I once had a job that entailed, as part of my regular duties, selecting an inspirational quote from a directory and changing a roadside sign, usually standing in the dark, in the beam of the headlights of my car, sliding the plastic letters onto a ridged board. The motley selection of letters on hand limited the choice of sayings, but one of my favourites was:
A person who is all wrapped up in themselves makes a very small package.
As I spent the last day or so in the head of Nadia, the narrator of My Heart Hemmed In by French author Marie NDiaye, that line kept coming back to me. Poor Nadia. So self-centred that she truly can’t see beyond the narrow reality she has constructed around herself.
And the reckoning will be harsh. We sense that from the opening pages.
Originally published in 2007, now released from Two Lines Press in a translation by Jordan Stump, My Heart Hemmed In is an exquisite exercise in narrative restraint. The tension is immediate and sustained. Nadia and her husband Ange are middle-aged school teachers in Bordeaux. Theirs is a life of smug, self-righteous isolation. They delight in their moral superiority, their cultured good taste and ostentatious frugality; they appreciate quality and reject base, popular forms of entertainment, including television. They select their few friends carefully, while judging anyone who offends their delicate sensibilities to be beneath contempt.
Their marriage is a perfect union of souls.
But something is threatening that bliss, something dark and insidious. The couple, afraid to acknowledge it, share the sensation that they have become the object of a simmering hostility in their community. Once admired, they cannot imagine what they could have done to warrant this growing contempt. And then, one day, a mysterious open wound appears on Ange’s stomach. He refuses treatment and retreats to his room. As an aura of disease and decay spreads from his bedside, threatening to overwhelm the entire apartment, Nadia fights to save him amid the waves of concern, fear, and disgust that appear to be driving a wedge between them. Aggravating the divide is the presence of a disheveled and despised angel of mercy—their downstairs neighbour, a certain Monsieur Noget. Once the object of their mutual scorn, he now arrives daily, bearing gourmet delights, insisting it his “honour” to help care for Ange and tend to the couple’s needs. Nadia is torn between her distrust of this stranger—whom everyone else seems to insist is a famous author—and the irresistible temptations of the glorious, fat-laden meals he prepares daily.
Nadia’s neatly defined world rapidly begins to shift around her. The very fabric of reality seems altered, threatening her rational self-control, but she is determined to push her anxieties aside. Ignoring the warnings of others, she attempts to return to work after Ange’s strange injury only to discover, with horror, that she too has been victimized. She arrives home in a state of shock:
My knees buckle. I collapse in the doorway. I must lie prostrate like that for some time half conscious (because I can hear all sorts of sounds from the kitchen or bedroom, the scuff of slippered feet, the whistle of a tea kettle, the clink of silverware), unable to move or speak but somehow resigned, blithely or indifferently accepting my powerlessness, as in a dream. How tedious, I think calmly, unsure what my mind means by that complaint. My weight is resting on my right hip, and it’s very painful. I desperately want to stand up, but my will seems to have parted ways with my mind, which is serenely registering the various sounds coming to it from the building or the apartment as my soul bleeds and moans.
Over the weeks that follow, Noget continues his patient vigil. He forces his luxurious fat-laden food on both husband and wife, but while Ange continues to waste away, Nadia rapidly expands beyond the capacity of her clothing. Eventually, her efforts to save her husband—and salvage her own dignity—drive her to attempt to reconnect with her estranged son. This will bring her into contact with her ex-husband and the vestiges of a life she was once desperate to escape. Was she so unhappy? she wonders, quickly burying such thoughts as soon as they arise.
As her distress at the disorienting disruption to her previously ordered existence mounts, Nadia finds little sympathy. Rather, she is confronted regularly, and from a variety of sources, with the insinuation that she is the source of Ange’s trials. She does not want to hear that. Her pride is virtually indissoluble. She clings to it as if it is the only quality that gives her being—her tortured soul—substance. Even as her surroundings seem to conspire against her, her defiance grows with her confusion and paranoia. She will not question her sanity. Nor does she accept any responsibility. After all, she insists, she has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this bizarre, brutal turn of events. She is determined to hold, in Ange, a mirror of her own soul. She cannot bear the possibility that it could be her own arrogance and stubborn self-regard that corrupted him.
However, an italicized internal monologue woven into Nadia’s measured narrative account, betrays a deeper train of thought—her bitter self-justification, her growing doubts and fears, her moments of despair, her desperate entreaties to herself: “My stolid heart, my weakening, stolid heart, keep on bravely beating in your prison of fat.” It runs at odds with what she will admit into her formal account. It is where we begin to see the fissures in her psyche that are spreading and threatening to fracture any equilibrium she is able to hold on to:
No, I’m not out of my mind. Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? I can’t rid myself of the feeling the whole city is spying on me. And my heart is cornered, surrounded by the baying pack, and it’s hammering on the wall of my chest, wishing it could break out of its cramped cage, my poor aging heart, my poor trembling heart. I was born right here in Bordeaux, in Les Aubiers neighbourhood; I’ve spent my whole life in this city, and I love it with a fraternal tenderness, like a human soul mate. But now I find Bordeaux slipping away from me, enigmatically shunning my friendship, its streets seemingly changing their look and direction (is it only the fog? I ask myself), its citizens grown hostile over the past few months (and I’d gotten used to that and it had, over time, become bearable), seeming no longer to hate me exactly, but to be stalking me.
Nadia is a complex, troubled protagonist. She cannot fathom what it is that others see in her face, but knows she is somehow marked. It is not easy to feel sorry for her. She demonstrates a disturbing inability to distinguish between what is legally right and what is morally decent, refusing to acknowledge the extent of the heartlessness she has shown to others. And she is so completely self-absorbed, so willfully disconnected from ordinary human engagement, that the cost of the isolation she once craved comes as a cruel shock. “The trouble with you,” her ex-husband advises her, “is that you only know what you want to know.”
Half-heartedly hoping to save Ange, and weighed down by the sense that her beloved Bordeaux, now contorted and encased in terminal fog, has rejected her, Nadia sets off to visit her adult son, now a married doctor living far away. She hopes she will be able to regain some stability, but the surreal, grotesque occurrences follow her. Haunted by losses and regrets, Nadia becomes increasingly unhinged and fragile as her sense of herself, and her place in the world, slowly unravels.
NDiaye is a master of narratives that mix the magical with the real, but she leaves the line between her fantastical landscape and her narrator’s paranoia and neuroses fluid. The result is a tightly paced, psychologically claustrophobic allegorical tale, rich with elements of gothic horror. With My Heart Hemmed In, one is invited to read and through the observations and interpretations of a myopic, damaged, and yet fundamentally recognizable narrator. She is at once frustrating and tragic. There is, after all, a little Nadia in all of us.