Leila Slimani: Chanson Douce – Lullaby (trans. Sam Taylor)
I was delighted when I heard that a young woman of Moroccan origin had won the Goncourt Prize in 2016 for a novel about domestic life, even though I had not read it yet. This is because the most prestigious literary prize in France is often given to middle-aged white men writing about worthy and very earnest subjects (usually the Second World War). So it was fun to imagine the mysognistic, rather pompous Goncourt brothers turning in their grave.
Since then, I have read the prize-winning book in both French and English (although I still have to read Slimani’s first book Dans le jardin de l’ogre) and have heard mixed reactions to it, particularly in the English-speaking world. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the way it has been marketed as a novel of suspense, a thriller, the next Gone Girl (you should be ashamed of yourself, Daily Telegraph). Secondly, the deceptively simple style, which can come across as rather flat, particularly in translation.
So let me tackle the first issue. There is no suspense. We know from the first sentence that the children have died. We know by the end of the first few paragraphs that the nanny has done it. The rest of the book is about understanding what led up to it, but not a thriller, so it is not about getting clear closure or simple cause and effect.
Myriam and Paul are an average bourgeois couple with two young children, both working, both trying to make a go of combining career and family in Paris in a flat that is probably slightly too small. They hire a day nanny, Louise, to look after the children and at first she seems perfect: small, neat, prim, always available, always patient. But Louise has a lonely life and is far too involved in her employers’ affairs. In such cases, it is too simple to point to mental illness or a single cause for the crime. In fact, as in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (which has a similar structure of starting with the outcome), there may be a main reason but there are many contributing factors and there are no clearcut answers. This book poses more questions than it answers, with the result that many readers complain that they thought it ended too abruptly or that there was a chunk missing. All of the people in the book whose lives have intersected with Louise’s, however tangentially, feel that if they’d done something differently, this tragedy might not have happened, but in fact there is nothing to indicate that this would be true. There is the inescapable sense of Greek tragedy and fate, of Moira, about it all. A young man who had been looked after as a child by Louise realises:
.. what he first felt earlier, when the policewoman told them, was not shock or surprise but an immense and painful relief. A feeling of jubilation, even. As if he’d always know that some menace had hung over him, a pale, sulphurous, unspeakable menace… Fate had decreed that the calamity would strike elsewhere.
Furthermore, the book is not about whodunnit or even whydunnit, but about issues of class, social divisions, parental pressures, conflicted maternal sentiments, loneliness and fear of abandonment. The countless minute humiliations, anxieties and cruel blows of fate that Louise is subjected to (from the tax office hounding her to the rotten shower cubicle to the well-intentioned but insensitive treatment by her employers) would damage even a stronger person. Add to that her dissatisfaction with her own family, her estrangement from her daughter and the way she used to be mercilessly teased by her deceased husband about her job, which is only fit for ‘illegal foreigners’. Her job isolates her still further, as she has no one but the children to talk with, and the playground nannies’ support network does not apply to her, since she is indeed one of the few white French women doing the job. Above all, Louise is a victim o her own aspirations to be a good bourgeois housewife and mother: she perceives Paul and Myriam initially as the perfect family and cannot forgive them for not living up to that ideal.
The second, stylistic issue does owe something to the translation. As with Japanese books, I have noticed that when German or French books are written in a very unadorned style and then translated into English, they can sound a bit too bare, almost trite. Slimani admits that she was deliberately following the tradition of Camus and Marguerite Duras, aiming for a very simple style. ‘When the thoughts and concepts are confusing and complex, you need a very simple style or else you will overwhelm the reader.’ This is the transparent style of allowing words and deeds to speak for themselves rather than going too deep inside a character’s motivation (think Camus’ L’Étranger or Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale). The very opposite of the voluble, ornate style of the Spanish and Italian (or even Norwegian) authors who have recently become popular. So perhaps she is counter-fashion at the moment. Yet still winning all the prizes and recognition.