Sarah Bernstein on Marie Ndiaye

Sarah Bernstein on Marie NDiaye: ‘Her characters and settings remain opaque, they keep their secrets’

We asked the authors on the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist to tell us about their inspirations. Here, Sarah Bernstein, author of Study for Obedience, explains how she drew from Marie NDiaye’s pervasive atmosphere of the uncanny 

Sarah Bernstein

Written by Sarah Bernstein

Publication date and time: Published

I first came across Marie NDiaye’s Self Portrait in Green while working in a French-language library in New Brunswick about a decade ago. The novel, published in France in 2005 and in Jordan Stump’s English translation in 2014, takes the form of a fictional memoir comprised of the narrator’s journal entries, and I was very taken – from this first encounter – with NDiaye’s unconventional approach to storytelling, the way the ordinary and the fearsome are brought together in a kind of uncanny web.   

In this novel, and the ones by NDiaye I have read subsequently, the everyday social world and its niceties undergo a process of erosion that is so gradual it is almost imperceptible until it is far too late – in this way I have more than once had the sense of being trapped in her narratives. Like the sensation of having come so far only to hear a door shutting and locking behind, NDiaye’s use of humour and the absurd, combined with missing or out of kilter points of orientation, has often given me the feeling I’ve been laughing along at a joke I’ve poorly understood, only to realise I have become complicit in some terrible affair.  

There’s a pervasive atmosphere of the uncanny in NDiaye’s work; in novels like Ladivine and My Heart Hemmed In, this is created partly through the evocation of the past – both personal and historical – living on in the present. This is often represented in feelings of guilt or shame on the part of the novels’ protagonists that are not necessarily locatable to them and whose origins remain unspecified to the reader. At other times, feelings of shame and guilt are projected outwards, objectified, represented in the way characters are regarded by others, as in My Heart Hemmed In, in which Nadia and her husband Ange, previously well-liked members of their community, suddenly and apparently inexplicably find themselves ostracised.   

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

Much moves and remains in darkness in NDiaye’s books, from the motivations of her characters to the rules of the social worlds in which they find themselves. In That Time of Year, for example, Herman and his family, holidaying in rural France, stay in the village one day beyond the end of the usual tourist season. Their mistake is a fatal one: from one day to the next, the pleasant weather suddenly turns, Herman’s wife and child go missing, and Herman, in searching for them, finds himself unable to navigate the town’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and unfathomable social order. It’s a really unsettling book in part because of the way Herman’s expectations – of being able to understand the systems of the place and to make himself understood – are very much frustrated.   

So, there are a number of ways that I have been changed by NDiaye’s work and a number of ways I was inspired by it when writing Study for Obedience. For one thing, the past is not past for the narrator of my novel, just as it’s not for the protagonists of many of Ndiaye’s books, and I wanted to explore how this might manifest in the particular circumstances of her life. I was also curious about what is made possible by refusing the reader clear points of orientation – part of this was that I wanted to explore the way a certain experience of history might be transmitted across generations, across a whole people. I’m not talking about the transmission of a specific and locatable historical event, but something a bit more nebulous and also something vaster than that, more like a historical sense of incipient catastrophe.  

Another part of this is that there is something very compelling to me about the way NDiaye’s work often refuses to render things transparently – the motivations of characters, the rules of the social world, even sometimes the settings and landscapes themselves. They remain opaque; they keep their secrets. I’m interested in what this kind of refusal suggests about ways of seeing the world. It seems to me to open up the possibility of finding new ways of understanding things that aren’t limited to systems of classification that render the object of observation transparent or that pull it into our own ways of knowing. There’s something there about a kind of knowledge that is not about understanding in this way. This is something my protagonist is working through as well – her inability to name the landscape around her, to understand the language of the people in the place she finds herself, her reckoning with the possibility that her understanding of history is perhaps not the same as theirs, and also the way that ‘names are secret; they are sacred’.   

Sarah Bernstein Booker 2023 shortlist

I’m especially taken with literature’s ability to unsettle – expectations, conventional narrative forms, ways of reading, thinking and being – and NDiaye’s work almost always has this effect on me.

Another thing I borrowed from NDiaye is the contrast of high and low, the serious and the absurd, because these sorts of juxtapositions are often the engines of the wonderfully off-kilter effects created in her novels. I also derive a lot of pleasure whenever I stumble across these moments in NDiaye’s work, which employ terror and humour in almost equal measure. I have always been interested in the ways writers make strange the known world and in the different strategies they use to do this. I’m especially taken with literature’s ability to unsettle – expectations, conventional narrative forms, ways of reading, thinking and being – and NDiaye’s work almost always has this effect on me. Her characters often make bad choices, pursue affliction, seek out the worst parts of themselves; and yet, far from seeming loathsome, they become in the process of these pursuits characters who evoke quite a lot of compassion.  

The combination of the totally abject and the utterly sweet is something I love about Samuel Beckett’s work, too, and I’m interested in what it suggests about possibilities for caring about people, animals, things whose experiences we cannot understand and that cannot be made legible through the social scripts we ourselves use to understand the world. Writers like Ndiaye and Beckett give me a great sense of what Saidiya Hartman calls the ‘social otherwise’ – what our world could look like if we could learn to look and learn to see differently.   

Marie Ndiaye, 2023