Tropism in banana trees: the movement of literary symbols in Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green — John Trefry


“What reality is apart from these (symbolic) forms is irrelevant.”

– Ernst Cassirer


A series of episodes pass. In each: an image, an interaction, and a reflection. These are not the picaresque of morality, but the picaresque of pure literature. They are not the rake’s (or harlot’s) progress, but that of an intimate symbolic form being born and cultivated. Marie NDiaye’s novel, Self-Portrait in Green, is this narrated hermeneutical journey. A woman isolates an image, possibly that has always been in her life, a “woman in green” or a “green woman,” and labors to contextualize it, to supplement its symbolic meaning as it pervades her tale. Self-Portrait in Green is literature of symbolic interconnectedness, but not narrative continuity. It is erected more as a series of entries in an encyclopedia, like a first-person hermeneutics of color told through allegorized vignettes.

In his novel, The Cathedral, J.K. Huysmans—through his proxy character Durtal—discusses the symbolic importance of color in The Coronation of the Virgin, a painting by Fra Angelico, and how, when loosed from hierarchical systems of meaning, that symbolism decays:

On emerging from the cloister the liturgical meaning of colours was weakened; it lost its original rigidity and became pliant. Angelico followed the traditions of his Order to the letter… for he regarded them as a liturgical duty, a fixed rule of service. But as soon as profane painters had emancipated the domain of painting, they gave us more puzzling versions, more complicated meanings; and the symbolism of colour, which is so simple in Angelico, became singularly abstruse—supposing that they even were constantly faithful to it in their works—and almost impossible to interpret.

Since the first creation myths were told, narratives have embodied something below their surface, a symbolic cavern network more expansive than is apparent from their vague mouths reaching the surface. Their figures were allusive to preverbal states of consciousness. The inching forward of culture embodied in every work of art or criticism has, as with the speleothemic deposition of cave features, obscured the original seed of agreed meaning contained within the symbolic container beneath an ornate encrustation of confusion and possibility. After the severance of art production from the church that mystical landscape remained the foundation for modern understandings of symbolism in Western art. Yet without the direct, though false, equivalencies between symbol and religious truth, symbolism became pluralistic, its allusive network far more complex and inscrutable. It is in this corrupted terrain that contemporary writers employ symbols.


There is little value in me, the critical reader, declaring what I believe the women in green of NDiaye’s novel to symbolize. NDiaye does not establish the “green woman” symbol with certainty. If she had, it would not be one. She writes of that first green woman, “Truthfulness would require that I tell her, ‘I had to make sure you exist.’ And since I can’t tell her that, I say nothing.” This uncertainty is the foundation of Self-Portrait in Green and the medium through with NDiaye regenerates the tissue of the emptied symbol.

If its meaning is necessarily elusive, or arbitrary, it is more productive to understand the literary context of how symbolism is employed in Self-Portrait in Green. Simply because the ordering system of symbolism has never left us does not mean it has not been contested, most critically by the Nouveau Roman of the mid-twentieth-century in France. It is possible that as a French writer, NDiaye would be attendant to these subversions, even if she did not choose to exploit them. As Queneau said, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.”

Pertaining to the uncertain relationship between meaning and objects, a critique of their symbolic performance in a text, Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the pillars of the Nouveau Roman, wrote in For a New Novel:

Even the least conditioned observer is unable to see the world around him through entirely unprejudiced eyes… At every moment, a continuous fringe of culture (psychology, ethics, metaphysics, etc.) is added to things, giving them a less alien aspect, one that is more comprehensible, more reassuring. Sometimes the camouflage is complete: a gesture vanishes from our mind, supplanted by the emotions which supposedly produced it, and we remember a landscape as austere or calm without being able to evoke a single outline, a single determining element.

In this is a literary manifestation of the uncertainty principle one cannot apprehend both the textual object and its symbolic status at the same time. Observing it as laden with meaning renders it immaterial, and reveals, in a sense, that its meaning is wholly separate, a fraud perpetrated against the reader. Additionally, this “fringe of culture” makes it nearly impossible to isolate a single symbolic intention within an object, a fraud returned upon the confidence of the author.

Elsewhere in For a New Novel, Robbe-Grillet describes the aspirational reciprocity from novel to cinema and back, he hoped, to the novel. He gives the example of an empty chair depicted in a novel as a symbol (or a signifier, as he says) of absence or expectation. A cinematic version of the same image coalesces possibility into a singularity. It makes the chair a real chair. What we leave the cinema with, he declares, is less the memory or trace of the empty chair symbol, but the memory of the chair as an image. What follows, in Robbe-Grillet’s novels of the 1960s, is an attempt to render objects in such a way that they leap over the symbolic content that may have lain within them, straight to the physical trace of their image in the mind as rendered by the cinema. They are denuded. Robbe-Grillet himself would reimagine the indulgence in objects for their symbolic capacities, their shorthand talismanic resonance, in his cruel novels of the 1970s, focusing more on porting the narrative potential of montage and metamorphism in cinema, born of poetry’s rhetoric more than the novel, back into the novel.

