I used to work nights in a nursing home. I was nineteen, and in my first year at university. Five years later moments from those long shifts still come back to me as brightly as if I was experiencing them all over again. Hearing a terrible wail travel up a silent corridor and freezing, too frightened to walk into the room it came from. Reading Endymion to a dying woman. Being punched in the throat while trying to help someone back to bed. Returning from a holiday to find that an aloof man I had managed to make a bond with had died. Gripping the cool metal counters in the kitchen and crying for him, just for a moment, before taking the tea trolley to the lounge.
Age is inevitable. It is also uncomfortable, perhaps even taboo. There is a sad irony to the notion of a teenager being responsible for a building full of eighty year olds, for both parties. There is an even sadder irony to the notion of the child nursing the parent, one that is, again, uncomfortable in its inevitability. Tanya Leslie’s translation of Annie Ernaux’s I Remain in Darkness is, in one word, uncomfortable. There were moments where I had to close the book for a moment and do some breathing exercises to stave off existential dread. This text, encased in another of Fitzcarraldo’s beautifully minimalist editions, is not an easy read despite its length. I must make that immediately clear. I Remain in Darkness is harrowing, and you are likely to come out of it needing a lot of TLC. But its importance, its necessity, outweighs the despondence which it is apt to induce.
Annie Ernaux has made her legacy in laying bare the aspects of life which are the most difficult to communicate. She has written about abortion, affairs, and doomed marriages, drawing painfully from her own experiences. I Remain in Darkness is something of an autobiographical epistle, a real-time document displaying the gradual degeneration caused by Alzheimer’s. Instead of creating a retrospective narrative, Ernaux has compiled journal entries spanning the last few years of her mother’s life and presented them as they were written. The result is the most honest depiction of grief one could possibly find, one which processes that complex hotpot of emotion in real time. Ernaux’s delivery can seem blunt and detached, but this is likely to be due more to shock than apathy. If Ernaux is treating her mother and the women who occupy her ward as specimens to be studied, that is because the reality of the situation is unbearable. Tackling the work with this in mind makes for a far more meaningful experience.
Presented without excuses or melodrama, and refreshingly lacking in a need to rationalise Ernaux’s less palatable responses to her mother’s condition, I Remain in Darkness must be credited for its integrity. There is no room here for performative selflessness – Ernaux is candid in her disgust at the physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and in the initial resentment she feels towards her mother, pulling at unhappy memories in order to feed that negativity. This memoir recounts a painful, difficult experience, one that we all must face in some form or another. Annie Ernaux demonstrates not only the profound sadness which we already know will come with the deterioration of those we love, but also the little acknowledged anger, detachment, and guilt. We are, by a large majority, selfish creatures who will confine our own parents to a hospice to alleviate the burden of round the clock care. We say it’s for their own good, but we do not add that it’s for our own good as well. We will visit them once a week if we can find the time. Some of us will not visit them at all. I will not tell you how often I used to buy body wash and moisturiser for residents when I noticed that they had none. I Remain in Darkness, the last words Annie Ernaux’s mother wrote, is a work unafraid of its selfishness. It confronts us with it, unashamed of our resulting discomfort.
Any Cop?: More effective than enjoyable, but why would you want to enjoy a memoir about Alzheimer’s?