A year ago, I picked up a book, “Chanson Douce,” that I’ve thought about pretty much every day since. I was initially drawn to it because I’d read that its author, Leïla Slimani, had been inspired by a news item about a New York nanny who killed the two children in her care. The murders happened in 2012, but I remembered them in all their excruciating particulars: that the mother had been at a swimming lesson with a third sibling; that they came home and found the boy and the girl bleeding in the bathtub; that the nanny, who tried to slit her own throat, said she was upset at having been asked to take on cleaning duties; that the couple has since had two more kids. Once in a while, someone else’s misery penetrates the carapace of self-absorption under which you scuttle around and gets deep into you. Feeling somehow protective of the story, I was both beguiled and a little shocked by Slimani’s audacity in laying claim to it.
Slimani had just won the Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, which counts among its laureates Proust and Malraux. “Usually, the Goncourt Academy rewards books of the past,” the president of the jury had declared. “This year, we elect a book that speaks of the present, of the everyday and of its problems, such as the question of delegating authority and love to a person outside the family. Many will recognize themselves in this book.” The Goncourt has, more often than not, gone to a middle-aged white man, and so the committee had also broken from history in consecrating Slimani as the face of French literature. At thirty-five, she was the second Moroccan and the twelfth woman to receive the award (and the first to do so four months pregnant).
“Chanson Douce,” her second novel, sold six hundred thousand copies in its first year of publication, making Slimani, who lives in Paris, the most-read author in France in 2016. Elle put her on the cover, in red lipstick and a jumpsuit: “leïla slimani superstar.” Politicians of varying persuasions clambered to reheat themselves in her glow. Launching his bid for the Presidency, Manuel Valls paid tribute to the French language, “that of Rabelais, of Hugo, of Camus, of Césaire, of de Beauvoir, of Patrick Modiano, and Leïla Slimani.” Emmanuel Macron, now France’s President, reportedly invited her to be his minister of culture. “I love my freedom too much,” she told me when I asked about it.
“Chanson Douce” has been translated into eighteen languages, with seventeen more to come. The title means “sweet song,” which was rendered “Lullaby” for the British edition. The American one, which comes out in January, will be called “The Perfect Nanny.” John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, told me, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership.” He name-checked “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” and said, “We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.” The book, however, is subtler than a typical psychological thriller. The subject matter is, for some people, a nonstarter. One reader complained, on Goodreads, “We got off on the wrong foot—I was expecting to meet an overworked but conscientious couple who found ‘The Perfect Nanny’ who made their lives lovely before things went awry. Will she grow attracted to the husband? Will she become obsessed with the wife? Lose one of the kids? Maybe a kidnapping?” She gave the book a single star, recalling that she’d wondered if the pages had been bound out of order after reading the first line: “The baby is dead.”
It is hard to think of a more primal sentence. It out-Hemingways Hemingway, shearing sentimentality from the dread. Absolutely everything feels like hubris when you’re working backward from that conclusion. “To begin with the death of the children, it’s very daring,” the French novelist David Foenkinos, a friend of Slimani’s, told me. “Generally, she’s a woman who dares, who fears nothing. There are probably childhood wounds that have made her extremely brave.” As a narrative technique, this front-loading is surprisingly propulsive. I read “Chanson Douce” as though I were running away from those four words, with the sense that they could cause me real harm, that the only way to master the fear was to outread it. The book felt less like an entertainment, or even a work of art, than like a compulsion. I found it extraordinary.
There is not a lot of great contemporary literature about motherhood. It is as bad as sex. We have myths, we have Bible stories, we have fairy tales, we have Peppa Pig, but it is not often that you open a novel and encounter people buying socks, picking glitter out of floorboards, putting away toys in plastic bins. Like Jenny Offill, Slimani can write ravishingly of female bodies, even postpartum ones (“her belly of folds and waves, where they built their house, where so many worries and joys flowered”), but “Chanson Douce” is not so much about motherhood as it is about what the cultural theorist Angela McRobbie has called the “neoliberal intensification of mothering.” An activity, not a state, mothering—along with its gender-neutral version, parenting—is competitive and outsourceable. Slimani tries to put a price on the anxieties, hypocrisies, and inequalities that arise from the commodification of our most intimate relationships. “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter,” she told me. “It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” The novelist Rachel Cusk has chronicled what motherhood did to her; Slimani examines what mothering is doing to society.
