I Remain in Darkness
I Remain in Darkness
Annie Ernaux 1997Introduction
The volume I Remain in Darkness is Annie Ernaux's collection of unedited journal entries that she wrote over the last two and a half years of her mother's life. The entries depict Ernaux's highly personal reaction to her mother's decline to Alzheimer's disease. As Ernaux experiences an almost overwhelming onslaught of conflicting emotions, she reflects on her past and, most particularly, her relationship with her mother, Blanche. Although in previously published works Ernaux has explored ties to her family that were fraught with difficulty, I Remain in Darkness provides an intensely intimate, immediate portrayal of the bonds between a grown daughter and her dying mother.
Published in France in 1997 and translated into English three years later, I Remain in Darkness was for over a decade Ernaux's private chronicle and almost remained so. Ernaux writes in her preface that she initially believed she would not publish her journals, "Maybe because I wanted to offer only one image, one side of the truth portraying my mother and my relationship with her." She had already written about this relationship in A Woman's Story, her autobiographical novel about a mother and daughter. However, as several years passed, Ernaux began to question her own wisdom; "The consistency and coherence achieved in any written work … must be questioned whenever possible." Read in conjunction with A Woman's Story, I Remain in Darkness thus provides a multifaceted portrait of the life of a rural, working-class French woman. Read in isolation from other Ernaux works, I Remain in Darkness still tells a poignant story of a powerful love.
Annie Ernaux was born on September 1, 1940, in Lillebonne, France, in the region of Normandy. She grew up in a small town, the daughter of working-class grocers. Her parents sent her to Rouen University, which allowed her to move to a higher social class than her parents occupied. Ernaux graduated with a degree in modern French literature. From 1966 to 1977, she taught French literature at secondary school, in eastern France and outside of Paris. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d'Enseignement par Correspondance.
Ernaux published her first novel in 1974. Les armoires vides (translated as Cleaned Out in 1990) introduced her technique of writing about intensely personal issues and experiences. In 1977, she published Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, which has not been translated into English, and four years later, she published La femme gelée (translated as A Frozen Woman in 1995). Although these three works earned Ernaux modest critical acclaim, she remained a relatively unknown writer.
In 1984, however, La place (translated as A Man's Place in 1992), Ernaux's memoir of her father, was awarded the Prix Renaudot, one of France's most important literary awards. This recognition helped Ernaux gain a much wider audience. Her next work, Une femme (translated as A Woman's Story in 1991), published in 1987, solidified her success. This biographical novel related the complex bond between a mother and daughter. Ernaux based it on her own relationship with her mother and began work on it during the final years of her mother's life. Some of the incidents related in it are identical to those in I Remain in Darkness. This collection of journals was published as Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit in France in 1997 and translated into English in 1999.
With the exception of 1991's Passion simple (translated as Simple Passion in 1993) and 1993's Journal du dehors (translated as Exteriors in 1996) Ernaux's books all explore similar territory and essentially tell the same story—the story of her life. She is most concerned with exploring her childhood, her relationship to her parents, and her experiences at university. Ernaux continues to publish books, some of which have not yet been translated into English. She currently writes and lives outside of Paris.
I Remain in Darkness chronicles the decline of Ernaux's mother, Blanche, from Alzheimer's disease. The first sign that something is wrong comes in the summer of 1983, when Blanche faints. Taken to the hospital, the doctors discover that she has not eaten or drunk anything for several days. Ernaux realizes that Blanche can no longer care for herself, and she invites her mother to come live with her and her sons. By December, when Ernaux writes her first journal entry, Blanche is already suffering the loss of memory that comes with Alzheimer's. By January 1984, Blanche can no longer write. Her last words, in a letter to a friend, read, "I remain in darkness."
In February 1984, Blanche, prostrate and refusing to eat, is checked into Pontoise Hospital. The ward where she lives is filled with other older patients who also suffer from limited physical and mental capacities. She remains at Pontoise until mid-May, when she is briefly sent to a private nursing home. The situation there is even worse, so she returns to the long-term geriatric ward at Pontoise.
The next year of her life charts her decline. Ernaux notes that her mother seems to have given up on life. For instance, Blanche loses her personal possessions but does not bother looking for them. However, Blanche holds on to enough of her former self to make it clear to Ernaux that she would rather be at her home than in the hospital. She also makes her daughter feel guilty for leaving her behind. The hospital offers few areas of respite for the patients; for recreation, Blanche watches television, eats, or is taken through the garden. Blanche's condition greatly worsens in 1985. She loses the ability to do just about anything for herself, such as walk or feed herself. More and more she comes to remind Ernaux of a child and even a newborn baby.
Throughout her mother's hospitalization, Ernaux continues her regular life. She takes vacations, attends concerts and plays, goes to the museum, gets a divorce, has an affair, teaches class, writes fiction, and wins literary prizes. These events are touched upon but never become a focus. Instead, Ernaux presents the side of her personality that is intensely focused on understanding what feelings she is experiencing, primarily, her relationship with her mother.
Ernaux also reveals that during her mother's hospitalization, she decided to write an autobiographical novel about her mother. She alternates between finding the writing helpful and being unable to write at all. The image of her mother that she records on paper is incompatible with her mother confined in the hospital.
Blanche dies in April 1986. Ernaux is disconsolate at her loss. She is unable to read and constantly thinks about what her writings about her mother mean. Everywhere she goes and everything she does serve as a reminder of her mother.
