Format: 128 pp., hardcover; Size: 5 X 8″; Price: $19.95; Publisher: Two Lines Press; Number of village women wearing apple blossom print blouses: all of them; Number of rainy days during the off season of said village: all of them; Some other books by the author: My Heart Hemmed In, Ladivine, La Cheffe; Representative Passage: “She charms the worst part of me,” mused Herman, “the laziest part, the most shiftless. The hours go by without thought or vitality, and everything’s the same, from minor villanies to virtuous good deeds. How restful, yes, what a restful life this is! What a restful place is this village!”
Central Question: What is the line between aspirational stoicism and dangerous apathy?
Marie NDiaye’s That Time of Year, a novel about Parisian vacationers who go to the countryside and never return, was published in 1993 and has arrived in its first English translation in an apt year, a 2020 of remote work, remote life, remoteness. The book, which is a rumination on (and a cackle at) the stark differences between privileged urban and disenfranchised provincial life, feels particularly timely in this moment when the pandemic has altered the norms of cosmopolitan living and sent many urbanites fleeing to the countryside. But That Time of Year is no comedy of manners; the headline of NDiaye’s story is not to satirize the crassness of rural newcomers so much as it is about how about how all her characters, when faced with their own specific varieties of isolation are, by force of nature, blind, muddled, incurious, and most of all suspended in their acquiescence.
NDiaye’s work, especially her earlier novels like That Time of Year, are often compared to dreams because of their uncanny, surreal qualities. But what is most dreamlike about them is the naturalness with which her characters accept new and arbitrary realities. Naturalness might not even be the word, because she does not try to explain motives for such surrender so much as she makes surrender an integral part of the human condition. An optimist might call this quality adaptability, but NDiaye sees adaptability as the fancy-dress of surrender.
That Time of Year begins on September 1st, in an unspecified year, the day after tourist season ends in an unspecified rural French town. Herman and his family have decided to stay on another few days and this break from the norm, made on a whim, is a problem. Though his wife and son disappear with no explanation and no trace, NDiaye never writes urgency into this strange occurance. Herman is the type of bland, alienating character who is designed to drive distance between his plight and the reader’s sympathies. As he searches for his family, NDiaye includes no details about his wife Rose, or his son, whose name is never mentioned. She places many of Herman’s internal thoughts into quotation marks, further alienating the reader from his mind, making the reader a proper voyeur. Furthermore, his thoughts, framed as speech in this way, make him seem especially transparent and naive to all the villagers he encounters as he half-heartedly tries to make sense of the disappearance.
As time passes, he wades contentedly through the town’s bureaucracy and appears comforted by his helplessness. Everyone—from a gendarme to the president of the chamber of commerce to the mayor—dismissively proclaims that when vacationers outstay the season, such disappearances happen. When the mayor speaks casually of something called “village sickness,” the transformation of a lingering vacationer into a ghostly apparition, NDiaye nods facetiously at the earnestness of the supernatural premise, without dwelling on it enough to lead the story into the terrain of folktale or science fiction, where such leaps exist more comfortably. Here, the supernatural is unsettlingly banal and relatable; Herman’s stasis and the transformation of his wife are creepy on an equal plane. The reality of “village sickness” goes unquestioned and Herman loses interest in pursuing the spectres of his family that roam the village. Instead, he begins searching for someone who will pity him. Eventually he finds that sympathetic audience: the town’s young people. When he meets Charlotte and Méthilde they hang on the tale of his missing family. “Herman exulted in feeling so tragic,” NDiaye writes. “Had anyone ever thought of him that way, had he ever, even once, moved someone?” In light of Herman’s passionless demeanor, it is unsurprising that he has failed so far in life to connect and move others emotionally. But perhaps even more relevant to this epiphany is the only other detail we know about Herman’s Parisian life: the fact that he was a teacher.
Teaching is a profession that NDiaye has visited in her work more than once, most notably in her novel My Heart Hemmed In, in which two teachers are suspended from their jobs, ostracized by their community, and even physically punished for an unnamed misdeed. The couple don’t seem too curious about the nature of that sin—or, they pretend a certain self-protective ignorance. Herman is surveilled closely by two alien audiences, the villagers and his ghostly family – and for both he imagines his passivity reads as decorum. The act of teaching itself, in both novels, is never illustrated nor explored, but the role effectively becomes shorthand for some of the NDiaye’s themes—the creep of bureaucracy into the personal, the neediness and self-deception that can come with being a semi-public, well-observed figure. In both novels she laughs at the certainty of the incurious, and she relishes the anti-climax of discovering oneself to be without any particular authority, moral or otherwise.
