Feature • Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
I never met this woman, whose presence in my personal legends eclipses, by its incandescence, some of her more irrefutably real neighbors. I’m not even sure she’s actual. In the end, it makes little difference. She remains a pure emblem. Everything I know of her comes to me from Jenny.
A time came when Jenny found herself at a dead end. She was a little less than fifty years old, and everything that had once been hers, everything at which she’d worked so hard to succeed, everything she’d devotedly loved had all flitted away in the space of a year. Her adopted son was wandering the world and refused to see her, her husband had left her, she’d just been laid off. Everything had vanished. She’s a passive and trusting person, and nothing she’d done was really to blame for this ruination. It had simply happened, beside her, without her realizing it, and when she woke up it was too late to hope she might recover what was lost.
When I met her she was tall and thin. She wore her hair in a loose bun, and that hair was artificially of the palest blonde. Is hair color a reflection of some moral quality, of goodness and innocence, of those virtues’ opposite? Obviously not. The pallor of Jenny’s hair in no way expressed what she was. Nevertheless, even mired in distress, incomprehension, the terror of poverty, she went on carefully bleaching her hair, and gathering it up with just the degree of slackness she liked, so that every day two or three strands would come loose over her cheeks, allowing her, always with the same slow, reflective gesture, unsullied by coquetry or ostentation, to tuck them back behind her ear. She was never concerned to know exactly what she looked like. As an image of her self, she wanted to know only the timeless harmony of that minuscule gesture, only the beauty of two fingers lifting up a lock of almost white hair.
Jenny is moving back in with her parents, in the country, since she can’t pay her rent. They greet her in pained, awkward silence. They can scarcely believe she has failed so utterly, she whom they were once so intimidated to visit, fearing they might not measure up to her prosperity. She knows what they’re wondering, bewildered but severe: Does our daughter still have some scrap of dignity left? They allow the first name of the adopted son, their only grandchild, to escape their pinched, pursed lips, and then all of a sudden they’re heaving with sobs. Jenny says nothing: What is there to say, she thinks, in the face of this disaster? Is it a disaster? Or only life? Before her hiccupping old parents, before her old parents who’ve never been very tender or very clement, or benevolent or, in any way, very tolerant, a sort of serenity descends over her. Nothing sadder can happen to the three of them than this: two stiff, prickly old people weeping before their careworn daughter, weeping because a man who is their grandchild, although he was born to an unknown woman in a place so far away they’ll never go there, has decided to have nothing more to do with them, because he despises and hates them. That man used to be a very little boy, who loved his holidays in this countryside, who hopped and rolled around the yard, who considered this yard his own, without qualm or reserve, and now he’s fled, burning behind him what he once seemed to love, now he’s become a faithless and mysterious person, someone you no longer know, but who seems to know you so well that he refuses to put up with you any longer. Jenny raises her eyes to the austere little house, the gray skies, then looks back down at her parents’ tear-streaked faces, and something like an understanding of what the son must be feeling runs fleetingly through her. She knows all this far too well, she tells herself. These poor damp-eyed people are her family. That fills her with a sort of disgust, an impotent exasperation. She’d like these people, who are undeniably her family, and who look on her in the same way, to evaporate by some miracle, without awareness or pain, and leave her alone, and free of any such bond.
Sorrow and bad luck protect her, in a sense. I go and see her at her parents’, in that damp, desolate countryside, and I notice they dare make no demands on her, despite their authoritarian ways. She’s kind and gentle and so bleached as not to seem real. The sight of my children is painful to her. It was a cruel mistake to bring them. In hopes of warding off who-knows-what disasters, she continually lifts one hand to her hair, the gesture now spasmodic and unthinking. In spite of it all, in spite of the pain, the shrinking prospects, I tell myself, Oh, she’ll come through this all right.
Out for a walk, Jenny happened to run into Ivan, and since she and Ivan had had a love affair in the distant days when Jenny still lived in this countryside, now Jenny suddenly finds herself sitting at Ivan and Ivan’s wife’s table, now she’s been invited to share their lunch, in the company of several hearty young men, young adults bursting with health and beauty, who are their sons, and now Jenny’s feeling dazed in the midst of this whole and resplendent family, now she’s wondering if she’s not at this moment in her own private dream, witnessing the wonderful life she could have led had she stayed in her parents’ village. Because if she had, Jenny doesn’t doubt for a moment, she would surely have lived with Ivan, and, remembering her very deep love for him and his passion for her, she shivers with a newborn pain, another pain atop all the sorrows already besetting her, along with a fresh sort of perplexity when it suddenly strikes her as unthinkable that she, Jenny, should find herself in the woeful situation that she does in fact seem to be in, her, Jenny, whom fortune had graced with gifts and skills, she who had always enjoyed such an abundance of choices.