Slimani’s son was six months old when she read about the New York murders, in Paris Match. At the time, she was trying to hire a nanny so that she could go back to work. Conducting interviews, she encountered women who were ten or fifteen years her senior, whose lives were more banged up than hers. At thirty, she felt like a baby herself.
“Not too old, no veils, no smokers,” Paul Massé, a music producer, says to his wife, Myriam Charfa, a criminal-defense lawyer, as they begin their search, in “Chanson Douce.” “They have set aside their Saturday afternoon to find a nanny for their children,” Slimani writes, managing to be, in a stroke, both empathetic and acid about the absurd ratios that upper-middle-class couples create between their intentions and their time. Paul and Myriam live with their two young children, Mila and Adam, in the smallest apartment in a good building in Paris’s gentrifying Tenth Arrondissement. You get the sense that Myriam has come up harder than Paul, whose soixante-huitard parents occasionally volunteer to take care of the kids when they’re not travelling in Asia or doing work on their country house. She has been at home for several years, since Mila was born. At first, she was an enraptured and intense mother, convinced that she “alone was capable of meeting her daughter’s needs.” More recently, this “simple, silent, prison-like happiness” hasn’t felt like enough. So she and Paul decide that she’ll resume work, even if, after paying for the nanny, her salary will be a wash.
They’ve heard from friends that, if the nanny has children of her own, “it’d be better if they’re back in the homeland.” Myriam is an immigrant herself, from somewhere in North Africa, but Slimani makes only glancing references to her origins. Myriam is a post-identitarian creature of her class, equally partial to Berber rugs and Japanese prints. When an appealing candidate, “a Moroccan woman of a certain age, who stresses her twenty years of experience and her love of children,” presents herself, Myriam rejects her. “She fears that a tacit complicity and familiarity would grow between her and the nanny,” Slimani writes. “That the woman would start speaking to her in Arabic . . . asking her all sorts of favors in the name of their shared language and religion.”
For once making no attempt to square their impulses with their ideals, the couple settle on a white Frenchwoman named Louise—a “little doll” in a neat blue dress. Within weeks, she is mending their clothes, whipping up rustic meals, stuffing lavender sachets in their closets. “My nanny is a miracle-worker,” Myriam tells everyone. Her use of the personal possessive pronoun hints at the dynamic: the more she thinks she owns Louise, the more helpless she becomes. As the critic Estelle Lenartowicz noted, in L’Express, “Chanson Douce” is a portrait of “a couple until now unexplored in literature: the one, complex and ambiguous, that comprises a mother and her babysitter.”
As much as I admire “Chanson Douce,” I’ve almost wished I could unread it. The subjects Slimani takes on—and not just infanticide—are so unmentionable that you worry you’re tempting the fates by mere proximity. One of the book’s nagging passages depicts parks on winter afternoons, where “those who do not work, who produce nothing” idle on benches. They constitute an invisible society: the bums, the elderly, the unemployed, the nannies “wearing boubous on this freezing winter day,” the restless babies and their sniffling, purple-fingered older siblings. Slimani writes:
There are mothers too, mothers staring into space. Like the one who gave birth recently and now finds herself confined to the world’s edge; who, sitting on this bench, feels the weight of her still flabby belly. She carries her body of pain and secretions, her body that smells of sour milk and blood. This flesh that she drags around with her, which she gives no care or rest. There are smiling, radiant mothers, those extremely rare mothers, gazed at lovingly by all the children. The ones who did not say good-bye this morning, who didn’t leave them in the arms of another. The ones set free by a day off work, who have come here to enjoy it, bringing a strange enthusiasm to this ordinary winter’s day at the park.
If you are a mother, whatever kind of mother you aspire to be, you’ll know what kind of mother you are after reading Slimani. If you are not a mother, the insights that she administers can be no less jolting. “She thought about the efforts she had made to finish her degree, despite the lack of money and parental support, the joy she had felt when she was called to the Bar,” Slimani writes, of Myriam, using “joy” where so many other writers would have chosen “pride.” Under the cover of a sensational plot, Slimani is taking on another taboo subject: women’s desires.
