother, as she does once every month, and we soon find out that her mother knows her as Malinka. Naturally; it was her mother who named her Malinka, and her mother has no idea of any other name. Clarisse has, but for these monthly ventures to a forsaken existence, completely repudiated her past and, with it, her mother. When she leaves Bordeaux, she sheds the skin of Malinka and finds no difficulty answering to Clarisse.

The book continues for some time to tell us about Clarisse by telling us about the people in her life: her mother, a black seamstress with no money, whom Clarisse refers to (and, thus, keeps distant) as “the servant”; her husband, who eventually leaves her, in part because Clarisse “couldn’t hold back the numbness gradually overtaking her household, the cold torpor exuded in spite of her by her artificial, oblique self”; and her daughter, whom she has named Ladivine, Ladivine being the name of her repudiated mother in Bordeaux and therefore a conscious tie to that past. Clarisse’s mother Ladivine knows nothing about her granddaughter Ladivine, though she suspects. After all, because visits from her daughter are so scarce she has watched her daughter with that much more attention. And she can fill in the blanks: those months when Malinka did not visit were because she was pregnant. Her mother loves her enough, perhaps even sympathizes with her motives to shun her, that she doesn’t rock the boat by asking questions. Which is not to suggest that NDiaye wants us to feel any of the same sympathy.

Throughout this section—it’s just the first—NDiaye manages a beautiful ambivalence, just as Clarisse manages her tragic ambivalence. Clarisse repudiates her past but she visits her mother every month, thereby retaining this past. We come to understand that she loves her mother; she’s just ashamed of “the servant.” Clarisse’s hope to become the person she envisions in her mind is felt on each page, though we also feel the melancholy of a half soul. Such nuance imbues the books with its mysterious power, though the story, as it explores the gulfs between people, gulfs they create while apparently seeking something, is fascinating as well.

This first section comes to a conclusion with surprising violence, and NDiaye destabilizes the entire narrative as our attention is directed primarily at Clarisse’s daughter Ladivine who begins to sense, without fully understanding, her mother’s hidden half. With Ladivine, we descend into a horrific labyrinth.

Making the labyrinth a psychological nightmare are all of the doubling and transformations throughout: obviously we have the two women named Ladivine, their disconnection/connection, and what all of that says about Clarisse, but we also have Clarisse’s husband Richard who, after he has abandoned her, marries another woman named Clarisse. The novel’s strangest bits suggest a transformation in to a protective dog. The transgression of these boundaries, though, are based in psychological realism, leading to the novel’s fascinating conclusion.

15 January 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Lori Feathers on Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, and out from Two Lines Press.

Lori is an attorney who lives in Dallas, Texas, and is a member of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas.

Hope everyone is having a great start to 2015. We sure are! Here’s the beginning of Lori’s review:

Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships. In particular, NDiaye conveys a powerful message about the unconscious vulnerabilities that cause women to undermine healthy relationships with each other, and in doing so she solidifies her place as a unique voice in feminist literature.

For the rest of the review, go here.

15 January 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships. In particular, NDiaye conveys a powerful message about the unconscious vulnerabilities that cause women to undermine healthy relationships with each other, and in doing so she solidifies her place as a unique voice in feminist literature.

The story’s unnamed narrator, a female French novelist of West African heritage, is based on Marie NDiaye. “Marie” perceives that certain females in her life are “women in green”—disorienting, elusive, unpredictable, and destructive. Among these are her mother, her former schoolteacher, and certain friends and acquaintances. Sometimes the women are, literally, green—they wear green clothes, hide behind trees or have green eyes. With others, the visual association is unnecessary—they are “green” simply because of the negative feelings that they evoke in Marie.

Marie’s voice is wonderfully unsettling and original. Her disturbed state of mind is apparent from the very first pages. Her anxieties override rational thought and, in this confused state of mind, the women in her life bear the brunt of her insecurities. NDiaye’s use of the color green as an instrument to visualize Marie’s vilification of women is smart and effective. She relates how the tendency to demonize other women erodes Marie’s own self-worth and cripples her other relationships, namely with her father and siblings.

Marie is the most unreliable of narrators, and NDiaye employs her own brand of magic realism to describe Marie’s reality, a style that she also uses in the first novella of her later book, Three Strong Women. In both works the female protagonists exist in hyper-sensory states, and their heightened senses create emotional reflexes that, without exception, are negative and cause harm. Both novellas also demonstrate NDiaye’s clever use of symbolism, which provides additional dimension and depth to her prose.

