A frank description of dementia is a searing, suffocating read

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

In Annie Ernaux’s The Years — her extraordinary act of collective autobiography —the ‘I’ disappears. Her memoir becomes the memoir of France since the war: each year of the author’s life is evoked in a collage of memories, images and historical fragments. Apart from a handful of photographs, in which Ernaux is the dispassionately observed ‘she’, the self is erased and in its place an ambiguous ‘we’ narrates the flow of years and the slippage of time.

In I Remain in Darkness, the ‘I’ is everywhere, yet it is still a treacherous word. In this work of shocking honesty and intimacy, Ernaux bears witness to her mother’s final years of living and dying with dementia. The text is an unedited collection of Ernaux’s observations and feelings, written at the time hastily on scraps of paper. They begin in 1983 in the author’s own home, where she brought her mother at the start of her decline. They end with accounts of Ernaux’s visits to the geriatric ward of the hospital where her mother spent the final years of her life, sometimes tied to a chair, dying in 1986, when ‘time stopped’.

Ernaux has decided to make these pages public more than 30 years after her mother’s death and when she herself has reached the same age. Sometimes the diary entries are little more than notes. They are often inconsistent, but this is part of the author’s point: the self is not coherent; an ‘I’ is full of contradictions; you can hate what you adore.  The result is a meditation on the gradual loss of agency and identity. Ernaux writes of memory, of love, of loathing, of disgust, of tenderness; she writes about the frail, leaking, helpless, horrifying body, about the porous self. The narrative was always death. Writing was always an act of betrayal.

The diary form can contain the jostle of irreconcilable emotions. Many of Ernaux’s entries are acts of observation that can be both brutal and excruciatingly tender: how her mother’s features sag, her hands are gnarled, the forefinger sticking out at the knuckles, her body, once so strong, is white and flaccid, her mouth gapes, leers, distorts. I Remain in Darkness is about mortal decay and physical disintegration as much as it is about dementia and the mind unravelling. Ernaux repeatedly dwells upon her mother’s body and its slow collapse: the smell of ‘food, urine, shit’ around her, the dried faeces she finds in her mother’s drawer, the pile of shit by her chair; on her last visit, she writes about her mother’s exposed vagina.

She washes her mother. She feeds her. She shaves her face, wipes it carefully; she wipes her bottom. She brushes her hair like her mother used to do for her. Caresses her and shrinks from her. She doesn’t feel disgust; but oh, she does. She loves her mother with a childish and frantic need; she becomes like her mother’s parent, maternal and all-powerful. Her mother used to slap her ‘for the slightest little thing’; now she feels her own sadistic streak. ‘She still loathes me,’ she writes, and later: ‘I have searched for my mother’s love in all corners of the world.’ She wants her to stay alive at all costs and she knows the cost is too high. She feels she cannot survive her mother’s impending death and she knows that her survival depends on it.

At times this identification becomes complete: her dying mother is pushing her towards her own death; her face in the mirror is her mother’s face. She starts to think she is her mother and her mother often thinks she is her daughter: ‘I’m sure I’d be happier with you rather than outside you,’ she says in one of her uncanny bursts of lucidity. Towards the end, when her mother unexpectedly kisses her, Ernaux writes: ‘How can I survive that kiss, such love, my mother, my mother?’ and, after her death, she asks: ‘Shall I ever recover from such pain?’ ‘I remain in darkness’ were the last words her mother wrote, but in the title the ‘I’ is both the dying mother and the daughter who witnesses that ending and survives into words.

There is an intense claustrophobia in this slim, harrowing memoir. The writer and reader are trapped in the fetid room where her mother lives while outside seasons turn and the world continues like a dream of elsewhere. They are trapped in the present tense into which memories and anticipatory dread wash, and by the insistent account of the old body on which time is doing its work. Some form of release comes only with death, with grief, with the kindness of tears and with the necessity of the imperfect tense. ‘This is not literature I am writing,’ Erneaux notes towards the end of I Remain in Darkness — but if not, what is it? Something pressed so close to the business of living and of dying that it is almost impossible to breathe.

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