One can read NDiaye for rather direct echoes of Robbe-Grillet. Jealousy’s banana trees are rendered here as the generative surface from which the first woman in green emerges. The “false Cristina,” whom the narrator meets in the street, is something straight out of Recollections of the Golden Triangle and Project for a Revolution in New York. Yet, these echoes are less homages than measured breaking points. They are control joints upon which a material is predestined to fail. Self-Portrait in Green is not a Robbe-Grillet novel, nor would I place it in the canonical Nouveau Roman tradition (The Voyeur, Passing Time, The Flanders Road, The Planetarium). However, it is inescapably a book that was written after that period and benefits from the cracks Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Simon, and Sarraute made in the façade of the novel.

Even with its apparent winks to Robbe-Grillet, Self-Portrait in Green seems more a peer of Sarraute, far less concerned about the misappropriation of objects as symbols, more the instability of words, themselves symbolic instruments.

Sarraute embodies her uncertainty in text as a simmering disbelief, almost panic, that all we have are words, a veil of deferral. NDiaye even employs Sarraute’s characteristic ellipsis (from the Ancient Greek, “falling short”) in the monologue of the “false Cristina”, “I climb over the hedge… a hole… a sort of hole, a low spot… in the hedge…  and I climb over it, without making a sound… and I come to… the terrace.” Especially poignant is Sarraute’s final novel, Here, written when she was 96, published in 1995—40 years after she had written The Age of Suspicion. The novel is constructed around the attempted recollection of words—just on the tip of the tongue—the frustration of confronting the image, or even the real thing, without the ability to express it. She laments:

“My memory is full of holes,” people say casually, nonchalantly, not wishing to dwell on the matter… If it isn’t indispensable, what’s the use of tiring oneself, driving oneself crazy in the effort to fill in that hole, why waste one’s time? But what it has left behind it here, this opening, this disjointed, dislocated breach, makes everything reel, the hole must absolutely be filled in, it must at all costs come back, embed itself here once again, take its full place…

Sarraute’s writing is hesitant about the stability of words and their relationship to what they are applied, what they are materially, and whether they connect to what we think they do. Symbolic constructs exist on all scales, from the single word up to the entire book. Yet only at a certain scale does the symbol within the words seem to coalesce. Delitescent tendencies imbue them with depth their material peers do not possess. Sarraute’s textual concept of tropisms, “the indefinable movements that slip by very rapidly at the limits of our consciousness (and which) are at the origin of our gestures, of our words,” is especially appropriate to contextualize further scrutiny of the mechanics of symbolism in NDiaye’s novel.

Joyce scholar William York Tindall, writing in 1955—the year Les Éditions de Minuit published Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur—in his book The Literary Symbol, unpacks the mechanical property of a symbol as simply “an outward sign of an inward state.” All written or spoken words have this same definition. Reading the word “chair” does not, through sympathetic magic, manifest a chair, but the inward embodiment of the chair in the mind of the reader. The literary symbol is more significant. The scale of its inward state is more expansive. It contains far more information than it depicts outwardly. Like the pocket universe, seen from without in exponentially inflating false vacuum (see the work of cosmologist Alan Guth), it is finite, but from within, its boundaries are non-existent, infinite. It elicits more than it should be able to contain. It argues more than can be agreed upon. More rigorous, Paul Ricoeur, writing twenty years later in The Conflict of Interpretations, defines a symbol as:

Any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first… Interpretation is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.

This distinction about interpretation is important, and complicit with Robbe-Grillet’s uncertainty. The interpretation is a “work of thought” separate from the symbol itself. If the symbol could be expanded to the complete form of its catalog of meanings, it would have no need to exist. But it cannot be expanded. It has no true form. It is not shorthand. Nor is it the poles of the metaphor, no matter how magic their interstitial space may be. The symbol is an iceberg floating in ink.

The power in most symbols relies on thousands of years of archetypal evolution. But more than that, they are distinguished in their structural separateness from the body of a text. What was born out of mystery, anointed as gods, Apollo’s flying golden chariot in lieu of celestial mechanics, distinguished itself by the gravity of its separateness from what we understand to be the simple fabric of our world. Similar in cinema to the lingering of the camera on an object for longer than is necessary, a phrase, a conceit, an image in a text develops gravity by its separateness.

The women in green of NDiaye’s novel do not come with a history inherited from outside the text. They accrete it. In Self-Portrait in Green we are watching a symbol be born. It is understood in the linear context of its passage, or replacement by subsequent iterations of its symbol.

The first, prodromal, woman in green appears indistinguishable from her background of foliage (the aforementioned banana tree). She is dislodged from the text as an object by the narrator’s fixation on her as something extrinsic.

Then I said to myself: that woman in green has always been there. She’s there every morning and every afternoon, beneath that banana tree, and she watches us creep past her house, and she sees me looking at her without seeing her.