Blanche is Ernaux's mother. She is a former grocer from a rural community. Besides Ernaux, she had another daughter who died in childhood. Her husband is already dead.
Blanche lives alone before the onset of her Alzheimer's disease. At first, Blanche goes to live with Ernaux, but within a few months her faculties deteriorate markedly. When she refuses to get up or eat, Ernaux moves her to the hospital where she spends the final years of her life.
During the early stages of her disease, Blanche attempts to maintain, as much as she can, the patterns of her pre-sickness life. For instance, she insists on having her toiletry bag nearby. However, as she grows sicker, even these tokens of normal life are lost to her. Within a year of entering the hospital, Blanche is unable to perform some of the most basic functions, such as chewing food or using the bathroom by herself.
Blanche is proud of her daughter, but she also resents that her daughter does not spend more time with her. As such, she alternates between inhabiting the parental role and the child's role that her illness forces upon her. However, unable to care for herself, she has little choice but to occupy a newly subordinate role in this relationship.
On many occasions, Blanche tells Ernaux how much happier she would be living with her and makes her daughter feel guilty for this decision. Yet, she also loves her daughter. She enjoys simple signs of affection, such as when Ernaux combs her hair.
Ernaux wrote I Remain in Darkness when she was in her forties. Her journal entries chronicle her mother's decline from Alzheimer's disease. She begins writing her journal at the onset of her mother's symptoms, when Blanche lives with her. The difficulty of caring for a person with dementia, however, forces Ernaux to put her mother in a long-term geriatric hospital, where Blanche spends the final two years of her life.
At the time her mother becomes ill, Ernaux is in the process of divorcing her husband. She is also having an affair with a man called A. She lives with her two sons.
Ernaux suffers as she watches her mother succumb to the disease. Her feelings are complex, alternating between love and tenderness for her mother, and hatred and even the desire to be cruel. These intense feelings stem from a complicated relationship that the two women have shared over the years, to which Ernaux frequently alludes in her journal entries.
Ernaux deals with the pain of her mother's slow demise in a variety of ways. She sometimes views her mother as a child and casts herself in the role of mother. As a coping mechanism, one which she has used throughout her life, she sublimates her feelings into art and literature. She also begins writing a work of biographical fiction about her relationship with her mother as a means of working through her complicated feelings.
At the end of I Remain in Darkness, after her mother's death, Ernaux is disconsolate. The final journal entry reads, "This morning, after seeing the words 'cubic meter' on a water bill, I remembered that I used to call her Cubby when I was six or seven years old. Tears come to my eyes." This ending shows that Blanche will continue to play a strong role in her daughter's life.
As a writer, Ernaux funnels the events of her life through the lens of art and literature. Throughout I Remain in Darkness, she makes references to various works of art and literature. For instance, she likens her mother to Courbet's painting, The Origin of the World, which shows a woman lying down with her thighs open, showing her respect for the mother who gave birth to her. At another point Ernaux comments on a Goya painting she saw at the Museum of Fine Arts: "But that's definitely not my mother," Ernaux writes. "Neither is the main character in Lolleh Bellon's play Tender Relations, which I went to see the other night." Ernaux likens another woman in the hospital to the broken down clock in Ravel's opera, The Child and the Enchantment. Another patient recalls to mind Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, which Ernaux read in high school. All of these references remind the reader of Ernaux's intellectual background, which figures so prominently in her works and in her relationship with her parents, and provides clues into Ernaux's personality. The latter is particularly important in this slim volume that provides no background for the reader.
The themes of aging and illness are crucial to I Remain in Darkness. Ernaux describes not only her mother's deterioration but the loss of physical capabilities in the other patients who live in the nursing home. The inhabitants must be helped to the bathroom or wear diapers. The nurses insist that Blanche and the other women be tied to their armchairs. With their lives now exposed because they need others to care for their every physical need, they have lost the sense of privacy. More than once Ernaux notes a woman or her mother with her nightgown askew, revealing her vagina. Ernaux also notes how aging takes away her mother's vitality and sense of purpose. She sees her mother as fading and becoming transparent. She generalizes this transformation to aging in general, noting that the same thing has happened to her cat.
Topics for Further Study
- Read Ernaux's A Woman's Story. Write an essay comparing the mother-daughter relationship portrayed in both books.
- Do you think Ernaux's memoir benefited from the unedited journal format that she chose? Explain your answer.
- Find out how to care for people with Alzheimer's disease. Then write an article to share with the adult children of Alzheimer's sufferers, giving suggestions on coping with the disease.
- Conduct research to find out more about the causes of Alzheimer's disease and any new discoveries that may help to cure it or help those who suffer from it.
- Do you think Ernaux should have cared for Blanche at home? Explain your answer.
- Describe your perception of the relationship between Ernaux and her mother as presented in I Remain in Darkness.
- Think about some difficulty that you have faced in your life. Do you think writing about this difficulty would have been beneficial or harmful to you, or would it have had little effect? Explain your answer.
Throughout her journal entries, Ernaux equates herself with her mother. She expresses herself as having a "dual personality." At one time, she is both herself and her mother. Ernaux sees her mother's body as her own; at other times, she sees her mother inside herself. Her mother's future and old age become her own as well. Only in the rarest of instances does Blanche do something to remind her daughter of the separation between the two women. One day, Blanche shouts out the author's name, which she has not used for over a year. "On hearing her voice, I freeze, emotionally drained," Ernaux writes. "The call has come from the deepest recesses of my life, from early childhood." At most times, however, this identification is so strong that Ernaux loses her sense of herself. Leaving the nursing home one afternoon, "I glance at myself in the mirror once again, just to make sure."