Slimani was ten years old when she visited Paris for the first time. She and her mother and her sisters, one older and one younger, had come from the Moroccan capital of Rabat to see an aunt. The city stupefied Slimani. She was scared of the Métro. She gawped at the couples kissing in the street, and burst into tears upon hearing the religious singing at Notre-Dame. “It all made a very, very strong impression, of fear and also of fascination,” she recalled. “I wanted to know what this world was, but I didn’t understand it.”
In Morocco, Slimani was educated at French schools, and her family spoke French at home. After high school, at age seventeen, she moved to Paris to attend classes préparatoires—cram school for France’s best universities. Having never cooked a meal or cleaned a bathroom, she boarded at a hostel for young women. “There was a super-racist staff member,” she said. “I was losing a lot of hair, stopping up the drain, and he’d come by with the hair in his hand, and say, ‘Well, we know whose hair this is, don’t we?’ ” Winter mornings, she sprinted through the still dark Luxembourg Gardens in a state of high alert. She marvelled at “the beautiful women walking alone at night,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘It must be wonderful to be them, I have to find a way to become them!’ ” It took her years to make friends.
She enrolled at Sciences Po in 2002 to study literature. She blazed through the great Russian writers, developing a lasting attachment to Chekhov, and devoured Zweig and Kundera. She met her husband, Antoine, a Paris banker, at a bar in 2005. “He came up to me and asked for my number, and I said, ‘I’m not giving it to you,’ ” she told me. “ ‘But I’ll meet you three days from now at 8 p.m. in front of the Saint-Germain church.’ ” The barman told her that her future children would be cursed if she didn’t show up. She did, investing the affair with dramatic momentum and inverting the trajectory, familiar to many highly educated women of her generation, of finding professional fulfillment before love.
For a while, Slimani thought she wanted to do something in cinema. After completing a well-known acting course, she appeared in two films, playing a model in one and a soccer player’s girlfriend in the other. Then she went to business school, earning a degree in media studies. In 2008, the year she married Antoine, she landed a job covering Morocco and Tunisia at the newsweekly Jeune Afrique. She was spending two weeks a month in North Africa. The travel was brutal, especially once she had a toddler at home. After getting arrested in western Tunisia while reporting on the fallout of the Arab Spring, she decided to go freelance, in order to work on a novel. She once recalled, “I knew that people were laughing behind my back, saying, ‘Her husband earns a decent living. This story about writing, it’s a polite way of saying that she’s kept.’ ”
She devoted a year and a half to the novel. “It was just after the Arab Spring, so it was about a country that resembled Morocco but was never specified, where there had been a sort of revolution a bit like the one in Tunisia,” she said. “Frankly, it was really boring.” The dozens of publishers to whom she shopped the manuscript concurred, unanimously rejecting it. Later, she considered this a lucky break. When an interviewer asked why she hadn’t published an autobiographical first novel, she responded, “Because I’m North African, and I didn’t want to identify myself uniquely with that. I told myself: You’re going to weave a web in which you’re going to imprison yourself, when you have in front of you a much larger horizon.”
In 2013, Slimani’s family enrolled her in a writing workshop as a Christmas gift. The class, run by Jean-Marie Laclavetine, an eminent editor at Gallimard and a novelist, was intended strictly for hobbyists. “No manuscript should be brought by participants with a view to publication,” the brochure warned. The idea of joining a roomful of wannabe de Beauvoirs was embarrassing for Slimani. “I was thinking, What if I don’t have any ideas, and what if I can’t come up with anything to write? And what if I suck and everyone’s looking at me, thinking I suck?” Slimani said. “But, at the same time, I thought it was a good thing to confront exactly that risk.” It was a claustrophobic time. She’d quit her job and had nothing to show for it. Antoine, who’d badly injured his leg in a kitesurfing accident, could barely leave the house.
Laclavetine was immediately struck by Slimani’s pages. She was trying to develop something about a nymphomaniac—an idea she’d had a couple of years earlier while sitting on the couch, nursing her son and watching the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair unfold on the news. “She knew that she had something very particular to tell,” Laclavetine told me. He took on Slimani as a protégée and encouraged her to purify her style, ignoring her characters’ thoughts and focussing on their actions. She later characterized this advice as one of “several keys that made me understand why, without doubt, my first manuscript had been rejected.”
