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The Skin of the Past

Archival Encounter in Marie NDiaye’s Un pas de chat sauvage
Matthew Elbert Rodriguez

Résumés

Cet article étudie la manière dont Un pas de chat sauvage de Marie NDiaye donne voix aux ambiguïtés des documents d’archives lacunaires et suggère que le rôle de la fiction n’est pas de combler les silences du passé mais de les laisser troubler le présent. La nouvelle, écrite en 2019 à l’occasion de l’exposition Le modèle noir au Musée d’Orsay, s’inspire des photographies de Nadar d’une femme identifiée seulement comme “Maria l’Antillaise”. Cette Maria pourrait être la chanteuse Maria Martinez qui jouait à Paris dans les années 1850, mais il est impossible de l’identifier avec certitude. Dans la nouvelle, une chanteuse mystérieuse qui s’appelle Marie Sachs entre dans la vie de la narratrice non fiable, une historienne qui fait des recherches sur Martinez. Mobilisant l’idée de la fabulation critique de Saidiya Hartman et l’idée de la photographie comme forme de présence ambivalente, cet article interprète Sachs comme double de la narratrice ainsi que comme spectre de Martinez qui réoriente le présent à la douleur du passé.

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  • 1 See Isolde Pludermacher, “Les deux Maria”, in Cécile Debray, Stéphane Guégan, Denise Murrell, and (...)

1Marie NDiaye’s short story Un pas de chat sauvage was written in conjunction with the 2019 Musée d’Orsay exhibition Le modèle noir. NDiaye chose to write on a set of photographs by Nadar representing a woman identified only as “Maria” or “Maria l’Antillaise”. The photographs are reproduced on the book’s front, inside front, and inside back covers. This Maria may or may not be the nineteenth-century singer Maria Martinez, a Black Cuban-born artist active in Paris in the 1850s1. NDiaye weaves quotes from archival documents relating to Martinez into her narrative. From these, we learn that although Martinez’s career was enthusiastically supported by the likes of Théophile Gautier, her reception by the French public was ambivalent, and she periodically found herself in financial straits. Around 1860, the thread of Martinez’s story is lost.

  • 2 Marie NDiaye, Un pas de chat sauvage, Paris, Musée d’Orsay/Flammarion, 2019, p. 8-9; henceforth P (...)
  • 3 Dominique Rabaté, Marie NDiaye, Paris, CulturesFrance/Textuels, 2008, p. 21.

2Nadar’s photographs, dated between 1855 and 1862, if they could be identified definitively as portraits of Martinez, would not tell us what happened to her, but like NDiaye’s narrator, we might try to glean from this “Maria” something of Martinez’s personality, what she thought and how she felt. The conflict between the desire to know Martinez and the little we learn from the archive fuels NDiaye’s story. Un pas is narrated by an unnamed historian trying to write Martinez’s biography but coming up short in her research. Disciplinary ethics preclude romantic speculation. To write a novel about Martinez also feels unethical. Because she knows so little she would have to invent so much: “comment pourrais-je, comment oserais-je inventer ce dont je n’avais pas la connaissance, voilà bien ce qui entravait l’historienne et professeure d’université que je suis”2. Nevertheless, she refuses to let the project go even as it fails to progress. Signs of alcoholism and insomnia make her an unreliable narrator, contributing to a characteristically NDiayean atmosphere of generalized unease and ambiguity surrounding characters and events. Dominique Rabaté associates NDiaye’s signature strangeness with “un sentiment insurmontable de désaccord avec le monde, dans lequel le personnage vit par imposture, oppressé par la honte, séparé de lui-même par le fil anxieux des questions sans réponse qu’il se pose”3. In Un pas, this aesthetic relates to the ambiguous truth status of archival documents and photographs, and to the troubled psyche of the writer searching for a past that is impossible to uncover.

  • 4 Sonja Stojanovic, Mind the Ghost: Thinking Memory and the Untimely through Contemporary French Li (...)
  • 5 Shirley Jordan, Marie NDiaye: Inhospitable Fictions, Oxford, Legenda, 2017, p. 7, 10.

