Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Notes on Self-Portrait In Green by Marie Ndiaye

Self-Portrait In Green came to my attention this Spring via a tweet from Aaron Bady, in which he linked to publisher Two Lines Press's special "Try Out Marie Ndiaye!" page. They described the book as "an utterly unclassifiable memoir that belongs on the shelf somewhere near Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red." As I had just gotten finished reading all three of those books, this seemed especially designed to attract me in particular. I had never heard of Ndiaye (who is apparently a big deal in France), but I loved those three books, to varying degrees, and it was cheap, so I ordered it.

In the event, having read the book twice, I'm not sure what to say about it. Granted, what do I ever know what to say about a book anymore, right? When was the last time a blog post appeared here? Nearly seven months ago? Right. In that span, I've thought about writing about a number of things, planned several posts, opened drafts, written terrible sentences, but not found the time, or taken the time, or whatever, to do what it takes. But one common thread that has bugged me is the problem of expectations. I'm sort of obsessed with blurbs (can you be "sort of" obsessed with something?) - the work they do to manage and contain our reading experiences. Publishing copy, too: book flaps, webpages, ad copy, etc.

So, I began reading this book with incredibly high expectations - and it just doesn't measure up to them. In fact, it can't. "Measure up" is wrong - it just doesn't compare. It doesn't seem to be anything like those books, in any meaningful way. The comparisons are simply unfair, and in the end a bit annoying. And yet, they hooked me in, didn't they? - it was successful marketing! god help me - and I'm not at all sorry I read the book. But the whole enterprise rankles. And notice, too, that they call it an "unclassifiable memoir" - yet by the end of the page, have referred to it as a novel. Apparently, in this brave new post-James Frey (heh) literary (heh) world of the (relatively) massive successes of your Knausgaards and Ferrantes, there is simply no difference whatsoever between a memoir and a novel, a memoir and a fiction. For the record, Knausgaard's My Struggle books have always scanned to me as memoir, so naturally everyone calls them novels. Ferrante's Neapolitan series, meanwhile, scans as fiction, so naturally those books get taken as essentially memoir, to the point that it's apparently totally important that we know who she really is. In this case, I have gathered, from where I can no longer remember, that Ndiaye began writing Self-Portrait in Green as a memoir, and it became a fiction. A common enough occurrence, no doubt. So why not just call it both? Isn't that irritating? I think it's irritating.

(And yet, perhaps somewhat contradictorily, I do not have a problem with writing that is in fact unclassifiable. I call that, simply, writing - and it is in this sense that the commonality with Nelson, Rankine, and Carson, all three the real deal, as far as I'm concerned, is borne out.)

The book you say? How is the book? Hah, what an odd question. The book is pretty good, I think. I enjoyed it, rather a lot, on a sentence by sentence level. I enjoyed the texture of it, of those sentences (the term is borrowed from a friend). I'm not sure I understood the significance of all the green. There were women in green, throughout, and presumably the green meant something, but I couldn't tell you what it was. I'm not sure I care. Re-reading, I enjoyed the sentences even more—Ndiaye is a talented writer—but I remain more or less in the dark about the green. I'm ok with that.


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