French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani likes to reveal the dirty underside of bourgeois domesticity: her messed-up characters and their psychosexual dramas are fascinating in the same way that a mass of hair that’s been clogging up a drain is fascinating, as we keep pulling and keep coming up with more of the stuff, fighting against our gag reflex. Slimani’s first two novels—Dans le jardin de l’ogre (published in 2019 as Adèle) and the Prix Goncourt–winning Chanson douce (published in 2018 as The Perfect Nanny, both translated from the French by Sam Taylor)—showcase, respectively, nymphomania and child murder, unfolding in otherwise comfortable Parisian domestic scenes.
Slimani is an internationally best-selling author—her work has been translated into 18 languages, with more to come—and respected cultural outlets such as the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker have written glowing reviews of her work. I can understand why so many readers would find Slimani to be such an enjoyable read: she writes as if her novels were films; they are animated by an intuitive command of the kinds of pacing, suspense, and striking images that keep moviegoers on their toes.
While this is a good recipe for commercial success, it isn’t a measure of literary value. For all the boldness and bravery with which Slimani tackles “unmentionable” topics, her talent lies in two main capacities: to convince others that she is the first to break already broken taboos, and to craft sensational plots that give the reader a palatable amount of shock and produce moderate-to-great frissons of transgression (depending on the reader’s sensibilities) that inevitably come from plunging most readers into acts that they would disavow—masturbating in the stairwell of an apartment building, or knocking over a baby stroller complete with baby and groceries.
Ever since Chanson douce (The Perfect Nanny) won France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in 2016, Slimani has been the most public face of French literature (and language, serving as President Macron’s ambassador of Francophone affairs, a position she accepted after turning down an offer to be minister of culture). As her profile and influence continue to rise, it is worth taking a closer look at Slimani’s body of work and reckoning with its value, both as literature and as an intervention into international feminist politics, such as the struggle against repressive laws in Morocco that penalize extramarital and homosexual sex.
Is Slimani’s sensationalism really worth the substantial accolades (and blockbuster sales) her work has garnered? And, given that Slimani’s fiction and nonfiction deal with class, sex, and nationality, might her taboo breaking actually have the effect of flattening messy complexities? I fear that her signature style ultimately ends up reinforcing, perhaps unintentionally, the binaries and categories that Slimani herself surely would critique as invidious.
In Slimani’s hands, language works to shock the reader.
In France, Slimani has been the object of breathless accolades: deemed the second most influential French person in the world (right after haute-couture designer Hédi Slimane and before soccer star Kylian Mbappé); applauded for her fierce advocacy for women’s rights (especially in Morocco); featured in glossy magazine spreads that show her posed in couture on her kitchen counter, a strikingly elegant figure.
Slimani’s rise has been so meteoric that the Socialist politician Manuel Valls, when he declared his candidacy for the French presidency, in 2016, placed Slimani on the same plane as monumental French literary figures: “The French spirit is culture, creation, our magnificent exceptionality, our patrimony, our landscapes, our creativity, is French Tech being recognized on all continents, but it is also our language, French: the language of Rabelais, Hugo, Camus, Césaire, Beauvoir, Modiano, or Leïla Slimani.”
In Slimani’s hands, language works to shock the reader on two levels: first, by presenting lurid content involving sex and murder (among other topics), and second, by narrating that content with dramatically restrained tone and sentiment. We can see this urge to shock in Slimani’s first two novels.
Adèle tells the story of a Parisian journalist nymphomaniac who can’t keep at bay her drive to have sex with random men, no matter the risk this addiction poses to the respectably bourgeois life she shares with her surgeon husband and their young son. The plot hurtles forward like a car about to drive off a cliff into an unhappy ending where nobody gets what they want and everybody loses what they have.
The Perfect Nanny also delivers up unhappy endings for everybody in its macabre story of a white nanny, Louise, who integrates into or infiltrates the life of a modern pair of Parisian young professionals (Myriam Charfa, a criminal lawyer, and her husband, Paul Massé, a sound engineer whose career is just taking off). Afflicted by an unhappy past and what comes across as borderline personality disorder, Louise ends up murdering the two young children who are in her charge.
Slimani’s desire to shock is evident from the very first line of The Perfect Nanny: “The baby is dead.” As Ursula Lindsey put it, in the New York Review of Books, “Slimani has a gift for hooking readers with sensationalistic premises delivered in a chilling, matter-of-fact tone. Her clipped prose strikes me—despite its determination to shock—as cautious, confined to a narrow but effective stylistic band.”
If Slimani’s prose is so effective in pulling the reader along, it is indeed because of the matter-of-factness with which she narrates horrible things. This evacuation of sentiment, the blankness of the writing, has led to comparisons with Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway. But where Slimani’s prose falls short of either writer is in the way it seems to be crafted for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of the reader. The near-universal positive critical reception of Slimani’s work depends on a readerly impulse toward identification: her work thrills those who read to inhabit a text and its characters, to identify with them. Lauren Collins, writing for the New Yorker, expresses this dynamic perfectly in describing the scene from The Perfect Nanny that haunts her the most: “You feel Paul’s rage, as much as you feel how Louise must be dumbstruck by it.”