3The story begins when the narrator receives an email from a woman named Marie Sachs, a Black singer who performs as if in character as Martinez, inquiring about the narrator’s research into Martinez’s life. The narrator anxiously suspects that Sachs does not share her ethical reticence toward inventing what cannot be known for sure about Martinez. I interpret Sachs in two ways. First, I read her as a double through whom the narrator explores her desire to identify Martinez as the woman in Nadar’s photographs and to identify with Martinez, thereby gaining intimate knowledge of her. Sachs dares to identify where the narrator hedges: “Marie Sachs, elle, me disais-je, n’hésiterait pas à faire tenir pour acquis que la femme des photographies était bien Maria Martinez” (PCS 11). Second, I read Sachs as a physical emanation of Martinez in the present, embodying the photographs’ effect on the narrator. Like the ghosts Sonja Stojanovic analyzes elsewhere in contemporary French literature, Sachs teaches the narrator a lesson in “Being willing to be haunted”, an ethical vulnerability predicated on “opening up a space for things to linger, to coexist, to trouble our understanding of time and space”4. Accordingly, the narrator frames her relationship with Martinez through the notion of potential hospitality: “Quelle voix devait s’exprimer”, she asks herself about her work, “celle de Maria Martinez qui, même en rêve, jamais ne me visitait, ou la mienne dont j’avais la plus grande honte, ou une autre encore qui pourrait unir à la sienne pure, remarquable et hospitalière nos deux consciences vulnérables ?” (PCS 13). As Shirley Jordan shows, questions of hospitality and inhospitality traverse NDiaye’s œuvre. Un pas inscribes itself in this corpus with another narrator “dogged by shame or self-loathing [who] cannot effectively welcome”, while Martinez’s story, eerily reenacted by Sachs, offers a variation on the “eruption of colonialism’s multiple inhospitalities […] expressed by the fantastic”5. Sachs helps the narrator find the hospitable voice she needs to face her own failure, to welcome Martinez’s story, and to elaborate the stakes of this memory in relation to racism in France, past and present.

  • 6 Cornelia Ruhe, “La poétique du flou de Marie NDiaye”, in Daniel Bengsch and Cornelia Ruhe (eds), (...)

4As in many of NDiaye’s narratives, the reader is dropped into a situation where the line between real and unreal is blurred. Reading Autoportrait en verta text that also incorporates photographs and troubles the boundaries between fact and fiction – Cornelia Ruhe identifies the blur as central to NDiaye’s aesthetic. For Ruhe, NDiaye’s narratives challenge the reader to make sense of what is happening before confronting them with the impossibility of their interpretative project: “Les textes et les protagonistes de NDiaye représentent un désordre, une ambiguïté que le lecteur se sente incité à éclaircir, sans parfois se rendre compte que c’est justement ce geste de désambiguïsation qui est mis en cause”6. Nadar’s photographs may be sharp, but Martinez’s life is out of focus. We begin and end the story unsure about the characters and about Martinez’s fate. This blurriness conditions the text’s epistemological project: to frame Martinez in terms of what cannot be known about the past and to ask what that means for us in the present.

5The narrator’s confusion casts her credibility as witness to her own life in doubt, opening the possibility of reading Sachs as the narrator’s double and as an apparition of Martinez. Several clues point to this reading. Sachs knows about the narrator’s research, but the narrator is sure she never discussed it with anyone. The narrator attends three performances by Sachs, but never talks to her in person, only communicating with her via email and text message. The narrator finds minimal traces of Sachs online, but also admits that her research occurs in intoxicated fugues of which she remembers nothing except the information she reads:

Je ne sais plus rien, au réveil, de ces heures effarées, profondément intellectuelles et hantées. Mais, prodigieusement, je me souviens de chaque ligne lue, comme on se souvient parfois du moindre détail véridique d’un rêve dont on ne sait plus par ailleurs entre quels murs, dans quel lit, on l’a formé. (PCS 6)

The description of her research as dream work encapsulates the tension between knowledge making and fiction in this passage. She wakes up from this work accomplished while as if asleep. The conjunction between “intellectual” and “haunted” presents research as time spent with ghosts, and historical knowledge as a haunting of the present by the past. She compares her discoveries to a “détail véridique d’un rêve”, further blurring the line between factual and fictional knowing. The oxymoronic formulation insinuates the truth status of dreams, suggesting that she builds her work upon oneiric research fugues. These opening pages outline the type of knowledge she pursues: truths that cannot be found in the incomplete archival record, but that might be approached through fabulation and fiction. Sachs, as double and specter, leads her along this epistemological path.

  • 7 Roland Barthes, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie, Paris, l’Étoile/Gallimard/Le Seuil, (...)
  • 8 Ibid., p. 167-168.

6Through Sachs, Un pas activates an idea of photography as physical and auratic presence: a source of intimate connection with the referent beyond indexical proof of their past existence. Roland Barthes famously refers to photography’s evidentiary force as “Ça-a-été7. This “noeme” complements the intimate knowledge of the referent found in photographs that make the viewer cry, “C’est ça !, what Barthes calls “l’air d’un visage […] cette chose qui induit du corps à l’âme”8. According to Barthes, to fail to capture a subject’s air means death:

  • 9 Ibid., p. 169.

L’air est ainsi l’ombre lumineuse qui accompagne le corps ; et si la photo n’arrive pas à montrer cet air, alors le corps va sans ombre, et cette ombre une fois coupée […] il ne reste plus qu’un corps stérile. C’est par cet ombilic ténu que le photographe donne vie ; s’il ne sait pas […] donner à l’âme transparente son ombre claire, le sujet meurt à jamais.9

For NDiaye’s narrator, the problem is not that Nadar has failed to capture Maria’s “air” – “L’aura de Maria Martinez, que je ressentais si intensément sur les portraits” (PCS 13). Indeed, Nadar’s photographs breathe as if alive: “Il me semblait, à force de contemplation, discerner le principe subtil de Maria Martinez et j’avais même parfois la sensation de son souffle léger sur mon front, sur mes yeux” (PCS 12). The problem is rather the impossibility of attaching the “ombre claire” of the photographs of “Maria” to the “corps stérile” of the archival documents on Martinez. Hence NDiaye and the narrator’s need to invent Sachs in order to draw the line between Martinez and Nadar’s photographs in the hope that Martinez will not have “died forever”.