Gallimard published Slimani’s first novel, “Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre” (“In the Ogre’s Garden”), to excellent reviews, in 2014. The main character, Adèle Robinson, has a gastroenterologist husband with a hurt leg, a young son, and a job at a newspaper. She tries to maintain her respectability, “to be good,” but, whenever lust sparks, an untamable part of her is ready to burn down everything in her life. Her desire is monstrous, even to her. “In the shower, she wants to scratch herself, to tear her body in two,” Slimani writes. “She bangs her forehand against the wall. She wants somebody to seize her, to break her skull against the window.” Instead of going to work, Adèle shows up at the apartment of a man she barely knows for a mechanical assignation that serves, at best, as a temporary release from her torment. She misses an appointment at the pediatrician “for a fuck that lasted too long” and can’t bring herself to schedule another. Her shame radiates from the page. Slimani told me, “There are people who give themselves over to their sexuality, there are people who lose themselves in it, but, for me, sex is something very painful, very melancholy, because one sees oneself.”
The first time Slimani and I met, it felt ridiculous: a working mother writing a story about a working mother who had written a book about a working mother. It was July, and when I arrived at the café we’d agreed upon she was waiting—a textbook Parisienne with her coffee and her cigarettes and some great outfit, perched on a rattan stool. I was hugely pregnant with my second child. Slimani, who had given birth to a daughter two months earlier, showed me a picture of her baby and asked after mine. She wasn’t breastfeeding this time around, she said, without apology. (I had recently heard her declare with equal ease, on a podcast, “I claim the fact that it’s sometimes boring to play with my son.”) She wanted to make the most of her Goncourt tenure. “A year isn’t much in the life of a family,” she told me.
After “Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre” came out, one of Slimani’s former colleagues told a reporter that its racier passages had raised some eyebrows around the office but that “what surprised us the most was the darkness of the book. Nobody saw her as someone who was capable of expressing such a keen despair.” At the café, it was equally difficult to imagine her as someone who had spent lonely years in Paris, who had struggled to figure out what she was meant to do or bummed around her apartment feeling like a nonentity. When I asked her whether she’d hesitated in taking on sex addiction as the subject of her first novel, she said, “The thing wasn’t to dare to write about nymphomania—it was to dare to write.”
Her characters, like her, want things. Adèle wants sex; Myriam wants work. Of another character in “Chanson Douce,” who once employed Louise as a caretaker for his elderly mother, Slimani writes, “What he wanted for his mother was a friend, a nanny, a tender-hearted woman who would listen to her ravings without rolling her eyes, without sighing.” In Slimani’s appraisal, the emotional marketplace has rendered basic human entitlements a luxury. “It’s the question of, Can we buy everything with money? Can we, in earning a good living, procure for ourselves comfort and freedom?” she said. “But does that also mean that those who don’t have the means will never be able to attain that comfort and that freedom?” Whenever we met, we were both able to be there because of a parasitic chain of caretaking that inevitably, discreetly, leaves someone alone at the bottom end. “Darling, you’re naïve,” Myriam’s father-in-law tells his wife, who believed that her generation would change the world. “Women are capitalists, just like men.”
Louise’s unravelling manifests itself most clearly in her yearning for Paul and Myriam to have another baby and her belief, against all evidence, that they are going to. “Louise talks to Wafa”—another nanny—“about this child that will soon be born,” Slimani writes. “About the joy it will bring, and the extra work. ‘With three children, they won’t be able to do without me.’ Louise has moments of euphoria. She has the vague, fleeting sense of a life that will grow bigger, of wider open spaces, a purer love, voracious appetites.” Louise has fallen out of touch with her grown daughter. Her abusive husband died and left her in a financial mess. (Slimani told me that she originally conceived of Louise’s character as an African woman but decided to make her “a white woman doing an immigrant’s job, which is extremely demeaning,” in order to emphasize her marginality.) One weekend, in her suffocating apartment, Louise puts on her blue dress and waits by the phone. “Perhaps they will call her,” Slimani writes. As the day fades, Louise fantasizes about shopping: “She wants everything. The buckskin boots, the suede jackets, the snakeskin bags, the wrap dresses, the camisoles overstitched with lace.” Loneliness and poverty chase each other around in circles in Louise’s head. Her appetites blend together, until only hunger is left.