Ivan is sitting across the table from her, and Jenny conceals her lostness behind a pathetic smile, all the while thinking, How he’s aged. And she knows perfectly well that he’s looking at her and thinking, How she’s aged. And then, Jenny tells herself, Ivan can look at the boys that surround them, who are the picture of perfectly successful human beings, and muse that it’s worth growing older to revel in that perfection, that success; but for Jenny, where can she look to find this delight in growing older? Where can she look?
On the telephone,she tells me at some length that her love affair with Ivan lasted several years before she decided to leave the province, and in spite of the distance between us I can picture her hard face and clenched jaw, because I hear a cold, brittle voice that isn’t usually Jenny’s, a voice she’s forcing herself to adopt, I think, so as to keep sentimentality at bay. Jenny is not a sentimental woman. Isn’t it a sign of contemptible self-indulgence, Jenny’s thinking, to be caught up in a romanticism you never felt when you were young, simply because you have too much time on your hands, and because in any event giving in to that romanticism now poses no threat, since everything that matters in life lies well behind you? Certainly, Jenny is thinking, belated romanticism is pitiful, pathetic, mediocre. But how to fight it off? Jenny doesn’t ask me, but I can’t help inwardly posing that question for her: How to fight it off, yes, how to remain sincerely cold and detached, when as it happens Ivan’s face is now never far from her thoughts, and not Ivan’s face when he was young and in love with her but Ivan’s face today, creased, placid, and a little weary? How to remain hard, clearheaded, and slightly sardonic when Ivan’s face, which she sees the moment she wakes up and then sees all day long, always appears to her surrounded by the friendly faces of the wife and sons, who inspire in her no trace of jealousy but only a powerful affection and interest, not lessened but heightened by her melancholy? 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. Of course, she says nothing of all this. I can feel it from the forced hardness in her voice.
I went back to see Jenny, and while her very amenable parents entertained my children, with that cheerful bonhomie, that ability to find fun in nothing at all that the sternest educators sometimes acquire in their old age (rankling Jenny, who observes, “They were nothing like that when I was little”—but then it was simply impossible for them to be other than they were, because they couldn’t imagine children might be treated in any but the most dramatic and intransigent way), while Jenny’s parents looked after my children, suddenly seeming to believe that their daughter’s troubles in no way forbade them to offer their faces to the first sunshine of spring, in no way forbade them even to forget that they had a daughter in difficulty, I went with Jenny for a little stroll in the direction of Ivan’s house, because she wanted me to get a glimpse of them, him and his wife. She described the way Ivan drags greedily on a cigarette, how he closes his eyes and then half opens them to blow out the smoke in little puffs, like sighs, disillusioned, whereas, she told me, Ivan’s wife holds her cigarette at her side, between two delicate fingers, all the while cooking with the other hand. This way of just barely clasping her cigarette, her hand close by her hip, forms, along with a welter of similar details, the substance of the charm she exerts on Jenny.
Increasingly, though it’s Jenny and not me who has problems, I’m the one who calls Jenny, simply for the pleasure of hearing her speak. She goes to Ivan and his wife’s house every morning, when Ivan’s away, in what seems an implicit agreement between the two women. The wife lights a cigarette in front of Jenny, who, never having smoked in her life, having always looked on cigarettes with virtuous horror, can’t imagine that pleasure, and yet now she envies this gesture, and her own, her adorable way of pushing a lock of her hair back along one side of her head, now strikes her as trivial, inadequate. Her parents’ fears have come true: She’s losing a part of her dignity, but not for the reasons nor in the circumstances they imagine. She’s forgotten that she’s a woman adrift, alone and abandoned, that no one anywhere feels any need for her, that she was loyal to her profession and that her profession coldly rejected her—all that, which so consumes the two old people’s thoughts, she’s forgotten, and so she’s no longer ashamed. But before Ivan’s wife she’s tormented by the sort of disdain that she feels for herself, for her physical person, for her own insignificance. Ivan’s wife humbles her, not deliberately, unaware that she’s doing so—and if she did know it and want to, Jenny would never let it happen.
