Self Portrait in Green

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Read 28/02/2021

Rating 5 stars

Written in 2005 and first published in English translation in 2014, Marie NDiaye’s hypnotic fictional memoir Self Portrait in Green follows an unnamed narrator, who is a writer, and her encounters with mysterious green women.

I read a new edition of Jordan Stump’s 2014 translation published by Influx Press.

Written as a diary, the novella begins with the relentless rising of the Garonne river that flows from the Spanish Pyrenees to Bordeaux. The narrator lives near Bordeaux, in the Gironde, and informs us that this happens frequently enough for every resident to know what to do if the river breaches. She informs us, too, that the Garonne is female, heavy and bulging.

There’s something heavy and bulging about the prose. It swelters like a humid summer, filled with references to floral fragrances – honeysuckle, lilac, spring flowers – that hang heavy in the air. There’s a liminality, too, a sense that things aren’t as they first appear, that parallel worlds might be crossing into that of the narrator.

The feeling Self Portrait in Green gave me was akin to that in books I’ve read by Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury, or more recently by Sarah Perry and Anna Vaught. The intensity of description, the summoning of an environment, the lushness of imagination are particularly strong in NDiaye’s writing.

The feeling is threat. Not fear, not anxiety, not any human emotional feeling that is a response to something external, but the external thing itself. And its rendering by NDiaye is exquisite.

The narrator’s first acknowledged encounter with a green woman is a year earlier than the rising river, on the twice daily school run. Someone barely glimpsed stands almost one with a banana tree in the yard of a farmhouse. Only the narrator can see her, and even she is merely aware of her at first, not truly seeing her.

There are green women in Scottish and Welsh mythology. In Scotland, they’re known as glaistig: sprites that live by lonely pools of water and rivers. Sometimes these women are half goat, their long green dresses hiding their hoofed feet. This first glimpse of a green woman by the narrator made me wonder if she was the same. The nature of the narrator’s reactions to the other green women makes me think, in a way, they are all a form of glaistig.

Green women, the narrator comes to realise, have dappled her life since high school. Her first was a teacher who, the narrator seems to think, made children disappear. Her former best friend turned stepmother is added to the list, along with the first wife of another friend’s husband. The woman at the farmhouse is her most recent, with a brief encounter with an unknown school gate mum in between awareness and knowing around the same time, and the narrator begins to think that each one is some kind of messenger. She befriends the green woman in the farmhouse.

The narrator suspects that her own mother is a green woman, although she dresses in pink, not green. There is something in her attitude, a change that comes over her, that makes her daughter suspect who her mother really is.

At the heart of this novella is abandonment. The narrator’s father abandons marriages frequently, and consequently whatever family he has helped create through the marriage. The narrator feels abandoned as a child at school. The farmhouse is abandoned. The narrator’s friend who returns to her childhood home is abandoned by her adopted son and her employer. From the ruptures these abandonments cause sprout the green women. Abandonment causes those who are abandoned to question who they are, and whether they caused the abandonment to happen in some way. The narrator seems hardened by her life experience, protecting herself with a carapace of indifference to the world around her. She is not tender in her transactions with the people in her life. In many ways, she is bottling up an existential rage.

The narrator’s account of her life in relation to the people through whom the green women gain access to her is unreliable. Time feels slippery in her recollections, people never the age they should be. It’s unsettling and puzzling. Are we to believe her, and what, exactly, are we meant to believe?

The final episode in this opaque memoir takes place in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The narrator has been invited to speak at a literary symposium. By coincidence, her father now lives in the city. During her trip, the narrator learns two things: that her father is different things to different people; that he deserves more to be pitied than punished.

The novella ends as it begins, with a view of the river in flood. It has breached, her small town under water, the narrator questioning whether the river itself is a green woman.

This is a deeply odd story. I loved it. It left me questioning whether the events within were only real to the narrator. The looks that other characters give her, that she interprets a particular way, were more suggestive to me of concern for a mind unravelling. We all write our own version of the truth from the events around us. Our minds weave together the story we need to believe. This novella is a reminder of that.

5 thoughts on “Self Portrait in Green

  1. Well, who knows? You drew me in when you wrote about the Garonne, as it was one of our neighbourhood rivers when we lived in France. You drew me in too when it became that rivers are in some way the subject. Then that word ‘gothic’. I’m not good at gothic. I’m not sure if I’m good at ‘opaque’ at the moment either. I’ll have a think about it.

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    1. Perhaps not this one, then. I love gothic. It probably doesn’t help, but NDiaye’s book is less Victorian Romantic, more Modernist Gothic – there are no histrionics, no overblown characters, just an undercurrent of something being not quite right, the world slightly askew.

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  2. So I like gothic. And a great deal else of what you say here, Jan. This is certainly intruiging and I’ve made a note of it. Bizarrely, what leaps out for me is the reference to the banana plant. It seems so incongruous that I feel it must have a specific role in the narrative!

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