Nicci Gerrard

A frank description of dementia is a searing, suffocating read

In her slim memoir, Annie Ernaux writes of memory, love, loathing, disgust and tenderness as she watches her mother’s physical decline

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.

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