"I REMAIN IN DARKNESS"
By Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
Seven Stories. 94 pp. $18.95
Annie Ernaux, a prize-winning French writer, decided in 1996 to publish unedited notes she had made at the time of her mother's decline and death from Alzheimer's disease 10 years earlier. At first, after her mother died, Ernaux could not look at her journal from that period at all. "Somehow I felt I hadn't the right," she recalled. "I had committed to paper her last months and days, including the day preceding her death, without realizing it. This disregard for consequences--which may characterize all forms of writing, it certainly applies to mine--was horrifying."
Instead, she created and published a book called "A Woman's Story," using her polished professionalism to describe her relationship with and feelings about her mother. That book, like others she has written, was very popular in France. It also became a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times fiction prize finalist in this country.
Still, something about those raw diaries haunted her: their "horrifying" candor, perhaps, or even their lack of willed coherence and structure, representing the immediacy of daily reality, not the artistry--and artifice--of a writer's craft. Finally, Ernaux decided to publish her notes on her mother's last three years of life just as they were written, and we should be grateful that she did.
" 'I Remain in Darkness' " is an intensely honest look at the vanishing relationship between a dying parent and an adult child, from the child's point of view. It is not by any means an objective view, as the author warns us in her introduction. Yet this journal details brilliantly, with all the unconscious acuity of actual presence, the miseries and the interdependencies, the frustration and the tedium, the toxic mix of devotion and revulsion that characterize for so many of us the long process of losing an elderly parent.
The things we learn about our parents as they leave us are less frightening, in many instances, than the things we learn about ourselves. Ernaux records here both her compassion and her horror as her mother changes day by day, moving away from the person her daughter knew yet at the same time remaining intimately familiar. There are bleakly unforgiving passages:
"She hides her soiled underwear beneath her pillow. Last night, I thought of the blood-soaked panties she would stuff at the bottom of the dirty laundry pile in the attic, leaving them there until washing day. I must have been seven years old; I would stare at them, fascinated. Now they are filled with [feces]."
There are scenes describing her mother's disorientation and odd behavior in public: chuckling to herself in a department store while salesgirls stare, speaking loudly in her living room at night to an imaginary child. But these are also interspersed with touching moments of lucidity. Ernaux's mother yearns to go shopping for an expensive handbag, and explains herself this way: "I want the best one, it's my last handbag."
At one point in the journal, the author comes across a letter her mother had begun writing but was unable to complete: "Dear Paulette, I remain in darkness . . ." This is the last piece of writing in her mother's life, and the phrase, taken for the title of Ernaux's book, is apt. In fact, the elder Ernaux is a shadowy figure here, always obscured by her daughter's changing perceptions, not only of her mother's increasing debility but also of herself and her place in life's continuum: "It's not just the notion of time passing, it's something else, something linked to death: now I belong in a chain, my life is part of a process that will outlive me."
Sometimes the diarist tries to distance herself from any feelings about her mother's predicament: "I must not give in to emotion as I write about her." Sometimes, on the other hand, her feelings rush out in a burst of words: "It breaks my heart. She is alive, she still has her desires, plans for the future. All she wants is to live. I too need her to be alive."
And there are other moments, when Ernaux has the uncanny feeling that she is actually becoming her mother: "a chilling impression of dual personality. I am both myself and her."
There is a surreal harshness in some of the descriptions of the mother's condition and of her surroundings at the hospital where Ernaux must place her when she can no longer take care of her at home: images of emaciation and despair, odors of urine and feces, shouts from an adjoining room. All of this is recorded experience, none of it is fiction. Every impression was written down as it was received.
Yet slowly, bit by bit, through all the grotesque images, acute perceptions, and the shocked, insightful observations, slowly there is the seeping inexorability of the author's very real grief, which floods through the second half of the journal and both gentles and deepens the book. This is Ernaux's true gift to the reader, although it was entirely unintentional. One suspects that it is this part of the journal that was so hard to revisit after her mother died.
The temptation to transform anguish into art is rarely resistable for an artist, but in the very awkwardness of these notes there is a great dignity and an equally great, indeed almost unbearable love. At the end, Ernaux's mother becomes increasingly frail, loses weight and cannot eat, and finally, one day when Annie leans over to arrange something on her mother's wheelchair, the old woman suddenly, fiercely, kisses her daughter's hair. "How can I survive that kiss, such love, my mother, my mother," Ernaux wrote in her journal on that day. She was writing not just for herself but for us all.
Find this Sunday's Book World in its new home behind the comics pages.
Reeve Lindbergh, whose most recent book is a family memoir, "Under a Wing."