In the final pages of the book Marie becomes convinced that it is her destiny to become a woman in green—the personification of her fears and insecurities. She succumbs to the inertia of remaining in the destructive cycle that her mind has created, incapable of the necessary self-reflection to acknowledge that the evil that she sees in others is merely a misapplication of her own weaknesses.

20 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Andrea Reece on Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends, translated by Jordan Stump and out from Two Lines Press.

Andrea has worked as a professional translator for many years and recently completed an MA in literary translation at the University of Exeter. Here’s a part of her review:

All My Friends consists of five stories in a slim, 140-page volume whose length belies its complexity. Of course, short stories cannot be summed up in a single sentence, but just to give an idea of what they contain, whilst leaving them to reveal their own surprises to future readers, here are five one-line summaries:

The title story “All My Friends” is about a separated former school teacher who amorously pursues an ex-pupil; “The Death of Claude François” charts an encounter between two childhood friends that reveals very contrasting lives thirty years later; “The Boys” portrays two youngsters whose sacrifice rescues their families from hunger and hardship; “Brulard’s Day,” the longest story, follows a fading, second-rate actress as she loses her self-esteem. In the final story, “Revelation,” just six pages long, a mother and son go on a bus journey from which only the mother will return.

The deliciously mouth-watering opening sentence immediately gets to work: “The next time I see Werner, once this is all over, a nervous snicker will be his only greeting. He’ll back a few steps away, cautious and for once, unsure of himself.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

20 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

For my first review for Open Letter Books, I was delighted to discover in my letterbox in the French Pyrenees a copy of Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends. Tearing open the package, I savored the look and feel of the jacket covers, as is my habit prior to dipping into a book. It was smooth, rich and velvety to the touch, black as darkness on the front, and milky brown as my favorite galaxy chocolate bar on the back, deep, luscious colors connected by the electric blue of the spine.

I delighted in rolling the sound of the author’s surname on my tongue—two syllables or perhaps three, a name as exotic sounding as the translator’s definitive single syllable is business-like. His name on the cover already a pleasant surprise for a British reader accustomed to the translator’s invisibility, hidden away as he or she normally is in small font on an inside page.

And then there was the suitcase on the front cover—brown leather, battered and worn, disappearing into the black inkiness to who knows where. The back cover, a close-up of the tacks holding it together. Memories of a half a dozen or so such cases in my grandparents’ loft touched a profound emotional chord. I liked the book already, there are friends in the title and we are going on a journey or journeys with a suitcase—if there were but that in life, it would be plenty.

A final exterior tour before settling into the first story. The back cover blurb leaps out at me with the assertion that this is “NDiaye’s lacerating look at the personal trials we fight every day to suppress” and the New York Times Book Review on the inside cover flap boldly claims that NDiaye is a storyteller “with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives.” Intriguing . . . will I, inside these pages, find my personal trials or rock-bottom realities mirrored? Let’s see . . .

All My Friends consists of five stories in a slim, 140-page volume whose length belies its complexity. Of course, short stories cannot be summed up in a single sentence, but just to give an idea of what they contain, whilst leaving them to reveal their own surprises to future readers, here are five one-line summaries:

The title story “All My Friends” is about a separated former school teacher who amorously pursues an ex-pupil; “The Death of Claude François” charts an encounter between two childhood friends that reveals very contrasting lives thirty years later; “The Boys” portrays two youngsters whose sacrifice rescues their families from hunger and hardship; “Brulard’s Day,” the longest story, follows a fading, second-rate actress as she loses her self-esteem. In the final story, “Revelation,” just six pages long, a mother and son go on a bus journey from which only the mother will return.

The deliciously mouth-watering opening sentence immediately gets to work: “The next time I see Werner, once this is all over, a nervous snicker will be his only greeting. He’ll back a few steps away, cautious and for once, unsure of himself.”

NDiaye opens the suitcase and displays her consummate short-storytelling skills: a flash forward, the mysterious Werner who doesn’t appear again until eight pages later and whose identity is not revealed for another fifteen, a first-person narrator whose gender remains murky for seven long pages, and plenty more questions besides. NDiaye skillfully and elliptically draws us in. As a British reader, I linger on the unfamiliar American “snicker,” not sure of its exact intent (mocking, ironic, dry, embarrassed . . . ?) and also because it seems to tilt me into an American context rather than the expected French one.

Yet the snicker jogs me into wondering—is place important in NDiaye’s stories? Some characters’ names are French, others could cross borders unnoticed. Settings are generally in France or the Francosphere, but the further the reader penetrates the stories, the more the themes and motifs become insistently human rather than culture-specific.