If Collins is so seized by a scene that shows the bohemian bourgeois Paul raging at the white working-class Louise for covering little Mila in makeup, it is because she gets to identify with these two very different characters and to experience their emotions as her own. Such a passage is lost on a reader like me, who never reads a text to become someone else. Instead, what comes across is a contrived scene, one that is carefully wrought to convey the gaping schism of class and education that separates Paul from Louise (a difference that is repeatedly emphasized throughout the novel in rather heavy-handed ways. For instance, Louise can’t stand food waste: she makes the children she cares for lick yogurt pots clean and fetches from the trash a chicken carcass that still has some meat left on the bone). For me, the experience of reading Slimani is akin to the experience of being tickled if one isn’t a ticklish person—not particularly pleasant, even if it might be fun for others.
Through publishing such voyeuristic, sensationalistic novels, Slimani has succeeded in creating the impression that she is a taboo breaker. As Collins writes, “Under the cover of a sensational plot, Slimani is taking on another taboo subject: women’s desires.” And Slimani has embraced this positioning of her, readily consenting to and reproducing the framing of Woman as an eternal taboo. In dealing so directly with women’s sexuality and psychology in Adèle and The Perfect Nanny, Slimani claims the role of She Who Will Break the Silence Surrounding Woman. And yet, what taboos have been broken in either novel?
While it seems like a no-brainer that patriarchy is still alive and well in the world, Slimani is hardly the first to take up the pen and lift the veil on women’s experiences and desires and bodies. As long as literature has been around, women have been around to exercise their voices, from the middle ages (see Christine de Pisan and the Héloise of Héloise and Abelard, whose letters drip with sexual tension and desire) on. In the last century alone, in Francophone writing, we can see plenty of examples. Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2001), recipient of the Prix Sade, and Pauline Réage’s Story of O (1954), for instance, both deal with “taboo” sexual subjects, such as orgies and BDSM, while Ananda Devi’s The Living Days (2013) features a pedophilic woman.
Slimani’s treatment of sex in Adèle seems pretty tame in comparison. And as for the supposedly taboo subject of women’s desires beyond the realm of sex, there is no shortage of literary works that speak of women’s ambitions, their feelings of confinement by the bourgeois domestic sphere—Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir come to mind. Or take the taboo of infanticide: that, too, was broken long ago—by Medea.
Slimani assumes the position of advocate (She Who Gives Voice to the Voiceless) in a benevolent and conscientious exercise of her privilege.
Through Slimani’s nonfiction work, however, it becomes clear that she is invested in the narrative that casts women’s lives and desires as taboo subjects. While, at first glance, Slimani’s sensational fiction might appear far removed from her sobering nonfiction, both modes of writing narrate and reinforce Woman-as-taboo in ways that position Slimani as exceptional taboo breaker: the dispassionate writer of the lurid, dark dimension of feminine, bourgeois domesticity; the passionate women’s-rights advocate combatting oppressive patriarchal regimes built on keeping Woman taboo and effacing women’s experiences.
In 2017, she published an entire book, Sexe et mensonges: la vie sexuelle au Maroc (unfortunately translated—when it was published in English, in 2020—to Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World, a title that effaces the work’s Moroccan specificity), dedicated to giving a platform to women’s voices that might otherwise never be heard. I do not doubt that—given the repressive regime in Morocco, which criminalizes any form of extramarital sexual activity—such a collection of testimonies is bold. But the work was not published by a Moroccan publisher or addressed to a primarily Moroccan audience; it was published by a Parisian publisher for a French audience (and now, with its English translation by Sophie Lewis, for an Anglo-American audience).
By taking on a Moroccan subject with an eye to a French audience, Slimani effectively threads a needle that elevates French Enlightenment values (cited several times in the work as universal values) by casting Moroccan sexual oppression against the backdrop of a freer West (with no critique at all of the ways in which France is no feminist paradise, as seen in the promotion of an alleged rapist to the highest level of government).
Touting French Enlightenment values, Slimani critiques those French intellectuals who would call positions such as hers—that there is no sexual freedom in Morocco; that sexuality in the Arab world is sexual misery—essentializing. She assumes the position of advocate (She Who Gives Voice to the Voiceless) in a benevolent and conscientious exercise of her privilege as a French Moroccan who is able to move freely between both worlds. I do not doubt Slimani’s good intentions, nor do I doubt the need for such advocacy, but it’s difficult not to see Sex and Lies as a work that reinforces French exceptionalism and allows Islamophobia to pass as concern for women’s rights.
Following Slimani’s Prix Goncourt win, in 2016, the newspaper Le Monde put out an article titled “Femme, jeune et née à l’étranger: Leïla Slimani, un profil atypique parmi les Prix Goncourt” (Woman, young, foreign born: Leïla Slimani, an atypical profile for the Prix Goncourt), which underlined just how much Slimani, as a Moroccan author and as a young woman, deviated from the white French man the Goncourt usually goes to. I would say it is precisely because of Slimani’s deviation from the norm that the Goncourt went to her: her investment in Enlightenment (read, French) values, combined with her racial and sexual difference, allows the French literary and cultural establishment to remain conservative while appearing to be progressive.
France claims to be less racist than the United States, but its strictly “color-blind” policies are the policy equivalent of Trump’s aversion to COVID testing. Here, the “if we don’t test, we don’t have cases” logic becomes: if you don’t measure race, then you can’t have racism. And yet, as the sensational success of Slimani shows, France can see color and isn’t afraid to use it.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
Correction: January 8, 2021
An earlier version of this article omitted from the text the names of the translators for the three books under discussion.
Featured image: Untitled (2019). Photograph by Jp Valery / Unsplash