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.