Published 18 September 2019 (UK & Ireland) | Published by Seven Stories Press elsewhere
French paperback with flaps, 80 pages
She just sits there on a chair in the living room. Staring straight ahead, her features frozen, sagging. Her mouth not quite open but gaping slightly, from a distance.
She says, ‘I can’t put my hands on it’ (her toiletry bag, her cardigan, whatever). Things seem to slip away from her.
She has to watch television right away. She can’t wait until I have cleared the table. She no longer understands anything, except her own longing.
Every evening David and I take her upstairs to bed. At the point where the floorboards become carpeted, she lifts her leg up high, as though she were wading into water. We laugh, she laughs too. Later on, after she has snuggled down into bed, as happy as a lark, and knocked over all the things on her bedside table by trying to apply some face cream, she says to me: ‘Now I’ll go to sleep, thank you MADAME.’
The doctor came round to see her. She wasn’t able to say how old she was. She clearly recalled having had two children. ‘Two girls,’ she added. She had slipped on two bras, one on top of the other. I remembered the day when she found out that I had been wearing one without her knowing. Her screams. I was fourteen, it was one morning in June. I was wearing a slip, washing my face.
My stomach pains have started again. I no longer feel angry at her and her loss of memory. A wave of indifference.
We went to the shopping centre. She wanted to get the most expensive handbag in La Bagagerie – black, made of leather. She kept saying: ‘I want the best one, it’s my last handbag.’
After that I took her to La Samaritaine. This time, a dress and a cardigan. She walks slowly, I need to help her along. She chuckles to herself for no reason. The salesgirls give us strange looks, seem embarrassed. I am not: I stare at them defiantly.
Anxiously, she asked Philippe: ‘Who are you to my daughter?’ He snorts: ‘I’m her husband!’ She laughs.
Invariably, she mistakes my study for her bedroom. She opens the study door just a crack, realizes it’s the wrong room and gently closes the door; I see the latch spring up, as if there were no one on the other side. Mounting panic. In one hour, the same thing will happen again. She has no idea where she is.
She hides her soiled underwear beneath her pillow. Last night, I thought of the blood-soaked underwear she would stuff at the bottom of the dirty laundry pile in the attic, leaving them there until washing day. I must have been around seven years old; I would stare at them, fascinated. Now they are filled with shit.
Tonight, I was marking essays. Her voice rang out from the adjoining living room, loud and clear, like an actor on stage. She was speaking to an imaginary child: ‘It’s getting late, sweetheart, you’d better run off home.’ She was in a good mood, giggling away to herself. I put my hands over my ears, I felt that I was losing touch with humanity. We are not on stage, THIS IS MY MOTHER TALKING TO HERSELF.
I came across a letter she had begun writing: ‘Dear Paulette, I remain in darkness.’ Now she can no longer write. The words seem to belong to another woman. That was one month ago.
At the dinner table, she speaks as if she were employed on a farm where my sons are hired workers and I’m the manager. She won’t eat anything except fromage frais and sweets.
Isabelle (my niece) came over for lunch last Sunday. She burst into laughter every time my mother made some incongruous remark. Only we have the right to laugh at my mother’s insanity, we being myself and the boys, not her. Not outside people. Éric and David say: ‘Granny’s really too much!’ as if, in spite of her dementia, she were still extraordinary.
This morning she got up and, in a timid voice, said: ‘I wet the bed, I couldn’t help it.’ The same words I would use when I was a child.
Saturday, she threw up her coffee. She was lying in bed, motionless. Her eyes were sunken, and red around the edges. I undressed her to change her clothes. Her body was white and flaccid. Afterwards, I cried. Because of time passing, because of the past. And because the body which I see is also mine.
I’m scared of her dying. I’d rather she were crazy.