  • 10 Margareth Amatulli, “Un pas de chat sauvage de Marie NDiaye: histoire d’un regard”, Oltreoceano, (...)
  • 11 Alison James, The Documentary Imagination in Twentieth-Century French Literature: Writing with Fa (...)
  • 12 Brenna Lauren Rice, Marie NDiaye’s Maladjusted World: Strangeness and the Limits of Empathy, The (...)

7However, instead of using fiction to explore the historical subject’s inner life, NDiaye focuses on the figure of the writer in the present. Margareth Amatulli likewise links the epistemological project of NDiaye’s story to knowledge of the self as the source of literary vision: “Dans l’impossibilité de savoir ce qui s’est passé réellement, il ne reste plus qu’à chercher à donner corps à une vision, et c’est de cette vision que nous parle ce texte”10. NDiaye stages the writer’s desire to know, her sense of responsibility, and her effort to narrate a life whose traces are all but lost, evincing what Alison James articulates as “the ethical impetus for a literature of fact [...] to rescue and revive those human documents that record our passage through the world”11. Yet NDiaye’s story ultimately records writerly disappointment. As Brenna Rice notes, “the process of research and writing is the true subject of Un pas de chat sauvage”, not the recreation of Martinez’s life, an insight Rice connects to the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition, “which sought to not only highlight the figure of le modèle noir, but also to rethink and reframe the relationship between the viewer and these works”12. By foregrounding the experience of the subject who encounters the traces of the past in the present, NDiaye’s story of desire and failure highlights the role of fictions in reorienting us to the past and present.

8The uncertain connection between the Maria in Nadar’s photographs and the historical figure, Martinez, allegorizes the narrator’s dilemma: “Car il y a Maria Martinez la chanteuse et musicienne et il y a Maria l’Antillaise photographiée par Nadar, et bien que je sois intimement persuadée que ces deux Maria sont la même personne, il m’est impossible de l’établir” (PCS 10). The narrator opposes an “intimate” form of knowledge with what she can claim as historical fact. Her uncertainty, “cette éventualité démoralisante que le visage saisi par Nadar, qui m’avait inspiré un tel désir de récit et de romance, n’ait aucun lien avec cette Martinez”, must also be acknowledged as integral to Maria’s story (PCS 10). Uncertainty shifts the horizon of writing from the impossible knowledge of Martinez toward a reflection on the problems posed by archival voids and the relationship between the writing subject and the object of writing.

9NDiaye’s project resonates with Saidiya Hartman’s idea of “critical fabulation”. Hartman proposes critical fabulation as a methodology for traversing the impasses she encountered trying to uncover the life stories of enslaved women who exist in the archive primarily as victims, their ontology tied to the violence enacted against them. Critical fabulation questions the transparency of historical discourse by lingering in the opacities of the archive, drawing attention to its preexisting fictions, and making the uncertainties of the past resound as integral to our present: 

  • 13 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe, vol. 12, n° 2, 2008, p. 12.

It is an impossible writing which attempts to say that which resists being said (since dead girls are unable to speak). It is a history of an unrecoverable past; it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.13

  • 14 Ibid.

This methodology aims less to make positive truth claims than to illuminate how absences in the historical record perpetuate violence done to vulnerable subjects. By writing on the edge between nonfiction and fiction, it “imagine[s] what cannot be verified”14. At the same time, critical fabulation underscores the ultimate impossibility of such a project. Sachs embodies critical fabulation. As a double of the narrator, she engages creatively with the past in a way the narrator-historian cannot. As a specter of Martinez, she gives shape to the desire to extend Martinez’s story beyond archival obscurity.

The Narrator’s Double

  • 15 We might ask if Marie Sachs is a con artist in the mold of the similarly named Maurice Sachs, the (...)

10The narrator constructs the arrival of Sachs into her life as the antithesis of her historical project: “il m’arrive de penser, non sans acrimonie, que Marie Sachs, elle, ne s’embarrasserait pas de tels scrupules et qu’elle ferait sans doute de Maria Martinez un personnage à sa façon, qu’elle l’exploiterait à ses propres fins artistiques et non pour lui rendre justice ainsi que j’y aspirais quant à moi” (PCS 9)15. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the narrator’s assumptions about Sachs couch her own insecurities: “J’en vins à éprouver une jalousie étrange envers Marie Sachs dont l’outrecuidance, dont la superbe que je lui supposais me faisaient défaut” (PCS 10). The narrator’s rebuke becomes a self-rebuke expressed as jealousy: she wishes she could relate to Martinez as an artist rather than a historian.

  • 16 In this, the conclusion of Un pas echoes that of Dora Bruder.

