Self Portrait in Green

Anyone approaching Marie Ndiaye’s Self Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump in 2014 and now released in the UK by Influx Press) expecting straight-forward autobiography will be, at the very least, disconcerted – a not uncommon occurrence when it comes to her writing in general. While the slim volume clearly draws on her own life with references to friends and family, its content is deliberately restricted and, at times, surreal, as if she intends to draw on only one aspect of herself, one self-portrait among the many possible.

The book begins ominously in 2003 as the village where Ndiaye is living in France faces the prospect of the Garonne River bursting its banks:

“It’s the first thing you learn when you make up your mind to settle in this place, eternally under threat from the floodwaters of the Garonne.”

NDiaye insists the river is ‘feminine’ and the same sense of being under threat from the ‘feminine’ follows her throughout the book, even as we go back through time to 2002 and 2001. (The carefully dated narrative feels more like a defiance of chronology than an attempt to establish it as the story, in many ways, refutes the ordering of cause and effect). This ‘feminine’ presence is portrayed throughout as a ‘green woman,’ first seen as she takes her children to and from school:

“…never once did my gaze fail to meet with the still, watchful silhouette of the woman in green standing near the far more imposing banana tree…”

The children, of course, see nothing. The woman reminds her of another “woman in green” from her school days:

“Tall, brutal, and heavyset, she promises us all a trip to prison if we eat too slowly, if we dirty our clothes, if we don’t raise our eyes to meet hers.”

Then there is a conversation with her friend Cristina, also dressed in green, about Cristina’s children – despite the fact Cristina has no children. Cristina tells her about arriving to collect her children from their grandparents only to overhear her father repeating to her mother, “I can’t take them anymore, I can’t take them anymore…” This dreamlike conversation is the first indication that the ‘green woman’ might represent some nightmarish version of Ndiaye herself.

The following sections of the book focus largely on her father and her friend, Jenny. Ndiaye did not meet her father until she was fifteen and he is portrayed in the book as an inconsistent man moving from place to place, job to job and woman to woman. Throughout the book he is married to a woman who was once the narrator’s friend. She is now a ’woman in green’ having altered her brown eyes with green contact lenses:

“I feared that my father and the woman in green might have child of their own, or two, or three, and that would only compound my father’s problems, engulfing all of us, those of his children who feel it in our hearts when some sorrow befalls him.”

Later she visits her father in Burkina Faso “to put my affection for my father to the test.” Part of the distance between them is her father’s disapproval of her vocation:

“He looks on literature with loathing and contempt you understand.”

In establishing herself as a writer she sees herself in opposition to her stepmother, certain that she “abandoned her vocation, her free will, her joyousness, just to become one with this man.” Again, there is a sense that her friend, now her stepmother, represents an alternative route for her – marrying a man like her father – that she fears. Similarly, another friend, Jenny, who, at fifty, finds herself abandoned by her husband and her son, and forced to move back in with her parents:

“She’s a passive and trusting person, and nothing she’d done was really to blame for this ruination.”

She begins an affair with an old boyfriend, Ivan, but it is Ivan’s wife, not Jenny, who is the ‘woman in green’. She befriends Jenny and talks about her life with Ivan, the life Jenny could have had. Jenny finds herself “growing small, transparent and empty.” Eventually Jenny becomes suicidal.

What Ndiaye intends with these insights into the lives of other women is not entirely obvious – our journey through their stories is poetic rather than logical, particularly as they flit in and out of the narrator’s life. Ndiaye’s writing always contains a dreamlike quality and it is as if she takes moments from her daily life and transmutes them into something slightly less real but more intense. Self Portrait in Green does not reveal much of Ndiaye’s biography, but it does tell us what it feels like it be her through these other women who haunt her, displaying the doubts and fears she lives with. Perhaps, like the river, they threaten to overwhelm her – but, just as the Garonne subsides at the end, so she controls her fears: when her children see the black creature she spotted earlier she tells them: “To tell the truth, I didn’t see anything. Nothing at all.”


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4 Responses to “Self Portrait in Green”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I liked this a lot when I read it Grant – it’s a very fluid, nebulous narrative (rather like a river!) and I never quite knew what was real or what imagined. It was my first of her books, and I was intrigued!

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree about not being sure what is real and what imagined. I’ve read some of her work before and would definitely recommend it, especially her short stories.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Funnily enough, I picked this off the shelf recently and tried to read it but quickly realised that I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it at the time. (Karen very kindly sent me her copy at some point last year.) So, your review is immensely helpful in this respect because it’s given me a much clearer idea of what to expect (or not!) from the book. The sense of blurring the margins between the real and the imaginary really appeals to me (as long as I’m in the mood for something slippery and ambiguous). It’s one of the things I love about some of Javier Marias’s work…

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, her work isn’t always easy as it can feel a little amorphous at times, as if it slipping out of your grasp! Her short stories may be a better place to start.

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