All the Images will Disappear
“All the images will disappear.
They will vanish all at the same time, like the millions of images that lay behind the foreheads of grandparents, dead for half a century, and of the parents, also dead. Images in which we appeared as a little girl in the midst of beings who died before we were born, just as in our own memories our small children are there next to our parents and schoolmates.
And one day we’ll appear in our children’s memories, among their grandparents and people not yet born. Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.”
--Annie Ernaux, The Years
Annie Ernaux’s writing is a universal mourning inside a private haunting. One person’s remembering can become everyone’s, but, as I learned while reading her body of work, one person’s haunting can invoke the same feeling in another. For me, reading about Ernaux’s fracture from her home, her family, to become part of the world she’d chased as a teenager—one of books, city life—and the complicated, isolating feelings she lives with because of it, resonated, to the point of discomfort.
I picked up Cleaned Out, Ernaux’s first novel, three times, finding the hours to read it through on my third try, then A Woman’s Story, then A Man’s Place, then Things Seen, then I Remain in Darkness, then Exteriors, then The Years, finally Happening. No order dictated my reading, and it isn’t yet exhaustive. Instead, I became locked in the cycle of her language and the ways in which she digested her present through a painful examination of her past. Eventually, my obsession with her language and treatment of the past bled over into my own life, as memories of the dead--both those of people and unrecoverable time--took up residence in my daily life.
I didn’t want to go through a day without hearing her voice, feeling her memories. They began to heal a scission in my own life similar to the one that drives her writing: A past that must be sacrificed or denied, so it seems, to exist in the present life one has built. Her words healed until her words began to evoke the grief I carry with me from a similar need to live a life that makes little sense to those who love me; a life that, still, would seem completely normal to most others.
Ernaux’s body of work revisits the same situations over and over again, from new and similar perspectives. In how many books have I watched her father’s dead body be removed from his bedroom above her parents’ shop in a bag? A casket wouldn’t fit up the stairs. Or watched her begin to construct the idea of the adult she would become through books and music—leaving her small town for the city? Or considered the painful but necessary choice to marry a man so different from her own family she could never quite settle into their life together?
My obsession broke me.
Alison L. Strayer, translator of The Years , writes of that work, “As in all of Ernaux’s books, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the spacing between sections. There is a method to it.”
Ernaux’s Cleaned Out is absent of that space. The story breaks forth in one steady barrage of words, echoing the claustrophobia the novel’s protagonist Denise feels as a young woman growing up in a conservative Catholic family in the country. The novel begins as Denise sits in her dorm room after the device that will bring about her abortion has been implanted. (Ernaux chronicled this experience again in Happening, telling the story of an abortion at twenty three that nearly killed her.) She waits, doing exercises to speed up the action, and provides the reader with some background about who she is. The only true break in the book is between this introductory chapter and the remaining one hundred and twenty pages that chronicle Denise’s life from childhood, to adolescence, to college. The intro closes:
“Find out where the whole mess began. I don’t believe it, I didn't hate them from birth, I didn’t always hate my parents, the customers, the store… I hate the others too now, those with an education, the professors, respectable people. I’m sick to death of them. Puke all over them, my education, culture, everything I’ve learned. Completely fucked up.”
Then white. The tone changes with the opening of Denise’s story in the book’s second chapter.
“The Lesur store is really something, the only one in the rue Clopart, far from the center of town, almost in the country,” the story begins.
Her bitterness will surface, but she’s free of it in that moment. The sharp reversal later on is disorienting.
Ernaux and her mother, an always complicated relationship made even more so by a fracture in lifestyle and expectation, then later dementia. By the time I Remain in Darkness was published Ernaux had found her use for all that white space could hold or promise.
The book, which is arranged as diary entries from the last years of her mother’s life, begins with scenes of the elderly woman’s decline, more sharp breaks between descriptions of her body, mental state. The entries themselves and the space of days in between provide an occasion for both anguish and relief.
In an earlier book about her mother, A Woman’s Story, the white space expands and contracts between sections. Some of the briefer pauses are the most alluring.