Slimani’s books beg to be read in an unfashionable way. You engage with her characters as people, not as constructs. You really want to know what they are trying to tell you about how to live. In “Chanson Douce,” Slimani is pretty hard on Paul and Myriam. “When she goes shopping, for herself or for her children, she hides the new clothes in an old cloth bag and only opens them once Louise has gone,” she writes. “Paul congratulates her on being so tactful.” One day, I asked Slimani whether the couple, in the moral universe of the book, had committed a sin. Had they been too greedy? Too selfish?
“No,” Slimani said, explaining that she’d named Louise for Louise Woodward, the British au pair who, in 1997, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of an eight-month-old baby. She went on, “As an angle of defense, Louise Woodward’s lawyer decided to attack the parents, and in particular to attack the mother, saying, ‘If you didn’t want something to happen to your kids, you should have taken care of them yourself.’ I find that terribly cruel. I think that to put the idea in people’s heads that to entrust your children to someone other than yourself is something bad—it’s a tool to alienate women, because it always ends with ‘O.K., then, it’s the woman who stays at home.’ ” When I asked what childcare would look like in an ideal world, her answer surprised me. “It’s difficult to imagine,” she said. “Whatever the case, I think that this relationship between the parents and the nanny is—like every human relationship, like the relationship between parents and their children—made of errors. There’s no user’s guide. You mess up all the time.”
The scene in “Chanson Douce” that haunts me isn’t the obvious one. It occurs about halfway through the book, when Paul returns from work one afternoon. As a rainy-day amusement, Louise has brought out her “little white vanity case” and made up Mila, teasing her hair and painting “her chubby little feet with nail polish.” “Look, Papa,” Mila cries, thrilled, when Paul walks in the door. “Look what Louise did!” Paul stares at her. Slimani writes:
He had been so pleased to get home early, so happy to see his children, but now he feels sick. He has the feeling that he has walked in on something sordid or abnormal. His daughter, his little girl, looks like a transvestite, like a ruined old drag queen. He can’t believe it. He is furious, out of control. He hates Louise for having done this. Mila, his angel, his little blue dragonfly, is as ugly as a circus freak, as ridiculous as a dog dressed up for a walk by its hysterical old lady owner.
You feel Paul’s rage, as much as you feel how Louise must be dumbstruck by it. No one has done anything wrong, and everyone has. “That animal part of us, it’s the most interesting part,” Slimani told me. “It’s everything that has to do with drives, with things we can’t stop ourselves from doing, with all the spaces where we’re unable to reason with ourselves.” She continued, “It has its dark side, but there’s a luminous side, too, which is the fact that we’re just another species of animal.” The incident, defying analysis, is all instinct. The sublimated forces of sex, love, money, and class have converged upon a little girl’s flesh.
“I grew up in Morocco, I was born a Muslim, and, every year, I celebrated Christmas in a big white house in the country, halfway between Meknes and Fez,” Slimani wrote in 2016, in an essay. The hosts of the holiday festivities were her maternal grandparents, Lakhdar and Anne Dhobb. In 1944, Lakhdar—“a spahi in sirwal pants”—crossed the Mediterranean and landed in southern Alsace with the French Colonial Army. There he met Anne, née Ruetsch. “My great-grandfather was a typical bon-vivant Alsatian,” Slimani told the newspaper L’Alsace. “My grandfather, being Muslim, didn’t eat charcuterie, didn’t drink alcohol, but the two got along well. Despite their legitimate fears about seeing their daughter leave for North Africa, my grandmother’s parents accepted the marriage.” Every December, Lakhdar dressed up as Santa.
Anne was the first writer in the family. She stayed in Meknes, where the couple returned to manage Lakhdar’s father’s land, all her adult life. According to Slimani, Anne was embraced by Moroccans but mostly shunned by Europeans, on the ground of her mixed marriage. “I kept roots in my country, but a tree has multiple branches, and a part of mine is now firmly anchored here,” declares the heroine of “On the Wings of Time,” an autobiographical novel that Anne published in 2003.