Repeatedly questioned, with no attempt on my part to conceal my burning curiosity, Jenny revealed what the two of them discuss in her daily visits. Ivan’s wife does the talking. She lights a first cigarette, silently and slowly, sits down in an armchair, crosses her legs and, with her cigarette always about to slip from between her index and middle fingers, tells Jenny of the life Jenny would have lived had she spent it with Ivan, her first, overpowering love.
Surprised, I ask, “But what does she know about that?”
And Jenny answers that Ivan’s wife describes her own life with Ivan, which is a fairly reliable way, thinks Jenny, of showing her the life Jenny and Ivan would have had together. That’s what goes on every morning: the one speaks and the other listens, and as the one talks the other feels herself growing small, transparent, and empty, more convinced than ever of her insipidity. In parallel, her regrets about Ivan grow ever more wrenching.
I ask, surprised, “But what’s in it for her? Why should she do that?”
And Jenny answers, surprised at my surprise, “To console me.”
I ask, “Console you for what?”
“For the tragic mistake I made, not choosing Ivan when I still could,” answers Jenny in her hard voice, intended to repel any reaction of pity. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Jenny comes away from these conversations not consoled but crushed by despair and self-loathing. In a murmur, she tells me, “We’ll never be young again, never.”
I want to object, I want to shoot back: Well, I’m young. I’m only in my thirties, after all. But isn’t Jenny right? Oh yes, I tell myself, Jenny’s right, Jenny’s right. What she’s thinking of—the belief in the infinity of possibilities, the illusion that you can forever start over again, that every mark made on you lasts a little while then ends up disappearing—all that we no longer have. I ask Jenny, “That we no longer have, but isn’t it better this way? Isn’t it a thing to be grateful for, every day?”
Around eleven this morning, Jenny went to Ivan’s wife’s house.
The air is mild and perfumed and full of hope. Jenny’s blonde-white ponytail undulates against her back. Jenny walks with her head high, and she promises herself, although the promise brings a lump to her throat, that this is her very last visit. The time has come to put an end to these lamentations, Jenny tells herself, and to this homesickness, home being the life she never had, with Ivan. That’s how she sees this: a land whose soil she trod for a few happy steps, and which she then thoughtlessly left behind, and now it’s been wiped off the map. She can never come back. That’s the form of her sorrow, of the thing weighing on her heart ever since she saw Ivan again.
The house seems to be empty. Jenny knocks, waits and waits, then goes in all the same. The kitchen and living room sit frozen in an atypical tidiness. She hesitates, sits down. She takes the wife’s pack of cigarettes from the little table. She hesitates again, then pulls one out and lights it somewhat clumsily with the lighter she knows so well, which she’s found lying on the table like a thing not so much put down as put away. She crosses her legs and smokes. She’s aware of her flushed face, her shame. She imagines her parents, eyeing her sternly, reproaching her for being a woman and smoking, for being worthless and smoking.
And then she suddenly stands up and bolts down to the basement, still holding the cigarette. Her shoes clap sharply against the cement steps. In her haste, she almost trips, almost tumbles headlong down the stairway.
She embraces Ivan’s wife’s thighs and hips. Her feet are bare, and Jenny notes their soles, gray with dust.
What’s left of the cigarette is still clasped between Jenny’s lips. She’d like to wash off those feet, already cold, rub them, implore them. Straining to hoist up the body so she can loosen the knot on the rope, she spits out her cigarette butt, then presses her face into Ivan’s wife’s bulging belly and begins to sob in horror and dismay, now and then shouting out toward the basement walls, which bounce her cry back to her in a feeble echo. The house is deserted, she can call out all she likes—who will hear her?
Two years go by with no news from Jenny, each of us keeping our distance from the other, her ashamed of confiding in me when it’s not in her nature, me remorseful for pushing her to tell me what she’d rather have told no one.
In a pedestrian street of a small city, one crowded and tiresomely bustling Saturday, I run into Jenny, who, ever the same, pushes back a few strands of hair that have come out of her bun before giving me a kiss. In our joy at seeing each other again, our cheekbones bump painfully. I have on my chest a baby Jenny’s never met, of whose very birth she knew nothing. She looks at the baby with delight, and the change makes me realize how downcast and defeated her whole manner had been just a moment before. She points toward the back of the man who was with her, now silently plodding away, hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped. His head is bald, ringed with a crown of gray hairs.
