6 September 2015

Marie NDiaye: Rosie Carpe (2001)

Rosie Carpe marks Marie NDiaye's major shift from the supernatural or the fantastic as a means of expressing strangeness as she moves into a literary landscape in which she is able to communicate strangeness in terms of human – but certainly not always humane – actions. Her own expression for this is réalisme exagéré ('exaggerated realism').

The story here is that Rosie and her brother Lazare – 'Lazarus' in English, and one of a number of biblical references – move from their parental home in Brive-la-Gaillarde to continue their studies, although Lazare drops out and Rosie fails. She finds menial hotel work and forms a relationship with the deputy manager Max and bears his child: Étienne. Lazare, meanwhile, leads a life of poverty and then forms a scheme with his shadowy friend who also has a biblical name: Abel. Lazare and Abel plan a kind of Tupperware party business – but with sex toys – in Guadeloupe, a country their parents also emigrate to after a brief stay in Paris. Rosie too, now pregnant by an unknown person (she was blind drunk at the time), goes off with the six-year-old Étienne to join her brother, who claims to be living a movie-star life style, with a large house and swimming pool.

It's actually in Guadeloupe where the novel begins, with Rosie and her young child waiting for Lazare, although it's Lagrand – a friend of Lazare's and the first black person to appear in NDiaye's work – who picks them up and takes them to Lazare's home, which is very shabby and far removed from Rosie's expectations. Lazare makes his presence known to Rosie much later, drunk and stinking after being an accessory to the murder of – or maybe even the murderer of – an elderly tourist, for which he will spend years in prison before returning to France with his daughter Jade but not his former partner Anita.

The above two paragraphs are deliberately written in Wikipedia style, and not only leave out many actions but much of the emphasis of the book, which has several disturbing themes. D. H. Lawrence – and I've unfortunately lost both the quotation and the reference – once said something to the effect that readers would find his books very thin if they went to them for the story alone, and the same can be said of Marie NDiaye's work: I suspect that much of the incomprehension and the dislike of her work is for that very reason. You have to read NDiaye carefully, and then re-read: it's not easy but it pays off, but avoid at all costs if you're a fan of Levy or Musso.

In Le Monde, Pierre Lepape once wrote – in fact of NDiaye's La Sorcière although the same can be said of Rosie Carpe if not all of her books – that her themes are boredom, solitude, abandonment and anguish. I would add identity to that, although the themes mentioned in my previous sentence are very much a function of the lack of or the search for identity.

Names are important for identity and after moving from Brive to Paris 'Rose-Marie' begins to call herself Rosie, corrects her mother on this when she later briefly sees her, but must keep repeating the name to herself as she forms an existential integrity, in spite of the exploitative Max and his older woman friend who take a porn movie of her having sex with Max, in spite of Max also financially abusing her at work, etc. Just as Rosie has a new name for a new life, the increasingly young-looking Danielle – Rosie and Lazare's mother, who's about fifty – is now Diane, and (with the blessing of her husband Francis, whose young lover is Lisbeth) – is pregnant by her lover Alex and will name the child Rose-Marie as if to compensate for the 'lost' one. Also, Rosie's sickly child Étienne is always referred to as Titi, which Legrand thinks is a stupid name.

The existence of the family is vital in Marie NDiaye's work, and abandonment is frequent: Rosie and Lazare are abandoned by their parents, Rosie abandons Titi, Legrand has been abandoned by his mad mother, Titi socially abandons Rosie in later life, etc. It is pathetic that Lazare sees in the kindly elderly female tourist – whose husband Lazare and Abel brutally kill soon after – the mother he never really had.

Via internal monologues, the reader has access to the thoughts of Rosie and Legrand, and much of the time there is an expression of fear, which drips off the pages incessantly like the nervous sweat it generates. But obviously everyone is affected because the world isn't a comfortable place, it's somewhere to retreat from into the cotton wool anaesthetic haze of alcohol, the virtual friends such as the contestant Françoise on the mindless TV quiz programme Questions pour un champion, or the movie with Astérix and Obélix that Rosie and Anita go to watch, abandoning a very ill Titi.

Trois femmes puissantes won Marie NDiaye the Goncourt, although Chloé Brendlé remarks in Magazine littéraire (September 2010) that Rosie Carpe is 'incontestablement' ('unarguably') her best novel. I agree: NDiaye's Goncourt prize is indisputably inferior to this novel.

Links to my other Marie NDiaye posts:
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Marie NDiaye: La Sorcière
Marie NDiaye: Autoportrait en vert
Marie NDiaye: Mon cœur à l'étroit
Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes
Marie NDiaye: Ladivine

Marie NDiaye: La Femme changée en bûche
Marie NDiaye: Papa doit manger
Marie NDiaye: En famille
Marie NDiaye: Un temps de saison
Marie NDiaye: Les Serpents
Marie NDiaye: Les Grandes Personnes

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