In the past 20 years, only two women have won France’s top literary award. The 2009 Prix Goncourt was awarded to the French-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye. This year, the prize went to Leila Slimani, 35. Born and raised in Morocco, Slimani leapfrogged over several male competitors with long bibliographies, winning the prestigious award for “Chanson Douce” (“Sweet Song”). Published by Gallimard, it is her second novel.
Although “Chanson Douce” became an instant best-seller after its publication, in August, with translation rights sold in 20 countries, including Israel, the Prix Goncourt caught Slimani by surprise. “I didn’t expect it since it deals with daily life – the relations between parents and their children’s nanny – something quite banal,” she says in a phone interview.
But it’s a universal theme that affects almost everyone.
“Yes, but it’s not considered a highbrow topic and the writing style is relatively simple. However, I was very excited by the media pandemonium and the dozens of photographers who waited for me outside Chez Drouant,” referring to the Paris restaurant where the prize jury, headed by Bernard Pivot, holds its final session. “Only in France can a literary prize create such a furor!” she says in amazement.
The novel follows the pathologically interdependence that develops between a young, supposedly liberal, upper-middle-class couple and the possibly over-dedicated nanny of their two young children.
The tragedy is brutally revealed in the book’s first sentence: “The baby boy is dead.” A few lines later the reader learns that his sister is also dead and that the nanny has tried, and failed, to kill herself. Slimani analyzes, with near-scientific precision, what brought the nanny, Louise, to commit the horrific deed. What did her employers really know about her and her life, about her tormented soul, Slimani asks between the lines.
The conversation with Slimani took place on the morning Donald Trump was declared president-elect of the United States.
“His victory only reenforces what I say in the book, that we’re locked inside our own bubbles, impervious to the feelings of anonymous, silent and transparent millions of others, and when they suddenly act in an unexpected manner we’re astounded.”
The story is based on the case of Yoselyn Ortega, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic, who has been accused of stabbing to death two children under her care in New York’s Upper West Side in 2012.
“I remember the shocked mother, who kept repeating the same words, ‘but she was part of the family,’” relates Slimani.
Was she? Can one buy a stranger’s love with money? Can a nanny, however loving and dedicated, become part of the family? Where are the boundaries? Do we really know the people to whom we entrust our children, she asks in her book.
Slimani was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1981. Her father, who studied in France, was a banker who held high office in Morocco. Her mother, who was of French-Algerian origin, was one of Morocco’s first women physicians. The family spoke French at home, and Slimani says she does not speak Arabic well.
At 18, she traveled to Paris to study theater and social sciences at the Ecole Normale Superieure. When she happened to meet Christophe Barbier, the editor of the weekly L’Express, he convinced her to intern at the paper. She changed direction and for years wrote for the weekly Jeune Afrique.
“In Rabat I grew up and was educated in a protective bubble, far from Moroccan social life. In France too I live a life of comfort, part of what is known as the elite. I started writing ‘Chanson Douce’ while I was looking for a nanny for my young son, when I suddenly realized the anxiety and concern deriving from handing over the most precious thing you have to a stranger, about whom you know almost nothing.”
Nevertheless, most working parents have to hire child care.
“I’m aware of the problematic relations between employers and a nanny. The employers, affluent parents, hire her so they can allow themselves to work and develop. These are working relations, not family ones, and the nanny does not take over the role of the parents. She provides certain services, complex and difficult, which also demand some emotion, while saving the parents some of the less romantic aspects of child rearing. There is some confusion here, hypocrisy and a blurring of boundaries.”
In the book, Miriam, the mother, is a lawyer who gave up her career in order to raise her children. She’s bored and frustrated and decides to go back to work. She and her husband Paul start interviewing prospective nannies, with a meticulous list of requirements (not too old, a nonsmoker, without a hijab and not an illegal resident). Good fortune brings them Louise, a delicate, well-dressed woman who looks “almost like them,” in contrast to other nannies in the neighborhood, who dress all in black or at least cover their heads. She has excellent referrals – a dream nanny. The children love her since, in contrast to their mother, she plays with them for hours, calms them and they always appear washed and combed, with smiling faces.
Louise takes care of the house and cooks, becoming irreplaceable. The parents are happy and the boundaries become blurred, with a growing dependence on Louise.
Paul and Miriam shower her with gifts and ask her to join them on vacation in Greece. However, outside the Parisian bubble the differences between them perturb the equilibrium. Louise can’t swim, she doesn’t know how to joke – does she belong to a different world? There is a whiff of eroticism in the air, jealousy, even disappointment. The differences remind Paul and Miriam of their place as “masters,” as opposed to the “servant.” The road to tragedy is already sketched out.
Why did you choose to open the book with a sentence that proclaims the ending?
“I wanted to invite the reader who already knows the end to become aware of all the stages, to the process of self-destruction that Louise goes through. The reader can trace the fissures that open up in her armor, the growing pent-up anger in view of her inability to claim the children for herself, as well as the house, the family, the vacations which aren’t really hers. We don’t think about nannies who become attached to children, who nurture them, love them and then have to leave when they grow older. It’s not just the pain of separation, it’s the feeling that they are no longer important to a family which until then was the center of her life. She’s torn anew every time.”
In fact, you’re accusing the parents, Paul and Miriam, of hypocrisy.
“They aren’t hypocrites. They like thinking along the lines prevailing among many intellectual middle-class people who see themselves as liberals, believing that they don’t distinguish between classes. But they do, and how. They accept Louise until her first stumble, or at least what they perceive as a stumble. When they show even the slightest dissatisfaction she cowers.”
This is actually the well-known dialectic between masters and slaves.
“Yes, the book seeks to reflect the contrasts in our society and the ways we conduct our lives: how to raise our children well while at the same time pursuing a professional career, how to ease our social consciences with regard to employer-employee relationships. Louise is a lonely woman, who keeps quiet about her difficult past. She had a problematic daughter who left her, a husband who died, leaving her with debts. She wants to become part of the family, to be loved, hoping that Miriam has another child so that their dependence on her continues. However, when the parents discover that she is in debt and become suspicious, she responds sharply: she dresses the girl and puts makeup on her in a strident and grotesque way that annoys Paul. The children also sense that something has changed with their beloved nanny and they become aggressive. The dependence is still there but the balance of power has changed.”
In your previous novel, “Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre” (“In the Ogre’s Garden”), you also wrote about a woman who conceals a secret.
“Adele, the protagonist of that book, is married to a doctor and has a son, living a bourgeois life. She conceals a secret life, one of a nymphomaniac with a tempestuous sex life. I thought of writing about a woman with a boundless sex drive who has to lead a double life after the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair came to light. Like Louise, Adele conceals a secret. There were some journalists who wrote that through Adele I’m relating my own secret life,” she says with a laugh.
Your first book was successful in Morocco, despite the heroine’s stormy sex life.
“That’s true, it did well in Morocco since there was pride in the fact that I was born there. The general public found it easy to like since it didn’t deal with a Muslim woman. In Morocco women have to lead a constant life of lies. They are afraid to wear a skirt in the street, to take a taxi alone or to smoke during Ramadan. In January my book of investigative reports, called ‘Sex and Lies,’ is coming out. It deals with sexuality in North African countries.”
Do you have a nanny?
“I had one until recently. Now my son goes to school. [The nanny] read the book and really liked it. At least that’s what she told me.”