Authors: Marie Ndiaye
Three Strong Women
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Translation copyright © 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., Toronto.
Originally published in France by Éditions Gallimard, Paris, in 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Éditions Gallimard
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ladivine / Marie NDiaye ; translated from the French by Jordan Stump. — First American edition.
1. Mothers and daughters—Fiction. 2. Family secrets—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. I. Stump, Jordan, [date] translator. II. Title.
eBook ISBN 9780385351898
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover photograph by George Baier IV; (face background) Charles Maraia/Stone/Getty Images
Cover design by Oliver Munday
She was Malinka again the moment she got on the train, and she found it neither a pleasure nor a burden, having long since stopped noticing.
But it happened, she could tell, for no more could she answer without a second thought to “Clarisse” when, rarely, someone she knew took that same train and called to or greeted her as “Clarisse,” only to see her stare back in puzzled surprise, a hesitant smile on her lips, creating a mutual discomfort that the slightly flustered Clarisse never thought to dispel by simply echoing that “Hello,” that “How are you,” as offhandedly as she could.
It was this, her inability to answer to Clarisse, that told her she was Malinka the moment she got on the train to Bordeaux.
Had that been the name she was hailed by, she knew, she would immediately turn her head—had someone spotted her face or recognized from afar her slender form, her always slightly unsteady walk, and called out: “Hey there, Malinka, hello.”
Which couldn’t possibly happen—but was she sure?
There was a time, now long gone, when, in another city, another part of France, girls and boys called her Malinka because they knew her by no other name, and she had yet to invent one.
It was not out of the question that a woman her age might one day accost her and ask in delighted surprise if she wasn’t that Malinka from her past, from that school and that city whose name and look she, Clarisse, had forgotten.
And a smile would come to Clarisse’s lips, not hesitant but bold and assured, and she would be neither puzzled nor surprised, though she would most certainly not recognize that woman who claimed to have known her when she was Malinka.
But she would recognize her own name, and the way the last syllable hung in the air, trailing a wake of promises, of happy anticipations and unspoiled youth, which is why, at first, she would think there was no reason to allow any awkwardness between her and this old schoolmate she couldn’t recall, and why she would do her best to match her joyful expression, until she remembered the danger that came with consenting to be Malinka again, if only now and then.
What she would thus have to do she didn’t dare even think.
The brusquely turned back, the scowl of feigned incomprehension, these went far beyond the timid violations of civility and good manners that a resolutely inoffensive Clarisse Rivière could even consider.
She sat in the train, eyes fixed on the window, on the specks and tiny scratches she never saw past—such that she would have been hard put to describe this countryside she’d been traveling through for years, once a month, one way in the morning, the other in the evening—and trembled uneasily as she imagined having to hold herself back should someone call her Malinka.
Then her thoughts wandered, little by little she forgot why she was trembling, though her trembling went on and she couldn’t think how to still it, in the end vaguely putting it down to the vibrations of the train, which, beneath her feet, in her muscles, in her weary head, chanted the name that she loved and despised, the name that filled her with both fear and compassion, Malinka, Malinka, Malinka.
It hadn’t always been easy, when her daughter Ladivine was small, to make this covert trip to Bordeaux, spend a part of the day there, then be home early enough to arouse no suspicion.
But she’d always succeeded.
Of that she was neither proud nor ashamed.
She’d done what she had to, and would go on doing it until one of them died, and for that she’d dug deep into her reserves—meager, she knew—of intelligence, ingenuity, strategy.
She sometimes thought she had none of those talents, or had lost them over the years, and yet somehow she drew on what she didn’t have and came up with a workable system, perfectly suited to the situation.
But of that she was neither proud nor ashamed.
Like an animal, she did what she had to do.
She had no opinion on the matter, no emotion, only the stubborn, immovable, almost innate conviction that it was her twofold responsibility to act and to keep it a secret.
