by Altair Brandon-Salmon
Adèle Leïla Slimani, Faber, 2019
Cunt and pussy, prick and hard dick, fucking and sodomising: the language of Adèle is pornographic. Yet Leïla Slimani is uninterested in arousing us. Adèle is a fiercely unerotic novel. It is as sexy as a blow to the guts.
Five times, maybe ten, he lifted up his leg and his sharp, bony knee smashed into [Adèle]’s vulva.
Sex as pain. Sex is pain.
Adèle is a journalist. She is also a wife, and a mother. Adèle though, is foremost a sex addict. The novel begins with her giving into her addiction - she hasn’t had sex for a week and we follow her in the early morning frantically travelling across Paris to meet Adam, another hard dick to make ‘her anxieties dissolve.’ We see Adam only briefly again. His work is already complete.
The novel is deliberately provocative, its protagonist convinced that she needs sex with a man to be complete, to exist. To be desired, for Adèle, is to be alive. Or is it? Despite the constant focus on her for much of the novel, she remains fundamentally inscrutable. Slimani refuses to reveal her hand: who Adèle is and what she really needs or wants is never truly apparent.
Adèle was Slimani’s debut novel, published in France in 2014 - her follow up work of fiction, Lullaby, won the 2016 Prix Goncourt and sold extraordinarily well. Slimani is now one of the most prominent French novelists of her generation (she is only 37), a journalist for Jeune Afrique, a regular media commentator, and currently President Macron’s ‘personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture’. Slimani performs the role of the novelist as wise counsel, doctor and prophet for the nation; a difficult act, even in France.
Faber, who have now published Adèle in the UK, are clearly uncomfortable both with the novel and its author. The fact that Slimani has won France’s most prestigious literary prize is hidden away in the novelist’s biography on the inside rear flap; the cover itself is a risible close-up a woman wearing a white dress shirt with a long black bow drooping out of the collar, while the back cover has pull quotes from Stylist and Grazia.
Is Adèle a sexual thriller, a potboiler? Or a penetrating psychological portrait which offers a damning indictment of bourgeois values? Faber knows which sells more copies.This indecision extends to the title: the rather prosaic English language name replaces the evocative original, Dans le jardin de l’ogre - In the Garden of the Ogre, far more richly suggestive as a metaphor than the banal Adèle, for it hints at both the fraught inner psychology of Adèle while equally pointing towards the pastoral final third of the novel. Luckily, Sam Taylor’s translation is excellent. There’s none of the slightly awkward idioms or formality of tone which sometimes dog English renderings of French literature. If reading in translation inevitably places a film between the reader and the author, Taylor makes it unusually translucent.
This allows us to appreciate Slimani’s deceptively smooth prose, shot through with a terse undercurrent which avoids extraneous adjectives. Your eye dances over the page as it speeds along. Sentences are short, paragraphs never too fat. There are a few shuddering clichés, such as Adèle ‘landing the kind of interviews that no one else at the paper even dreamed about’, but they are mainly held in check, and is perhaps proof more of poor editing than of poor writing on Slimani’s part. This linguistic restraint is of absolute necessity. Without it, the novel would be almost unreadable, a pornographic horror.
Unlike the baroque, surreal treatment of sex addiction in a film such as Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), Slimani exists in a strict realist mode. The laconic writing recalls James M. Cain at times, at other points Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (another novel about dislocated people in Paris). There’s an almost obsessive tracing of movement and activity:
The gentleman took them to eat lunch in a brasserie near Boulevard Saint-Michel and gave Adèle her first taste of beer ... they crossed the Seine and walked to the Grand Boulevards.
This extends to the mental and physical damage Adèle incurs in pursuit of sex. In the aftermath of drug-fuelled group sex:
She crawls over the tiles to the shower cubicle. Very carefully, step by step, she climbs to her feet. She is afraid she will faint, smash her skull on the bathtub, vomit yet again. Squatting, kneeling, on her feet. She can barely stand. She wants to sink her nails into the walls. She takes a deep breath and tries to walk in a straight line. Her nose is blocked, full of scabs. It hurts. Once she’s in the shower she notices the blood tricking down her thighs. She doesn’t dare look at her crotch but she knows it is raw, torn and swollen like the face of someone who’s been beaten up.