Slimani’s mother, Béatrice-Najat Dhobb-Slimani, is an otolaryngologist. Slimani’s late father, Othman, was born in 1941, in Fez. He was part of a generation of Moroccans whose coming-of-age coincided with the radical transformation of their country, which achieved independence in 1956. A dazzling student from a modest family, Othman won entrance to French schools, at a time when they welcomed few Moroccans, and earned a scholarship to study economics in France. He returned to Morocco, where he served as minister of the economy from 1977 to 1979.
Slimani was born in 1981, in Rabat. (She has dual nationality, as a function of her Alsatian heritage.) The family lived in an art-filled house that Béatrice-Najat and Othman built. “It was very modern, a little bit à la japonaise or à la californienne, with lots of angles,” Slimani said. Both parents were ambitious about their careers, even when it was exceptional simply for a woman to have one. Slimani said that her mother “left at eight o’clock in the morning and never came home until eight at night. She worked Saturdays, she was always on call.” I asked her if she missed her mother as a child. “No, because, at the same time, she was very, very present,” she replied. “She adored us.”
The equilibrium of the household owed much to the presence of domestic workers. For the first twelve years of her life, Slimani, along with her sisters, was looked after by a live-in nanny whom she knew by the affectionate nickname Mouima. Béatrice-Najat and Mouima both came from Meknes, and Mouima’s parents had worked for Béatrice-Najat’s parents. “She was strict!” Slimani recalled, when I asked her about Mouima. “But very kind, very affectionate. She loved to do our hair, to make us all cute.” Slimani’s cousins lived nearby. She remembers a “world of women” populated by a rotating cast of staff and kin. As Slimani got older, she noticed that Mouima occupied a curious position in the family. She had fussed over the girls when they were babies, but as they got older they gravitated toward their mother. “We shared more intellectual things, school and all that,” Slimani said. “She maybe felt that she was less.”
Béatrice-Najat and Othman nurtured their daughters’ independence and encouraged them to speak their minds. One afternoon, when Slimani was eight, her teacher told the tale of a spider that wove a web to protect Mohammed from his enemies. Slimani stood up and said, “But that’s impossible! A spider couldn’t do something like that in so little time.” The teacher walked over and slapped her. “You should be ashamed for insulting the Prophet,” she said. When Slimani got home, she reported what had happened to her parents. They told her that sometimes you have to keep your mouth shut; that she had the right to think whatever she wanted, but that it was better not to provoke. Slimani later wrote, “My parents loved Voltaire and the Enlightenment, but without doubt they loved their children more. They were afraid. They were wrong.”
Othman became the C.E.O. of Crédit Immobilier et Hôtelier, a Moroccan bank. In 1993, he was fired in a financial scandal. His dismissal was a rupture, the B.C./A.D. of the Slimani family story. “It was the end of my childhood,” Slimani recalled. “All of a sudden, I realized that this whole wonderful little world, this well-oiled mechanism, was in the midst of falling apart.” Béatrice-Najat became responsible for supporting the family. “All the people who used to come see my father, who were at his feet, who came to ask him for things—everyone disappeared,” Slimani told me.
In 2002, Othman was indicted, along with thirty-two former colleagues, for embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. He was imprisoned for four months, before being released on bail. He died of lung cancer in 2004, but Slimani believes that he died of grief. In 2010, he was posthumously acquitted of all charges on appeal, with an official apology, putting an end to what one Moroccan newspaper called “this long judiciary soap opera.” Over its course, Slimani said, “I came to understand that Morocco was a peculiar country, where strange things happened.”
One afternoon in November, Slimani was sitting at the head of a table on a hotel terrace in Rabat. It was a balmy day, and she was drinking a beer. Joining her for lunch were fellow-members of the jury for the Prix Grand Atlas, given by the French government to the best French-language nonfiction book published in Morocco each year. Slimani’s favored candidate was “Islam and Women,” by the doctor and theologian Asma Lamrabet, who argues that misogynistic interpretations of Islamic law undermine the principles of equality found in the Koran. It was deemed the winner before the main course arrived.