And when, arriving in Bordeaux, she set off on foot for the Sainte-Croix neighborhood, always sticking to the same streets and the same sides of those streets, it was less the obligation of secrecy than her self-imposed duty never to weaken that kept her from taking a taxi, or later the tram, where some regular might someday spot her, speak to her, ask where she was headed, which Clarisse Rivière, who in this city was Malinka in spirit and incapable of falsehood, would have answered with nothing other than the truth.
I’m going to see my mother, she would have said.
That she might have to speak such a sentence was unthinkable.
It would feel like a failure, in the one place where failure could never be forgiven or forgotten, or turned into a simple mistake: her very mission in life, which had no other purpose, she told herself, as resolute as she was evasive, than never to let it be known that Clarisse Rivière was Malinka, and that Malinka’s mother was not dead.
She turned into the dark rue du Port, stopped at the house’s sooty walls, used her key to get in, and there, in the damp entryway, opened the door to the apartment.
Her mother, who knew she was coming, since Clarisse Rivière visited the first Tuesday of each month, nonetheless always greeted her with the same cry of mock surprise, tinged with an unsubtle sarcasm:
“Well, what do you know, it’s my daughter, at last!”
And this had long since stopped grating on Clarisse Rivière, who realized it was simply her wronged mother’s way of expressing what, deep down, must nonetheless have been affection and even tenderness for her, for Malinka, who in another life bore another name, unknown to her mother.
Of Clarisse Rivière, Malinka’s mother knew nothing.
But she was not so ignorant as not to know she knew nothing. She pretended not to suspect that on the first Tuesday of each month her daughter Malinka came to her from an existence more structured and less lonely than the one she’d sketchily described for her long before, in which she seemed to live and work only as a sideline, solely for the sake of coming to visit her mother each month.
Clarisse Rivière knew full well that, if her mother pretended to be taken in, if she never tried to learn more, if it sometimes even seemed that her mother wanted at all costs not to know, it was because she understood and accepted the reasons for her secrecy.
Understanding them was one thing, but how and why should she accept them?
Oh, for that, for her mother’s mute submission to what should have enraged her, Clarisse Rivière would never, as long as she lived, have time enough to be grateful—with a gratitude dulled by resentment and despair—and to atone.
And yet what she’d done was her duty.
It wasn’t a thing to be justified or explained or excused.
Clarisse Rivière didn’t think it enough that her mother, having understood, and feeling the sorrow and sting of that understanding no one could be told of, had become a difficult woman, petulant and volatile, often hurtful.
She wanted her more difficult still; she wanted her hateful and furious.
But the thing itself could not be spoken of.
It could only be expressed by irritability and antagonism, and even then only so long as these outbursts didn’t bring them too near the words of the thing that could not be spoken of.
Clarisse Rivière sometimes thought that those words, were they spoken, would kill them both—her because what she’d done, what she thought it her duty and obligation to do, could not be forgiven; her mother because to the humiliation of this treatment would be added the humiliation of having known and accepted it, even with anger and spite.
Those words would have killed them, Clarisse Rivière sometimes thought.
And if not, if they survived, they could still never see each other again.
That was Clarisse Rivière’s greatest fear, having to give up her visits, even though they brought her only a mixed pleasure—moving but heavy with frustration and sadness.
She entered the apartment to find her mother standing near the window, where she’d been watching for her to appear on the opposite sidewalk, and now her mother no longer strove to put on a convincing display of surprise.
She simulated it in a lazy and halfhearted way and, perhaps, more generally, with a weariness of the very idea of performance, of the act in which they were both trapped for all time.
Clarisse Rivière always sensed the depth of that weariness, and it troubled her, fleetingly.
Sometimes she thought they’d finally burned through the many layers of silence and shame that did not so much separate as envelop them and so had arrived at a sort of sincerity, assuming that sincerity can wear the costume of an actor.
It was, she sometimes thought, as if they could see each other perfectly through their masks, all the while knowing they’d never lower them.
For the naked truth would not have allowed itself to be looked at.
