The Stranger

That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye, Translated from French by Jordan Stump. San Francisco: Two Lines Press. 136 pages. $20.

The cover of That Time of Year

A MAN AND HIS FAMILY are vacationing in a tiny village in France. On the eve of their planned departure, the man’s wife and son disappear. He embarks on a hopeful search, asking for information about his missing family from neighbors and the local police. They went to pick up eggs and they didn’t come back, he tells anyone who will listen. But it’s September, and, with the other Parisian vacationers gone, the town—usually sunny and cheery—has transformed. It’s cold and wet, and the townspeople, once spirited and deferential to visitors, are distant and unhelpful. They are also confused by the man’s presence: Why on earth would a Parisian stay past summer?

That Time of Year, the most recent of celebrated French writer Marie NDiaye’s work to be translated into English, follows Herman as he navigates the first month of fall, attempting to learn the town’s peculiar customs in order to find his wife and child. The novel, which has been assiduously translated by Jordan Stump, was originally published in 1994. One of NDiaye’s early texts, it serves as a site of play for the writer’s longtime interests, from class mobility and assimilation to power and control, and offers an opportunity to survey the development of a writer whose enviably imagined and intelligently executed stories have propelled her into the international spotlight.

NDiaye was born in 1967 in Pithiviers, France, to a French mother and a Senegalese father. Her parents separated when she was a baby, and NDiaye’s mother, a science teacher, raised her and her brother. NDiaye has described her childhood as fairly bourgeois and considers herself entirely French. She is not close with her father, and does not claim her paternal roots: “My father left when I was very young,” she said in a 2005 New York Times profile. “I was 22 when I first visited Africa. It was as foreign to me as China or India.” And yet the continent is almost always present in NDiaye’s work: in the settings she chooses or in how diaspora does (or does not) alienate her characters.

NDiaye began writing when she was twelve years old. She published her first novel at eighteen with Jérôme Lindon, who worked with Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, and Marguerite Duras. Over the past thirty-five years, she has produced more than a dozen novels and several plays and has been awarded the Prix Femina (for Rosie Carpe) and the Prix Goncourt (for Three Strong Women). Ladivine, published in 2013, is NDiaye at her best. The novel’s biracial protagonist, Malinka, aspires to more than her working-class background. She disavows her mother (who cleans houses), her birth name, and, the text suggests, her Black identity to become Clarisse Rivière—beautiful, mysterious, and white. This is her first death. Clarisse marries a perfectly capable man with middle-class aspirations and gives birth to a daughter (whom she names Ladivine, after her mother), but her life eventually asphyxiates her. Her husband leaves, her daughter grows cold. And then she dies abruptly and violently, and the book takes up the story of Clarisse’s mother and her daughter. In Ladivine, NDiaye plays with assimilation and asks what happens to a person after they transcend racial and class lines. The answers are violent and the novel wrestles with the shame of familial estrangement and the disorienting feeling of being surveilled.

Three Strong Women, published in 2009 and perhaps NDiaye’s best-known novel, is an intermediate stage—one that connects her finest work and That Time of Year. The novel uses the stories of a trio of characters to explore the precarity and fluidity of familial relationships and the psychological toll of trying to survive. In the first section, Norah, a French lawyer, reluctantly returns to Senegal to help her estranged father defend her brother against a murder accusation. In the second section, Fanta, a West African woman, marries a white Frenchman and moves to Europe in hopes of finding opportunity. And in the third, Khady, a recently widowed Senegalese woman, embarks on a treacherous journey to France. The novel, whose parts are loosely linked, primarily deals with how these three women negotiate their powerlessness. The characters in these stories (unlike those in That Time of Year) are sharply drawn. They are plagued by nervous energies that manifest in humiliating ways, from urinating in public to compulsive anal scratching, and they are subject to frequent lapses of memory. The question of whose reality can be trusted is repeatedly raised. As in Ladivine, the disorienting quality of the narrative feels purposeful to the extent that it reflects the kind of precarity familiar to the protaganists: their realities are constantly shifting—and usually not of their own accord.

