Self-Portrait in Green Excerpted at A Public Space

marie_ndiaye-greenWe are publishing Marie NDiaye’s amazing “memoir” Self-Portrait in Green this November. It’s a really strange book, one that, I would say, tackles the memoir genre in a way that few have attempted before. At the least, NDiaye is drawing on her considerable skills as a novelist in creating something that feels a lot more like a surrealist novel than a memoir.

But anyway, A Public Space has excerpted part of this book in its Summer issue. You can read it by picking up a copy of that issue, or yo can have a look at their website, as they’ve also made it available online.

I.

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 . . .

Baboon in the News

aidt-head-webNaja Marie Aidt’s novel Baboon comes out in October, but you can get an early look at it right here, as World Literature Today has published one of its stories, as well as an interview with translator Denise Newman.

The story in question is titled “The Woman in the Bar,” and it is a haunting, voyeuristic tale with a surprise ending. It starts:

I didn’t see her come in, but suddenly she’s there. She’s walking on the polished floor in her heavy boots. She’s long-legged. That’s the first thing I notice. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m drinking a cup of coffee, watching people; I had an errand to do in the neighborhood, to pick up some dry cleaning, but then I also bought a bouquet of tulips, some tea cake, and a watermelon. My grandchild is visiting tomorrow. I’ve been walking around the city for a few hours and I’m cold and my legs are tired. It’s pleasant just to sit here as it grows darker outside. I’ve always liked this restaurant. It’s large with tall ceilings, white tablecloths, and terrible acoustics. An enormous dining room. People are lingering over late lunch, others are just drinking wine or cocktails, and behind me a couple of children are playing with a small train under the table. The atmosphere is pleasant. I lean back relaxed and enjoy the view of the young woman. Now she’s standing at the bar. She’s tall and erect; her neck is long and white. It’s the end of November. This morning I was thinking about how long it’s been since the wall fell. I thought about how quickly time passes. Even though so much has happened. Now the streetlights go on. It looks like it’s started to rain.

Here you can see Aidt’s trademark sentences, very terse and sharp, making for stories that generate a lot of momentum and carry you right through. If you like these sorts of sentences, you’ll find them all over Baboon, albeit used to a wide variety of narrative ends.

And here’s Denise talking a bit about this style and how she translated it.

MJ: Was it easy to retain this spare style in translation?

DN: Not always. Sometimes her short sentences sounded flat in English, and occasionally I had to combine sentences in order to keep the rhythm true to her style. I really admire Aidt’s economy of expression, and I found the need to use English just as succinctly to be both challenging and enormously engaging.

MJ: What was one of the thornier translation challenges in this project, and how did you resolve it?

DN: Naja and I went back and forth with certain epithets and obscenities (there are quite a few) trying to get the degree of emphasis and naturalness right. We got some help from her son who went to high school in Brooklyn. A more general challenge was finding the right voice for each narrator—for example, there’s a four-year-old girl, a depressed young man, a mother at the edge of her psychic strength—quite a range. I had to take time getting to know them, their situations and ways of seeing things, before I could find the correct tone.

MJ: Did you face any unique translation difficulties in “The Woman in the Bar”?

DN: The narrator of this story is an older woman who lived through the war, the creation of the GDR, and its dissolution. It helped to have visited Berlin before and after the wall came down to be able to appreciate how profound the changes would be in her life.[1] What was tricky about this narration was holding to the physical expression of what the protagonist is experiencing. The most dramatic piece of information is withheld from the reader, the protagonist knows, but it’s only revealed with one subtle sentence in the final paragraph.

You’ll be hearing lots more about Baboon soon. We’ve got a six-city tour planned for Aidt (details to come soon!), and there will be plenty of reviews.