“One of her favorite expressions was ‘I had the cheek’ to do this or that. When my father remarked on a new dress or her careful makeup before she left the house, she would reply sharply: ‘After all, one must keep up one’s position!’”
She longed to learn the rules of good behavior and was always worrying about social conventions, fearful of doing the wrong thing.”
That single space, how much occupies it; all her mother’s worry, the labor of not trying to keep up, but, instead, catch up, the same worry that would be transferred to Ernaux herself, the same insecurity that lives in my mother and in me.
Ernaux’s hauntings incubate in those spaces. Like the repetition of stories and themes that live across her body of work, the accumulation of white space collects to become as imperative a part of her writing as the words themselves. In those spaces, pauses, I experienced anything but pause. The white space became the most active area of thought, as I felt my world and Ernaux’s entwine. But her story isn’t mine, and my relation to it isn’t just through myself.
My mother’s life and Ernaux’s began to dance at points, too.
“Now it is imperative that I unravel these memories, all the more so since I have long suppressed them, believing them to be of no consequence. If they have survived, it is through sheer humiliation. I surrendered to the will of the world in which I live, where memories of a lowly existence are seen as a sign of bad taste.”
My mother’s family is a haunted one. Slavic immigrants who came to a coal and steel city in Western Pennsylvania three generations ago, who put work before body, family before leisure. Her family of six was supported through grueling work; they were people who had expectations, knew what was required to reach them, and knew they were just as likely to achieve them as not.
My mother, a decade younger than her next sibling when she was born, was the first in her family to attend college. Her teen years were filled with the music of the 1950s and early 60s, a desire to be popular, even if it didn’t quite work out, and time to think about, develop an image. I have a copy of her passport photo from when she was twenty-one. She looks at the camera defiantly, a spiky black wig on her head, pale makeup, her jacket’s collar turned up. She dares you to take this life from her.
“There were dead children in every family.”
My grandmother’s children: my Aunt Delores dead from lung complications, she in her fifties; my Uncle Willy dead from leukemia, he in his forties; a second uncle, my Uncle Jimmy, dead from mesothelioma, he in his seventies. His son, Tim, died years earlier, the details of which are still too murky for even my family to pick through. Most died before my grandmother, her last decade one of extreme loss, mourning.
My father. My father’s body is falling apart from a combination of a rough youth and chronic lyme disease. I think about it sometimes, how his disintegration, compared to those broken bodies of my mother’s family, is almost a luxury, one born from summer construction jobs between semesters at college, afternoons spent in the woods, his first, most comfortable habitat. He and his three brothers are all alive, living with what would be considered good health. But, my mother’s family—not my mother, her health is sturdy—is filled with stories of the dead.
When I was a child, my mother’s family was the side we were closest to. Uncle Jimmy and his wife, Aunt Carmela, took us camping every summer. Aunt Delores, who tried for years to have children of her own, treated us as surrogates; we stayed with her weeks out of the year, the same with my grandmother. At holidays and birthdays, houses would fill, though my mother tells me the holidays of my youth were nothing compared to hers, where visits went on for days at Christmas and everyone’s lives were intimately connected up and down the same city street.
These are the images that begin to mingle, the images Ernaux speaks of in The Years and the ones I wasn’t a part of, that existed before I did.
I see these moments and reminders of the dead each time I visit my parents’ house. With each death, a sideboard in our dining room takes on another framed image—their faces are all there. My mother with her father, dead while she was still in her twenties, and sister on her wedding day. Another photo of my Uncle Jimmy as a young man wearing a wool overcoat is next to it. He looks handsome in a way I would never have noticed in life. His son Tim smiles in what I assume is a senior photo—the image is from the 80s and his hair is feathered. He, too, is handsome. Nearby sits a picture of my grandmother in her housedress holding her dog. My mother crowds in next to her and both are smiling, peaceful, relaxed, even. I doubt these are how the images sit on the furniture’s surface, though. I’m certain the faces are all there, but how they’re arranged I can’t be sure. Is this where the images begin to disappear, as Ernaux writes at the outset of The Years?
Ernaux’s repetition in writing, her need to capture a moment from many angles through many stories, is an act of preservation.