The way that Herman gloms onto these young women feels particularly telling not just because we get a sense of the disatisfaction teaching may have brought to Herman’s own life, but because we see how Herman’s stasis has attracted him to the vulnerability of lives still in flux. With Charlotte and Méthilde, he has a new chance at imagining himself as influential, though he has not much been able to influence the direction of his own life. While he feels guilty knowing that the ghostly apparition of Rose, who now wanders the village, will watch him keeping young, attractive company, he considers sleeping with each of them. He does not, but still he cannot resist observing their struggles to define themselves against the backdrop of the drab village. In apathetic Charlotte and ambitious Méthilde Herman finds the contradictory realities of provincial life, but also two conflicting impulses in himself. Though he does not want the door to his old life closed behind him, starts “to think that vitality is in no way a necessity, nor is a certain sort of happiness made up of varied activities, heartfelt affections, and a comfortable, discreet wealth, like he’d known until recently with Rose in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris.”
No matter how deep Herman disappears into the fabric of the town, NDiaye ensures that he never learns to read it accurately and remains as deluded as the vacationer he once was. He insists again and again that it is a place of “dulled, larval inertia,” and of “indolent but not ignoble, serenely oblivious degeneration” even when he observes all manner of hierarchy and pretension in the villagers. The city hall is “ultramodern,” the citizens want to hire their children tutors for prestige, Méthilde’s boyfriend wears makeup and is obsessed with showing off his new Parisian friend to a local man, rich from selling horseshoe-shaped swimming pools for vacation homes. Still, when his old boss calls to ask when he’ll return, Herman takes immense comfort in the fact that the village never required him “to deal with anyone who thought like he did, as his Parisian friends and colleagues did, strangely delivered of the obligation to keep up a dignified appearance.” The trouble is, it is hard to know how Herman thinks; we only see him acquiesce. He resigns himself to the idea that his wife has simply decided to “settle” in the village for eternity, saying to himself “But still, yes, we’ll be glad we exist… There will be that and nothing more.” In invoking existentialism, NDiaye demolishes its pretense of nobility—Herman shrugs off a moment of choice. The most decisive thing he does is couch his new life in a performative stoicism.
Though the book is restrained in its use of sensory detail, it is incredibly atmospheric. Like a staid riff on Baudelaire, the region’s unnaturally harsh rain seeps into everything; it drives Herman mad, to the point where he claims his brain is “liquefying.” Just as NDiaye marks Herman economically with the seasonally inappropriate, sodden linen suit he trudges through the village in, she also uses clothing to mark the villagers. All the women wear matching blouses made from an apple blossom print calico, fastened with side ties indicating marital status. This same antiquated dress, seen at city hall, peeks out from under navy blazers. Later in the book, Herman is witness to a seemingly anachronistic meeting of the town’s tradespeople—the gift shop owner, the antiquarian, the real estate agent, the charcutier, etc. Their irritated calculations about the spending patterns of vacationers take place as they eat vol-au-vent before a vast, drafty fireplace in a half timbered building, as “the rain slapped the windowpanes and two satellite dishes recently installed on the slope of the roof knocked together in the furious wind.” This toggling between the new and old, the bureaucratic and the picturesque, makes one wonder whether such details are another example of NDiaye’s strange tweaks to reality, a nod to surveillance, or whether they are also a ruse of the village, another way for it to sell itself to Parisians. NDiaye, though, is too graceful in her ambiguities to tell us outright, though we know Herman has bought in early and stayed.
Either way, details like this little bit of anthropological frisson might sound most at home in the films of Jordan Peele or Ari Aster. In That Time of Year, they are all the weirder because NDiaye offsets them with an otherwise stark world. NDiaye’s sense for the visual and the cinematic extends beyond her books. In the film White Material, which she wrote in a collaboration with Claire Denis, NDiaye opens by literally throwing a dessicated version of French civilization, pouches of airlift meals, onto a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country during Civil War. The film, like so many of her other works, explores the vast disconnect between how much a part of a culture or community an individual might feel—here Marie, the plantation owner who deludedly projects loyalty on her workers and chooses not to evacuate, is the film’s Herman—in comparison to how much they are actually accepted or acknowledged. These themes of alienation are a thread that runs throughout her work, though she plays with how far to strip them down, divorce them from the rubrics of behavior as we recognize them.
That Time of Year (along with NDiaye’s other early, experimental works)was published in France by Editions Minuit, a house which is so much a part of the popular literary imagination in that country that a 2015 article in Slate France asks whether there is indeed a “style Minuit.” The storied press, which began during the French resistance, was first responsible for publishing Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras. Though NDiaye follows in the legacy of the nouveau roman – a move away from traditional approaches to plot, character, narrative – she also expands on these rejections. Hers is not a world of objects or individual vision. Instead, her world presses relentlessly on incurious characters. The pressures laid on Herman are neither personal nor cosmic; they are vectors of a torn society. NDiaye recognizes the fact that the existential toll of life within a capitalist framework is already non-existence. Still, this strong link to the “roman Minuitard” is an interesting indicator of how a novel that seems to be, at face value, social commentary — Parisian yuppie is aggressively resented by his country house neighbors—is so much more deeply, philosophically layered than that. It is her light, distant touch and the tradition of experimental writing that turns what should be satire into something more spare and thrilling. She dwells on the danger, very present during this pandemic, that when life begins to feel surreal it is simplest to believe, as though in an actual dream, oneself to be the sole sufferer in disturbing, comforting isolation.