Leïla Slimani’s début novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (now out in English as Adèle) is a gripping yet unsatisfying book. As a study of a nymphomaniac, that is, perhaps, its intent: to be lurid but not lubricious, subversive but unsexy, to force upon the reader the mental pathologies of its title character. It is the story of an obsession told so obsessively that it frustrates as much as it compels.
Adèle is a journalist living a life of successful middle-class mediocrity. She is married to a gastroenterologist, Richard; they have one son whom she loves, Lucien; they are young, well off, live in a nice apartment in Montmartre and aspire to a house in the country. At the same time, she is a sex addict who, in the course of the novel, engages in a quite dizzying sequence of hook-ups, one-night stands and longer-term affairs – with inevitable consequences.
In one sense, it is marital infidelity at its most classic. Slimani makes no bones about the novel’s intersections with, among others, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Madame Bovary.Her style, however, makes even Flaubert seem garrulous: she writes in sentences of few words, in scenes of a handful of pages, many of them constructed on the basis of controlled omission – a favourite technique is to allow the reader to develop misconceptions for her to shatter later.
This economy of style is highly effective at immersing us in Adèle’s interior world, one marked by anxiety, insecurity and exhaustion – being a working mother and having countless illicit liaisons is not easy. Those who have read Slimani’s Goncourt-winning Chanson Douce (Lullaby) will recognise something of a type in her: she shares a passivity, a dollishness, a childlikeness with the nanny Louise, an inability to free herself from overriding forces, and this childlikeness finds its mirror in the simplicity of the language. Conversely, it is her passivity – her desire “to be a doll in an ogre’s garden” – that drives her to take desperate action to gain and maintain status. Her ideal life would have been as the trophy wife of a rich, absent man, a dream her mediocre existence constantly fails to live up to: “Their money has the stink of work, sweat and long nights at the hospital… it allows her neither languor nor decadence.” While despising Richard, however, idly contemplating divorce and even widowhood, she instinctively knows she needs him as cover for her unacceptable desires. “Passing” seems to be a theme of this novel (including in the sense of covering up one’s racial identity, of which more below). Adèle is frequently surprised at how easily she gets away with leading a double life, and keeps uncovering fundamental disconnections between how she thinks she is viewed and how she discovers herself to be viewed. Various scenes play out this disparity. At Christmas, her husband gives her an Hermès brooch which made him “think of her as soon as he saw it”, but to wear which “she would have to grow out her hair, style it in a chignon and wear square-heeled shoes” (pointedly, like her mother-in-law). A phone conversation with a future lover goes as follows:
“It would be better if we weren’t seen together. How would you like me to explain it to Richard?” She regrets having said that. He will assume she makes a habit of this, that these precautions are an everyday thing to her.
But no, he takes it as deference: as a savage, but determined, desire.
Similarly, while the men Adèle sleeps with seem to enjoy the experience, she herself is constantly unsatisfied, preferring the initial seduction “where everything is still possible” to the subsequent rote intercourse. Most horrifyingly, men continue to see Adèle as alluring even as we learn more and more about her inner suffering; men who seem happy to interpret any note of anxiety, shyness, reticence or ambivalence as a turn-on. Slimani’s observation in the sex scenes is particularly acute. She has created, here, an almost exhaustive catalogue of bad sex: mechanical, jaded, drunk and incompetent, drunk and risky, hate-ridden, repulsive, pitiful, violent and degrading.
As the addiction takes over, it starts to distort all other experiences: social occasions are only an opportunity for a pick-up, family holidays “a long cold tunnel, a punishment”. And it is this single-mindedness on the part of the focal character, the all-consuming whirlwind of her condition, that renders other aspects of the book rather unsatisfying. Adèle occupies so much space that the other characters – her parents and in-laws, husband and child, lovers, friends and colleagues – seem barely even two-dimensional. This is of course the point – life consumed, rendered colourless – but it does make for unfulfilling reading at times, and is occasionally overplayed.
The description of Adèle at work falls particularly flat: an expert on Tunisia writing at the time of the 2011 protests, she is a prolific inventor of sources and copier of others’ work; a churnalist. And though her lack of interest is clearly explicable in terms of her psychology, and while Slimani seems also to enjoy frustrating all Adèle’s hopes of being anything more than mediocre in all spheres of life, here it seems more an opportunity for authorial satire than a genuine expression of character. Adèle’s father is also (presumably) Tunisian, making Adèle, like Slimani herself, mixed-race; however, he is such an absent figure – virtually non-speaking, he appears in a couple of scenes and a sexual dream – that it feels like Slimani is purposely avoiding this aspect of her life. This is, of course, her prerogative, and has its own value, if it is important to give representation both to characters who happen to be of colour and those whose storylines are defined by their race. However, it compares unsatisfactorily to similar material in Chanson Douce, where class and race relationships are handled in a much more productive, though still ambivalent fashion.
Published first but translated second, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre has probably suffered critically from the international fame of its successor. As a literary début, it may not have had the space to develop themes which Slimani was able to explore more fully later; in competing for attention, she may have erred on the side of sensationalism. However, it remains a well-paced, psychologically convincing portrait, involving if not totally illuminating, fast-paced if lacking in density. And there is no question of the fact that Slimani is a great stylist, writing with a Spark-like simplicity that shades off, on occasions, into poetry.
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