Marie NDiaye’s hazy novella, translated by Jordan Stump, unsettles the reader as much as the narrator in a mysterious memoir of strange encounters.
Self Portrait in Green opens with a slowburning danger. The unnamed narrator and her neighbours are watching the rising floodwaters of the Garonne River, which threatens to flood their small village in southwest France. While the villagers have no choice but to wait, this annual ritual foretold by their decision to settle in the area, the narrator hones in on the River as something more threatening — a natural femme fatale — as she notes, “no one here doubts for a moment that la Garonne’s essence is feminine”. This allusion to the destructive potential and unknowability of femininity is an undercurrent that steers the narrator through her memories, all of which are shaped by multiple women in green.
Echoing the creeping figure in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, these figures gradually emerge in otherwise ordinary situations, unsettling the familiar to the uncanny. The first woman in green both reveals and conceals herself beneath a banana tree. After driving past a farmhouse on the school run and suddenly sharpening her focus to this presence, the narrator quizzes her children on whether they can see the woman. Eerily, they cannot. The farmhouse figure is the first in a series of green women who disrupt the narrator’s life, evoking scattered reflections and relationships in their wake, leaving both narrator and reader to ask, is this real? Did that happen? On her visit to the farmhouse, the narrator witnesses the green woman throw herself off a balcony and miraculously survive, limping to the kitchen to serve coffee.
Self Portrait in Green’s action unfolds between 2000–2004, documented through a series of diary entries. Having offered the reader a loose autofiction structure, NDiaye rapidly departs from any certain storytelling, weaving impressionistic scenes for the reader to grasp before immediately unstitching them. This narrator believes herself to be unreliable, constantly questioning her perceptions (“Have I mentioned this?”), creating an internal monologue that wavers between seeming and being — something that the reader is equally unsure of. As a result, we never arrive at the titular ‘self portrait’. Instead, the narrator chooses to create detailed — often biting — psychological portraits of those around her to shape what she is not. This passive presence is beguiling, a device that Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy also utilises to great effect. This does not, however, stop the narrator from noting the “flagrant inconsistencies” in the stories woven by the first woman in green, and elsewhere in a conversation with her friend Cristina (or “the person who might be Cristina”), “it seems naggingly close to something I’ve heard or read before”. In an uncanny valley of “slippery silhouettes” and their vaguely familiar tales, the protagonist struggles to maintain a concrete sense of self. Indeed, her search for authentic self hinges on these women in green, who “decorate” the life she seems somewhat dissatisfied with. Yet their transcience and recurrence in multiple guises bring a sense of dread and fascination each time the narrator encounters one, wondering what power this woman in green will exert or what structures she will destroy; “I fear I’ll see myself as a senseless fool should all those women in green disappear one by one, leaving me powerless to prove their existence, my own originality”.
The women wearing green symbolise many things, from the natural world, freedom, and sexual vivacity to longing and cruelty. Initially, these women are identifiable by their monochromatic sartorial choices, but as the story progresses this definition shifts when she meets “a kind of green woman I haven’t yet come across”. To the narrator, they seem to represent possibility, ways that life could be lived if things were slightly different, shades of ourselves that we deny or long for. Doubling is a recurrent theme amongst the women in green. The new wife of an acquaintance’s old flame, for instance, commits suicide only to be seen in a department store a few pages later. Even the narrator’s mother has begun a green-tinged life, departing from her humdrum existence and starting a new family. But it is later confirmed by her disapproving sisters that their mother has returned to her former apartment and job, alone. Do these women represent acting out of desires of the ego? Or are their disruptive acts solely exercises in futility? Ultimately, their meaning is ambiguous, as NDiaye said, “I’m not entirely sure what those green women represent, but they don’t represent me”.
This intertextual layering of uncertainty lends itself to the magical realism elements that pepper the text. The stilted conversation she has with Cristina/not Cristina alludes to a creature that emerged from the riverbank, “something black and quick” that several people have seen around the village. This unnamed thing later appears, to the narrator’s horror, amongst a gaggle of children in the street. Her children are suspiciously quiet as she tries to name the creature, before quickly denying that she saw anything at all.
These psychological shadows permeate the narrator’s existence, from the overt threats of the river and the black creature to the nebulous women in green and the difficulties of family life. Self Portrait in Green is a sketch of a search for self — the process is non-linear, wandering, and unfinished. While some readers may be perturbed by the text provoking more questions than it answers, NDiaye creates a feverishly readable story that leaves you unclear as to what you have experienced, eager to reread for clues.
Self Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump) is published by Influx Press, and is available to order online. To read more about Marie NDiaye and her work, here is a recent interview with her.
Feature image: Marie NDiaye, courtesy of Influx Press.