Toward the end of her mother's life, Ernaux writes, "I feel that nothing has changed since my early childhood and that life is simply a series of scenes interspersed with songs." Indeed, throughout her mother's illness, Ernaux's thoughts constantly return to her childhood. Her journals are filled with remembrances. She often writes of moments that relate to growing up and womanhood, such as when Blanche first discovered that she wore a bra or her childhood fascination with her mother's underwear that was stained from her period. She also recalls significant moments that the two women shared and that somehow relate to Ernaux's present situation. She recalls her mother at her First Communion, then only one year younger than Ernaux is now. Ernaux wonders "'Where are the eyes of my childhood, the eyes that made me?"' Ernaux's memories are the only place she can find her real mother.
Ernaux, already a prize-winning author at the time her mother becomes ill, uses writing as emotional therapy. While her mother is hospitalized, she begins to write a book about her mother's life. At times, the disparity between the image of her mother that she sees in her memory and the mother that she sees in real life causes her confusion. As her mother's condition worsens, Ernaux makes more references to her writing, further clarifying the relationship this action has to her emotional well-being; sometimes she is unable to write about her mother at all, but at other times writing helps her work through her grief. In her journal, she records her definitive statement about what writing means to her: "an attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage."
I Remain in Darkness is the diary that Ernaux kept throughout her mother's illness. Ernaux decided to publish these notes more than ten years after her mother's death. Although she did place them in chronological order, she otherwise chose not to edit or alter them in hopes of "echoing the bewilderment and distress that I experienced at the time." Because of this authorial decision, Ernaux's journal fails to tell a complete story. However, the author never intended it to do so; this collection of snippets resonates on an emotional level, not a narrative one. Ernaux sacrifices providing readers with background, which likely would have provided a better understanding of the relationship between herself and her mother.
While all of Ernaux's novels have been autobiographical in nature, I Remain in Darkness is a true memoir, chronicling the exact thoughts that went through Ernaux's mind, as they went through her mind, during the two and a half years that her mother was declining from Alzheimer's disease. Ernaux had already visited this subject in A Woman's Story, which portrays the relationship between a working-class, rural woman and her university-educated daughter. Kathryn Harrison pointed out in the New York Times Book Review that "there is little inconsistency between the two works," but believed that this memoir "serves as a more intimate revelation of the slow death that prompted her to bear witness to the life that was ebbing." Indeed, Ernaux makes use of the flexibility of the memoir/journal format to reveal the raw feelings that she experienced as they were happening. The fluidity of the memoir form is evident in I Remain in Darkness.
Though not labeled as such, Ernaux provides a preface to I Remain in Darkness. This brief section is significant in that it is the only portion of the volume that Ernaux wrote specifically for publication. Ernaux explains to the reader that the choppiness of the text derives from the fact that she did not edit her journal.
The preface is even more significant because it provides valuable information about the journal entries that Ernaux presents. Without this preface, the reader who has no knowledge of Ernaux and her background would fail to understand the importance of I Remain in Darkness to Ernaux personally as well as to her body of work. Ernaux writes that her novel A Woman's Story was her initial attempt to make sense of her relationship with her mother, but she came to realize that this effort was not representative enough.
The Catholic Church
By the mid-1980s, despite its long history, the Catholic Church in France had experienced a significant decline. While anywhere between 80 to 90 percent of French people professed to be Catholic, a much smaller minority attended church. Atheism was also on the rise. While church attendance was dropping, many French people were embracing less traditional styles of worship. France saw a rise in the number of informal groups who meet regularly for prayer and discussion, often in private homes.
France and the Arts
When the Socialists came to power in 1981, France's cultural scene brightened. François Mitterand, the new president, committed more of France's budget to the Ministry of Culture. Mitterand and his minister of culture, Jack Lang, both wanted to popularize art and bring it closer to people's daily lives. In addition to the well-known arts, such as theater, Lang supported the so-called minor arts. His ministry subsidized institutions and groups that embraced circus performance, costumes, gastronomy, tapestry weaving, and comic strips, among many other forms of art. He also helped individual artists, including writers, composers, and film directors.
The literary trend in the 1980s veered away from an analysis of contemporary French society. Books tended to take place in the past or abroad, or to dwell on private subjects, such as love or childhood. The French novel lacked insightful social criticism, which characterized so many of France's great literature from the past.
Compare & Contrast
1980s: From the 1970s through the 1980s, the number of French women entering the workforce rises. The service sector in France employs the highest proportion of women.
Today: In recent years, more women in France are working part-time instead of full-time due to a decline in the number of full-time jobs available and a new trend in working patterns.
1980s: As the 1980s open, rural areas are continuing their trend of declining populations.
Today: At the beginning of the 1990s, France's urban population is 74.5 percent and its rural population 24.5 percent.
1980s: Although Alzheimer's disease was first documented in 1906, people with Alzheimer's had few places to turn to for assistance until 1979. That year, the Alzheimer's Association was founded. Throughout the following decade, the Association disseminates information about the disease and establishes grants to fund research projects.
Today: In 2000, the Alzheimer's Association co-hosts World Alzheimer Congress 2000, which brings together 5,000 of the world's leading Alzheimer researchers, healthcare professionals, and caregivers. This is the largest global Alzheimer conference.
