The popular television quiz programme Questions pour un champion – the last word being a pun on the large metal champignons which contestants hit when they think they know an answer – is represented as the brainless exercise it is in Marie NDiaye's novel Rosie Carpe. So I wasn't too surprised to learn that Nadia and Ange, the two teachers in NDiaye's Mon cœur à l'étroit (lit. 'My Cramped Heart') don't have a television set as they see the medium as soul-destroying. And although there may well be other references to the negativity of television in NDiaye's other books, I haven't yet come across any.
But I have come across other recurring themes in Mon cœur à l'étroit: the importance of the family, the harmful neglect of the family, changing personalities, inter-generational sexual attraction, the fantastic (especially metamorphoses), and, among several other things, debt: not just the debt of owing someone money or a favour, but (an almost religious concept here) the idea that past wrong-doing can be redeemed by good behaviour to the wronged person or persons. And a few times I've (rather oddly I thought) been reminded of Anne Tyler's characters just walking out on their spouses, although in this novel I was particularly reminded of Tyler's interest in geographical dyslexia when Nadia gets lost in Bordeaux, a city she's known all her life but suddenly becomes disoriented in.
But then disorientation is Marie NDiaye's speciality, although it's the reader who is usually disoriented: to translate a sentence from Chloe Brendlé's article 'NDiaye de faille en faille' in Magazine Littéraire (Septembre 2010, p. 94): 'To read a single page without experiencing violent seasickness is to attempt the impossible.' (That's a slight exaggeration, but I fully understand the general idea behind the argument.)
Le Nouvel Observateur reckoned that NDiaye has – like the 'illustrious' Richard Victor Nogent who cooks for the ailing Nadia and Ange – over-buttered the 'bread' in Mon cœur à l'étroit. And there's probably some truth in that, as the two assiduous teachers are thrown into a Kafkaesque world in which everyone (apart from the once detested Nogent) seems to be against them for reasons unknown: they lose their jobs, Ange seems to have been stabbed and his life seems to be ebbing from him, and Nadia gets bigger and bigger and appears to be pregnant.
Nadia decides to join Ralph, the son she's neglected and now lives in Corsica and who is a medical doctor who originally had a homosexual relationship with Lanton, who's in the police force, and of whom Nadia is still fond. But, after the meddling of her first husband Nadia cheated on and walked out on Ralph seems to have settled down and married Yasmine, and they have a daughter called Souhar, a name Nadia can hardly bring herself to pronounce.
In the end Ange not only cures completely of his illness but gets together with Corinna Daoui, a former prostitute known to Nadia from her schooldays and who now works on a computer at an unnamed activity associated with the sex industry. Nadia is freed from the clutches of the older Wilma, a gynaecologist who also seems to be some kind of malevolent witch who only eats meat, is now Ralph's partner, and may even have eaten Yasmine; Nadia's parents have moved from crummy housing in Bordeaux to Corsica, where any shame Nadia once felt for them is forgotten, where Souhar is safe and sound, and where Nadia's mother, thanks to giving her daughter a semolina diet, has brought on the abortion of the monster Nadia was to have given birth to.
Something of an old-style children's fairy-cum-horror story with a good ending, but whatever name you care to give it this is pure Marie NDiaye, and although it may not quite come up to the standard of her best works, it's a book you can't put down, although you have to hold onto it as it keeps removing the ground from your feet.
Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison