My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye

Marie NDiaye's 2007 novel Mon coeur à l'étroit has now been translated by Jordan Stamp and published by Two Lines Press as My Heart Hemmed In. It is a strange, unsettling book, a tale told by a woman named Nadia whose husband receives a ghastly wound that he refuses to have treated, a woman who is being suddenly shunned not only by everyone she knows but apparently by everyone in the city of Bordeaux except for a famous writer she's never heard of, who appoints himself her husband's caretaker. She has an ex-husband who lives in destitution in their own apartment. She is estranged from her son, who once had a male lover (now a police inspector) whom Nadia might have been more in love with than her own child, and who then married a woman and had a daughter, Souhar, whose name Nadia detests.

The novel's first paragraph is in many ways its guiding idea:
Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can't really mean me, can they?
Much worse than scowls happen, showing Nadia that yes, they do mean her — but how do they interpret her? What she means to them is very different from what she means to herself.

From the beginning, the narrative casts a spell because we want to know what is going on and why. Why are Nadia and her husband Ange so utterly loathed by everyone, and apparently so suddenly? Why is Nadia so oblivious to everything around her? Why does she get lost when walking around a city she's lived in for most of her life? Why won't Ange go to the doctor for his gaping wound? Is the famous writer a friend or foe?

This is not, though, a book much interested in answering such questions. It feels to me like a mix of Kafka, Robert Aickman, and J.M. Coetzee's most recent novels. While reading, I suspected NDiaye was doing something with the idea of an unreliable narrator and that by the end we would see how our confinement to Nadia's point of view had warped our perception of what is going on outside that point of view. To some extent, we do get this — clearly, she is a person whose internalized shame and quest to escape her upbringing has caused her to behave terribly to many people who've been unlucky enough to come into contact with her. But it does not explain the book. Even if we assume that Nadia is somehow insane, the only way to explain much of what happens would be to assume almost nothing in the novel's narrative is "real". There is no point that I can think of, though, in assuming that the vast majority of a novel's incidents and encounters aren't meant to be read at some level of reality within the story if we don't have at least a few clear clues to how we are supposed to read between the lines. (And such reading between the lines can be a tremendously effective technique — it expands the story and our experience of it, creating an entire separate story within our imaginations. It's a technique I'm quite fond of.) Thus, we are left, in My Heart Hemmed In, able to assume at least some of the incidents are projections of Nadia's paranoia, but probably not all.

At the end of a 2016 consideration of NDiaye's work, Jeffrey Zuckerman writes:
When psychology and realism no longer suffice to encompass our world, then whatever goes into the forest can come back out, albeit in a different form. Whatever escapes the confines of the psychological novel will be a fantastical, new aspect of our world. And if this is so, then readers weary of the present-day literary landscape should take notice. By straddling the realistic and the fantastic, by touching on the needs of the present moment and presenting new answers to age-old dilemmas, NDiaye is writing a literature both innovative and incredible.
I am as weary of the present-day literary landscape as the next person, though the next person and I might define that landscape differently (I would define it as the small group of books that get much attention from US and UK litchat). As common to the present-day literary landscape as wearisome novels may be, just as common are hyperbolic claims, and at least on the evidence of this one novel, it seems to me Zuckerman contributes to that. (A blinking neon footnote must be added here that the NDiaye novels Zuckerman discusses may be more resonant than My Heart Hemmed In. But his description of those novels is congruent with the narrative workings of My Heart Hemmed In.) I understand. I've probably made plenty of comments about writers that, in retrospect, were significantly more hyperbolic than justified. It's hard not to. With so many books published every year, month, week, day, and hour, it's tough for any writer to get noticed, and particularly tough for writers in translation, and even tougher for writers in translation who write weird, thorny novels. Books now are usually invisible if they don't get a lot of press in their first month of publication. So the hype machine strains to accommodate. If I say, "Marie NDiaye is an interesting writer and My Heart Hemmed In is worth reading if you're looking for something a bit odd and unpredictable," are you going to rush to get a copy? And Zuckerman's claim of NDiaye "writing a literature both innovative and incredible" is, in the scheme of things, only a little bit hyperbolic, and probably something he believes — unlike, say, the content-producer who writes the list of "3,489 Mindblowing Novels You Absolutely Must Read This Week!"

