Rabat – Sometimes, perhaps, the most compelling stories are those suggested, murmured, mimicked, like the sound of a toddler in early stages of speech: stories that are revealed through an artfully calculated prose.
This brings to mind the mantra with which aspiring writers are being tortured: “Show, don’t tell; less is more.” The suggestion, I think I now know, is this: at times, simplicity is more evocative, more sophisticated, and, ultimately, more vibrant than pompous language. I still have qualms about such a posture.
I’ve never been truly convinced by this minimalist gospel. To me, a fervent lover of flowery and sinuous prose, literary minimalism sounds like somebody telling me that the best way to speak is to actually ‘not speak’; it feels, as Paul West put it, like “a lion afraid of meat.” The Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma makes the case more brilliantly than I in his magnificent essay in defense of “audacious prose.”
As a literature fundamentalist, I revel in beautiful language; I worship the beguiling musicality of felicity; I succumb to the symmetry and poetry of vivid language. Language, when it is dexterously used by the sublime and pertinent pen of a writer—be they poet, novelist, or essayist—has the ability to transform the world into a party, a festival, an uproarious gathering of angelic creatures: in literature, nothing is as transcendentally transformative as linguistic virtuosity. Beautiful language is, in essence, an elixir, a downpour of paradisal evocations.
Yet, although I have not totally succumbed to literary minimalism, Leïla Slimani’s beautiful and breathtaking prose has somehow convinced me that when mastered and controlled, minimalism does have its undeniable merits; that it has a point, especially in these times when people don’t really have time for books.
Dans le jardin de l’ogre, Slimani’s first novel, was published in 2014. But I only read it very recently, last October, to be more precise, as I tried to familiarize myself with Morocco’s literary world, having recently landed in Rabat as an exchange student. Dans le jardin de l’ogre recounts the thrilling, and yet depressing, life of Adèle, a journalist and sex addict married to a successful doctor. It is a novel full of double entendres, veiled desires, the body and its abilities, and marital life.
“She’s been enduring for a week. For a week she has not given in. Adèle has been wise.” Such are the opening lines of Slimani’s first novel, as she introduces a character whose unbridled lust will be her downfall. The shortness of the sentences, the breathtaking briskness with which she throws her words in her reader’s face—these are the hallmarks of Slimani’s minimalistic, constrained, controlled and quasi-Flaubertian prose. Her sentences are economical and assertive. They bear that magisterial posture of a writer who knows what to do with words.
But for all the brilliance present on some pages, for all the subversive imagery so pervasive in Adèle’s world, her “failed” femme fatale character did not move me much. Slimani’s first novel, in some senses, failed to grant me the transfiguration that only great novels bestow upon their readers. But I did not put it down; I have the irrational stubbornness of finishing the books that I start, especially when I invested my money to acquire them. And so, as I witnessed Adèle’s lies being exposed; as I watched her bourgeois marriage crumble; as I enjoyed the dizzying enchantment of her roller-coaster sex life; as I laughed at that carnal, pathological versatility masquerading as romance; I decided that I needed to be a bit indulgent towards Slimani. After all, this was her debut novel.
Debuts can be great. Some “great” established writers will actually tell you, as will their readers, that their best novel is in fact their first one. But, in general, good debuts show—at least they should—glimpses of prospective greatness. A well-written debut novel, I dare believe, is a sign of somebody still looking for their voice, their signature–the distinctive mark that will make them stand out in our stultifying frenzy of poor books. (After all, Notes from the Underground, an early “philosophical fiction” by the formidable Dostoyevsky, was not so great. In the hesitant tone of its mild prose, however, one can sense greatness under construction, a nascent voice, the sure-to-come originality of an author who would subsequently prove to be the best explorer of human psychology and complexity.)
And so, as I finished Slimani’s first novel, I decided to give her a second chance, to buy her second novel at my earliest convenience. And Slimani, in the curious telepathy—that divine bond—existing between authors and their readers, seemed to have heard my doubts. She took them into account. She soothed my qualms, reassured me, shattered my reservations, and promised me that next time would be better, much better. In the final lines of Dans le jardin de l’ogre, she writes: “Love is but patience. A submissive, bigoted, tyrannical patience. An unreasonably optimistic patience. We are not done yet.”
She was right—we were not done yet: Two weeks later, I bought Chanson Douce, her second novel (winner of the 2016 Goncourt Prize, France’s most prestigious literary award, and recently translated into English as Perfect Nanny in America, and Lullaby in Britain).
A dramatic, heartrendingly beautiful adventure had begun!