11The narrator’s inability to identify with Martinez distinguishes NDiaye’s story from two similar projects: Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder and Leïla Sebbar’s writings in dialogue with photographs of North African women. In Dora Bruder, Modiano uses the archive to reconstruct the world of a teenage Jewish girl living in Paris under Nazi occupation in the hopes of understanding what she experienced during two periods as a runaway. Modiano, Jewish on his father’s side, develops Dora’s story with his own memories of adolescence, his father’s experiences during the Occupation, and the stories of other Parisian Jews, ultimately creating a portrait of collective experience at the center of which is the archival void of Dora’s fugues16Identification also subtends Sebbar’s essay “Les femmes du peuple de mon père” in Femmes d’Afrique du nord – Cartes postales (1885-1930) and her captions of Marc Garanger’s photographs in Femmes des Hauts-Plateaux. Algérie 1960. NDiaye, instead of using narrative to extrapolate from archival crumbs, creates a hall of mirrors in which the reader runs up against the insufficiency of documentary evidence pertaining to Martinez. Her project seems to repeat the reparative gesture of Sebbar’s essays, imagining and contextualizing the lives of the mostly anonymous women in the images. This corresponds, however, with the project envisioned by NDiaye’s narrator and diverges from NDiaye’s story that focuses precisely on the narrator’s inability to perform such a reparation.

  • 17 Valérie Marin La Meslée and Marie NDiaye, “Je ne suis à l’aise que dans la fiction”, Le Point, 29 (...)
  • 18 Lydie Moudileno, “Marie NDiaye: entre réserve et visibilité”, in Daniel Bengsch and Cornelia Ruhe (...)
  • 19 Ibid., p. 173.
  • 20 Cécile Châtelet, “Prises de position publiques et politique dans les romans de Marie NDiaye”, Étu (...)

12One might be tempted to parallel NDiaye’s possible identification with Martinez as a Black woman with Modiano and Sebbar’s identifications with their subjects. NDiaye and her story unsettle this reading. In an interview about the book, NDiaye anticipates and repudiates some readers’ tendency to bring her work back to biographical considerations of race: “Je ne me pose pas la question de savoir si l’on fait appel à moi parce que je suis une femme noire et je ne vois pas l’équipe me dire qu’elle m’a sollicitée (sourire) pour ce qui peut paraître un arbitraire et non pour mon travail”17. This is a famously tricky subject regarding NDiaye’s work and public persona. Lydie Moudileno has traced the evolution of NDiaye’s public “reserve” through which NDiaye resists being identified as a Senegalese writer (as NDiaye points out, having been born and raised in France by a white French mother, her paternal connection with Senegal was not a significant part of her formation) and upsets assumptions about how her racial identity influences her work, crafting, per Moudileno, “une identité littéraire uniquement et absolument déterminée par l’écriture”18. Nonetheless, as Moudileno concludes, NDiaye’s literary treatment of race and her public navigation of questions of race contribute to how we read and understand her work: “le corps – plus ou moins visible – de l’écrivain est pour beaucoup dans la déstabilisation des lieux et catégories qu’elle fréquente, volontairement ou à son insu”19. Moudileno touches upon here what NDiaye’s “sourire”, noted by the interviewer, hints at: NDiaye’s ambiguity might relate to an intentional poetics of unstable identity within and outside her work. As Cécile Châtelet observes, Un pas continues this tradition of NDiaye’s œuvre in which the racial politics of the story are ambiguous and in which ambiguity is key to its racial politics: “c’est l’expérience du sujet politique laissé-pour-compte qui est centrale, […] la critique du fonctionnement social actuel est bien présente, mais elle est implicite, et passe par la mise en scène de la souffrance qu’il engendre”20. NDiaye coyly invites consideration of her race in relation to Martinez by raising and refusing it. Is this a trap she sets for the reader? Is the name Marie/Maria a lure, connecting the author with the woman whose face, photographed by Nadar, illustrates the cover, and connecting these women with Martinez who might or might not be the woman in the photographs?

  • 21 Valérie Marin La Meslée and Marie NDiaye, op. cit.
  • 22 See Margareth  Amatulli, op. cit., for an alternative reading of the narrator’s race.
  • 23 For a reading of Sachs’s practice as emblematic of NDiaye’s literary method, see Cécile Châtelet, (...)