When the second green woman appears, it is from the past, the narrator’s school mistress. Her existence as a figure in the text—I would say memory, but it is not our memory, because for us, the banana tree woman in green is our only memory—is only possible through apophany. And with the dyad, the woman in green becomes a motif. It is not a refrain, nor is it yet a symbol. As more women in green appear, some living, some dead, some the living dead, their mutability and difference allows them to imprint as a highly evolved symbol, establishing the bounds of its construct as it comes to exist itself, a self-supporting armature, a structure as figure.

Text is different than image in that its fabric is (typically) monolithic. It lacks the perceptual depth wrought by light, scale, and by hue. It is relentless black characters on a light background (except for red letter Bibles, &c.). Separateness is achieved through rhetoric. The mechanical rhetoric of the symbol in the text is one in which the background, through Sarraute’s “indefinable movements,” becomes the figure. Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz presented a road map for this process embedded in his 1965 novel Cosmos. While avoiding troubles at home by squatting on a farm, the narrator, Witold, observes a series of ominous symbolic meanings in the raw materials of rural detritus.

“Maybe (it is) an arrow, maybe not an arrow,” I remarked… I don’t know how to tell this story… this story… because I’m telling it ex post. The arrow, for instance… The arrow, for instance… The arrow, at that time, at supper, was no more important than Leon’s chess, or the newspaper, or tea, everything—equally important, everything—was contributing to a given moment, a kind of consonance, the buzzing of a swarm. But today, ex post, I know it was the arrow that was the most important, so in telling this I move it to the forefront…

The narrative describes this process of isolating fragments of our lives that gather meaning. However, NDiaye seems to capitalize on this separation, or isolation—like a green screen—of coplanar figures within a text, to build a symbolic order from scratch. Stripping away the meta-explication of Cosmos, Self-Portrait in Green manifests the symbol with pure rhetoric, without the editorial armature.

I am reminded of a 1997 painting by Gerhard Richter, CR-849-2, that I used to visit in the High Museum’s collection in Atlanta. It is one of his abstract paintings, not so dissimilar from its peers, but distinguished by the presence of a few crisp geometric figures in the motion blur. Richter’s process in these abstractions is to capitalize on chance—“Letting a thing come, rather than creating it,” he says in his studio notes dated 1985—by affecting more conventional abstract expressionist compositions with a squeegee, bringing out another state of its existence, the way the wind on the water makes it both water and wind visible. The squeegee unifies the layers of composition. It binds them to inescapable higher entropic states. The figures in CR-849-2 are immune to this flattening. They are presumably created by masking over an earlier, though still smeared, state of the painting, then adding another composition and smearing it with the former, and finally removing the masks. Every layer of the painting is considered the background. Time as a process is flattened. Yet in these unmasked figures, the presence of some earlier, less burdened, though still background state of surface is regenerated, the way a stone thrown into the water makes visible the figure of reaction, the absence of the stone.

Robbe-Grillet declared that, “the surface of things has ceased to be for us the mask of their heart,” and I tend to agree with the cultural shifts that have rendered this. But the deep thickness of something growing in time can be read as a series of surfaces. In this way, by inscribing on each stratum before it is buried by new growth, NDiaye has embraced the contemporary potential of the symbol as a hermetic device, introverted rather than universal. The green women belong hopelessly to no one else but her.

I leave you again with Huysmans, on the hermeneutics of color on The Cathedral, specifically green:

Green: used liturgically at Seasons of Pilgrimage, and which seems to be the colour preferred by the Benedictine Sisterhood, interpreting it as meaning freshness of soul and perennial sap; the green which, in the hermeneutics of colour, expresses the hopes of the regenerated creature, the yearning for final repose, and which is likewise the mark of humility, according to the Anonymous English writer of the thirteenth century, and of contemplation, according to Durand of Mende.

Marie NDiaye met her father for the first time at age 15, two years before publishing her first novel. She is the recipient of the Prix Femina and the Prix Goncourt, the latter being highest honor a French writer can receive. One of ten finalists for the 2013 International Booker Prize, alongside Lydia Davis and Marilynne Robinson, she is the author of over a dozen plays and works of prose.

Jordan Stump is one of the leading translators of innovative French literature. The recipient of numerous honors and prizes, he has translated books by Nobel laureate Claude Simon, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Eric Chevillard, as well as Jules Verne’s French-language novel The Mysterious Island. His translation of NDiaye’s All My Friends was shortlisted for the French-American Foundation Translation Prize.

John Trefry is an architect and the author of the novel PLATS, the caprice THY DECAY THOU SEEST BY THY DESIRE, and the forthcoming novel APPARITIONS OF THE LIVING, his work has appeared on The Fanzine, Black Sun Lit, and forthcoming on Plinth. He contributes to Entropy Magazine, Full Stop, minor literature[s], and forthcoming on The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and on Twitter @trefryesque.

Image: banana trees, Pierre Marshall, Creative Commons

Self-Portrait in Green is published by Two Lines Press. Author and translator bios courtesy of the same.