Sex is pain.
Once Adèle’s life has been established in the opening chapters (constant sex, a banal husband, a burdensome child, a frustrating job at a newspaper), Slimani keeps repeating scenes to accumulate the gnawing, debilitating pressure that Adèle experiences as she maintains her parallel lives. She has two mobile phones, two laptops, fake paper trails, constant pregnancy tests and an endless store of lies and excuses. She wears flats when a lover is short, so as not to lead to any distraction from her single goal. It is clear that she never enjoys sex – at best, it offers merely a respite.
There’s the suspicion that Slimani sometimes loads the die when writing about Adèle, as though she is seeing how far we’re willing to identify with her and her behaviour. She complains frequently to herself about the burden of being a mother to her young son Lucien, she resents that she and her husband Richard aren’t richer (he’s a doctor), despite leading a comfortable bourgeois life, and abuses every relationship she has.
The only friend who knows about her true life, Lauren, is used to create convenient alibis to shield Adèle from Richard. Adèle borrows money from her (we don’t expect she’ll ever pay it back) and when Richard is hospitalised due to a scooter accident, Lauren does all the administrative necessities for him to leave hospital; yet Adèle abandons her friendship with Lauren when she tells her things she doesn’t want to hear. Another person to be discreetly disposed of, alongside the dozens of lovers.
The milieu of Adèle and Richard Robinson is comfortably middle-class, both in ‘prestigious’ jobs and surrounded by complacent, self- obsessed people who Adèle knows would try to destroy her if her true nature were revealed. The impression is that Slimani perhaps thinks her sex addiction is a reaction against the hypocrisies and racism of the Parisian elite, which would place the novel in a long lineage of French literature, from Flaubert to Sartre, who have condemned the bourgeoisie.
This implies though, that Adèle is far more schematic than it actually is – in fact Slimani resists any easy attempt to read the novel in a wider social context, because Adèle as a character is made so clearly exceptional and unique.The novel’s plot, such as it is, initially revolves around Richard’s desire to leave Paris for the countryside – Adèle resists this as it would curtail her affairs. However, after Richard’s accident, while he is recuperating in their apartment, he (inevitably) discovers the truth about his wife.
Richard is a prig, a self-righteous bore who ‘never thought about sex’ and corrects people’s grammar in conversation; he chiefly sees his wife as a conduit for children. It his petite bourgeoisie morality that prevents them from divorcing: instead, in the final third of the novel, they move to Lisieux in Normandy, where he encages Adèle at home, forcing her to become the ‘ideal’ mother and wife, one who has no life outside of the family. She sees a therapist, but it’s clear it does nothing for her. The addiction remains.
In the psychological torture she experiences at Lisieux, Slimani draws back the narrative voice. We no longer follow Adèle’s thoughts; she retreats into an unknowable enigma. We are uneasily allied with Richard, trying to understand her but incapable of doing so. The last time we see her, she has escaped briefly back to Paris and is blissfully dancing in a nightclub:
A wave of calm surges through her. She has the feeling that she is cut off from the world, that she is experiencing a moment of grace... Richard and Lucien are no more than vague memories now, impossible memories that she sees slowly dissolve then disappear.
Adèle’s greatest desire is in fact to cease to exist as a person with a history, with a life, but to live in a continuous present, to ultimately be an amnesiac. The truth, of course, is that she cannot escape. She is Richard’s wife, who makes her a prisoner, although it is part of her mystery that at times she is a willing agent in her own entrapment. After all, her quest for true abandonment makes her a prisoner to her own desires and compulsions. Adèle and Richard Robinson are trapped in each other’s gilded cage.
Art by Ellen Sharman
ALTAIR BRANDON-SALMON reads for an MSt in the History of Art at Christ Church. He will soon be moving to California.