We waited in the emergency room for two hours, my mother lying on a stretcher. She wet herself. A young man had tried to commit suicide by taking barbiturates. We went into the examination room and they laid my mother down on a table. The junior doctor rolled up her gown to reveal her stomach – the thighs, the white vagina, a few stretchmarks. Suddenly, I felt I was the one who was being exposed in public.
I thought back to the cat who had died when I was fifteen; she had urinated on my pillow before dying. And to the blood and bodily fluids I had lost just before my abortion, twenty years ago.
A powerful meditation on ageing and familial love, I Remain in Darkness recounts Annie Ernaux’s attempts to help her mother recover from Alzheimer’s disease, and then, when that proves futile, to bear witness to the older woman’s gradual decline and her own experience as a daughter losing a beloved parent. Haunting and devastatingly poignant, I Remain in Darkness showcases Ernaux’s unique talent for evoking life’s darkest and most bewildering episodes.
‘Acute and immediate, I Remain in Darkness is an unforgettable exploration of love, memory and the journey to loss’
— Eimear McBride, author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
‘Ernaux’s mother died of Alzheimer’s disease; like John Bayley’s memoir Elegy for Iris, Ernaux’s memoir catalogues the deterioration of a once powerful, almost totemic presence, a fall so cataclysmic that it cannot be analyzed or contextualized, only reported. In I Remain in Darkness (its title taken from the last coherent sentence her mother ever wrote) Ernaux abandons her search for a larger truth because, in the face of a loss as profound as that of her mother, all attempts to make sense of it have the feel of artifice.’
— Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Book Review
Praise for Happening
‘The experience of living simultaneously on the inside and outside of your own body is very particular to the female experience I think – and not only in relation to pregnancy but in myriad other ways too. I like the measured, unforgiving way she works her way through the logic, or illogic, of that. I find her work extraordinary.’
— Eimear McBride, The White Review
‘Universal, primeval and courageous, Happening is a fiercely dislocating, profoundly relevant work – as much of art as of human experience. It should be compulsory reading.’
— Catherine Taylor, Financial Times
‘Ernaux’s work is important. Not just because of her subject matter, but because of the way she hands it over: the subtle contradictions; her dispassionate stoicism, mixed with savagery; her detailed telling, mixed with spare, fragmented text.’
— Niamh Donnelly, Irish Times
‘Happening is gripping and painfully inevitable to read – like a thriller. I felt close to Annie Duchesne, in her aloneness, in a way I’ve rarely felt close to a character in a book. Women will be grateful to Ernaux for her wisdom, concision, and commitment to writing about death and life.’
— Daisy Hildyard, author of The Second Body
Praise for The Years
‘The Years is a revolution, not only in the art of autobiography but in art itself. Annie Ernaux’s book blends memories, dreams, facts and meditations into a unique evocation of the times in which we lived, and live.’
— John Banville, author of Mrs Osmond
‘One of the best books you’ll ever read.’
— Deborah Levy, author of Hot Milk
‘The author of one of the most important oeuvres in French literature, Annie Ernaux’s work is as powerful as it is devastating, as subtle as it is seething.’
— Édouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy
‘Ravishing and almost oracular with insight, Ernaux’s prose performs an extraordinary dance between collective and intimate, “big” history and private experience. The Years is a philosophical meditation paced as a rollercoaster ride through the decades. How we spend ourselves too quickly, how we reach for meaning but evade it, how to live, how to remember – these are Ernaux’s themes. I am desperate for more.’
— Kapka Kassabova, author of Border
‘The technique is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. She illuminates a person through the culture that poured through her; it’s about time and being situated in a certain place in history and how time and place make a person. It’s incredible.’
— Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood
Born in 1940, Annie Ernaux grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. The Years won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008, the Premio Strega in Italy in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work.
Tanya Leslie was the first translator of Annie Ernaux into English and translated a number of her works, including A Woman’s Story (1991), A Man’s Place (1992), Simple Passion (1993), Shame (1998), I Remain in Darkness (1999) and Happening (2001).