Marie NDiaye.
Marie NDiaye. Photo: © Catherine Hélie

That Time of Year shows us an earlier NDiaye, one who is still figuring out what she wants to do. Instead of committing to a single theme, she flirts with several ideas. Herman is slow to realize that no one in the rural village wants to help him. In his search for his wife, Rose, and child, who is never named, he approaches the townspeople with the same air of “superior civility” that he has exercised every summer for the last ten years. That haughty and self-centered attitude leads him to make audacious assumptions, the most dangerous of which is that his problem is unique and therefore urgent to others. In fact, Herman’s interactions with townspeople are marked by an intentional distance on their part. Early in the book, he seeks assistance from a farmer who sold his wife and son eggs, a police officer, and a receptionist at the mayor’s office. All see Herman as not only foreign but suspect.

It’s not until Herman meets Alfred, the president of the chamber of commerce and the head of the festivities committee, that he accepts the need to revise his approach. Alfred was also from Paris, until he decided fifteen years ago “purely by coincidence” to stay in the village past summer. This was a choice, he explains to Herman, that has given him access to another side of the town. “They only give outsiders the most superficial sort of help,” Alfred tells Herman. “You’ll have to discreetly work your way into the life of the village, become a villager yourself—invisible, insignificant—and above all erase any memory of the fact that you’re a Parisian who’s stayed after summer, which is to say an intruder.”

In a 2017 interview, NDiaye’s English translator Jordan Stump tries to explain the role of racial identities in her novels: “Race is always potentially at work in her narratives, but with few exceptions we can never really be quite sure that’s what’s going on. Her earlier books in particular are continually suggesting that they might be read as allegories of otherness or racism, but always in a sort of sketchy, uncertain way.” When Herman asks how long he must play the villagers’ game, Alfred encourages him to abandon the concept of time: “You can’t very well change your skin in two days, can you?” When Alfred recounts his own integration into the town, he proudly says, “It all worked out beautifully, I became president of the Chamber of Commerce, head of the festivities committee, and now no one knows or remembers I belong to that hated race.” Herman’s interaction with Alfred provides one of the few explicit mentions of race in That Time of Year and hints at the physical difference between the townspeople and outsiders. NDiaye plays with race here and through the rest of the novel in a way that piques interest, and her language, taut and specific, invites multiple interpretations of its meaning. Are Herman and Alfred using different senses of the word? Rather than being restricted to a particular identity, race becomes a stand-in for difference itself.

After his encounter with Alfred, Herman begins to refashion his life. He moves out of his vacation home and into the hotel where Alfred stays. On Alfred’s advice, he also relinquishes his privacy by leaving his door open. “When you’re out, when you’re home, someone’s always watching you, what does it matter,” Alfred tells Herman. Better never to lock the door: “People will wonder what you’re hiding, and that would be the end of all your attempts to inspire confidence.” Herman begins to understand and accept that by staying in town he has consented to being watched. At every step of the way Herman is reluctant and uncertain, but soon the weather and his dejected spirit weigh him down, making him less inclined to resist his transformation into a villager. The longer Herman stays in the village, the more futile his search for Rose and his son feels. He falls into a stupor, loses focus, and eventually abandons his search altogether. Assimilation costs Herman his confidence. He becomes preoccupied with what others think of him and develops anxiety about leaving the village. When the opportunity to escape presents itself, he desperately tries to find his way back.

There are many points at which it is clear That Time of Year is an early work. The narrative gaps feel less intentional, more clumsy than they do in NDiaye’s later novels. Such moments don’t completely distract from this eerie novel, which is part ghost story and part allegory of class and racial difference. And in the end, the narrative, even with its flaws, delivers a haunting lesson about the ease with which a panicked outsider can be lulled into complacency and inaction.

Lovia Gyarkye is a writer and editor based in New York.