“That’s my husband, Ivan,” says Jenny, with a faint grimace.
And then a sadness, a bitterness takes shape between us.
Once she’s divorced Ivan, once she has, for the second time, moved back in with her parents, who, anesthetized by so many failures, have finally sunk into a sort of merciful torpor, Jenny summons herself up from my memory and rather grandly invites me to come see them. I find her irritable with the old couple, haughty and curt, as if for some reason they owed her. Gone is the sweetness in her features, gone her appealing look of dismay, replaced by a mask of sarcasm and scorn. The parents serve us the meal they’ve prepared, Jenny finds fault and complains, and in the end I leave the table to join the two old people in the kitchen, where they’re eating their dinner. I sit down beside them to finish my plate. They smile beatifically, unable to understand that they’re being mistreated. They’ve changed in a most surprising way. I know that in another time they inflicted a brutal upbringing on Jenny. After coffee, I want to leave right away, but Jenny recovers some of her warmth and her smile, and asks me to stay. But when I suggest a walk around the village, her entire face turns cold and hard, and she refuses without the tiniest trace of friendship in her voice.
“She’s afraid of that woman,” the mother murmurs to me in an aside.
“The one who hanged herself.” Her voice is almost inaudible, a peep. She’s terrified.
Jenny has taken refuge in her old-fashioned little room, a girl’s room, crouching on her bed, her chin on her knees. I then picture us, four people feeling only the most tangled sentiments for each other, isolated in this gray house in the outer reaches of a gloomy province, and I have only one desire: to run away as fast as I can and desert these three people, whom I promise myself I will never see again.
“I met Ivan’s wife,” says Jenny—neglecting to mention that she too was, for one short year, Ivan’s wife.
A scowl flashes across my face. Jenny nods vigorously. In a monotone, speaking fast to stave off interruptions, she tells me how she and Ivan, early in their marriage, as they wandered the aisles of a department store, almost collided with a woman draped in a very elegant green coat, with a genuine fur collar and cuffs, dyed green. It was her, Ivan’s wife, who’d hanged herself to death in her basement, later to be found by Jenny. So it really was her? I smile my disapproval and say nothing.
“It’s hard to believe,” says Jenny, “but I only mention it because Ivan recognized her himself. Ivan’s a down-to-earth man.”
And so Ivan, having recognized her, called out her name. And the woman, coolly, as was her way, spoke exactly this sentence: “So, you two, how’s it going?”
Jenny asks me, Would a stranger they’d mistaken for Ivan’s wife have spoken to them like that?
No, a stranger they’d confused with Ivan’s wife would not have spoken to them like that, certainly not.
This woman then went on: “Didn’t take you long… I’m doing fine, myself.”
And in fact the only notable difference between this woman in green and the one they used to know lay in this one’s greater beauty, but it was still the same beauty, only expanded, vibrant, thanks to contentment, to money, to sexual pleasure.
“Yes,” Jenny says gravely, “sexual pleasure most of all, it was perfectly clear in her eyes, in her smile, in her way of rubbing the fur collar against her chin. Ivan saw it just like I did. That was the thing he couldn’t get over.”
Then I begin to hop from one foot to the other, staring at Jenny with a gaze drained of tenderness. I ask, “What couldn’t that imbecile Ivan get over? His wife’s death? Her reappearance as a contented mistress? Yes, just what was it Ivan couldn’t get over?”
Jenny’s lips are quivering. How worn she seems, assailed by disillusionment, by multiple losses, by ridiculous, terrifying convictions! In a tiny little voice she tells me Ivan continually tortured himself after this meeting, belittling himself, desperately jealous of the happiness he thought he saw radiating from his first wife’s entire magnificent person. I then understand that what particularly consumed them wasn’t seeing a dead woman before them and hearing her speak, but finding her so exultant, so infinitely appealing.
I feel deeply displeased by this nonsense, and I’m not far from hating Jenny, from finding her stupid and mediocre. Adopting a sly, mischievous air, she tells me that Ivan never found the woman in green again, although he took great pains to do so, whereas Jenny met up with her several times more. She saw her in that same department store, in the perfume aisle, then in the park of a nearby city where Jenny worked for a while. The woman recognized her and stopped to talk, still wrapped in her silky coat, gracious and aglow.
In spite of myself, I ask, “Did you tell Ivan?”
