The Limits of Personality

Annie Ernaux, I Remain in Darkness

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 79pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781910695975

reviewed by Mathis Clément

Annie Ernaux’s I Remain in Darkness is both a new and an old book. It was written from 1983 to 1986, published in French in 1997, translated into English in 1999, and has been republished by Fitzcaraldo Editions in 2019. Its author is a renowned memoirist, at 79 years old the grande dame of French literature. But when she wrote this book she was in her forties, not especially well-known, and yet to win the major prizes that would come to litter her career. As readers of this new edition then, we are buffered by the gaps between its writing, original publication, translation, and reprinting, from the direct access to the author’s life and mind that memoir is expected to offer.

Yet this is appropriate. Ernaux’s subject is her mother’s losing struggle with Alzheimer’s, a condition that makes a palimpsest of the mind, superimposing past onto present in a dreadful parody of remembering and forgetting, with the sufferer less and less able to distinguish fact from fantasy. Given that the condition of memoir is retrospection, Ernaux would seem to have set herself an impossible task by trying to recount, within this form, her mother’s experience of an illness that confounds clear recollection. However, rather than seeing this as an intractable problem to be put aside embarrassedly, I Remain in Darkness foregrounds its own barriers, testing the rigidity of borders between past and present, knowledge and ignorance, self and other, over the course of its hundreds of daily entries.

Some of the most moving passages of the book describe her mother’s self-delusions. Receiving her daughter six months after entering a nursing home, she gives ‘a detailed account of everything she has done that day: I went shopping in the city centre, the streets were crowded’. The author praises her: ‘Such a vivid imagination to make up for her condition’, but as she is leaving, her mother snaps: ‘“It’ll be ages before I get to leave this dump.”’ At what point does consciousness switch from living among recollections (invented or real) back to present reality? How to answer this question is one of the most distressing aspects of dementia for the friends and family of the sufferer, but also for professional caregivers, who must decide what type of treatment is most effective and empathetic.

Many current therapies are based on the theory that going along with a patient’s fantasies — rather than encouraging them to ‘snap out of it’ — is in fact the most humane way to treat dementia. Simulated Presence Therapy for instance, involves an inventory being made of the patient’s most valued memories, which forms the basis of a script that is recorded and played back to the patient (with long pauses for replies), who is told they are receiving a phone call. Memory Care facilities go further: inside are reconstructed environments from patients’ childhood years, so that dementia sufferers can live with their flashbacks in a place that seems to accord with them. The practice of these therapies is highly controversial because it relies on lying to the patient, and also because patients themselves are often not in a fit mental state to argue whether this is what they want. While Ernaux’s mother does not undergo this type of care, she nevertheless lives somewhere between past and present, consistently repeating ‘words from the past’ as if they were catchphrases or slogans. Her care staff also indulge their patients’ fantastic nostalgia; the clocks in the home are set at different times, and at a New Year’s party they dress up patients ‘in their former clothes’ and give them glasses of champagne, in imitation of all the parties they went to when they were young. But as the author wryly notes, ‘there are no more real parties to look forward to’; these patients have no future as such, and their present and past have lost distinctiveness through amalgamation.

Observing her mother’s physical and mental decline blurs a further barrier: that between mother and daughter, which in this case is also that between author and subject. Ernaux repeatedly focuses on the ways in which their roles have switched: in the early days of the illness she becomes the dutiful caregiver, alternately tender and strict, obliged to prepare meals, wash soiled bed clothes, read aloud, and accompany her charge, now a helpless child, outside. But convergence moves quickly beyond imitation, to the point where Ernaux begins to question her own bodily and psychological integrity; sitting opposite her mother, she feels ‘a chilling impression of a split personality. I am both myself and her.’ Arriving at the care home on a routine visit, having come to the realisation that ‘she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me’, Ernaux is unable to square this notion with the witnessed reality that her mother is a ‘solitary figure’; she feels obliged when she takes the lift back down to ‘glance at [herself] in the mirror once again’ as if trying to persuade her mind of what her eyes can see, that she and her mother are distinct from one another. She admits to always having felt extremely close to her mother, writing that ‘there is no true distance between us’, but also laying out the importance of breaking free from her small-town religiosity and ignorance, a process carried out in part by the act of becoming a writer. However, the dissolving of physical and psychological distance in this book is a different sort of closeness, unwilled and instigated by the disease and by old age: ‘to grow old is to become transparent’ and to grow old with Alzheimer’s is to become a window, looking not onto an open landscape, but onto a mirror.

This merging — of daughter with mother, author with subject — is like an infection. Infection can be enthusiastic: one can be infected with love or longing, and this is what Ernaux wishes. But only half-wishes. As a writer she enforces distance to her subject. It is as a daughter that she senses this amalgamation of personalities. Alzheimer’s is not a contagious illness, but its psychological effects — the erasure of the present, the reduction of individual will, the child-like dependence on caregivers — can be infectious because they are at some level desirable: they allow a child to care for a parent as the parent cared for them; they permit vulnerability that ordinary life has no time for. I Remain in Darkness is a vulnerable book, which its author believed she would never publish; vulnerable in the sense that it leaves itself open to charges of callousness, exhibitionism, mockery, and solipsism. But it is also reveals a will to share in the vulnerability of someone who cannot express themselves in writing, whose language is reduced to stale repetitions, whose mind is fragmenting. It is an invitation to empathy with those before whom every barrier is set against understanding.

Mathis Clément is a writer based in London.