The Happy Marriage

Tahar Ben Jelloun, trans. André Naffis-Sahely

January 15, 2016 
The following is from Tahar Ben Jelloun's novel, The Happy Marriage. Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling Moroccan novelist, essayist, critic, and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, he is also a frequent contributor to Le Monde, La Repubblica, El Pais, Panorama, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review.


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If a man and a woman are two halves of an apple, then two men
are quite often two halves of a couple. —Sacha Guitry, Nine Bachelors

By the mid-1980s, the painter still hadn’t put down roots anywhere. He never kept the same studio for more than a few months, traveled without any luggage, and most of the time he’d been happy to work with only a notebook and pencils for his sketches. His first meeting with his future wife had utterly changed everything. A week after their first kiss, he’d decided to spend less time in his studio and to devote it to her instead, and they exchanged vows and swore to keep them a month later. Those who knew them best couldn’t believe their eyes. The painter had been able to guess what his friends must have said about him when they crossed paths in Paris: “She’s too young for him, and too pretty too!”

They had been wrong to bad-mouth them, because throughout the first two long, pleasant years of their married life, the painter and his wife were the happiest couple in the world. She’d known how to keep him happy, had quickly learned how to adapt to his mannerisms, habits, and whims. She had accepted them with a smile and would sometimes even mock him a little about them. There had been no conflicts of any kind. “Not a cloud in the sky,” she would say with a smile.

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He had rented a little house for her on Rue de la Butteaux-Cailles. It was a charming place: one would have thought that it was in the middle of the open countryside instead of smack in the center of Paris. They led a smooth life that was completely devoid of conflict. He still looked back on those days with a deeply felt and sincere nostalgia. His wife had been very loving then and had thrown herself into their conjugal life with a great deal of intensity. They hadn’t gone on a honeymoon, but they had decided that she would accompany him wherever he was invited: exhibitions, symposiums, or contemporary art fairs. They always extended their visits by a few days in order to properly visit the country, guidebooks in hand. The painter, who’d already traveled a great deal, had found it very moving to introduce his wife to the great cities of the world: Venice, Rome, Madrid, Prague, Istanbul, New York, then San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia . . . She would buy him everything that he liked and always brought presents back for his family. The painter, for his part, spared no expense. On their return to Paris, she would call her friends and relatives and tell them about their wonderful journeys down to the slightest detail. She would humbly tell them that she felt blessed to have such opportunities. When she would hang up, she would whisper in his ear: “You know, I’m the one who was lucky to have met you!” He thought that marrying a twenty-four-year-old woman had been something exceptional for a thirty-eight-year-old man, a privilege reserved for a select few. In his mind, never being like anyone else had always seemed like a guarantee of eternal happiness. And then, he’d thought, the time had come to settle down, start a family, and change the rhythm of his life. She was the ideal woman for that new life.

They made love often, and it was tender and natural. He would occasionally wish that she could get a little more involved in the act, but she would laugh and make him understand that she was too bash­ful for that. One evening, when they’d been changing channels on the television late at night, they’d stumbled onto a porno. She’d cried out, horrified by the spectacle of those unrestrained women and men with huge penises. Shocked, she had snuggled against him as though wanting him to protect her from some imminent danger. She’d never seen a porno in her life. He had reassured her, telling her that those films were transgressive and outrageous, and that most people’s sexu­ality was rather simple. Then she’d regained her composure. At which point he’d switched the television off and they fell asleep on the living room sofa, their bodies entwined.

One day, she took the train to go see her parents, who lived on the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand. She had asked him if he could help buy her ticket, and told him she also wanted to bring her parents a few small presents. He’d given her all she’d asked for and told her that they would open a joint bank account that very afternoon so she would never have to ask him for money again. She’d been very happy to hear this and he’d told her that everything that was his also belonged to her, and vice versa. He’d laughed, happy at how perfect their arrangement was.

She stayed with her parents for a week. The painter lived through those seven days and nights as though he’d been abandoned. It was the first time they’d spent so long apart. He had missed her terribly. He would call her every day, but had often been unable to speak to her be­cause she had just left, or had gone out for a run . . . it allowed him to discover how deeply he was in love with her, “smitten,” as people used to say in his youth. She dwelled in his thoughts, and would not be dislodged. While at his desk, he would fail to make any progress on his projects. He would imagine her in his arms, humming songs from his village, tunes that he was not especially fond of, but which he could suddenly not do without, even though he didn’t really understand the meaning of those words. That was love, the kind of love that reminds you of your beloved. Tired of not bumping into her in one of the rooms of their house, he would go into the bathroom in the middle of the day just to smell her pajamas, or her perfume. On the following day, he’d even brushed his teeth with her brush. While sitting in the living room, he would be surprised to discover he’d been speaking out loud as though she were right in front of him. Unable to concentrate on his work, he would watch old films on the television until late at night. He would always fall asleep on the sofa and wake up at two in the morning and confuse his wife’s face with Natalie Wood’s in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. They slightly resembled one another, but his wife must have been a little taller, and her hair was darker.

When she finally returned from Clermont-Ferrand, there was a great celebration. He’d driven to the station to pick her up, and had arrived far too early. Little presents were waiting for her back at the house and he’d put on some music to welcome her back. Looking worried, she’d asked him if he’d missed her. That’s an understatement, he’d said, he hadn’t been able to sleep without her, or eat, or drink. “I was like a child in foster care!”