13In such a reading, the fourth, fully fictional Marie/Maria – Sachs, who openly identifies with Martinez as a Black singer – would bridge author and historical figure. But in the interview, NDiaye seems to identify rather with her unnamed narrator who wants to but cannot write about Martinez: “Elle méritait mieux que trente pages, mais j’avais peu de temps, alors c’était une façon d’écrire sur le désir d’écrire sur elle, un contournement, en quelque sorte”21. Yet the narrator’s inability to write about Martinez is not a question of time but of archival insufficiency and, she implies, of race. She is not Black, but she imagines that if she were, she would share privileged knowledge of Martinez’s affective life: “Marie Sachs, assise sur une courte estrade, demeura seule femme noire et seule femme jeune de l’assemblée, ce que je remarquai dans un trouble sentiment de tristesse jalouse car j’aspirais violemment et sombrement, depuis que Maria Martinez s’était établie dans mon existence, à devenir une jeune femme noire” (PCS 25)22. Sachs turns this logic of racial identification as epistemological opening against the narrator, declaring her own interest in Martinez, “venant d’une artiste noire, naturel et même inévitable” (PCS 34). The narrator, conversely, must confront the incommensurability of her approach and her question: “Nulle étude, nulle enquête, nul prodige d’inventivité ne pourrait me faire percevoir […] quelle sorte d’âme était celle de Maria Martinez ?” (PCS 34-35). Sachs opposes the futile search for Martinez’s soul with an intellectual project that brings the memory of Martinez to bear on how we know and understand the present in relation to the past: “Elle précisait qu’il me faudrait user avec mon modèle, c’est-à-dire elle-même, d’autant d’humilité et de douceur qu’elle en mettait à côtoyer Maria Martinez et accepter par ailleurs qu’une telle entreprise s’écoule sur toute la durée de la vie, la sienne ou la mienne” (PCS 35). Sachs privileges experiential knowledge – what she has as a specter of Martinez and as a young Black artist – and proposes a way for the narrator to live with the past. The narrator can “use Sachs as her model”. This means treating Martinez not as an archival cadaver but as a cohabitant “à côtoyer” in the present, implying physical and temporal proximity that extends beyond timelines of research and writing23.

14When Sachs first contacts her, the narrator jumps proleptically to the present to describe the reorientation toward Martinez that Sachs will accomplish for her. Reading Sachs’s first message asking her to share her research, the narrator thinks, “elle n’avait pas une bonne maîtrise de la syntaxe ni de la grammaire, elle écrivait vouloir savoir ce que j’avais appris de Maria Martinez, ce que je corrigeai intérieurement par sur” (PCS 15-16). In the moment, the narrator’s arrogance as the scholar-protector of Martinez is expressed through the subtle violence of grammar correction. She later realizes the critical nuance of Sachs’s syntax: “Je sais à présent qu’elle avait écrit rigoureusement ce qu’elle voulait dire. J’étais à l’époque, trop hautaine et trop dépendante de mon intelligence pour le comprendre” (PCS 16). The shift from “apprendre sur” to “apprendre de” signifies the shift the narrator must make from her desire to write Martinez’s story by acquiring knowledge about her to a desire to learn from her memory. Sachs, understood as a spectral apparition of Martinez through which the archival record comes alive, embodies this memory.

The Photographic Specter

15The apparition of Sachs into the narrator’s life evokes a nineteenth-century idea of photography that Nadar describes in his memoir, reflecting on the medium’s early days and the pseudo-scientific explanations that emerged to account for the magic of the Daguerreotype:

  • 24 Nadar, Quand j’étais photographe, Paris, Ernest Flammarion, 1895-1905, p. 6, URL: https://gallica (...)

Donc, selon Balzac, chaque corps dans la nature se trouve composé de séries de spectres, en couches superposées à l’infini, foliacées en pellicules infinitésimales, dans tous les sens où l’optique perçoit ce corps […] chaque opération Daguerrienne venait donc surprendre, détachait et retenait en se l’appliquant une des couches du corps objecté.24

  • 25 For the passage to which Nadar may be referring, see Honoré de Balzac, Le cousin Pons, Paris, Gar (...)
  • 26 André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, vol. 1, Ontologie et Langage, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 195 (...)
  • 27 Roland Barthes, op. cit., p. 126-127.
  • 28 Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu, “Introduction”, in Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu (eds), Feeling Phot (...)

The bewildered viewer (“Balzac”) assumes the photographic image contains a layer of the body, an otherwise invisible skin captured and cured on the reactive plate25. Nadar scoffs at such thinking, but the feeling of proximity to the referent’s body afforded by photography also informs how later critics with scientific understanding of the process discuss the medium. For André Bazin, the photograph “procède par sa genèse de l’ontologie du modèle ; elle est le modèle”26. For Barthes, the chemical process of photography connects the viewer to the referent through a “lien ombilical” of light27. More recently, Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu, in their edited volume Feeling Photography, follow Eve Sedgwick, Margaret Olin, and Carol Mavor in exploring the double sense of “feeling”: the print’s haptic and affective dimensions that underscore “the sensation that the subjects pictured on this surface can somehow touch back”28. I insist on the Balzacian “pellicule” not merely to evoke the “skin” of the past, but because NDiaye’s story literalizes the conceit of a spectral subject whose “skin” is at stake born materially into the present through photography.

16Sachs invites us to read her as an apparition of Martinez, reactivating the theory of the photographic specter. She embodies Martinez’s “pellicule” traveling through time to haunt the present, becoming visible on the photographic plate of NDiaye’s narrative. Sachs first appears like a living skin of Nadar’s “Maria l’Antillaise”:

Marie Sachs avait paru d’un coup, comme issue non des coulisses mais de l’atmosphère légèrement enfumée, elle fut là soudain et ne bougea plus […] Elle avait dénudé ses épaules, sa poitrine, sa taille […] Elle portait une jupe longue et ample à motifs de fleurs, au volume sans doute augmenté d’autres jupes par-dessous. (PCS 18)

The passage constructs Sachs as if she were a developing photograph, materializing out of the air in an immobile pose. Moreover, the description echoes Nadar’s portrait: Maria, chest uncovered, wearing a skirt with a floral motif.