That evening, Slimani presented the award at the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco. She had chosen “Defending the Critical Spirit” as the subject of her keynote address. There were hundreds of people in an affluent, secular crowd—Lamrabet was the only woman I saw wearing a head scarf—including several government dignitaries. “This wonderful, liberating, thrilling work also has a dark side,” Slimani said. “It sometimes causes us to be misunderstood, insulted, given the finger. How many writers or artists today are still shocked to be the object of opprobrium, if not threats? How many are admonished for not having given a good image of their country, or the good image of their country?” Moroccan artists, she said, had to take on “burning themes”—their country’s history and institutions, the inequality between men and women, the question of individual liberties, the place of religion—rather than concern themselves with maintaining appearances, as though they were functionaries of the ministry of tourism.
In her fiction, Slimani makes little mention of current events. “Since the terrorist attacks, Myriam has forbidden her to let the children watch television,” she writes, in typically oblique fashion, in “Chanson Douce.” The choice is partly a question of taste. Slimani believes that literature needs time to digest the news. But her reticence is also ideological, a pushback against the notion that the Moroccan or the Afghan writer must grapple with political issues while the American or the French one is left to explore the questions of an individual life. “When somebody invites me to go on TV to talk about the veil, I should go just because my name is Leïla Slimani?” she said. Laclavetine told me, “Leïla doesn’t want to let herself get pigeonholed in the image of the intelligent and lucky little Maghrébine.”
When a subject stirs her conscience, however, Slimani is ferocious. “Let’s stop hiding behind a pseudo-respect of cultures, in a sickening relativism that’s only a mask for our cowardice, our cynicism, and our powerlessness. I, born Muslim, Moroccan, and French, I will say it to you: Sharia makes me vomit,” Slimani wrote, in an essay titled “Fundamentalists, I Hate You,” just after the Paris attacks of November, 2015. Paris was her country, she wrote. “Tonight, our theatres, our museums, our libraries, are closed. But tomorrow they will open again, and it is we, enfants de la patrie, unbelievers, infidels, simple loafers, adorers of idols, drinkers of beer, libertines, humanists, who will write history.”
In September, Slimani published her first book of nonfiction, “Sexe et Mensonges” (“Sex and Lies”), an exploration of “sexual misery” in Morocco. She decided to write it after completing a publicity tour for “Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre.” Everywhere she went, people came up to her, emboldened by Adèle’s frustrations, to confess their own intimate woes. Slimani received e-mails and Facebook messages by the hundreds. “I wanted to give voice to these slices of life, often painful, in a society where many men and women prefer to avert their gaze,” she writes, in the introduction to the book, which is composed of first-person testimonies with her commentary.
Adèle, Slimani acknowledges, is “a slightly extreme metaphor” for the sexual lives of many Moroccans, who struggle to reconcile the reality of their private lives with the public narrative of a society in which everyone is supposedly married or a virgin. (Article 489 of the Moroccan penal code forbids homosexuality, while Article 490 outlaws extramarital sex.) Slimani writes of babies abandoned in trash cans and of the ostracized children of extramarital relationships; of policemen who shake down teen-age lovers; of women who prostitute themselves to pay for secret abortions; of gay couples extorted by their neighbors; of a sixteen-year-old girl raped by and married off to a family friend; of a cleric who signs off on necrophilia, provided it’s practiced with one’s spouse; of brides who retrofit their vaginas with fake hymens that are supposed to bleed. “Our society is consumed by the poison of hypocrisy and by an institutionalized culture of lies,” she asserts, arguing that repression is as corrosive to the polity as it is to the psyche.
The debate over Islamic fundamentalism deforms the political continuum. By some strange trick of physics, you can lean to the left (criticizing the sexual subjugation of women by the governmental and religious authorities of a Muslim country) and inadvertently graze the right (in France, the extreme-right National Front Party often demonizes Muslims this way). That Slimani is anathema to religious conservatives is unsurprising. But she has also attracted scorn from less obvious people, who interpret her insistence on Enlightenment values as a betrayal of her origins. Houria Bouteldja, the leader of the French anti-racist movement Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, recently attacked Slimani as a “native informant.” In Jeune Afrique, François Soudan accused her of choosing themes that were gratuitously offensive to ordinary Moroccans in an effort to ingratiate herself with a French élite: “To be bankable in the media right now on the Left Bank of the Seine, the good Arab is obliged to be secular, Islamophobic, preferably libertine, and, if possible, under threat (for the preceding) in his country of origin.” He quoted a Moroccan journalist as saying that, with every one of Slimani’s provocations, a fundamentalist’s beard grew five centimetres.
