Monday, August 29, 2011

"Tout est dans la voix": Annie Ernaux's Alzheimer's writing

I've been writing a talk that argues--among other things--that writing Alzheimer's should focus on the person with Alzheimer's, rather than on the writer without it. And then I read Annie Ernaux's book, originally published in 1997. For me, it was less the experience of reading, more a series of intense flashbacks to being in time with my mother toward the end, as well as writing about her. One of the central images in the book is that of a mirror outside an elevator. Ernaux sees herself and her mother (who does not see herself) in that mirror. This book hits so close to home I can imagine seeing myself in that mirror, too.

Ernaux writes in her preface, years after she kept the journal that became the book, that "J'écrivais très vite, dans la violence des sensations, sans réflechir ni chercher d'ordre" (11). I will not translate the French so much as interpret it. "I wrote very quickly, within the violence of sensations, without thinking or looking for order." A page later she summarizes her poetics: "Je crois maintenant que l'unicité, la coherence auxquelles aboutit une oeuvre . . . doivent etre [circonflex, oh keyboard of mine!?] mises en danger toutes les fois que c'est possible. En rendant publiques ces pages, l'occasion s'en présent pour moi" (12-13). Or: "I now think that the unity, the coherence from which one builds a work . . . should be called into question every time it can be. In making these pages public, I'm presented with the opportunity to do so." As these thoughts dovetail with my poetics of writing Alzheimer's, I want to have a conversation with the book here.

So I will dip in and out of the book, meeting its disorder with my own.

--From an October 1983 entry: "Il y a pour moi, toujours, sa voix. Tout est dans la voix. La mort, c'est l'absence de voix par-dessus tout" (84) "For me, it's always been her voice. Everything is in the voice. Death is above all the absence of voice."

My mother grew more and more quiet toward the end. (The verb ought not to be "grow." She lost her voice.) But even the possibility of voice lasted. Each weekend's telephone call offered the hope of a phrase, or a word, until just before the end, when words failed to form on her out-breath. She had commented years earlier that you never forget someone's voice. But in order to remember it, you must hear it again. I have a moldy tape I should have digitized on which she tells some of her stories. Is a voice replayed consolation? Someday I'll find out.

--From an April 1983 entry: "En face de nous, une femme decharnée, spectre de Buchenwald, est assise, très droite, avec des yeux terribles. Elle relève sa chemise, on voit la couch-culotte appliquée sur son sex. Les memes scènes a la télé font horreur. Pas ici. Ce n'est pas l'horreur. Ce sont des femmes" (25). Or: the observer sees women who look like they live in a death camp. One of them exposes herself. Such events would seem horrible on television. Here they're not horror. These are women.

The recognition that degradation does not remove us from the category "human," is one that takes some time to arrive at. The first few visits to an Alzheimer's home are shocking, disorienting, sickening. Over time that sensation eases; you become one person among many, rather than one among the wreckage. Life at its most basic (what we once thought of as "base") matters.

--From October: "Ce n'est pas seulement le sentiment du temps qui passe, quelque chose d'autre, de mortel: je suis maintenant un etre dans une chaine, une existence incluse dans une filiation continuant après moi" (90-91). "It's not just the feeling that time passes, but something else, of morality: I'm now a being in a chain, an existence included in a thread continuing after me."

I continue to feel that the earth's geometry has shifted since my mother died. That sounds an abstract note. "What on earth does that mean?" she might have asked me. There is more space around me, less before me. It's like google map zooming in and zooming out. I don't know when it will go where, but it does so quickly. It's like the month I first moved to Honolulu--an August like this one--when the sun seemed to be in the wrong place. I wanted to turn my body to a different angle, to get away from the sun that was so far over my head I couldn't see it. Now the angles have shifted again. My mother, my hypotenuse. As I look at old photographs of her, Radhika insists that I look at photographs of her earlier childhood. Tug of the chain.

--From February, 1986: "Je ne sais pas si c'est un travail de vie ou de mort que je suis en train de faire" (99). "I don't know if this is a work of life or death that I'm in the midst of doing." Which takes me back to the beginning of her book, where she writes of not wanting to read these notes after her mother's death: "D'une certaine façon, ce journal des visites me conduisait vers la mort de ma mère" (12). "In some way, the journal of visits led me toward my mother's death."

Perhaps that is why I wanted the first blog to remain "backwards" in time, as if the relative calm of her being in Alzheimer's care were a beginning, rather than the end of that sequence. But the newer work moves in chronological order, from life toward death. This interval cannot be set on its head, rearranged; she cannot be brought back into life by the trick of the narrative. The blog took me toward her death, was there at her death, now charts its wobbly course away from her death. Her death acquires a zip code; it seems a place I can find on the map, stick a virtual flag in, send a postcard to.

--From near the end of the book: "Sans doute pourrais-je attendre avant d'écrire sur ma mère. Attendre de m'etre evadée de ces jours. Mais ce sont eux la verité, bien que je ne sache pas laquelle. / Quand j'écrivais sur elle après les visites, est-ce ce n'était pas pour retenir la vie?" (110) "Without a doubt, I could wait before I wrote about my mother. Wait until those days were gone. But this is the truth, even as I don't know which. When I wrote about her after the visits, wasn't it to retain, hold onto life?"

The truth is in the moment, even if--especially if--you can't say what that truth is. It's not ours to wait to write, it's ours to wait to read what has been written. That's the waiting period that yields meaning, even as it eases our need for truth(s). It's the waiting period for Dickinson's gun.

But if meaning is immanent, if it lives inside the voice, what happens when voice leaves that last room, walks down the corridor, exits the front door, moves into the night? Voice is our least material possession, but we crave its substance. Voice internalized loses its timbre, but not content. How I long for its timbre, no matter what words might ride its wave of breath.

Annie Ernaux, "Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit." Gallimard, 1997.

Annie Ernaux, I Remain in Darkness. Trans. Tanya Leslie. NY: Seven Stories Press, 2000.

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