1980s: With the formation of the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's disease begins to gain more public recognition. In 1983, the U.S. government approves the creation of a task force to oversee and coordinate scientific research on Alzheimer's disease.
Today: Genetic researchers announce chromosomal findings related to Alzheimer's disease. In 2001, the USFDA approves a fourth drug specifically to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
The 1970s and 1980s brought greater social and legal equality to French women. Pro-feminine reforms included the legalization of abortion, sixteen weeks' paid maternity leave, and steps toward the achievement of equal pay. The Professional Equality Law of 1982 made sexual discrimination in the workplace illegal. In the art world, Marguerite Yourcenar became the first woman member of the Académie dan Française in 1980. By the 1980s, increasing numbers of French women were joining the workforce.
By the time Ernaux published I Remain in Darkness, she had already written and published A Woman's Story, which was based on her mother's life and death. However, the bulk of Ernaux's writing revisits the themes of growing up and familial relationships. As James Sallis writes in The Review of Contemporary Fiction,"Annie Ernaux's work is remarkably of a piece, each book circling back to paraphrase, correct, emendate, and reinvent earlier ones." Novelist Kathryn Harrison, writing for the New York Times Book Review, points out, however, that the "sympathy between novel and memoir is not a matter of mere repetition." Harrison finds that the latter work "serves as a more intimate revelation of the slow death that prompted her to bear witness to the life that was ebbing."
Some reviewers shared praise for I Remain in Darkness. Sallis was of the opinion that was "a very ambitious book." Publishers Weekly called it "quietly searing." Harrison was a champion of the volume. To her, the details that Ernaux includes showing her mother's decline had "such emblematic force and terror that the particular becomes universal." Harrison also explores the important themes that Ernaux raises, specifically the inevitability of death and the inability of literature to provide a meaningful truth to life.
Many reviewers, however, expressed differing opinions of the work, often within the same article. Up for the most criticism was the slight, bare nature of the book. "There are wonderful moments of grace here," writes Eileen Murphy in the Baltimore City Paper, but she finds the "complete lack of narrative … troubling for the reader" and essentially equates Ernaux's work here with "arranging" and not writing.
By contrast, Wilda Williams, in Library Journal, notes that while "there is a choppy, unpolished feel to the book," and puts forth the hypothesis that Ernaux's style may have been deliberate. The length of the work seems not to have bothered Harrison, who writes, "Ernaux renders the plight of the dying with a seemingly effortless economy."
Richard Bernstein, writer for the New York Times, is perhaps a counterpart to Harrison. Although he states that the "book certainly has flashes of genius," his criticism outweighs his applause. Not only did he find it to "lack the quiet impact of her others" because it was so "undeveloped," he also questioned the validity of her major theme:
the idea that an aging person reverts to a kid of childlike dependency, leaving the former child in a state of guilty mastery worried about her own inevitable death is not a thundering revelation.
Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she explores the role reversal that takes place in Ernaux's relationship with her mother.
The relationship between Ernaux and her mother, Blanche, lies at the center of I Remain in Darkness, but this relationship, long fraught with difficulty, becomes even more complex as Blanche's illness leads the two women into a confusing, inherently unnatural role reversal. As Blanche becomes increasingly sick, fragile, and unbalanced in the last years of her life, Ernaux takes on more of the nurturing duties and emotional characteristics that belong to the parent. Blanche's deterioration, and her daughter's record of it, is a sad testament to only one of the many regrettable effects caused by illness, particularly one as devastating as Alzheimer's disease.
As evidence of her comprehension of this distressing process, Ernaux, in her journal fragments, makes continuous references to her childhood. This inclination is not surprising, for throughout the two and a half years of her mother's illness, Ernaux is constantly forced to re-evaluate their relationship as she sees it irrevocably change. Other people point out some of the ways in which she resembles her mother physically, as well as her inheritance of Blanche's "brusque, violent temper, as well as a tendency to seize things and throw them down with fury." Ernaux also recognizes the similarities that exist between the relationship she had with her mother while growing up and her mother's relationship with her at the present time. Blanche usually awaits Ernaux's visits impatiently, causing Ernaux to recall her own experience as a child waiting for her mother to pick her up from school. Both of them felt "the same surge of excitement" when the other finally arrived.
While understanding this role reversal intellectually, Ernaux rebels against it emotionally: "now she is my little girl," she writes. "I CANNOT be her mother." This change in dynamic is inherently unnatural, and to Ernaux, it is "agonizing." She sees her mother regress physically and mentally. At times, her mother even takes on the petulant aspects of a child such as when she refuses to let Ernaux take away the cake wrapper that she is eating. Blanche is "fiercely clenching her fist" with all the might that a stubborn child possesses. Further, in becoming Blanche's mother, Ernaux loses her own mother and now must acknowledge adulthood. One startling day, upon seeing her mother dressed in "a printed dress with flowers, like the ones I wore when I was a little girl," Ernaux, though in her 40s, "realize[s] that it's only now that I have truly grown up." Blanche becomes not only "the personification of time"—a physical representation of the passage of the years—but also someone who is "pushing me toward death."
