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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 83-94

Marie Ndiaye's Discombobulated Subject
Lydie Moudileno
University of Pennsylvania

With the publication of six novels, Marie Ndiaye has established herself as one of the most talented writers in the cohort of new authors who have contributed to the revival of the French novel in the last twenty-five years. Critical acclaim for the author of Comédie classique (1987), La femme changée en bûche (1989), Un temps de saison (1994), La sorcière (1996), En famille (1991) and Rosie Carpe (2001) is consistently laudatory. What critics usually praise is the singularity of Ndiaye's fictions, which combine a thematic engagement with social issues and an extraordinary talent for storytelling.

This correlation has been most consistently commented upon in Ndiaye's La sorcière, the story of a rather naïve, idealistic witch whose everyday relationships, including those with her own daughters, reveal a petit-bourgeois world plagued with misunderstandings, greed and selfishness. Speaking of Ndiaye's "gift of fabulization" (132), Warren Motte sees in La sorcière a powerful "fable of society and its discontents" that focuses on the dynamics of social exclusion. For Dominique Rabaté, Ndiaye's exploitation of fantastic modalities signals the advent of a "new fantastic" that is "almost ethnographic" in the way it supports the representation of exclusion, marginality, and the "violente étrangeté du monde" (557-61).

In addition to drawing attention to her innovative appropriation of fantastic elements, critics have also commented on Ndiaye's style itself, in particular her control of the French language. One contributor to the dossier on Rosie Carpe –recently published by L'Atelier du roman—notes that what most distinguishes Ndiaye from her contemporaries is her "maîtrise admirable des ressources de la langue, la justesse du vocabulaire et une plasticité extraordinaire de la syntaxe."1 Challenging the "difficultés de la langue française" is clearly one of Ndiaye's fortes. When still a very young writer, she wrote her second novel, Comédie classique, in the form of a single, 96-page-long sentence. While some2 have criticized this literary exercise's technicity or its perceived preciosity, most agree that Comédie classique constitutes a stylistic tour de force, and [End Page 83] that all of Ndiaye's novels constitute impressive exercices de style. One could even consider her whole œuvre as a succession of formal and stylistic challenges, each staring down a particular literary and/or rhetorical cunundrum. This is what Michael Bishop suggests before providing an extensive list of the rhetorical figures in Ndiaye's writing:

On serait peut-être tenté, pour parler de l'œuvre de Marie Ndiaye, de l'évoquer comme un vaste réseau de figures à l'état pur: figures de construction, ellipses, pléonasmes, parenthèses, anacoluthes, etc.; figures de rhétorique, interrogations, anticipations, prolepses, dubitations, réfutations, récriminations, anti-thèses, litotes, gradations, etc… Figures qui modifient le sens des mots : ironie, allégories, euphémismes, hyberboles, etc.; d'autres figures encore: allitérations, anaphores, isocolons, paronomases, etc.


Having commented on this plethora of rhetorical tropes and stylistic figures, Bishop also draws attention to a series of what he calls "thematic fascinations" (105) in Ndiaye's fiction, through which she underscores her position as a writer preoccupied not just with formal challenges, but with social issues as well. Bishop stresses the way she systematically explores a thematics of banality, dwelling from one novel to the next on the accumulation of challenges that take over the quotidian.

Building upon critics' consensual portrait of Ndiaye as both a "social writer"3 and a gifted storyteller, and thus adding my own voice to those who have already commented on Ndiaye's singular narratives, I would like to examine more closely the articulation of these two qualities in her latest novel to date. Specifically, I will consider Ndiaye's representation, in Rosie Carpe, of what Dominique Viart calls "the subject in disarray"— the condition of a contemporary subject ill-equipped to interpret a reality whose logic always seems to escape her. My discussion...


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