“The baby is dead,” begins Chanson Douce. Like in her first novel, Slimani was back with the aggressive candor of her prose. Here, however, the style was more touching, affecting, addictive. Chanson Douce, from its first pages, radiates with penetrating simplicity. In the shocking brevity of its sentences, it blends meaning and sensuality. Every word in this novel is a hard and deliberate choice, a calculated move, the quintessential paroxysm of Slimani’s dogged obsession with clarity. By using this magisterial trick of starting with the end, Slimani slams you in the guts, her words haunt you until the last page.
Chanson Douce, as it is, transforms you into a detective looking for clues to what really went wrong. “Why? How?” you keep murmuring as you witness Louise, the central character, a charming and spotless nanny, turn into a monstrous presence, a cold and unthinking murderer of the children she so dearly loved. This is perhaps why a critic has called the novel “truly horrific” and “sublime.”
That assessment is right. As a page-turner, an irresistible thriller, Chanson Douce tells you this: a) Sometimes, it is in the comfort and security of home, in the tenderness and familiarity of being loved and desired, that we are most vulnerable; b) estrangement, alienation and self-loathing can transform us into monsters. To feel abandoned, left out, and good-for-nothing can be a fertilizer of atrocity.
But this does not do justice to the masterful minimalism of Chanson Douce.
Here, Slimani deploys her journalistic instincts of agonizing clarity and detailed observation—she worked as a journalist before writing her first novel—to talk about life in general.
In Louise’s bittersweet tenderness, the children’s immaculate and unquestioned love for their fairy-tale nanny, and the professional success of Louise’s employers, Slimani gives us characters to chat with, presences that comfort. She lightens the ordeal and torture of going through life. She sweetens cruelty without depriving it of its galvanizing horror. Hers, fundamentally, is a simple prose that vivifies life and summons the readers to the agony of broken lives and unfulfilled destinies. Chanson Douce evokes unarticulated longings, desires left unsaid, and unquenched thirst. Slimani recently told The Guardian: “I want to write about a character who fascinates me, someone I don’t understand… [to capture] the anxiety and claustrophobia of being a mother.” I think she succeeded in that regard.
Slimani’s Paris, the locale of her novels, is harsh and violent; it is a slaughterhouse mired in indifference and the condescending civility of the well-off. Immigration, loneliness, tears, gossip, poverty, the squalor of French banlieues—Chanson douce has it all. Slimani introduces you to the disarming precariousness of these broken lives. She opens your eyes to things that you took for granted, or ignored, or things that did not matter to you. Her poetry is not effusive; it is humane, compelling, and sincere. As Louise begins to consider the possibility of a dreadful deed, Slimani writes of her: “Her heart has hardened… Nothing moves her anymore. She has forgotten how to love. She’s extinguished all the tenderness that was left in her heart; her hands no longer have anything to stroke.”
From then on, it seems to me that Slimani’s book surpasses a mere thriller. With a well-adorned language that avoids being sanctimonious or preachy, she touches upon the inescapable grip of social class and how our lives can be decided by a series of predetermined and fixed patterns. Slimani is passionately attached to her characters and obsessed with the emotional sincerity of her story. That is all; that is enough; that is laudable.
In his preface to The Early Stories, John Updike asserted that the mission of art is “to do justice to the beauty of the ordinary.” Who can say that Chanson Douce did not achieve that?
In My Name Is Red, a fascinating novel on art and creativity, one of Orhan Pamuk’s characters opined: “An artist’s skill depends on carefully attending to the beauty of the present moment… stepping back from the world… allowing for the distance and eloquence of a jest.” Pamuk’s suggestion, it seems to me, is that unrivaled artistry resides in masterful control over one’s medium, a divine ability to douse the flames of life and create unparalleled elation and angelic delight and indefinable splendor out of the trivial and tedious banalities of daily life. If this suggestion is correct—and I think it is—Slimani deserves a residency permit in the pantheon of authors on whom we’ve bestowed the epithet “great.”
Leïla Slimani may not have the entrancing scholarship of Mathias Énard’s bamboozling novels, or the verbal succulence of Alain Mabanckou’s zestful prose…yet, through her lacerating urgency, her gut-wrenching clarity, her deft observations, and her penetrating journalistic gaze, Slimani abducts us at our own behest. Is that not what a reader should require of an author?
Sexe et Mensonges: La vie Sexuelle au Maroc, Slimani’s most recent book, a reportage on the duplicity and the hypocrisy surrounding sexual mores and conventions in Morocco, was published last September. I have not read it yet. Term papers and the turbulence of student life have been keeping me back, diverting my focus. But I will very soon. So should you.