Ernaux accepts this role as it is foisted upon her, for the circumstances of her mother's illness offer little other choice. It is infrequent that Blanche demonstrates a parental role: pride in showing Ernaux off to patients or in telling others that her daughter won a prestigious literary prize; or when, as Ernaux bends over to check the safety catch of the wheel-chair, "she leans over and kisses my hair." Ernaux compares how their roles toward each other have reversed. At times Ernaux feels great tenderness toward her mother, like the day that "[F]or the first time I touch her like a child who is sleeping." She often writes about caring for her mother, for instance; clipping her fingernails, shaving her face, and feeding her. She combs her mother's hair as if her mother were the child, an action that brings her mother great pleasure.
For Ernaux, however, the primary pleasure drawn from this activity is the transformation of her mother back into a "human being"; although she does care for her mother and wants to make her comfortable, the change in roles still causes Ernaux tremendous conflict. To an extent, Ernaux refuses to demonstrate her love—or even to acknowledge the purity of the those feelings—as a way of rejecting what is taking place: that her mother "had become a child again, one who would never grow up."
What Do I Read Next?
- Ernaux's A Woman's Story (1991), which was translated from Une Femme in 1987, is a novel about the death of a working-class woman as seen through the eyes of her university-educated daughter. Along with the mother-daughter relationship, Ernaux examines class, age, and gender issues.
- French writer Simone de Beauvoir's Une Morte Trés Douce (1964), which is translated as A Very Easy Death, recounts the death of her mother in a hospital and addresses the issue of aging.
- James Agee's Pulitzer Prize—winning novel A Death in the Family (1957) explores the grief one family feels at the loss of a loved one, as seen through the eyes of a child. Agee wrote this novel as a memorial to his own father.
- The best-selling Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (1994), by Hope Edelman (who lost her mother when she was very young), explores the plight of women whose mothers have died and examines how their lives change as a result.
- Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction (2000), edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Berliner, collects seventeen short stories focusing on mothers and daughters by well-known and lesser-known women authors.
- Verna A. Jansen's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1988. In Alzheimer's, the Good, the Sad & the Humorous: A Daughter's Story (1999), edited by Glenda Baker, Jansen shares her experiences caring for her mother.
More often, however, Ernaux acts within the scope of the power of her new position, which is so absolute that her mother obeys her "fearfully." Ernaux acknowledges that when her mother lived with her when her symptoms first started to manifest themselves "I was (subconsciously?) cruel toward her, panicked at the idea that she was becoming a woman without a past, a frightened woman clinging to me like a child." On one level, Ernaux's attitude toward her mother demonstrates the normal feelings of denial that a debilitating, fatal disease like Alzheimer's can engender. At the same time, however, Ernaux's actions partially stem from the desire to punish her mother; this inconsistency of behavior—indeed senseless behavior—shows just how confusing this illness and its ensuing role reversal is for those who are close to its victims.
Ernaux's own conduct also forces her to deal with her belief that, at times, her mother treated her cruelly during childhood. For instance, while clipping her mother's fingernails, Ernaux "can feel the sadistic streak in me, echoing her behavior toward me a long time ago" when "I was terrified of her." However, these snippets are so brief that there is no way for the reader to evaluate Ernaux's childhood with any accuracy.
Ernaux juxtaposes specific statements revealing her mistreatment at the hands of her mother with fond, loving memories. She reports that Blanche commented of her, "She's not nearly as nice as the other one [Ernaux's sister who died in childhood]," or that Blanche "would slap me for the slightest little thing." However, she also recalls the closeness of sharing the same bed with her mother on Sunday afternoons. One set of memories does little to belittle the other set, for Ernaux's writing in I Remain in Darkness is more impressionistic in its presentation of raw feeling and emotion than it is objective.
Indeed, true objectivity would be close to impossible in light of the difficult circumstances surrounding the mother and daughter. Ernaux's comprehension that this new relationship creates a power imbalance only enforces her sense of unreality. Blanche is weak, confused, and needy. She relies upon her daughter both for physical and moral support. Ernaux's descriptions of the hospital—reeking of urine, with [sh—] on the floor and patients roaming around unclothed—clearly demonstrate that the staff does not provide well enough for the bodily upkeep of the patients. The eagerness with which Blanche awaits weekly visits, as well as the short portraits of her fellow patients, show that Blanche receives little emotional support.
Ernaux, by contrast, determines how much time and energy she can invest in her mother. At one point, Ernaux enters the hospital for a dangerous, unnamed operation and does not tell her mother that she will be unable to visit for two months. This operation makes her even more aware of her own mortality, so that when she is able to walk on crutches, she chooses not to visit her mother. "I won't go to this temple of old age," she writes, "hobbling 'like an old lady."' In control of the relationship, Ernaux has the option of putting her own fears and desires above those of her mother, and in this instance, she takes advantage of her authority.
Ernaux shapes her relationship with her mother to maintain her own emotional detachment, which is a luxury that her mother does not have. Blanche would prefer living at Ernaux's home to staying in the hospital; "I'm sure I'd be happier with you," she tells her daughter. However, Ernaux refuses these pleas, and others, because Blanche's condition has a detrimental effect on her. "I feel like crying when I see how badly she needs my love because I cannot satisfy her demand," she writes. She then immediately juxtaposes her mother's feelings with her own when thinking of her lover—"I think of how badly I want A to love me now, just when he is drifting away from me"—when there really is no similarity between her relationship with A and Blanche's relationship with her. Whether it be consciously or subconsciously, Ernaux is maintaining distance from her mother, despite, or perhaps because of, the older woman's dependence on her.
