The Inauthentic Self

Marie NDiaye, trans. Jordan Stump, Self-Portrait in Green

Influx Press, 87pp, £7.99, ISBN 9781910312896

reviewed by Lydia Bunt

There’s not much variation in day-to-day life at the moment. Time seems to repeat, without progressing forward. One small pleasure is that I have donned my favourite green trousers to write this review. But this is not enough to make me ‘green’ in the eyes of Marie NDiaye. Greenness is not identifiable merely by apparel, but rather hovers over a person as a greenish tinge, an aura. The colour, conventionally conjoined with envy, connotes a further ‘cruelty’ in this intriguing piece of autofiction translated from the French.

The women in green who populate the narrative range from the narrator’s cruel old schoolteacher to her own mother, once dowdy, now glamorous and unreachable. Together, they constitute the narrative voice’s self-portrait in negative, suggesting the difficulty in writing the unexpected other into one’s vision of the self. What NDiaye evokes with the colour green is a spreading of the self beyond any conceivable neat boundaries.

Autoportrait en vert charts a few sporadic years in the life of an unnamed narrator, related somehow, we assume, to NDiaye herself, but prevented by the nebulous nature of autofiction from matching exactly with the authorial self. The term ‘autofiction’, coined by French writer Serge Doubrovsky, emerged out of typical autobiography, but extends that genre, undermining the reader’s ability to believe in a text’s autobiographical truth. Accordingly, where we might expect a ‘self-portrait’ to be revelatory, this one obfuscates. We never find out much about this NDiaye-esque narrator save through her interactions with women in green, who enlarge the boundaries of the self rather than cementing them.

The narrator writes of the woman in green she invites into her home: ‘I never point out Katia Depetiteville’s flagrant inconsistencies to her face.’ We get a sense that this emerald femme is a foil to the narrator herself, a part of her she does not want to admit to. And yet the text focuses more on these negative portraits than on any positive depiction of the self. That the ‘self’ in ‘self-portrait’ is hardly present suggests the difficulty of writing autobiography at all. Any notion of oneself that one tries to compose will, to some extent, be riddled with fictions. So, when the narrator says of Katia, ‘She’ll be back — how can I know that?’, the enters into direct juxtaposition with self-knowledge, destabilising it.

Autoportrait injects doubt into the confident self-image of the autobiographical genre. NDiaye plays with a constant rewriting of the text even as it is set out on the page. Describing an episode where she drops her four children off at school, the narrator rewinds the text three times, returning to the image of young women in shorts — mothers clustered around the school gate. She asks, constantly, for the reader’s approval, hazarding, ‘Have I mentioned this?’, or, ‘What makes that sensual?’ The text constructs itself as it goes along, partly with the reader’s unwitting help, always conscious of its own artificiality. NDiaye’s narrator is underconfident in her own narrative, and yet the text is deliberately, self-consciously stilted, as if this, really, is the only way to write about the self.

Listening to a story told by one of these women, the narrator is unconvinced of its originality: ‘it seems naggingly close to something I’ve heard or read before. Either someone once told me about it or it comes from a novel that woman and I both happen to have read.’ Life is, at least potentially, a composite of fictional material. All our experiences are intertextual, and it is difficult to say that any of them is truly authentic. It follows that little is intrinsically authentic or original about the self, a lesson we might find hard to stomach in a period where we spend much of our time alone, forced to construct an identity apart from other people. But we need not despair. ‘I’m always interested in stories,’ comments NDiaye’s unnamed narrator. Stories told about the self, of the self, are perhaps better than one cohesive, original reflection. This is what NDiaye’s text, in all its self-conscious borrowing, aims to recognise.

As a compilation of borrowed material, life in life writing, for Ndiaye, doesn’t follow a linear trajectory. Autoportrait is written in a series of apparent diary entries, but the chapters aren’t in chronological order: the years between 2000 and 2003 are mismatched, and end exactly where they start, in December 2003. Some chapters are not dated at all. Timelessness is also evident in the characters. The narrator’s parents seem to grow back down into their childhood selves, becoming thinner and younger in a clear contravention of generational norms. Characters also appear, in new and different guises, at random moments, so that the text’s chronology is never clear.

The Garonne river, which bookends the text, has also lost its telos along the way. It flows upwards, threatening to overspill its banks, rather than onwards, as rivers should. This is telling — the process of writing the self is no longer linear, but more like a collage. Jordan Stump holds onto the French article in ‘la Garonne’ to make clear that the river is feminine — a woman in green of sorts — and this jars a little with the rest of the text, from which traces of the French are smoothly ousted. But we do realise as a consequence that the self, supplemented by its entourage of women in green, cannot manage a smooth narrative form. And the mysterious black creature (figure? object?) that occasionally darts across the pages of the text, unnamed and unidentified, only reminds us that words can never capture all of the self.

In the Covid era, we have experienced stagnation, the sense of time repeating itself — the failure to progress beyond the same old norms, returning into lockdown time and again. NDiaye’s circular narrative, lacking progressive chronology, hits close to home. But maybe this is the most effective way to build up a picture of the self, in all its missing parts, in all its flaws and uncertainties. Inertia doesn’t mean the self can’t develop, can’t keep becoming. NDiaye’s reflexive style, both loose and tight, might serve to teach us the benefits of inauthenticity — the strange merits of green.

Lydia Bunt is a freelance writer based in South London. Her reviews have been published in The Arts Desk and the i paper.