Yes, Jenny told Ivan, and no doubt she was wrong not to conceal her joy and her pride, because it was against her, Jenny, that Ivan’s jealousy now turned. Jenny tells me he accused her of conspiring with the other woman. Oh, she couldn’t find the words to defend herself.
Did she feel like she was conspiring? Now I can’t stop questioning Jenny, I who, so full of disdain, wanted to flee and hear no more of this foolishness. Did she conspire against Ivan? Jenny tells me she never conspired—why would she have conspired? What would she have got, in the way of satisfaction or material goods, from conspiring? But with that their marriage came to an end, both of them fixated on the same person, though in different ways—Jenny longing for nothing less than to strike up a fresh friendship with the woman in green, in hopes that she might learn about life, might learn everything that’s eluded her for the past fifty years, things others know but can’t tell her, not knowing just what they might be, and so, thinks Jenny, she might finally understand why everyone who comes close to her ends up turning away in anger and disappointment; and Ivan, for his part, wanting very simply to know how his first wife found her way to such radiance, once delivered of those nearest her. They’ve separated, but they keep an anxious watch on each other.
Jenny says to me, spitefully, “If she tried to hang herself so she wouldn’t have to see Ivan again, do you really think she’d come visit him now?”
And you, I say to myself, poor Jenny, why should she come visit you?
Jenny’s mother later confides to me that the hanged woman recently knocked on her door. Jenny’s mother opened it, recognized Ivan’s first wife and fainted dead away. She tells me the woman was very beautiful, lovelier and more luminous than before, and she smiled with great kindness and self-confidence.
“She did die, though,” I say.
“Well, now we’re not so sure,” the old woman answers.
“It should be possible to find out.”
But the three sons are opposed. None of them ever spotted their mother again after they saw her lying in her coffin.
“They resent Ivan and me for seeing her,” Jenny says, “and for not keeping it secret.”
Could it really be that some other woman was buried in the place of the woman in green? But who, in that case, was the hanged woman whose legs Jenny had clasped in her arms? And how could such a misunderstanding arise? I say good-bye to Jenny and her parents, fuming, vowing to have no more to do with this disastrous family. Not yet out of the house, I can already hear Jenny bitterly upbraiding the old couple. They don’t say a word, they seem to be listening to her with sorrow and interest.
That was the last time I saw Jenny, and I don’t believe I’ll be seeing her again, since she’s dead. Her parents wrote to tell me they’d found her lifeless in the bed she slept in as a girl. Evidently she killed herself with an overdose of prescription drugs, but her parents don’t say if it was a mistake or a deliberate act, and I myself have no idea. Am I over-interpreting certain turns of phrase, certain wordings, or is there really relief in the old couple’s tone, in their way of saying, for example, so that’s that? Granted, Jenny had done everything in her power to tyrannize them, after exhausting and defeating them with her many failures.
I stopped off to say hello to them, one day when I happened to be driving past their house, not sure why I was taking the trouble, why I should go to such lengths. No, the fact is I didn’t happen to be driving by their house, absolutely not. I had to make a sizable detour to get there. It was the middle of summer, and I’d never come here before at that time of year, so I nearly didn’t recognize the place, once so dreary, now heavy with ivy and honeysuckle. Ruddy and round in their light summer clothes, Jenny’s parents welcomed me almost jovially. They were drinking coffee on the flower-bedecked terrace, in the company of a tall brunette woman with dark green eyes. She was about the age Jenny would have been, around fifty-three, and wearing a short, straight dress with little green and white checks. The two old people were happy, even jolly, joking. I shouldn’t have come, I told myself, deflated by the prospect of having to meet someone new, and because the parents clearly had no need of my compassion.
“Well now,” the old woman said to me, “this is Ivan’s wife.”
And I ask, “So Ivan’s remarried?”
She doesn’t answer. She pinches her upper lip between thumb and index finger and tugs it right and left, a gesture I remember as her way of expressing unease.
I never saw those two old people and that green-eyed woman again.
Marie NDiaye is the author of over a dozen plays and works of prose and was one of ten finalists for the 2013 International Booker Prize, alongside Lydia Davis and Marilynne Robinson. English translations of her work include the story collection All My Friends (Two Lines Press); the novel Three Strong Women (Knopf), for which she received the 2009 Prix Goncourt; and the novel Rosie Carpe (University of Nebraska Press), for which she received the 2001 Prix Femina. Her memoir Self-Portrait in Green will be published in late 2014 by Two Lines Press.
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