After developing Alzheimer’s, Annie Ernaux’s mother spent a period living with her daughter, before ultimately being moved to a geriatric hospital where she lived out her last two years. On the surface, then, I Remain in Darkness (translated from the French by Tanya Leslie) is about a daughter living through the death of a parent, the process of living-through recorded in fragmented journal entries, and between every entry a week of a mother not being visited. It’s painful enough just to skim through the pages and attend to the time frame; if ever there were a book of reading between the lines, it ought to be this one.
Ernaux’s descriptions of her mother’s decline are clear and visceral. At times she comes off as cold and cruel and, at others, pained and gentle. The detachment, the horror of the banal, and the inability to shake off a lifetime of one’s own slapdash parent-child relationships—all of this Ernaux captures and offers as relief. In this way, the book is reminiscent of Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain, an experiment in exorcism by repetition after a failed love affair. In I Remain in Darkness, however, it is fear that is borne by ritual, and loss is tethered to the muck of the mundane. It’s hard to be so close, to smell the details, and equally hard not to feel a twofold grief upon reading: once for your own slow deterioration and once for your slowly deteriorating loved ones. To know that we pass through each of death’s sides.
I felt in equal measure Ernaux’s grief, her guilt, and her suspected failure to be a ‘proper’ daughter. (Is that how I would…? Would it be like…? Is this going to…? Will I end up…?).
The book is claustrophobic and at the same time distant. Paragraphs such as this perfectly capture the double-bind Annie Ernaux is suffering.
She looks even more withered and confused. All she is wearing is her hospital gown, open at the back, exposing her spine, her buttocks and the mesh of her underwear. A glorious sun is beating down through the double-glazed windows. I think about my room at the students’ hostel twenty years ago. Today I am here with her. We have no little imagination.
Where to place one’s focus? The section begins with the physical decline of her mother, escapes out the window into the eternity of the weather, and runs back to the safety of youth before landing again on the death that confronts her. And it is Ernaux’s mother, in her gown and slippers, who throughout remains unreachable, as flickers of her life bubble to the surface one sentence at a time, highlighting the disjunct between the mother’s lived experience and what we, the healthy spectator, is able to understand.
At just 78 pages, I Remain in Darkness is a remarkably light thing to be carrying such human weight. There’s a safety in tiny volumes, in the small doses of pain which drip from Ernaux’s note-style pages; the drip of a faucet that won’t quite turn off, however hard you force its handle.
I Remain in Darkness / Annie Ernaux, translated from the French by Tanya Leslie / Fitzcarraldo Editions / 18 Sept 2019 (UK & Eire)
Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres and Nostalgia for Bodies, and two chapbooks: My Body in a Country and I Have Not Led a Serious Life. Recent work can be found in Ambit, para.text, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, Litro and others. Find her on Twitter @lydiowanie.