Read on its own, outside the context of a body of work that includes 13 novels, 4 plays, 3 children’s books, 1 screenplay and assorted essays, The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye is a deceptively straight-forward tale about the life of a gifted French female chef told by her lovelorn protégé. For readers familiar, passionate even, about NDiaye, it seems an outlier. Traditional in subject and conventional in approach, it lacks the unsettling paranoia, the grappling with race and trauma, and the stylistic audacity of her earlier work. We assume the male narrator is unreliable because it is the sort of twist we expect from a NDiaye novel. And in this way, she subverts our expectations from the very first page.
“Oh yes, of course, she got that question often. Endlessly, I’d even say…” So begins our chatty, unnamed narrator, relishing the spotlight, puffed with pride, reveling in his former intimacy with and access to genius. He is the keeper of the flame – but there is also something tawdry about him. A little too sly. Definitely smug. The prose is less dense, less feminine, than past novels. Jordan Stump’s translation adapts to this weak, masculine voice, giving us yet another wonderful and nuanced translation of NDiaye’s work. I felt relatively secure in my dislike of this character, confident my judgement would be validated by the time I reached the end. But until then I was happy to lose myself in the rags to riches story of the Cheffe. Her humble beginnings, her work as the cook to a wealthy, gluttonous family, her apprenticeship and the opening of her own restaurant. My favorite bits were the detailed, mouth watering descriptions of her culinary artistry. The Cheffe had a knack for visualizing the dish, then creating it.
And so, having called up in her mind a simple, idealized image of a peach tart, its amber color underscored by something she thought might be verbena, with the faintest gilding, subdued and matte, or caramelized sugar… she was pleased, when the tart came out of the oven, to see no disparity between the thing and her premonition of it, and so she forgot the idea and conferred on the real tart the status of a model for all her deserts to come.
Central to the story are the Cheffe’s relationships. With her daughter, her customers, her food, and to this man who is narrating her story as if he is the sole proprietor of her memory. He – we never learn his name – obviously admired the Cheffe. More than that, he loved her. I kept expecting his devotion to her to turn ugly, to become dark and creepy, but it never did. Yes, he was obsessed. But any harm he did was to himself alone. Because of their age gap (he was decades younger, roughly the age of her daughter) and her devotion to food, she treated him more like a stepson (not quite a son, but someone for whom you feel a certain emotional attachment) than a romantic possibility… welcoming him into her kitchen but always, physically and emotionally, keeping an arm’s length between them. And yet, their lives remain entwined. Mostly thanks to his efforts to keep them so.
In the process of telling us about his mentor’s life and journey, our narrator drops little bits of information about his own circumstances and history. He lives in a Catalonian retirement community now, which seems rather posh. There are endless cocktail parties with neighbors whom he mingles with but who know very little about his past. He no longer cooks. He drinks too much and is expecting a visit from his daughter… the former seems to be inextricably linked to the latter. He does not tell us outright, but we suspect he is nervous about seeing her. That their relationship is strained. When she finally arrives in the final chapters we realize she has been there all the time.
I read The Cheffe months ago. At first I disliked and distrusted the first person narrator – even pitying the translator for having to spend so much time in the man’s head. But, surprisingly quickly, I came to appreciate the emotional journey of the story, which moves towards a final moment of warmth and joy. There’s hope and redemption to be found here. The Cheffe is, in my opinion, the least self-conscious of all NDiaye’s novels. It is also the one that was written most recently and the book most overtly about writing. Like her Cheffe does with food, NDiaye is stripping away the tricks and contrivances of style. Of which, when you think about it, the most celebrated and overused is the unreliable narrator. As readers, we’ve been conditioned to expect and enjoy being lied to. Such a clever trick! NDiaye allows us our cynicism and suspicions, only to finally reveal that everything we’ve been told is true. And show her readers that the emotional honesty and vulnerability of this narrator is just as wonderful – maybe even better – than gimmicks.
Of course, I may be completely wrong and guilty of once again projecting my expectations onto NDiaye. We’ll just have to wait for the next book* to find out.
Title: The Cheffe: A Cook's Novel Author: Marie NDiaye Translator: Jordan Stump Publisher: Alfred K. Knopf (New York, 2019) ISBN: 978 0 525 52047 4
*The next book of NDiaye’s to be released in English, by the publisher Two Lines Press, is That Time of Year. It was originally published in France in 1997. From what I understand, Two Lines Press has the rights to most of her back catalog, but English translations of all new material belongs to Penguin Random House. So, as far as I am aware, the title and plot of the book she is currently writing is unknown.
Currently Reading: City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell for #WITMonth.