Both Aggressor and Victim: Adèle by Leïla Slimani

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Leïla Slimani’s international debut Lullaby (2016)—published as The Perfect Nanny in the US in 2018—established Slimani’s global reputation as an author who excels at the unnerving. Her sophomore novel, Adèle (2019), is a tensely strung, socially provocative character study that further cements that reputation: while the disturbed psyche of Lullaby’s anti-heroine gradually takes center stage (although her homicidal tendencies are made abundantly clear from the now-infamous opening line, “The baby is dead”), the eponymous Adèle is, right from the first page, a woman consistently living on the edge of a total delirium.

Adèle Robinson calls her inescapable sex addiction the urge to be “a doll in an ogre’s garden,” fully at the thrilling mercy of the corporeal. (The novel, actually Slimani’s first in France, where the Moroccan-French author resides, was titled Dans le jardin de l’ogre in its original incarnation, and translated into English by Sam Taylor for its international release.) A journalist sliding into disgrace, Adèle lives in the eighteenth arrondissement in Paris with her successful but obtuse husband Richard, a surgeon, and their son Lucien. Adèle feels nothing, so carnal brutality must naturally fill the void, as Slimani comments in an interview with the New Statesman. But the precarious balance between Adèle’s contentious relationship with familial duty and her intense appetite for violent sexual fulfillment is, of course, unsustainable.

Adèle admits to several influences that are worth examining. Its fantastical French title hints at Slimani’s fascination with the “monstrous in humanity” (as she told Lit Hub) and at her exploration beyond the borders of the superficial fairy tale into the dark underbelly of the unvarnished life of the woman who (supposedly) “has it all.” Adèle’s literary ancestry can be traced to the likes of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, but the novel is also a part of the zeitgeist set off by twentieth-century modernist literary thought; it echoes Adèle’s abject loneliness in the dreariness of the Parisian cityscape, as well as her maternal ambivalence and isolation as she futilely plays at the role of the “perfect” modern woman. Slimani’s inspiration for the novel was a sexual assault scandal concerning French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which made the writer realize that hardly anything had been written about sex addicts who happened to be women. As she told the New Yorker, to her the novel represents a “slightly extreme metaphor” for social, legal, and cultural sexual repression in her origin country of Morocco.

Much has been made of Slimani’s mode of narration—her precise, clipped, near-surgical delineation of action. Despite the ostensible clarity of her prose style, meaning often seems to lie tangled up in some undergrowth below the sentences, just out of reach. This lends an interesting flavor to the anxiety-fueled narrative of the novel: heavy on the conventionally dodged present tense, ironically economical with words and sparse with information, and evoking, no doubt intentionally, more questions than it answers. What worked seamlessly in Lullaby works nearly as well in Adèle, which trades the gripping element of public criminality for the exploration of private criminality. Slimani’s style tends to produce the fascinating if disconcerting effect of urging you to believe entirely in what you read, which is only magnified by the sustained sense that Adèle’s thoughts appear totally uncensored, and therefore, totally honest.

A few contemporary novels of late have sought to examine a complex mind in total disarray—Ottessa Moshfegh’s genius literary creation, Eileen, comes to mind. Adèle is, perhaps, more than anything, a character sketch of a deeply troubled woman where the real facts of the case constantly elude you. Who is Adèle Robinson, really, and what is it, exactly, that happened to her? Was it her disruptive and cold upbringing that Slimani allows us the occasional glimpse of? Or her stifling marriage and her consequent nagging maternal anxiety? Or the unbearable baggage of social norm and expectation? Perhaps all three. Slimani, in keeping with the tradition she established in Lullaby, is interested not in cause but in effect. We follow Adèle through innumerable one-night stands, her sharp desire exacerbated by her increasingly tenuous grasp on real life, and witness the fallout and the visceral breakdown of the pretense of a family unit.

It is somehow difficult to read Adèle as a character, to draw solid conclusions about her emotionally turbulent mind, to take anything she says in narration as true. In one instance, she revels in the banality of flirtation; later, she abhors it. She wishes her husband dead; she takes it back. Early in the novel, she contemplates an alternate life:

She would have loved being married to a rich, absent husband. To the outrage of all those proud working women who surround her, Adèle wishes she could spend her days lazing around a large house with no objective other than to look beautiful when her husband returns. How wonderful it would be to get paid for her talent of giving men pleasure.