“I was raised with values that weren’t necessarily those of the country where I was living,” Slimani told me. “I had to be aware. I couldn’t say, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that,’ as though I knew better than others. But, finally, I realized, after all that has happened—I turned twenty a month after September 11th; I grew up with attacks, with Islamism, with fundamentalism—that you have to defend your ideas, you can’t always cede the floor to others.” She added, “Even if you come from a bourgeois background and you had a private-school education.” Slimani’s former colleague Hamid Barrada, who has known her since she was twenty-seven, told me, “In my opinion, Leïla was never Moroccan until now. Her family was always a little bit ‘offshore.’ But, because of the subjects she’s taken on, she’s become Moroccan through literature.”
In October, Slimani accepted an unpaid position as Emmanuel Macron’s “personal representative to French-speaking countries.” Her job, essentially, is to burnish the image of the French language (and thus of France) abroad. “Beckett writes in French and we consider it romantic, but when we, the North Africans, write in French we’re thought of as victims of neocolonialism, as traitors!” she told me. She is Macron’s literary analogue, attempting to renew an entrenched intellectual order with an urgent, sometimes unpredictable, centrist vision.
Slimani was on the road early the next morning, en route from Rabat to Oulad Abbou, a village on the outskirts of Casablanca. In the back seat of a taxi, she was toggling between answering her e-mail and trying to read “The Mothers,” by Brit Bennett. The temptation to sleep was also strong. There had been a full moon the night before, and her baby had been up at 3 a.m.
After about an hour, we pulled over on the side of the highway. We got out and entered the concrete courtyard of an elementary school. The air smelled of sugar. Kids were fishing for rubber ducks in plastic pools. As part of a charitable organization called Enfance Maghreb Avenir, Slimani was there to inaugurate seven new classrooms and a block of toilets, where before there had been a hole in the ground, causing many of the parents in the neighborhood to keep their daughters out of school.
The governor of the province arrived—a busy man in a dark suit. Slimani gave a speech, and then the schoolchildren sang the national anthem, waving little flags and launching red, green, and white balloons into a bluebird sky. If the night before Slimani had been the scourge of a fraudulent social order, today she was doing what she could to improve it from within.
Slimani was staying at her mother’s house in Rabat. That night, I went over for dinner. Leïla welcomed me, wearing a sweatshirt that said “Bourgeoisie Sauvage,” and led me to the living room, where Antoine, Béatrice-Najat, and Béatrice-Najat’s second husband, Daniel, were gathered around a low wooden table. Antoine poured red wine and whiskey. A housekeeper brought blistered shishito peppers. Béatrice-Najat, who was warm and quiet, seemed as awed as anyone by her daughter’s success. “Writers were people we admired,” she said. “When Leïla was about nine, I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up, and she said, ‘I want to think.’ ”
Eventually, we moved into a dining room enclosed by red-and-white striped curtains. Béatrice-Najat had made Leïla’s favorite chicken tagine, and, for dessert, a majestically homey Pavlova of mint, strawberries, and pomegranate. The conversation was relaxed, broad, darkly funny. When insomnia came up, Slimani said, “One writer I know told me that a genius way to put yourself back to sleep is to think of your enemies and how you’d murder them.” She pressed her fingertip to a pomegranate seed that had fallen onto the tablecloth and popped it into her mouth.
On the way out, I asked about a series of paintings that hung throughout the house. Slimani said that they were her father’s. “They were ones he did after he went to jail,” she told me. “It’s because of that that they’re always of these round characters, with bars. Of closed-in people.” In “Chanson Douce,” in the passage about parks in winter, Slimani writes, “In strollers, babies held tight under straps contemplate their elder siblings. Perhaps some of them feel melancholic, impatient.” Even her infants, I realized, are in prisons. The only crime they’ve committed is being human.