Self Portrait in Green
Marie NDiaye, Jordan Stump
Mr B's review
The redemptive nature of colour, and its ability to offer us a visual aid to better organize the world, is well documented. Its enduring presence in literature is sometimes passive, a specific colour may be utilized as a personal touchstone by an author. At other times colour is more active. We see authors seized by a colour, overwhelmed by it; spilling into all areas of their lives, they become oversaturated in colour, humming with chroma. Examples include: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Derek Jarman’s Chroma, Ann Carson’s The Blue of Distance. A binding theme, which facilitates these intimate encounters with colour, is the great cost at which they come: Nelson’s Grief, Jarman’s waning health, Carson’s loss. Another theme is the language used to evoke colour. Often chaotic, in a painterly sense, flitting between rich lyricism, sparse prose poetry, unexpected metaphor, obscure imagery, all constructs an anatomy of colour.
Self Portrait in Green is a hypnotic and powerful new novel which fits confidently within this tradition. Lyrical, and peppered with repetition and alliteration; this novel is instantly arresting. From the outset the reader finds themselves submerged in the shifting river-green waters of the Garonne. Thereafter, the novel begins to flit back and forth in the early noughties, as an unnamed narrator, pensively tries to establish some continuity between her own life and the recurring green women that haunt her. The novel is densely populated but with great intelligence, with few words Marie Ndiaye constructs entire lives. Characters die and reappear throughout the novel, people become interchangeable; the narrator repeatedly slips into a green malaise when interacting with others. Green becomes symbolic of all things threatening, banal, predictable, fatiguing, uncontrollable, in short green steps in, when the narrator wishes to step away from the overwhelming immensity of life. The ebbing and rising of the Garrone is consistent, it flows through the novel. Thus, the narrator begins to recognise themselves and all that is green not outside of but as a part of time’s vast river. Signs of reconciliation begin to surface. After finishing this novel you may re-consider the following line by Virginia Woolf as “I live; I die; the
sea [river] comes over me; it’s the blue [green] that lasts”.
Obsessed by her encounters with the mysterious green women, and haunted by the Garonne River, a nameless narrator seeks them out in La Roele, Paris, Marseille, and Ouagadougou.
Each encounter reveals different aspects of the women; real or imagined, dead or alive, seductive or suicidal, driving the narrator deeper into her obsession, in this unsettling exploration of identity, memory and paranoia.
Self Portrait in Green is the multi-prize winning, Marie NDiaye’s brilliant subversion of the memoir. Written in diary entries, with lyrical prose and dreamlike imagery, we start with and return to the river, which mirrors the narrative by posing more questions than it answers.
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