  • 29 Anne Martine Parent, “La nostalgie de soi: l’identité en défaut dans Autoportrait en vert de Mari (...)

17NDiaye’s story narrates the encounter with the photographed body as a metaphor for how the past surges into the present through photographs and other archival documents. However, the story also highlights its own fictionality and the fictionality inherent to readings of archival documents. Slight differences from Nadar’s photograph signal the shift from document to fiction. The narrator’s description extends beyond the frame of Nadar’s half-length portrait. The color of the skirt, impossible to infer from the photograph, is also noted: “il me sembla que le vert, un vert sombre, glauque, était le ton dominant de cette jupe qui s’arrêtait juste au-dessus des pieds de Marie Sachs” (PCS 18). This color inscribes Sachs within the larger fictional universe of NDiaye’s writings, conjuring the spectral “femmes en vert” that populate Autoportrait en vert. Anne Martine Parent argues that, counter to the ideal of autobiographical transparency initiated in Rousseau’s Confessions, NDiaye’s fictionalized self-portrait exemplifies “une triple opacité : le passé est incertain, le moi/sujet est traversé par l’autre, hanté par ces femmes vertes qui s’imposent à elle sans qu’elle les choisisse, et l’écriture, plutôt que d’éclairer le mystère des femmes vertes, entretient le doute en brouillant les frontières entre réel et imaginaire”29. Sachs – a woman in green, the narrator’s double, and Martinez’s specter – further develops these “opacities”. She highlights the uncertainty of the historical past, mirrors and reproaches the narrator’s desire, and opens the archival record to performance and fabulation.

18Sachs draws the narrator into a world where real and imaginary blur, guiding her toward alternative forms of knowledge. Sachs invites the narrator to see her perform as a way of approaching Martinez. Each time, the narrator uses archival documents to make sense of the destabilizing effect of Sachs’s performances and how they echo contemporaneous accounts of Martinez’s performances, interpreting Sachs’s acts as attempts to evoke the reaction that Martinez solicited in the 1850s. Sachs’s second performance in the Saint-Germain apartment of a wealthy couple is the most detailed. The audience’s shifting affect, perceived by the narrator, reflects the strangeness of Sachs’s performance. The narrator qualifies the guests’ attitude as “irrévérencieuse avant de comprendre qu’elle était sans doute la seule possible et la seule souhaitée de Marie Sachs” (PCS 26). Sachs intentionally provokes the educated elites to “abdiquer leurs manières insincères, fastidieuses et morbides”, eroding their habitual modes of respectful receptivity and eliciting a visceral response: “C’est ainsi que ces vieilles gens bien éduqués se mirent à siffloter railleusement, à pouffer sans discrétion, à se racler la gorge avec ostentation pour signifier que quelque chose, selon eux, n’allait pas” (PCS 27). The hosts are visibly disturbed, their bodies acting as affective barometers of the room. When the tension subsides, they also relax, although the present “peace” carries the “vibration” of past contempt: “descendit […] dans la pièce une paix toute vibrante encore des moqueries éteintes” (PCS 27). The narrator understands this performance and its deliberate, unsettling indeterminacy as Sachs’s vengeance for Martinez. Sachs performs a song written by Gautier for Martinez that entreats the French public to welcome this “pauvre étrangère”, underlining her triple vulnerability as a foreign Black woman (PCS 28-29). The guests do not seem to enjoy this performance that nonetheless leaves them speechless. The spectacle confronts them with their discomfort at Martinez’s pain and displaces onto them the collective guilt of France’s inhospitality.

  • 30 Saidiya Hartman, op. cit., p. 4.

19NDiaye’s narrative puts this reaction into dialogue with historical documents to recontextualize and nuance their affective charge. That evening, the narrator writes to Sachs, asking what she hopes to accomplish: “Vous savez nécessairement qu’on ne dira jamais de vous ce qu’on disait d’elle, alors quel sens cela a-t-il ?” (PCS 30). But Sachs is less interested in eliciting words than feelings of discomfort. The confrontation staged by Sachs (and NDiaye) between the past and the present illustrates what Hartman describes as “a history of the present [that] strives to illuminate the intimacy of experience with the lives of the dead, to write our now as it is interrupted by this past”30. The narrator quotes a reviewer from 1852 who calls the Afro-Caribbean singer dressed in Parisian fashion “un horrible contresens” (PCS 31). Although this “contresens” is forgotten once Martinez begins to perform, it is precisely the strangeness of her performance that the reviewer emphasizes: “quelque chose d’inouï, de rêvé, d’impossible, une sorte de drame qui empruntait à la voix, au geste, à l’accentuation gutturale, aux mouvements ardents de la noire chanteuse je ne sais quel caractère étranger et fantastique qui faisait frissonner de plaisir” (PCS 31). The narrative placement of this excerpt following Sachs’s performance brings its content into the present where its racist overtones still “vibrate”.