Does she speak wholly, truly of herself? Is she merely fantasizing in the moment, captive to her addiction? Any attempted study of Adèle is disorienting at best, like chasing a shadow of a person who may well be honest and free with her thoughts as you read, but somehow slips out of focus when examined. She is contradictory and frantic; the question of warming to her becomes almost irrelevant. Slimani succeeds in drumming up the occasional sliver of sympathy initially, and the poignancy of Adèle’s predicament becomes particularly evident in the closing chapters, when she becomes something of a prisoner to her husband’s vengefulness. She emerges as a character so desperate to overcome the fact that she feels nothing that she is reduced to insubstantiality, a person without identity, without selfhood.

A blurb on the cover of Adèle adroitly tricks you into believing you are going to read an “erotic and daring story.” Half of this is true; no one can deny that Slimani’s writing defies convention. But Slimani strips eroticism of its sexual charge entirely. Speaking to Lit Hub, she noted how she wanted to zero in on the “triviality of sex… the noise that trousers make when you take them off… the smell of socks… things that you don’t want to speak about, that you don’t want to think of, the things that disgust you.” The idea of disgust is particularly relevant; disgust seems to lie at the heart of this addiction’s unceasing cycle: self-disgust, disgust for others, and disgust of corporeality. As a young girl, first experiencing “the vile and the obscene” at Pigalle in Paris, Adèle was transported to ecstasy. However, her experiences in adulthood are far removed from that moment of seedy magic. Most of her sexual exploits fail to satisfy her, although she cannot think clearly without the thrill and expectation of such illicit encounters. She fantasizes about leaving them incomplete, the imperfection of an unrealized experience more perfect to her than a neatly finished, inadequate sexual encounter. Sex in Adèle is characterized by disgust, by staleness, and, unnervingly, by violence. In one of the most striking and perturbing scenes in the novel, Adèle tries to reckon with a foggy night of sexual violence that she initiated:

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 trickling 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.

Even as her life falls apart, Adèle is hyper-aware of societal demands. She clumsily, determinedly works to maintain the facade of conformity. She accompanies her husband to work functions, attempts to look after a child she might love but does not understand, dutifully visits her in-laws and parents during seasonal festivities, and nurses her husband back to health when he is injured. But underlying every domestic chore is deep resentment. She makes a significant effort to keep her string of affairs secret—a glaring indication of her outward commitment to societal pressure. The running monologue in her mind that outlines her yearning for sexual violence, her contempt of domesticity, and her perpetual dissatisfaction and unhappiness is at odds with the persona she presents to most: as quiet and withdrawn. To most of her coworkers, the most outrageous thing about her is a touch of rowdiness after a few drinks.

What makes Adèle interesting is partly the sales pitch: a woman trying and failing to fight a sex addiction. Slimani sets an ambitious target, and while Adèle is not as accessible or as smooth a read as Lullaby, it is a feat in that it charts the variances of human complexity, of disgust and desire, and of total psychological collapse. Adèle is not interested in diagnosis, but it provides a terrifying and painfully intimate portrayal of what it might be like to live inside the head of a woman who is a prisoner to her addiction.

What should we make of a novel like Adèle? What, if anything, can be drawn from such a specific study of a deeply unhappy, tortured woman with questionable morals, who comes alive (to some extent) only when anticipating or reveling in a love affair? Perhaps Slimani would frown upon attempts to pull any quasi-universal meaning from the novel, having said to the New Statesman that life “is always more complex,” that literature is where “ambiguity has a space.” It may be paradoxically simpler to take Adèle as it is, with all its irreconcilable complexities.

But it is also tempting to examine the novel in light of Adèle’s desolation and crushing disjunction with the larger world, her sexual recklessness balanced by her reluctance to play chess-piece to society (but doing so nonetheless), her conflicted dual desires for freedom and incarceration. If Adèle is an extreme metaphor for sexual repression in Morocco, it may just as well be an extreme metaphor for the rigid social conventions and rituals that feed into the death of Adèle’s psyche (if it ever lived at all). Adèle is hardly a bystander to her own fate—she is an active agent in adultery—but she earns the reader’s pity far quicker than her husband Richard (who has, after all, been harshly deceived by his wife for years) does. A tragic figure who is starkly aware of her own nothingness, and who grapples for sexual fulfillment to temporarily pacify that nothingness, Adèle is trapped in a society that provides her glimpses of pleasure as it tortures her, that bewilders her and facilitates her role-playing, a society where she is both aggressor and victim.

Lakshmi Mitra is a college student living in India. She has been published in The Rising Phoenix Review, The Fem, and Words Dance among others. More from this author →