Despite the imposition of this role reversal, Ernaux never can really function as Blanche's mother. For all the physical or emotional care she can provide, it is impossible for Ernaux to fulfill a mother's most crucial duty: giving a child a sense of security and safety. Ernaux recalls how she felt when, as a child, Blanche took her to visit an uncle in the hospital. "The sun was shining, men and women were walking around in maroon bathrobes: I was so sad and so happy that my mother was with me, a strong, protective figure warding off illness and death." For both Ernaux and her mother, this sense of security can never be recaptured. Instead, Blanche dies, and her body reminds Ernaux of nothing so much as a "sad little doll," while Ernaux lives on with the "devastating pain" of a life without her mother.
" Further, in becoming Blanche's mother, Ernaux loses her own mother and now must acknowledge adulthood."
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on I Remain in Darkness, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. In this essay, she considers the emotional complexities of Ernaux's work as they relate the author's personal experience with a dying parent.
I Remain In Darkness—the final written words of an aging, ailing woman, and the title of a memoir by Ernaux. Composed merely out of "jottings" on "small, undated scraps of paper," Ernaux wrote of her "bewilderment and distress" experienced in the company of her mother. Her writings have an emotive power precisely because they capture the mix of emotions an individual may feel caring for an elderly mother with brutal honesty. An elderly dependent parent can inspire love, revulsion or disgust, anger, and as a result, guilt and fear. Ernaux's scribblings betray her conflicted feelings. Her account has a surreal or fantastic quality about it, bringing into sharp focus the distorted emotions of the author.
Ernaux describes her mother with revulsion and brutal honesty. The memoir opens with an unattractive description, "She just sits there on a chair in the living room. Staring straight ahead, her features frozen, sagging." This is not a heartwarming, loving description of a relative. One would be hard-pressed to guess that the author is actually talking about her mother, without reading the introduction to the work. This cold, detached, blank description is a reaction shared by someone coping with a nonfunctional, dependent elderly parent. There is no longer a strong mental connection based on shared history between mother and daughter. A daughter pleads, "Where are the eyes of my childhood, those fearful eyes she had thirty years ago, the eyes that made me?" At times barely functional, Ernaux's mother is reduced to a crude character or the product of mere observation.
Her mother's presence often evokes a sense of loathing in the author. In describing one visit with her mother, she says, "Her greedy instincts are back, she leers at the chocolates, tries to grab them with clumsy fingers." The baseness of these descriptions contributes not to the image of mother, but of creature. The author again responds, in a situation not unlike countless others recorded among her entries, "the piece of pastry I put in her hands slips out. I have to pop it into her mouth. I am dismayed at such degradation and bestiality." Yet the author uses other moments or absurd cameos, one in particular of a grotesque, ugly, caricature or exaggerated figure, to describe her parent. For example, "a transsexual with bluish skin" sparks a subconscious memory of her mother, specifically, her unshaven face. The carnival-like quality of the experience only enhances the unreal, the incomprehensible figure her mother has become.
The vision of the transsexual is unremarkable to the work. At times, old age is cruel, ugly and for Ernaux, not only a dehumanizing experience but a gender neutralizing, or unfeminine one. One scene etched in her memory involves another female patient, who can be seen, "diaper sheathing her vagina." Again, the awkward, the grotesque, and the absurd come alive. "Such scenes inspire horror," says Ernaux, at the sight of a grown woman whose reproductive region is comically cloaked. It is as if the reader has witnessed a genital mutilation. Certainly, Ernaux is not shy to comment on the injustice she feels. "Here it's different," she says, "There is no horror. These are women." There are also countless references in the text to her own mother's exposed vagina, moments of humiliation as seen through Ernaux's eyes. Mentioning the onset of her mother's menopause, "the change of life," she comments that seemingly "everything had come to an end." It's as though her mother's credibility as a woman and, by extension, a human, is attributed to her sexuality.
Denial plagues everyone dealing with a person affected by dementia or senility. The process of mental decline an elderly person undergoes is often subtle. Human nature generally dictates that one look at the softer edges of a situation, the more pleasant the realities, rather than cope with the ugly truths that the author skillfully explores. During the course of her rough emotional ride, Ernaux too often rallies behind her mother, using personal memories and life experiences to provide a logical rationale or framework for her mother's troubling, often childlike behavior. At one point in the memoir the author comments on a moment in which her mother has felt compelled to hide brioche under her skirt. She responds by relating to the incident, calmly stating, "as a child, I would steal candy from the store and stuff it inside my panties."
Additionally, life events outside of the geriatric unit also trigger similar responses. When Ernaux speaks of parting with her mother's clothes, she cannot bear it; however, the author immediately recovers when speaking of the sale of antiques left behind from her marriage. She again relates the circumstances to her mother, claiming, "Parting with these objects means nothing to me. Like my mother, I am letting go of these things."
Capturing the mental decline of an aging woman, Ernaux's emotional journal also addresses the often shocking childlike state an elderly person can be reduced to in the aging process. Recalling her mother's words plainly, without visible feeling, she shares, "This morning she got up and, in a timid voice: 'I wet the bed, I couldn't help it."' The event is again reduced to mere observation. Ernaux's response is matter-of-fact, she describes her mother's words as simply, "the same words I would use when I was a child." The response, in and of itself, is not cruel or harsh when taken in a broader context. Ernaux is responding to the impact these moments have on her. Her cold words only reverberate or echo the sense of abandonment she feels as a suddenly parentless child. During a visit to the geriatric center, a failed attempt to free a cake wrapper from her mother's clutches sadly inspires Ernaux to write, "She wouldn't let me pull it away from her, fiercely clenching her fist. An agonizing reversal of roles between mother and child." The author again expresses, on many levels, no less in a cold statement as opposed to a tearful moment, the emptiness, the loneliness, the seemingly illogical but real sense of betrayal she feels towards her mother for being in such a feeble mental state.
