Over the course of her career, Marie NDiaye has carved herself a unique position in French literature, situated somewhere between the real and the otherworldly. The force of her writing stems from its apparent softness, with its slow twists and turns that draw the reader into situations that are constantly shifting: we emerge trembling, with a sensation somewhere between pleasure and terror.
Born in France in 1967, NDiaye made her literary debut at seventeen when her first novel, Quant au riche avenir [As for the Rich Future], was published by Éditions de Minuit. This was followed, in 1988, by Comédie classique [Classic Comedy], a novel composed of a single sentence about the trials and travails of a very Joycean protagonist. Its success earned her, at twenty-one, an invitation to appear on the preeminent literary TV show of the time, Apostrophes.
Before long, the story of this prodigious young woman, raised by a single mother who was a teacher, whose style resisted the constraints of genre or label, became legendary. She achieved mainstream success in 2001 with Rosie Carpe, an uncanny story of displacement, shame and family betrayal which won her the Prix Femina; her 2003 play Papa doit manger [Papa Has to Eat] earned her the distinction of being the first woman since Marguerite Duras to have her work performed by the Comédie-Française during her lifetime. By 2009, when she received the Prix Goncourt for Trois femmes puissantes, translated by John Fletcher as Three Strong Women, she was already the author of a complex body of work notable for its range, introspection and psychological acuity.
Marie NDiaye has created a fictional universe filled with unconventional men and women thrown into an abyss of despair. Through them, she interrogates the impossibility of completely belonging to a place, an origin or a family; many of her characters are severe self-critics, isolated from others and driven by an obsession with guilt and responsibility. In Royan, la professeure de français [Royan, the French Teacher], her most recent play, which was due to be performed at the 2020 Avignon Festival, a character wracked by pain over an inexcusable mistake asks: ‘Is there always someone to blame for unhappiness?’ This cry of anguish runs through the whole of NDiaye’s oeuvre, without ever receiving a response. Her female characters in particular – social outcasts who fight to preserve their dignity in the face of deception – are linked by an inner strength and a capacity to resist; NDiaye’s writing celebrates the possibility of infinite reinvention and offers, beneath the surface of clear, powerful prose, the hope of deliverance from the nightmares she conjures.