Ladivine by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan stump) is another major novel by a woman writer on the Man Booker International Prize long list. It begins with Clarisse Riviere on her monthly visit to her mother – not as Clarisse, but as Malinka. Clarisse is a name and identity she has taken for herself which she keeps separate from her mother, as she does her husband, Richard, and her daughter, Ladivine. This decision seems based on a deep-rooted feeling rather than any reason: since childhood she has felt that “being that woman’s daughter filled her with a horrible shame and fear.” So reluctant is she to acknowledge the relationship that when asked by another pupil at school who the woman who has come to collect her is, she replies, “My servant.”
“All trace of repulsion vanished from the girl’s face, and she let out a satisfied and admiring little ‘Oh!’
And Malinka realised that disgust would have spread to this girl’s very body, she would have trembled and recoiled in a sort of horror, if Malinka had answered, ‘My mother.’”
Her mother’s identity is now also changed, and she is frequently referred to in the narrative as “the servant.”
“Nothing said she had to go on being the servant’s daughter forever, she told herself.”
Are we to assume her decision to disown her mother is partly racial? The name Malinka betrays her African origin, but Clarisse is described as “pale, smooth-skinned.” Does this explain her boss’s comment when her mother turns up at the restaurant where she waitresses after leaving school: “I hope she’s not going to make a habit of coming here. That wouldn’t be good for business.”
Clarisse, as we know from the opening pages, meets and marries Richard Riviere and they have a daughter, Ladivine – named after Clarisse’s mother, a woman she will never allow her daughter to meet, suggesting she cannot escape her past entirely. Clarisse’s two separate lives, however, makes it difficult for her to commit entirely to either, as if her two identities cancel each other out, and she finds herself becoming distanced from her new family:
“Even before silence invaded their house, a polite, cosy, placid silence, she had already closed her ears to the things Richard Riviere and Ladivine said, though she pretended to listen…”
Only one third of the way through do we reach Ladivine’s story, on holiday with her husband, Marko, and two young children, Daniel and Annika, in a country which remains unnamed but which we might assume is the home of the original Ladivine. Once again, NDiaye moves from the present into the past in order to explain Ladivine’s journey to this point. Marko is German and Ladivine now lives in Germany as if to emphasise each generation adopting their own identity, their own language. This vacation represents a break from Marko’s parents where they normally holiday, again raising the idea of generational discord.
The holiday takes place in an uneasy, uncomfortable atmosphere, from Ladivine being mistaken more than once for a guest at a wedding, to a museum full of atrocities:
“…huge canvases very realistically depicted various massacres – here a squadron of soldiers armed with bayonets skewering wild-eyed rioters, here three men slicing intently into the belly of a living woman pathetically endeavouring with blood-soaked hands to protect the foetus contained in that belly…”
This culminates in an act of violence by Marko (a scene which literally caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up) which causes them to leave their hotel and stay with friends of Ladivine’s father, Richard. Throughout this we see Ladivine drifting from her family just as her mother and grandmother did before her.
What begins as an examination of family relationships, particularly between mothers and daughters, becomes something much more unsettling as Ladivine’s interpretation of events becomes increasingly dreamlike (or nightmarish). This begins with the idea that a dog she spots every time she leaves the hotel is waiting for her:
“Still, she was by no means sure the dog meant her well, she never approached it, never waved at it, never even met its gaze.”
Dogs are a recurrent motif in the novel, first seen when Richard’s parents bring a dog with them on a visit, and it is found lying next to Ladivine in her cot:
“Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger to the child.”
Richard disagrees and we see the first fracture ion their relationship. The dog motif is important enough to provide the novel with its conclusion, and demonstrates NDiaye’s intention to write something which reaches beyond psychological study. Clarisse’s treatment of her mother, and Ladivine’s actions on holiday are portrayed as unavoidable, just like Richard’s father’s purchase of the dog:
“It’s an order come to life… I had no choice.”
Perhaps the animal spirit of the dog is a sign to both Clarisse and Ladivine that the past cannot be disowned.
Ladivine is not an easy novel – its prose style can be stand-offish, its characters act without clear motivation, and it is no respecter of genre, playing tag with realism like a wayward child. Its very awkwardness, however, is a reflection of NDiaye’s unforgiving intensity. Women writers may be in a minority on the Man Booker International Prize long list, but it would not surprise me if that were to be reversed by the short list.