  • 31 Andrew Asibong, Marie NDiaye: Blankness and Recognition, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2 (...)

20Sachs’s final performance similarly confronts the narrator with a reality that she has worked hard to mitigate, contextualize, and relativize. From the beginning, the narrator desires to know yet fears seeing what Sachs might reveal, demonstrating an ambivalence that Andrew Asibong identifies as common among NDiaye’s characters31. The narrator’s reaction to the locale communicates her resistance to facing the truth of Martinez’s suffering: “Je me sens si mal dans la saleté, le dénuement, dans la misère morne et muette. Je n’avais, me dis-je, aucune raison d’aller volontairement me sentir mal quelque part” (PCS 36). The grim surroundings clash with the scene where she envisions Martinez. She would prefer not to “feel bad”. Likewise, she would prefer to think about the “affection” that Martinez must have felt at times from her public and from Gautier in particular, for whom the narrator feels “une indéfectible gratitude” (PCS 23). Their care, she supposes, enabled Martinez to endure the overt racism and paternalism expressed in contemporaneous reviews.

21Yet, despite such affection, Martinez’s career ended in obscurity and likely poverty. Sachs signals this truth in her appearance. The luxurious gown she wears in the Saint-Germain apartment is replaced by “une guenille constellée de taches, déchirée en plusieurs endroits” (PCS 37). Her hair, decorated with paper flowers, recalls Martinez’s inaugural performance in 1850, but this new narrative context allows us to reread a quote from a review in L’Argus that NDiaye incorporates into this moment: “Quant au costume, nous trouvons qu’une robe de bal convient très mal à une femme noire ; que des fleurs, dans ce qu’on appelle ses cheveux, font un assez disgracieux effet” (PCS 37). The narrative forces us to consider the racism of this quote in relation to the end of Martinez’s career. Through Sachs’s performance, we come to see the effects of such words as harm done to the physical body. The narrator follows the reviewer’s rhetorical blow with a description of Sachs, vulnerable and beaten down: “Marie Sachs me donna l’impression d’une fatigue extrême. Elle avait la peau grise, éteinte, marquée d’empreintes – de chocs, de coups, de chutes ? […] Elle n’était parvenue à émettre qu’un couinement enroué que, dans un autre contexte, j’aurais pris pour un cri de terreur” (PCS 37). Sachs brings some joy to her performance, but that lightness underscores the unspectacular tragedy of Martinez’s end: “Mais la gaieté me quitta rapidement tant le corps amaigri, le visage ravagé de Marie Sachs exprimaient de mauvaise santé, de mélancolie, de détresse” (PCS 38).

22Sachs stages the arc of Martinez’s career, highlighting the contradictions and cruelty of her reception. She gives a sense of what Martinez endured, an experience that can only be inferred from the archive. After the final performance, the narrator finally articulates the questions to which Sachs has led her: “Vous savez bien, dis-je à Marie Sachs, qu’il s’agit d’histoires anciennes et qu’on ne peut rien réparer, rien adoucir. Pourquoi, alors, souffrir encore pour elle ? Quelle justice lui rendez-vous, si tant est qu’on en ait manqué à son égard ?(PCS 41). These questions reflect the narrator’s own pain as she faces the impossibility of a reparative, “softening” act of writing. They also formulate an answer: by suffering for Martinez in the present, one does justice to her memory by keeping the vibration of her suffering alive. The scholar, artist, or writer’s painful affect translates the emotion inferred from the fragmentary archive into a work. It does not open the past to us, but through the work of pain, the past continues to inhabit the present and to make claims upon us, creating a faint echo within the reader of that impossible knowledge of what Martinez felt. The narrator already understands this unconsciously in her relationship to Nadar’s photographs. They do little to answer her questions, but their epistemological value lies in how they live with and within her: “La première image que j’avais en tête à mon réveil, écrivis-je à Marie Sachs, était celle de Maria Martinez, chaque jour” (PCS 24). This quotidian haunting keeps the past present and, in the absence of knowledge, keeps the wound of the past open.

Inconclusion

  • 32 Saidiya Hartman, op. cit., p. 14.

23Un pas de chat sauvage is a narrative of failure. Hartman describes failure as both a “prerequisite” of critical fabulation and its horizon, arguing that “the encounter” leaves us “with a sense of incompleteness and with the recognition that some part of the self is missing as a consequence of this engagement”32. NDiaye leaves us alongside her incomplete narrator in contemplation of our failure to repair the past. The narrator can only conclude with a series of questions about what happened to Martinez, admitting that “[l]es questions ne racontent que peu de choses” (PCS 42). NDiaye does not reveal the affective life of the historical subject, but that of the scholar whose questions without answers “disent la crainte et l’effroi, l’inquiétude sans remède pour celle qui a disparu en des temps et des lieux qu’on ne peut plus explorer dans l’espoir de la retrouver” (PCS 42). Nadar’s photographs likewise seduce the viewer with the evidence of bodily materiality, but they too hold something back; the verso of the photograph contains only the photographer’s signature and the ambiguous inscription “Maria”. As NDiaye writes in the final sentence, “[o]n n’étreint que sa propre vision, cela ne nous réchauffe pas – c’est à couvert de sa solitude que survit le chat sauvage” (PCS 42). The viewer sees only that which is visible; our speculation returns our act of beholding. The work of the scholar is a self-portrait of desire, and the subject’s aura – the soul the narrator induces from the photographs of Maria – is a fabulation.