The most revealing aspects of the memoir involve the strong identification Ernaux has with her mother. Her mother's illness seems to have turned her world upside down. Motherless, fearful, alone—Ernaux is the victim of an ongoing trauma, the loss of a parent, and she often cries out in protest. Crying out in the voice of a defiant child, she exclaims, "The situation is now reversed, now she is my little girl. I CANNOT be her mother." There is no longer a mental connection, no longer a shared history between mother and daughter. Ernaux's selfishness masks a deep sense of rage. Somewhere in the midst of coping with her mother's behavior, the author has discovered her own mortality. "For me, she is the personification of time. She is also pushing me towards death."
Dr. Robin Robertson, in A Beginner's Guide to Jungian Psychology, offers an interesting perspective on the maternal in a discussion of the mother complex. "Over the course of the years it takes to develop from infant to adult," states Robertson, "each of us acquires a vast number of memories of his or her particular mother." What happens with these memories, according to Robertson, is that they cluster around the archetype or model of the mother (what is understood to mean "mother") to form a complex, or group of associations, to the term mother. What essentially has happened is that an individual has formed a mother within, or an understanding of a mother with both universal characteristics and characteristics specific to the individual's own mother. Of note is the necessity for all human babies to contain a mother archetype to imprint onto their own mothers. The importance of this psychological component is that this archetype contains the entire human history of interaction between mother and child. In the words of Dr. Robertson, "A relationship that has been so important for so long gathers energy, energy which shapes the newborn baby's relationship with its physical mother."
Perhaps this interruption in energy flow has sent Ernaux on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Her maternal instincts tug at her incessantly yet she is unable to come to grips with the role reversal that has taken place between herself and her mother. At one point, torn with guilt at her own inability to comfort her mother, Ernaux says, "I feel like crying when I see how badly she needs my love because I cannot satisfy her demand (I loved her so desperately as a child)." In framing her mother's needs against the backdrop of her own desires as a child, Ernaux is drawing on her own maternal instincts.
For Ernaux there is no reciprocity or mutual exchange in roles between herself and her mother. Instead, her mother's emotional demands tend to enrage her. The painful irony for the author is that she is no longer reacting as a demanding child does but fails to respond as a nurturing parent. This failure inspires Ernaux's dismal assessment of her mother's expectations of her: "the maternal instinct is tantamount to a deathwish."
" Somewhere in the midst of coping with her mother's behavior, the author has discovered her own mortality."
The power of I Remain in Darkness is truly attributable to Ernaux's ability to economically convey the complexity of emotion as well as the tenor of a relationship between a daughter and her dying mother. Frustration, fear, anger, and longing echo throughout the body of the work, haunting the author even after her mother's death. In the end, finality of the event does not inspire resolution or relief, but darkness.
Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on I Remain in Darkness, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Ozersky is a critic and essayist. In this essay, he discusses some of the tensions and paradoxes that inform Ernaux's memoir.
First-time readers of Ernaux's I Remain in Darkness are often surprised by it. It's a paradoxical book in many ways. It's ostensibly about Ernaux's mother, but Ernaux is in the forefront of nearly every page. It seems underwritten, but in fact it has an intensely focused literary power. It's essentially about thoughts and feelings, but many of its strongest passages describe vivid physical images. It is written with profound love, which is mixed with an equally profound anger and fear. And although it is about the end of a person's life, ultimately it is a testament to life and regeneration.
Ernaux had written a book about her mother prior to this one; soon after her mother's death in 1986, she began writing A Woman's Story, which was published in 1988. A Woman's Story is a much fuller, more developed work than I Remain in Darkness, which largely consists of notes Ernaux jotted down during the years of her mother's decline. However, since the tone and style of these "notes" are recognizably the same as those of Ernaux's earlier books, and since that famous style has made her a nationally known figure in France, it is fair to assume that this book is a companion piece, not just raw materials. Ernaux says as much in her introduction, describing it as a way to "question" the "consistency and coherence" of her earlier work.
But what is this style? On first examination, there seems to be no style at all, just direct communication of Ernaux's thoughts onto "small undated scraps of paper." A typical entry begins,
I went to see her before going up to Paris. I feel absolutely nothing when I am with her. As soon as the elevator door snaps shut I want to cry. Her skin is getting more and more crackled, it badly needs cream.
This kind of language seems transparent; in fact, it is pound-for-pound much stronger than a wordier style would be, and testifies to the old maxim that "less is more." It may seem like an odd comparison, given that Ernaux is a cerebral French-woman famous for writing about her feelings, but one of the American writers she most resembles is Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway pioneered the technique of writing most expressively by what he didn't say, of letting his silences speak louder than other writers' words. Ernaux also uses language that is sparse and specific, and that shuns over-elaboration to the point of being tight-lipped.