The thread running through the work is the broken, defective connections between people themselves and between individuals’ inner desires and outer reality. These connections are like dots that, no matter how hard you try, are impossible to join up to make a coherent picture.

The protagonist in All My Friends, abandoned by his spouse and the victim of unrequited love, slides into an insanity that feeds his belief that even his house opposes him, as he speaks of “the disquiet that my house’s whispering depths inspire in me every night (for my house doesn’t like me).” His house machinates against him while Werner, more in control of his life, has “the house of a flourishing adult.” In “Brulard’s Day,” ageing actress Eve is tormented by the invisible presence of her youthful self and is caught in an unstoppable decline embodied by her “brown tasseled loafers. That she’d been reduced to wearing such shoes tormented and astonished her at the same time.”

Other stories juxtapose wealth with poverty, choice with lack of choice and are peopled with characters who orbit one another in utterly different realities. In “The Boys,” “feeble, scrawny and misshapen” René, who blends in with the “shabby chiaroscuro of the far end of the room,” looks on enviously as his handsome young neighbor Anthony is sold to a rich city woman to rescue Anthony’s mother from hardship. Yet René’s fervent wish “Let me be bought, bought, bought” gets him something very different from what he anticipated.

Similarly, the characters in “The Death of Claude François” pay high prices to achieve their desires: to engender her ideal child, Zaka had “coupled with a white elephant, and that generous but slow-witted animal wouldn’t give up on the idea that it was her equal.” Desire and reality—like the stories themselves—slip in and out of reach.
“Revelation,” the final story, is a perfect distillation of all NDiaye’s themes—the opposition between inner and outer worlds, between self and the other, and the missed connections that do indeed mirror our personal trials, as the blurb suggested. Struggles that are never more clearly explored than in the mind of the mother willfully abandoning her damaged child: “She’d be coming home alone, thank God: how she would miss him!”

All My Friends is not an easy read; short stories by their nature are laconic and elliptical, and NDiaye courageously constructs plots and writes of issues that are inherently, almost overly, complex. The reader is required to engage his or her own imagination and interpretation—but is richly rewarded for the effort.

15 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In an earlier post about the European Literature Prize, I conflated the awards ceremony with the announcement of the winner, and thought we’d have to wait until September to find out which book was selected. Thankfully, I was totally wrong, and received this announcement this morning:

The novel Drie sterke vrouwen by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jeanne Holierhoek, has been selected as the winner of the European Literature Prize. The prize goes to both the author and the translator of the best European novel to appear in Dutch translation in 2010. The author will receive the sum of €10,000, the translator € 2,500. This a new prize, awarded this year for the first time.

The aim of the initiators of the award is to draw attention to the rich variety of literary translations of contemporary European novels. The prize will be presented on Saturday 3 September during Manuscripta in Amsterdam.

The jury on Drie sterke vrouwen by Marie NDiaye, and on Jeanne Holierhoek’s translation:

“In this penetrating triptych, set in both France and Senegal, NDiaye succeeds in blending stylistic complexity with succinctness and simplicity. She gives the ancient themes of repression and exploitation a human face, an intense profundity and a caustic beauty. In recreating her style, translator Jeanne Holierhoek displays great freedom, syntactical flexibility, a rich vocabulary and unobtrusive virtuosity. The result is a translation no less melodious than the original.”

The only book of NDiaye’s currently available in English translation is Rosie Carpe, which was translated from the French by Tasmin Black, and published by the University of Nebraska.

Trois Femmes Puissantes / Drie sterke vrouwen won the Goncourt in 2009, so hopefully someone is working on it . . . Here’s the (somewhat muddled) description from the French Book News site:

Trois femmes puissantes [Three Strong Women] is the book beneath the French media’s spotlight this rentrée. Three, tenuously linked narratives. At their heart, three women who say no. Forty year-old Norah arrives at the home of her father in Africa. An egocentric tyrant, he has now become silent and bulimic, and spends his nights perched in a tree in the courtyard. Why did he ask her to come? The answer, Norah discovers, is worse than she could have ever imagined. Fanta, who used to teach French in Dakar, had to follow her partner, Rudy, to France. Here, Rudy proves incapable of providing her with the rich and joyful life she deserves. He remains under the morbid influence of his mother, who dedicates her life to convincing her entourage of the existence of angels. Destabilised, Rudy wanders through an angry reality, while Fanta, by his side, is a rock. Khady Demba is a young African widow. Penniless, she tries to find her distant cousin, Fanta, in France. The long journey of emigration she pursues will be punctuated with unspeakable suffering.

And here’s an article in English about NDiaye winning the Goncourt.

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