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Note de fin

1 See Isolde Pludermacher, “Les deux Maria”, in Cécile Debray, Stéphane Guégan, Denise Murrell, and Isolde Pludermacher (eds), Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse, Paris, Flammarion, 2019, p. 142-147. I use the unaccented spelling of Maria Martinez to be consistent with NDiaye’s text.

2 Marie NDiaye, Un pas de chat sauvage, Paris, Musée d’Orsay/Flammarion, 2019, p. 8-9; henceforth PCS.

3 Dominique Rabaté, Marie NDiaye, Paris, CulturesFrance/Textuels, 2008, p. 21.

4 Sonja Stojanovic, Mind the Ghost: Thinking Memory and the Untimely through Contemporary French Literature, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2023, p. 30.

5 Shirley Jordan, Marie NDiaye: Inhospitable Fictions, Oxford, Legenda, 2017, p. 7, 10.

6 Cornelia Ruhe, “La poétique du flou de Marie NDiaye”, in Daniel Bengsch and Cornelia Ruhe (eds), Une femme puissante. L’œuvre de Marie NDiaye, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2013, p. 27.

7 Roland Barthes, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie, Paris, l’Étoile/Gallimard/Le Seuil, p. 120.

8 Ibid., p. 167-168.

9 Ibid., p. 169.

10 Margareth Amatulli, “Un pas de chat sauvage de Marie NDiaye: histoire d’un regard”, Oltreoceano, vol. 20, 2022, URL: http://journals.openedition.org/oltreoceano/320.

11 Alison James, The Documentary Imagination in Twentieth-Century French Literature: Writing with Facts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 217.

12 Brenna Lauren Rice, Marie NDiaye’s Maladjusted World: Strangeness and the Limits of Empathy, The University of Chicago, 2022, p. 25, URL: https://knowledge.uchicago.edu/record/5257.

13 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe, vol. 12, n° 2, 2008, p. 12.

14 Ibid.

15 We might ask if Marie Sachs is a con artist in the mold of the similarly named Maurice Sachs, the twentieth-century writer and forger. My thanks to François Proulx for this observation.

16 In this, the conclusion of Un pas echoes that of Dora Bruder.

17 Valérie Marin La Meslée and Marie NDiaye, “Je ne suis à l’aise que dans la fiction”, Le Point, 29 March 2019, URL: https://www.lepoint.fr/culture/marie-ndiaye-je-ne-suis-a-l-aise-que-dans-la-fiction-29-03-2019-2304706_3.php.

18 Lydie Moudileno, “Marie NDiaye: entre réserve et visibilité”, in Daniel Bengsch and Cornelia Ruhe (eds), op. cit., p. 165.

19 Ibid., p. 173.

20 Cécile Châtelet, “Prises de position publiques et politique dans les romans de Marie NDiaye”, Études de la littérature française des XXe et XXIe siècles, vol. 10, 2021, URL: https://journals.openedition.org/elfe/3320.

21 Valérie Marin La Meslée and Marie NDiaye, op. cit.

22 See Margareth  Amatulli, op. cit., for an alternative reading of the narrator’s race.

23 For a reading of Sachs’s practice as emblematic of NDiaye’s literary method, see Cécile Châtelet, “Écrire l’énigme. Savoirs et irrésolutions dans les narrations de Marie NDiaye: l’exemple d’Un pas de chat sauvage”, L’Entre-deux, vol. 14, n° 1, 2023, URL: https://www.lentre-deux.com/?b=277.

24 Nadar, Quand j’étais photographe, Paris, Ernest Flammarion, 1895-1905, p. 6, URL: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k61731n.

25 For the passage to which Nadar may be referring, see Honoré de Balzac, Le cousin Pons, Paris, Garnier, 1974 [1847], <Classiques Jaunes>, p. 124.

26 André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, vol. 1, Ontologie et Langage, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 1958, <7e Art>, p. 16.

27 Roland Barthes, op. cit., p. 126-127.

28 Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu, “Introduction”, in Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu (eds), Feeling Photography, Durham, Duke University Press, 2014, p. 14.

29 Anne Martine Parent, “La nostalgie de soi: l’identité en défaut dans Autoportrait en vert de Marie NDiaye”, in Daniel Bengsch and Cornelia Ruhe (eds), op. cit., p. 38.

30 Saidiya Hartman, op. cit., p. 4.

31 Andrew Asibong, Marie NDiaye: Blankness and Recognition, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2013, p. 14-18.

32 Saidiya Hartman, op. cit., p. 14.

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Matthew Elbert Rodriguez, « The Skin of the Past  »Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine [En ligne], 28 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/fixxion/13805 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11u06

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Matthew Elbert Rodriguez

Harvard University

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