The soft surrealism of My Heart Hemmed In, though, is not especially innovative or incredible. Dark fabulism such as NDiaye employs doesn't tend to lead to bestsellers, but it's a technique with a long history. (Read The Weird, for starters.) I personally enjoy it more than most tales of domestic realism, and I certainly enjoyed My Heart Hemmed In more than I have a lot of more realistic works of psychological anatomy, but it's ultimately a difference between the sense of "Well, okay then," that I ended My Heart Hemmed In with and the feeling of "Oh gawd, this sensitive claptrap again," that makes me toss so many other contemporary novels aside.

And yet, in trying to combat hype, I feel now that I am expressing too negative an opinion, one too deeply colored by my desire for this novel to have achieved more than (for me) it does. Let's recalibrate.

One question I kept asking myself after finishing My Heart Hemmed In was: Why did this need to be a novel and not a short story? (Kafka and Aickman, after all, achieve more resonant, powerful effects at least in part because their best work is under 100 pages.) One reason may be to induce the sort of curiosity I felt about what is "real" in the story and what is not and then to defer those feelings over more and more pages, leading to a sort of frantic frustration, one mirrored by Nadia herself. That doesn't seem to me a particularly valuable experience to give a reader, but there is another, more subtle experience that does seem to me at least somewhat valuable for us to go through, and that is the experience of feeling oneself relatively normal while being treated as a freak.

What My Heart Hemmed In allows is an experience of being inside a point of view that is obviously at odds with the world around it, but which has no access to the norm. Nadia perceives herself as a good person. For reasons she is mostly unable to figure out, the world treats her as if she is not just a bad person, but an utter monster. We as readers have access to her inner world, but no access to the outer world unmediated by her perceptions. We can speculate about what is "actually" going on, but it will always remain speculation, as even the the conversations she conveys to us may not be transcriptions of the reality outside Nadia's perception, but rather the product of what she expects or desires to hear.

Halfway through the story, Nadia's ex-husband says to her: "The trouble with you is you only know what you want to know." What Nadia knows, can know, allows herself to know is a central question for the narrative. Earlier, the famous writer Nadia has never heard of and who has installed himself in her life, says of her and Ange,
You two, it must be said, inappropriate attitude toward life — unacceptable, from certain points of view, and I would even add, forgive me, obscene — and of course that in no way justifies people tormenting you, and indeed no one would be tormenting you if it were only that, but since there's also, as you know, as you suspect...your face, and the look on your face...
It would be easy, and in some ways appropriate, to read My Heart Hemmed In as an allegory of any minority experience, and particularly, given the passage above and Nadia's apparent ancestry, of racism. NDiaye rightly wants to avoid the connect-the-dots game of allegory, though, and does plenty to mess up any simple allegorical reading. For one thing, Nadia clearly has done something. She may partly be despised for qualities outside of her control, but toward the end of the book she comes to see at least the outlines of how her actions have affected people. She seems to have internalized a certain shame, a shame at where she was born, who she was born to, and perhaps even what she looks like, and that internalization of shame has led her to behave as she has. Beyond that, though, it is hard to say anything specific.

The novel ends with thoughts on motherhood, as Nadia flees to her estranged son, a doctor. She has been gaining weight and seems perhaps pregnant, and there is something inside her, but it doesn't seem to be a child as we would think of it. Here the novel briefly becomes rather clumsily symbolic, with Nadia somehow birthing a vague, awful thing. I laughed aloud at one part I would bet is intended to be meaningfully grotesque, not funny. Perhaps it was my own dark humor. Perhaps it was my final exasperation with a book that works so hard to seem to be saying something without coming out and saying anything. I don't know.

Though I think My Heart Hemmed In is less innovative and incredible than other readers likely do, there is something refreshing in a novel like this, a novel that sticks so determinedly to its ambiguities. That's why it reminded me of Coetzee, who can be similarly frustrating, though I tend to think that the fog of his meanings is richer than what we get in My Heart Hemmed In. I expect plenty of other people would feel the opposite, that Coetzee's recent work in particular is more ethereal and enigmatic than NDiaye's novel, a feeling that could be produced by the simple difference between Coetzee's narrative choices and NDiaye's claustrophobic monologue. C'est la vie. Against the certainties of so many novels with their thumpingly clear character arcs and paint-by-numbers psychology, I'll take ambiguity and enigma any day.