French Eroticism Withers in Adèle

With Leïla Slimani’s new novel, a literary genre gets its most joyless installment yet.

Leïla Slimani, the author of Adèle (Thibault Camus / AP)

The primary character in Adèle, Leïla Slimani’s grimly vacant novel about a Parisian journalist who’s addicted to sex, yearns to be an object. She has no defining characteristics beyond her insatiable desire to be desired, her self-identification as a thing that gives men pleasure. A journalist married to a gastroenterologist, with whom she has a toddler son, Adèle is a difficult character not to dislike—shallow, lazy, and contradictory. She craves money and luxury as much as any postmodern Marie Antoinette, but despises bourgeois culture; she loathes her husband and resents her child for being a burden; she sleeps with her only female friend’s partner; and regrets, when her husband is injured in a scooter accident after working too many shifts, that he hasn’t died.

It’s challenging to identify what Slimani wanted to do with Adèle, a novel that’s almost as reluctant as its title character to engage in any hard work or deep reflection. It isn’t, Slimani says in an author Q&A, about examining sex addiction, although the character of Adèle is inspired in part by the downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF (who was accused of sexual assault, the pedantic among us might point out). Nor is it about the roots of Adèle’s pathological compulsion—Slimani says she wasn’t interested in excavating those, either. Rather, she seems preoccupied by the subversiveness of Adèle as a character, a 21st-century woman who “doesn’t want to be a subject, she doesn’t want to decide, to have power. She just wants to be a little doll, a toy.”

Slimani is arguably France’s most dynamic and lauded living female writer, one of only 12 women to have claimed the Prix Goncourt for literature, which she won for The Perfect Nanny. That novel, which was inspired by the horrific real-life murder of two children by their paid caregiver, is a masterpiece of imagination. Slimani sets up an unanswerable question and answers it: In her hands, the conundrum of who could do such a thing, and why, becomes a surgical interrogation of bourgeois French culture and the tensions of parenthood. Louise, the mousy nanny who’s revealed on the first page to have committed infanticide, is introduced as an abomination and then humanized, layer by layer.

So why is Adèle so flat? Why can’t such a gifted author find any characteristics or qualities in her beyond her overruling addiction to abasement? The novel is Slimani’s first, published in France before The Perfect Nanny, although it’s only now being released in English. It begins with Adèle jonesing for a fix, having spent the last week holding out on her impulses for rough sex with strangers. By page 4 she’s given in, stopping by an old acquaintance’s for an encounter that she laments is “not obscene enough.” Later, at work, she invents quotes for a story about social tensions in Tunisia, plagiarizes lines from existing stories (Slimani’s cynicism about French journalistic ethics is an ongoing theme in the novel), and then gets drunk at lunch, spending the night with a young man whose soft hands and “woman’s bottom” disgust her.

Slimani has mentioned several times that her favorite fictional heroines, the ones she’s most inspired by, are the great adulterers of classic literature: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thérèse Desqueyroux, the last of whom tries to poison her husband and is then confined to the countryside as punishment. It’s hard to conceive, though, how Slimani could extract Adèle from literary women whose appetites are so different from hers. Emma Bovary is all feeling and hunger; she licks the final drops of liqueur from the bottom of the glass with her tongue, and relishes the cold shiver of iced champagne as much as she cherishes her romantic fantasies about the kind of love that “sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.” Adèle, by contrast, barely eats, disdaining French gastronomic hedonism, and drinking excessively only to enable her “planned debauchery.” She has no appetite for love, either. Her compulsions are a black hole absorbing everything except satisfaction.

Adèle is a strikingly dull, joyless book. Stripped of the animating romantic desires of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, the novel offers instead a nihilistic, depressing kind of libertinism that’s hard to endure without any sense of what its purpose might be. (“Obscenity,” the French writer Colette once said, “is such a narrow domain. One immediately begins to suffocate there, and to feel bored.”) Slimani might find her heroine’s lack of ambition or motivation to be subversive. But it seems to me instead to be part of a storied French tradition—the literary submission and degradation of women in service of male pleasure.

Consider Anne Desclos’s Story of O, whose heroine’s identifying initial has been interpreted to stand for both Odile (homophonic to “Adèle”) and objectification. Or The Sexual Life of Catherine M., an autobiographical account by the art critic Catherine Millet of decades of group sex that, in The Guardian’s summation, “managed to make orgies boring.” (Millet’s acknowledgment that she never had an orgasm until her early 30s rather dented the book’s credentials as a manifesto for free love.) Reading Adèle, I was reminded of countless fictional accounts of female erotic compulsion on film—largely rendered by men, like Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour or Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. So many male writers and directors seem fixated on the pleasures that women can supposedly find in perversion, even as they can’t resist punishing those women for it in the end.

With Adèle, Slimani has all the opportunity of an insightful female writer wresting the subject of desire back from her less enlightened contemporaries, Michel Houellebecq and Yann Moix among them. Which is why it’s so perplexing that Adèle as a character is so numb, so repetitive, so intent only on reducing herself to an empty impulse. If Slimani has achieved anything, it’s that she’s written a book that doesn’t even pretend to find pleasure in its heroine’s predilections. Only pain.