Review of Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green
February 27, 2015 § 4 Comments
By Erin Morgan Gilbert
Where I grew up, green obscured all evidence of human endeavor, softening corners and blotting out other colors. Moss devoured cars and mattresses abandoned in the woods, blanketed roofs, and carpeted the roads. Bodies of water reflected a profound verdancy in their very names: Lake Wilderness, Cedar River, Green River. Even my mother’s eyes were green. Once, she said her favorite color was green too, and I felt disappointed, as if she had admitted to me a secret fatalism, a willingness to disappear into the background. I thought that by allowing the color surrounding us to colonize her personal preferences she was signaling her acceptance of the strict parameters—the poverty and ignorance—that constrained our lives.
Years later, after she died, I found a tiny emerald ring she used to wear, but the gem had cracked. For me, green became associated with loss, but it wasn’t until I read Marie NDiaye’s surreal memoir, Self Portrait in Green, that I understood what the recurrence of the color in my memories meant: my mother was a woman in green.
The first woman in green appears beneath a banana tree in the overgrown garden of a house NDiaye passes on the way to her children’s school. NDiaye watches the woman, and the woman watches her, but when she asks her children about the mysterious figure under the tree, she discovers they can’t see her. Who is this woman, visible only to the author?
Just as electrical currents can affect a magnetic field, the women in green are preceded by disturbances in NDiaye’s version of reality. The subject of most memoirs is the author’s relationship with people and events located in objective reality. NDiaye’s catalogue of women in green is different: she submerges objective details in her own subjective reality, where reality is shaped by authorial force. By acknowledging this process, and inviting the reader into complicity, she writes at the frontier of creative nonfiction.
Several iterations of these women in green crowd around NDiaye, outlining the negative space she writes from, so that she is not defined so much by what she does or doesn’t do, but instead by how she recognizes, imagines, and loses her green women. They are “untouchable, disappointing, infinitely mutable, very cold, able, by force of will, to become very beautiful, and able, too, not to want to.”
When she decides to park in front of the first green woman’s house, the woman is poised on a second floor balcony, ready to leap. The second is so mutable that she transforms herself from a childhood friend into an unhappy stepmother. She recognizes the third woman in green from another friend’s descriptions of someone’s wife, and stops herself from asking what color the wife wears, wondering if her friend had mentioned green, but realizing that by that point she can identify a woman in green regardless of what color the woman wears.
NDiaye’s reality is infectious, as hungry as the green I knew as a child. In a passage that reverberated through my own subjective reality, she introduces the fourth woman in green. “How strange it is,” she writes, “[that] your own mother, after you’ve butted heads with her on all manner of questions but most often and most violently on the inertia, the grayness, the deadly smallness of her existence, which, no doubt wrongly, you thought darkened and depersonalized your own, how strange it is that this woman you can no longer bear to know so well should suddenly metamorphose on her own into a green woman….”
The surreal atmosphere of Self-Portrait in Green began to create disturbances in my own reality, like the flooding Garonne running through the pages of the memoir or the Cedar River that once flooded my mother’s house. NDiaye’s imagination seeps into the corners of my mind, until my own memories are submerged and saturated with meaning. Green blotted out all other colors.
For some, this kind of associative logic will seem like no logic at all, and the book will not merit the words “memoir” and “self-portrait.” Yet the result is autobiographical—unsettling in its intimacy and mesmerizing in its emotional honesty. As NDiaye confesses near the end, I too needed these green women, “to remember they’re there, at once real beings and literary figures, without which, it seems to me, the harshness of existence scours skin and flesh down to the bone.”
Erin Morgan Gilbert’s essays, poems, and stories appear in publications such as AGNI, Bitch Magazine, and the Ilanot Review. She is an assistant editor at Asymptote, a composition instructor at Green River Community College, and a creative writing teacher at Hugo House in Seattle. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she grew up memorizing birdsongs, eating berries, and learning the scientific names of evergreen trees in the forest.