Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Free of existence's gravitational pull

She walked through the market stands with her new stride, at once lazy and confident, loose and firm, looking at everything and knowing she'd buy nothing because she and Marko now had to avoid all unnecessary expense, but not wanting anything anyway, neither fabric nor pottery nor metal bangles, simply happy as she thought she'd never been before (because anxiety had always subtly spoiled her most joyful moments, the birth of her children or the completion of her degree), feeling her healthy, familiar, faithful body move freely through the warmth, her thoughts wandering this way and that, unencumbered, weighed down by no worry, no incomprehension.

She could, if she wanted to, or if the miracle of this new outlook had not come to pass, easily find something to torment herself with, she knew that.

But it was as if, rather than deposit her in another land, the plane had delivered her to a universe apart, where she could finally feel the happiness of being herself free of existence's gravitational pull.

Is this what death is like? she wondered. Could she have died and not remembered?

But what she was feeling bore all the hallmarks of life at its fullest, particularly her awareness of her warm, rounded body, lightly dressed in pale lines, which she guided through the stands, she thought, smiling to herself, simply for the pleasure of enjoying its perfect mechanics.

Ladivine is another unsettling novel by Marie Ndiaye. It's emotionally uncomfortable — it seems so foreign until you recognize yourself in it and you wonder, am I so petty, or so proud, so concerned about what others think? Where do the standards and ambitions for myself come from? How many truths do I hide from the people closest to me? What do I hide from myself? Do I even like myself?

It's been months since I read this novel, and it's like I had to rush away from it, cleanse myself of its dark intensity. The book has very distinct phases, covering Clarisse's relationships with her mother, her husband, and their daughter, and then

The mother and daughter are both named Ladivine, but they do not know each other. Clarisse was born Malinka, but only her mother knows her by that name (until later, anyway). As a child, out of shame or disgust Malinka starts referring to her mother as her servant. At age 17 Malinka leaves for Bordeaux and reinvents herself. But her mother find her.

Her love for her mother was a foul-tasting food, impossible to choke down. That food dissolved into bitter little crumbs in her mouth, then congealed, and this went on and on and had no end, the lump of fetid bread shifting from one cheek to the other, then the soft, stinking fragments that made of her mouth a deep pit of shame.

Not exactly a loving relationship. We learn early on that Ladivine's complexion is dark, and clearly Clarisse passes for white, and I can't begin to unravel this aspect of their relationship — maybe it allows Clarisse to disconnect from her mother, her history, maybe it's self-hatred deflected onto a convenient target. Clarisse is also disconnected from herself, emotionless, but driven to become the sort of person she thinks everyone expects her to be. That doesn't bode well for love in the long term.

Clarisse marries Richard, and they are happy and successful with a beautiful home, a daughter, and a dog. Clarisse told them her mother had died long ago. Clarisse thinks the dog has her mother's eyes, and there are some incidents. By the time her marriage falls apart (Richard remarries, to a woman named Clarisse), the daughter Ladivine is emotionally distant from her and living in Germany.

Clarisse really can't figure out where it all went wrong. She still visits her mother every Tuesday.

When she meets Freddy, she doesn't reinvent herself so much as she undoes or erases her previous self. Here things go really wrong, and Clarisse, or Malinka, falls out of the story. We're only a third of the way through. The book is called Ladivine, after all. But I'm already gutted.

Growing up, Ladivine could do no wrong. Permissive parents led her to be something of a wild child. But now she's married in Berlin with two children and going on a family vacation.

They're in place they'd never dreamed of going, somewhere south, and Ladivine is repeatedly mistaken for someone else, and she loses herself utterly. Of course, Clarisse haunts her, and some stray dog always follows them.

The characters are frustratingly opaque, not least to themselves. Families are doomed to repeat their dysfunctional dynamics.

It feels hot and confused, it's surreal and uncomfortable, and I don't entirely understand why. 

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