The reason for this is that both writers take the big issues of human life more seriously than we may be accustomed to. Ernaux, like many French writers, tends to write about the elemental facts of human life: birth, death, love, the body. Often in the past, American readers have been impatient with French writers for this reason; Americans take these things for granted, and always find it vaguely ludicrous to talk about them in an abstract way. That is why Ernaux's style is so effective. She never ventures far beyond the (apparent) surface of things. The detail in the above quotation about her mother's crackled skin is not just easy to visualize—it's something you can feel. And more than that, you can sense Ernaux's tension. Dry skin should be moisturized. Thirst should be quenched. Pain should be succored. There's nothing for her to do but to leave that to the nurses, and to go on to Paris. And there's nothing for her to say about it in retrospect.
Nor does Ernaux dwell on the disjuncture between her warring emotions. In one line she tells us, "I feel absolutely nothing when I am with her." In the next, "As soon as the elevator door shuts I want to cry." Ernaux makes no effort to explain away this apparent contradiction. There is no explanation. It's the way she felt. If you've felt that way yourself, you understand. If you haven't, possibly you won't. As with her mother's crackled skin, the fact is allowed to speak for itself—and it does, eloquently.
The combination of spartan and simple language with vast, imposing emotional realities helps drive Ernaux's art. Another is the presence of opposite emotions juxtaposed. Ernaux is filled with pity and love toward her mother ("She leans over and kisses my hair. How can I survive that kiss, such love, my mother, my mother."), but at the same time feels resentment and even anger ("I can feel the sadistic streak in me, echoing her behavior from long ago. She still loathes me.") She is haunted by her mother's dissolution, but also preoccupied with thoughts of her own: "It's crystal clear: she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me—the wrinkles on her legs, the creases in her neck, shown off by a recent haircut."
None of these tensions are ever reconciled; instead, they supply much of the book's energy. Each self-contained "jotting" functions like a haiku, dense with meaning. But the reader rarely gets wrapped up in them, because Ernaux describes the physical reality of her mother's condition so bluntly. "Food, urine, [sh—]: the combination of smells hits one as soon as one leaves the elevator."
As a result, the book achieves that kind of timelessness and universality which is the aim of the writer's art. Although written in French, I Remain in Darkness translates to English without any awkwardness at all—a tribute both to Ernaux and also to Tanya Leslie, her translator. The clarity of her prose and the accomplishment of her writing, however, don't necessarily mean that I Remain in Darkness is an easy read. The material is undeniably depressing; and some readers may find it hard to warm up to the narrator, who makes absolutely no effort to win sympathy from anyone. Unlike, say, Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes, or Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, readers are not invited to put themselves in her place, to identify with or even to like her.
But who is this narrator? Given the amount of personal information revealed, readers might think they know her fairly well. (Those who have read Ernaux's other memoirs, such as A Woman's Story and Simple Passion, may feel that they know her intimately.) On the other hand, in I Remain in Darkness, there's much that readers are themselves left in darkness about. Who is this woman? Why does she resent her mother so much? What is her life like when she is not visiting the nursing home? What goes on between visits? The more involved one gets in this deeply emotional work, the larger these questions seem to grow.
Finally, Ernaux refuses us access. This is very different from typical memoirs, particularly one dealing with very painful issues. In those books, the author generally wants readers to understand them. Either they have been obscure, like McCourt, or misunderstood, such as Malcolm X. Moreover, they are saving memories of loved ones for posterity—making the past part of the future, with all the skill they can muster. In so many ways, I Remain in Darkness is the opposite of such works. The subject of the book, a woman about whom readers know little and whose consciousness is rapidly disintegrating, seems very vivid; while Ernaux herself, intelligent, articulate, and ruthlessly honest about her feelings, seems ghostly, spectral. That is a tribute to Ernaux's powerful, paradoxical art—and to her own courage in leaving so much of herself out of, and so much of herself in, this remarkable work.
Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on I Remain in Darkness, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Bernstein, Richard, "When a Parent Becomes the Child," in New York Times, November 22, 1999.
Harrison, Kathryn, "As She Lay Dying," in New York Times Book Review, November 28, 1999.
Murphy, Eileen, Review, in Baltimore City Paper, January 10, 2001.
Review, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 41, October 11, 1999, p. 54.
Robertson, Robin, Beginner's Guide to Jungian Psychology, Nicholas-Hays, Inc., 1992, pp. 41-43.
Sallis, James, Review, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring 2000, p. 193.
Williams, Wilda, Review, in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 19, November 15, 1999, p. 90.
" The combination of spartan and simple language with vast, imposing emotional realities helps drive Ernaux's art."
Atack, Margaret, and Phil Powrie, Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, Manchester University Press, 1990.
This study includes a chapter on Ernaux.
Fallaize, Elizabeth, French Women's Writing: Recent Fiction, Macmillan, 1993.
Fallaize's study includes a chapter on Ernaux.
Gillick, Muriel R., Tangled Minds: Understanding Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias, Plume, 1999.
Dr. Gillick creates a composite patient to show the problems that Alzheimer's sufferers and their families face, as well as providing an historical perspective of the disease.
Holmes, Diana, French Women's Writing: 1848-1994, The Athlone Press, 1996.
Holmes traces the development of French women's writing over a period of 150 years.
Stephens, Sonia, ed., A History of Women's Writing in France, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
This study introduces French women's writing from the sixth century to the present day. Each chapter focuses on a given period and a range of writers. A reference section includes a guide to more than 150 authors and their works.
Thomas, Lyn, Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience, Berg. Pub. Ltd., 1999.
Thomas presents the first book-length study of Ernaux's work, which is intended for general readers as well as for students of French literature.