A very slightly different version of this review was published at the Guardian.
Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan who has contributed a series of important works to French literature, perhaps foremost amongst them the brilliant ‘non-fiction novel’ of incarceration “This Blinding Absence of Light”. His latest novel, “The Happy Marriage”, bears echoes of Tolstoy’s grim relationship-degeneration tale “Happy Ever After”, but Jelloun’s tale is thrown into question by a counter-narrative.
Our protagonist is semi-paralysed, recovering from a stroke, his face twisted like a Francis Bacon painting. He is a successful artist, a demanding perfectionist who now struggles to move his fingers while watching TV athletics and thinking about tightrope walking. His contextual musings on deterioration and dependency – “When your life is in someone else’s hands, is it still a life?” – form a suitable backdrop to his memories of a two-decade marriage, in Paris and Casablanca, in sickness and health.
Part One (called, with a nod to Truffaut, The Man who Loved Women Too Much) is the artist’s own carefully-crafted account, in third person. The accomplishment of the writing here recalls Philip Roth’s more sober moods, or Saul Bellow’s studies of older men suffering the humiliations of body and soul. The psychological depth, high-cultural detail, sometimes even the dense but fluid prose (ably translated by André Naffis-Sahely) are reminiscent of that American master.
Jelloun skilfully represents the shifting emotional terrain of long-term relationships, pointing out the fatal momentum of early mistakes. The artist believes love can overcome impossible obstacles, yet on his wedding day fails to defend his wife from his aunt’s class-based onslaught. His family are upper-class Arabs from Fez; hers are Berbers from the countryside, “peasants who couldn’t even speak Arabic that well.”
Likewise, an incident concerning an embroidered cloth marks an early disenchantment. The wife’s casual treatment of this antique sums up for the artist her philistinism and lack of sensitivity. Soon his responses to her are “torn between admiration and anger”, and their marriage thereafter, notwithstanding stages of refound equilibrium, is on a downward trajectory.
The reader, of course, feels pity. The artist’s wife appears jealous of his success, possessive, manipulative, superstitious, paranoid-aggressive and intellectually inadequate. The circumstances seem to mitigate somewhat his many extra-marital affairs. His descriptions of remembered lovers are jewelled vignettes (every walk-on character in this novel is idiosyncratic, fully historied and alive).
But hints of unreliability increasingly crop up. The artist looks with what is often called the male gaze. Naturally he remembers and represents himself as best suits him. “I know how often selfish people have taken advantage of your sensitivity,” his mistress Ava writes. Ava is “the love of his life and she’d just passed him by, leaving him stuck on the docks, weighted down with guilt and chained by his conjugal bonds, frozen in fear.” His desire to break free from the woman who wounds him (his marital and health crises usually overlap) must wrestle in vain against a noble inertia. Poor artist.
Then the counter-narrative, from the wife, who at last is granted a name: Amina. She calls the artist Foulane, which means ‘anybody’.
Unlike her husband, she’s “not writing a novel”. Her words fill less than a third of the book. The sentences are first-person, more direct, but no less intelligent.
Her telling shows that the artist’s self-perception as a liberal does not translate into lived behaviour. Worse, Foulane is dominating, intimidating, and cruelly inattentive. “I had to dwell in his shadow and cower in it,” she reports. His compulsive yet casual adulteries are the most wounding of all, and her marriage becomes a “certificate of my slavery, confinement and humiliation.” The suggestion now is that Foulane’s reluctance to divorce results from fear that Amina, empowered by Morocco’s progressive family law code – the Moudawana, enacted in 2003 as the story nears its climax – will initiate proceedings against him, exposing his philanderings and claiming a significant portion of his wealth.
Amina isn’t entirely reliable either. Though the book ends with an unsettling redemption, she is proudly vindictive and trapped like her husband in solipsism. Echoing that love-letter from Ava to the artist, Amina’s feminist confidante Lalla assures her she’s “a sensitive person endowed with incredible potential that [her] husband had always stifled.” And it is noteworthy that both husband and wife portray their children – who are otherwise absent from the story – as siding with them.
“The Happy Marriage” is a novel of class and gender politics, but more significantly, of interrogated perspective. Here there are two truths to judge between. As he reads, the reader wants to believe each in turn – though they are irreconcilable – because we invariably sympathise with those we engage with, those whose stories we listen to.
As well as pinning down the strains and lonelinesses of the (un)shared life – this human information is recognisable to anyone with experience, and so utterly compelling – Tahar Ben Jelloun forces reflection on the nature of narration, judgement and belief. This is a consummate, provocative and very enjoyable novel.