“Well, what do you know, my daughter at last,” Malinka’s mother would sigh, and Clarisse Rivière no longer felt aggrieved; she smiled with a two-sided smile she never showed anywhere else, at once loving and circumspect, open and suddenly reserved.
She kissed her mother, who was short, thin, prettily built, who like her had slender bones, narrow shoulders, long, thin arms, and compact, unobtrusive features, perfectly attractive but inconspicuous, almost invisible.
Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never been and would never go—though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet—everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder as at the wrist.
And her mother’s having therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame, and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you didn’t want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?
But anger, too, had abandoned her.
Never once, in all those many years, had Clarisse Rivière been foiled.
And so, as she aged, anger, too, had abandoned her.
For never had Malinka been flushed out from the cover of Clarisse.
Her mother lived in this single ground-floor room, paid for in part by Clarisse Rivière, its window barred to potential burglars by a black grate.
Meticulously maintained, dusted and cleaned every day with maniacal fervor and fussiness, the room was cluttered with dowdy furniture and gewgaws, unstylish and discordant, but, in their gaudy, varnished jumble, their outlandish accumulation in so confined a space, producing an effect of unintended but friendly peculiarity, something almost clownish, in which Clarisse Rivière somewhat queasily felt right at home.
She would sit down in a crushed-velvet chair with tulle-draped arms while her mother stood close by in a pose of wary, defensive stiffness that no longer had any reason to be, a lingering trace of a stance from a time long before, when there was good cause for it, when Clarisse Rivière was trying to free herself of her duty, her mission—oh, she could barely even remember it, she’d wanted to have nothing more to do with Malinka’s mother, and that was very wrong.
Her mother knew there was no reason now to fear being abandoned or run from, but in the first moments of Clarisse Rivière’s visits she maintained a vigilant pose, pretending to stand guard over her daughter who might still try to bolt, and in reality watching over herself, in her stubborn, groundless refusal to let herself go, doing her best to incarnate for them both the dramatic figure of dignity irreparably wronged.
There was no need for that, Clarisse Rivière thought, and there never had been.
She knew, like her mother, that the wrong was there all around them, in the simple fact that Malinka was visiting her mother in secret because she’d decided this was how it would be, and because once that scandalous decision was made there was no going back.
There was no forgetting the wrong, and no need to express it with scowls, with a special silence that, striving to be meaningful, freighted that wrong with a slightly embarrassing lyricism.
So thought Clarisse Rivière, who nonetheless felt her tenderness grow on seeing her mother so inept in her attempts to seem grander than she could ever be.
Because Clarisse Rivière’s mother was only an ordinary woman who would have been perfectly happy with the little joys of a routine existence, who could scarcely be blamed for not always knowing what gestures to make on the stage that her daughter had forced her to tread.
She herself, Clarisse Rivière, sometimes stumbled.
Sometimes she began to weep in her armchair, sudden, violent sobs seemingly set off by some run-in with her mother, but which had no other cause than a brutal attack unleashed by her own conscience.
How can people live this way? she often wondered. Surely this isn’t how things are supposed to be?
But always, even through those tears, her fierce, stubborn, old resolve rose up to show her that things were just as they had to be, and so certain was that blind, stupid resolve, that savage determination from her youth, that Clarisse Rivière never feared she might abandon it in some moment of weakness.
Only in her actions did she falter.
She saw herself sobbing in the armchair, she thought herself mediocre, she thought herself an ordinary woman and a heavy-handed actress like her mother, except that for her there was no excuse.
Then it passed. That moment of weakness was quickly forgotten.
There remained only the slightly surprised memory of an awakening of the stubborn will that was her master, which she couldn’t imagine defying. Why that power deep inside her had stirred she soon forgot.
Every first Tuesday of the month Malinka’s mother was handed enough money to keep her in groceries until the next visit, and a little present as well, a bottle of eau de cologne, a fragrance burner, a genuine linen dish towel, because she also passionately loved things and surprises, and Clarisse Rivière, who took a great deal of trouble to come up with all this, couldn’t bring herself to give her only a curt cash-filled envelope.