Today’s stop on our Women in Translation Month tour takes us to France, for a meeting with an old friend and a great publisher. A while back, I read (and enjoyed) Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women, and I’ve tried a couple of books from US small publisher Two Lines Press over the past year or so. With the two in tandem, then, I had high hopes for today’s choice – let’s see if they were justified 🙂
Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a bizarre novella, a drifting story told by a female narrator. Moving back and forth in time, she recounts small events from her life, brief encounters or relationships with old friends. What brings all these anecdotes together is a group of women who delight in wearing clothes of a certain colour.
The first part of the book, set in the French provinces, begins with an impending flood, but we soon go back to a sunny spring day, with the narrator noticing a woman standing up against a banana tree (a person the children in her car are unable to see). It’s only when she drives back later that she discovers the woman does exist, making the acquaintance of the green-clad Katia Depetiteville. A chat over coffee at the kitchen table ensues, yet:
“When, later, in the village, or waiting outside the school, I speak of the woman in green, people will answer, dumbfounded: Katia Depetiteville has been dead for ten years or more. And I won’t be surprised, having sensed it in advance.”
(Two Lines Press, 2014)
This is just the first of many unusual encounters with women who dress only in green…
Self-Portrait in Green is a bizarre, unsettling book, moving around swiftly in a manner designed to keep the reader on their toes. The confusion isn’t helped by the prominence of a narrator who gives some of herself, but not enough for the reader to fully identify, or sympathise, with her. All we get are brief glimpses of her life as she tries to make sense of the encounters she has with those close to her (or who used to be).
What stands out, of course, are the encounters with the mysterious women in green, people who drift in and out of her life without really making a mark. There’s Katia, for one, and the wife of a friend’s old partner – we even learn that the narrator’s mother has her own special tinge of green. They are all women with a certain je ne sais quoi, people who appeal but are to be avoided. Whether in Aquitaine, Paris or Burkina Faso, the narrator faces a constant struggle to understand what they want.
So, are the women a metaphor? Possibly – but for what? One suggestion is that they act as warnings and signposts. This is certainly the case with the narrator’s friend Jenny and her regrets regarding the past:
“How to fight it off, in the face of such a melancholy? Against melancholy, against regret, common sense and cynicism can do nothing. She regrets not what was, but what should have been, could have been, had she only made some other choice way back then, and she regrets the choice she made, the path of sorrow.”
The happiness of the woman in green occupying a place that could have been hers exacerbates the sadness of what might have been for Jenny, a woman whose life has slowly gone downhill.
However, these women can also be seen as people to emulate, examples of women who know what they want from life. They all exude a quiet confidence, leaving the narrator in no doubt as to their contentment, even when their material circumstances leave much to be desired. In fact, with the force of life so strong in them, even death fails to make their colours fade… One thing’s for sure, though – NDiaye’s book is a very female work.
As was the case with Three Strong Women, the writing in Self-Portrait in Green is excellent. NDiaye has a talent for description, drawing the reader into her story with scents of lilac and honeysuckle and sketches of living, breathing people:
“All the young women are in shorts and sandals. The sandals’ soles smack their heels with a certain resolute gaiety. What makes that sensual? Is it the slightly slack strap that lets the foot slip this way and that, and the heels slap the sole? Or is it the vision of unveiled legs? What makes it sensual, and must the legs be beautiful, must they be lustrous, smooth and long? Or is the beauty of legs, knees and ankles superfluous for the burgeoning, in the main street of this drowsy town, of an eroticism still enfeebled by winter?”
While this eye for detail is apparent throughout, NDiaye uses it best in allowing her narrator to wonder at the confidence and sensuality shown by the green women. There’s more than a hint of envy at times – perhaps it’s no coincidence that she sees these women in green…
If you like a story to follow a clear narrative arc, this might not be one for you. The lack of clarity from the narrator, the frequent scene changes and the swings in mood in some of the sections make it hard to know at times exactly where the writer is going with the story. This is not a book where you’ll decipher the secrets in one sitting (I’ll certainly need to revisit it at some point to see if I can make a little more sense of it second time around). Still, if you can tolerate a little ambiguity (even if you may never understand it fully), Self-Portrait in Green is a book you’ll probably enjoy. A warning, though – after reading this one, you’ll never see green clothes in the same light again 😉