Habib Selmi - The Scents of Marie-Claire
We soon learn while reading Habib Selmi's novel, The Scents of Marie-Claire, that our narrator is a man consumed with jealousy. He picks up on the slightest infraction and considers it a blow to his relationship with Marie-Claire, he obsesses over small details that mean nothing to her and everything to him, and he blazes with pent-up sexual frustration. At first his jealousy seems directed outwards, to the men who gaze at her admiringly or, later, to the Arabic man she dances with in a provocative manner to deliberately bait him. But the longer we stay with our narrator, the more we realise his jealousy has very little to do with Marie-Claire and a great deal to do with him – he is jealous that she is another person, that she is an Other to his I, and that means there is no other end to them than of destruction.
The narrator of The Scents of Marie-Claire is a university lecturer specialising in the vagrant poets of Arabic literature. He is well-read, though neither his conversation nor his thoughts are cluttered with the debris of literature. His intellectual powers are high, but they are, like so much of his life, focused almost entirely inward. He is his own best and most well-known subject.
Marie-Claire is also a teacher, but she has a love for life that her partner lacks. She enjoys dancing, and takes pleasure in the smell of a lilac, the physical exertion of dancing, the comfortable intimacy of lovemaking and the sweaty saturation of its baser cousin, sex. The narrator enjoys these qualities at a remove, which is to say he watches her and observes, and while he may participate physically (though he won't dance), he is emotionally cold.
I have to admit that her constant presence near me at home made me nervous, too, especially in the beginning. I was not used to living with women, and I was not familiar with all her likes and dislikes, despite everything she had told me during our cafe meetings; that and the fact that women change a lot, as it is said. I was afraid of doing something stupid and disappointing her.
This paragraph comes near the start of the novel, when they begin living together. We can forgive the narrator his anxious worries, because, as he tells us, he was raised very poor in Tunisia, and is not used to the much richer trappings of middle-class life in Paris. Similarly, he knew women only in the manner in which the older men of his village knew women – as an orifice to be forcibly used on occasion, and a device for breeding children and keeping a house. Needless to say, he rejects these ideas of women as tools and objects, but his rejection is vague and not well thought out. We suspect he rejects the idea because he “should”, and not because he really has an issue with that way of thinking.
One night, on his birthday, Marie-Claire organises an evening of dinner, wine and entertainment. In short, an enjoyable evening with her partner. But he is annoyed, because the control of the day was taken from him and was now in her hands. He never comes right out and says it to her, but Marie-Claire's commandeering of the night offends him because it was her who decided and not him. This observation is not lost on the perceptive reader, but it is on our narrator:
I controlled my feelings of irritation and regained my calm. It was clear that Marie-Claire was using the occasion of my birthday to be happy, to celebrate and enjoy life once more. “It is her right to do so,” I said to myself. I must hide my innermost feelings from her. I should not tell her what I was thinking. It would not be polite to spoil things for her on this occasion, which seemed to be very important to her.
Our narrator is socially conservative; he seems horrified at the licentious behaviour of Parisians, though he finds the prostitutes (particularly the Arabic ones) appealing. He is sexually charged, always noticing women's underarms, and virtually each page contains thoughts on sex. His opinions is this area are that of a man ashamed, unable to control his urges and feeling bad about both when he fulfils them and when he does not.
Toward the end of their birthday evening, Marie-Claire takes him to a nightclub where she dances. She encourages him to join her but he does not, instead glowering at the men (who show no interest in Marie-Claire) and glancing furtively at the women (noticing their shaved underarms). He becomes more and more furious, but at what?
But all these feelings of anger, despite their strength, could not dispel the idea that in reality there was nothing I could blame Marie-Claire for. After all, she had done nothing wrong; all she had done was dance. And because she loved to dance, she did so with enthusiasm, joy, and passion. I am sure that it did not occur to her at all that she danced in a way that excited the men around her.
The birthday night functions as a turning point in their relationship. They don't quite know it yet, but a fracture has occurred, and it is not one that will heal. More and more, he blames Marie-Claire for things she does that are fine – she buys a motorcycle, and visits her possibly dying mother – and things that are “not” – she doesn't put away a dish, she refuses him sex. We wait for him to develop some sense of self-awareness as to how his behaviour would appear to her, but it never comes.
Marie-Claire is a rather lovely woman. It's hard not to like her. She seems genuinely sweet, and is interesting and intelligent. Her interests are clearly defined and there is a strong sense of her existing as a person outside the relationship as well as in. Not so with the narrator – he is all jealousy, spite, rage and hate, all laced with dark and seedy thoughts of sex.
Here was a woman I knew very well, and who knew me equally well. We were sleeping in the same bed and under the same roof as though we were married, and I desired her deeply. There she was lying completely naked next to me with her hips exposed in a way that was irresistible, and yet I could not even touch her. Were I to react like any man from Makhaleef I would have thrown her down on the bed, spread her thighs wide apart by force, and penetrated her violently the moment I had seen her, thus answering the Bedouin call inside me. Were I to tell any of the Makhaleef men what was happening to me at that moment, they would ridicule and mock me, saying I'd become as delicate as a woman as a result of being over-urbanized. How else would a woman dare lie naked in front of me and in this licentious way, a mere few inches away while I failed to ride her as only a stud could?
The end of the novel is present from the very beginning. We know where it will lead, and from there it is a matter of discovering how we will get there. Selmi's narrator is not a nice person, but he is intelligent and treats his subjects rationally. While his actions may get caught up in the heat of emotion, his thoughts don't. It's uncomfortable at times to read such an unpleasant man's brutal and honest thoughts, but there is a great deal of courage in a novel like this. Not all love is pretty, and not all lovers are sweet. Jealousy is a theme well-explored within literature, but the sheer ashamed sexualisation of the narrator is something to which I was, until this novel, unfamiliar. Perhaps its most comparable novel is Hungarian author Milán Füst's The Story of My Wife, which deals with a man similarly obsessed with jealousy. In Füst's novel, the protagonist believes his wife has been unfaithful, though he never provides concrete evidence of this. Instead, his (huge and wide-ranging) intellect becomes absorbed in a question that, from all indications, doesn't even need to be asked. The same applies to the narrator of The Scents of Marie-Claire: he is a man intent on destroying something which could, if he let it, flower. By destroying his relationship he destroys himself. Selmi's novel offers an unsettling examination of the strange and powerful attraction of annihilation, its potency contained within the deeply realised unpleasantness of his narrator, and the juxtaposed “ordinariness” of Marie-Claire.
||The Scents of Marie-Claire
(Original Title: Rawa'ih Marie Claire)
||Fadwa Al Qasem