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Two months later, she told him she was pregnant. He’d jumped for joy and had started singing to the top of his lungs until their kind neighbors came by to see if everything was all right. They had quickly agreed to have dinner together and they toasted the happy news with champagne. He’d never been so attentive to a woman before. They could spend whole hours at a stretch together doing absolutely nothing, and he would bend over backwards to spoil her. Once, she asked him for sea urchins in the middle of the night. Why sea urchins? Neither of them had ever eaten them. Because she’d read about those creatures of the sea in a magazine that day and simply wanted to try them. They had gotten into the car and left in search of an open restaurant that would serve them that dish. They crisscrossed Paris from north to south and east to west, but their quest had been in vain. It was three o’clock in the morning, and everything had been shut for some time. As he was speaking to her, he’d realized she’d fallen asleep. Her craving must have suddenly left her. During those nine months, they’d also invented a series of games. They would improvise scenes as though they were being filmed by John Cassavetes. It was a mad, charming, and liberating game. As for Cassavetes’s real films, which he dragged her to see on Rue des Écoles, she liked those a little less. They were too dispiriting, too disillusioned. She confessed to him that she pre­ferred comedies and romantic films, and that she also had a weakness for Alain Delon. When he found out about this, one of their friends, who was a unit still photographer, invited them to visit the set of a film at the Studios de Boulogne where Delon was playing a gangster. She had carefully put some makeup on and had taken her camera with her. Between takes, the friend introduced them to the actor. He’d been very friendly and had especially been interested in the painter’s wife. She had herself photographed standing next to Delon. As they’d been about to leave, Delon had shouted across to them: “But wouldn’t that young lady like to be in the movies? She’s very pretty, distinctive too! One can immediately see that she’s got character! So, what do you say?” Taken aback, the painter had kept quiet, while his wife had lowered her eyes and murmured: “I’ve always dreamed of being in the movies . . .” then she’d suddenly regained her confidence and replied: “I was a model for the Sublime Agency when I was seventeen, surely you know Jérôme, Jérôme Lonchamp?” Delon had shaken his head. A crew member had then appeared to fetch Delon as the shooting had recommenced. Delon blew a kiss at her and then disappeared.

She’d gotten all excited and happy, like a little girl who’d just been given her first doll. “I must be dreaming—my wife’s in love with Alain Delon right in the middle of her pregnancy!” the painter had said to himself in the taxi that took them home that night. No, it was impossible, ridiculous even. It must have been jealousy that was making him think like that. Nevertheless, he still imagined Delon meeting his wife for an afternoon of passionate lovemaking in a palace . . . he could see her in his arms, pressed against him, or even in a pool with a glass of orange juice mixed with some liquor or other in her hand. It was crazy, stupid, sick, miserable. She noticed nothing.

Over the course of the following days, she called her friends to tell them all about her meeting with Delon. She laid it on a little thick when it came to the great actor’s good looks, his charisma, and his kindness. He had tried to keep his cool. It was as though Delon were suddenly everywhere: in the living room, the bathroom, their bedroom, in his head, in her head; he had taken over everything, and devoured their entire lives without leaving so much as a crumb.

After two weeks, the Delon fever completely subsided, as did the painter’s jealousy. The actor was never mentioned again. Once again happy and satisfied, his wife’s attentions had turned entirely toward the baby she was carrying. Happiness and sweetness reigned in their house. Marital happiness, in its simplest, purest, happiest form. The painter would caress his wife’s belly and declare his ardent love. She loved to hear him say how much he loved her. It was perfect harmony.

Early one morning, her contractions started, and the painter accompanied her to the hospital and was present when the birth took place. When the nurse held out the scissors for him to cut the umbilical cord, he was so overcome by emotion that he nearly fainted. Once he’d recovered, he’d rushed to the telephone booth in the lobby to announce the news to everyone he knew until he ran out of coins. His mother broke out in ululations and made him cry. His friends and the people he worked with congratulated him. The gallery that represented him sent them a big bouquet of flowers. He danced and sang that evening after he’d left the hospital.

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Their return to the house proved more difficult. Their cleaning lady had quit, and the painter hadn’t had the time to find a new one. Luckily, the painter’s mother-in-law came to lend them a helping hand. They threw a wonderful party to celebrate their child. The painter’s mother, who lived in Morocco and hadn’t been able to come, had felt left out: “I’ll organize a real party for you when you visit me here,” she’d said in a peremptory manner. The painter had said nothing.

Then their life suddenly changed. The baby took up all their space, and their couple life took a back seat, but the painter was still very much in love with his wife. After a month, his gallery called and asked him to get back to work. The painter shut himself in his studio and took some time before finding inspiration. The kind of cold hyper-realist drawings he’d worked on before his marriage no longer satisfied him. Whenever he returned in the evening, he would remark on how exhausted his wife looked. He would look after her, make dinner, and console her. Then it was his turn to look after the baby, and he would change him and give him his bottle. He can still remember now how long he would have to wait for the baby to burp before he could settle him down in his crib . . . He was an attentive father, he learned how to go about it and tried to bring a little joy into the house. However, his wife was depressed. It was textbook, they’d both foreseen it. The painter became even more attentive and tender. Their child made progress day after day, and this made the couple seem stronger. Life had smiled on them and the painter felt as though his work was entering a new phase.


From THE HAPPY MARRIAGE. Used with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2012 by Éditions Gallimard. Translation copyright © 2016 by André Naffis-Sahely.

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