“The language, a mangled French mixed with local dialect, was inseparable from the hearty booming voices…just as the rules of grammar and proper French were associated with the neutral intonations and white hands of school mistresses.”
My sister and I became my mother’s school mistress. Yinz, yous, and “don’t want no”s littered the loud conversation at my grandmother’s kitchen table on Sunday afternoons. My mother, aunt, and she sat for hours gossiping about celebrities as my sister and I sat in the living room reading old copies of Star. Preteens, we began scolding my mother for her language, telling her it sounded unintelligent and embarrassing. Years later, this practice makes me feel sick. “Puke all over them, my education, culture, everything I’ve learned. Completely fucked up.” When I moved away to the city, I took note of all the words I used that were different, cutting them from my vocabulary so no one would know where I came from.
“She, on the other hand, tried to avoid making grammatical mistakes and chose her words carefully. For instance, she no longer said ‘serviette’ but ‘napkin.’ Occasionally, in the course of the conversation, she would throw in an unfamiliar expression she had read somewhere or picked up from ‘educated people.’ She would speak hesitantly, her face flushed with embarrassment, afraid of making a mistake….”
Sacrificing those pieces of myself was nearly as painful as the insecurity they manifested. But now, in my mid-thirties, a different severing exists: one between myself and those who I see as whole.
In her book Exteriors, Ernaux is living in a suburb of Paris, an academic and intellectual still grappling with her humbler beginnings. She hears a group of passengers on her train speaking in a similar style to those she grew up around and is struck by the reality of her adult life.
“My reaction confirms a well-know truth: we believe, because we stop using them, that certain words have disappeared or that poverty has ceased to exist now that we earn a living. Strangely enough, there exists another truth, the exact opposite: when we go back to a town we left a long time ago, we imagine that the people there will still be the same, unchanged. Both laws rely on the same misconception of reality, the only reference being one-self: in the first case, we imagine everyone else has lived our life, while in the second, we long to recapture our past identity through people who are frozen in time, whose features are the same as when we last saw them.”
My sister and I didn’t grow up in the coal-steel town of my mother’s youth, nor did we grow up in the village-like farm country my father did. She and I come from the woods—first isolated houses set on the lands of Pennsylvania’s state parks, then a small, rural town in the hills of the state’s portion of the Appalachians.
“The land is haunted here: Abandoned houses peek through densely wooded areas, their forgotten strong brick and stone walls now half heap, half structure. The countryside is haunted by violence, by long-dead relatives, by long-dead desires. The roads are sometimes haunted by people like me, people eternally tied to the hills and the houses, caught between two worlds, the one she came from and can’t forget, and the one she’s tried to build on her own,” I once wrote of the place I’m from.
“As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a lifestyle generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it… Consequently I would like to convey both the happiness and the alienation we felt. Instead, it seems that I am constantly wavering between the two.”
As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware of the way my mother and I interact when we’re in my world. A shyness overtakes her usual rough-fierce-caring personality, while a hesitancy clashes with a frustration in me. In her world, my former home, I revert back to her rules, her customs. I speak two languages.
My grandmother worked in a laundry for years to support her family. The hours were long, but worse, the water was frigid. As she grew older, her hands, once used for hours a day to make crafts for her church’s Christmas bazaar, became nearly useless as their fingers gnarled themselves in sharp angles, destroying their strength with each turn. My mother once told me the cold water caused this. Whether it did or not, I can’t disconnect the two.
“She crosses her fingers, rubs them together. I can’t take my eyes off her hands. Without a word, she takes leave of me to go and have dinner. As she walks into the dining room, I am her.”
I feel angry when I see my mother’s hands, not at my mother, but at time, at images, at memory. Her hands have begun to take the shape of my grandmother’s, as I’m certain mine will someday, as well. When I call, her voice holds the same gruffness my grandmother’s did.
“Your mother is becoming more like her than you even know,” my father tells me on a visit, with a sad laugh at the end that cuts me.
Suddenly, the ninety-six year-old-woman I lost in my twenties is back here with me, as is her tone when I’ve irritated my mother by being too soft or disappointed her by not being there for a holiday. The nightgowns my grandmother wore every day show up in similar style on my mother’s body a few hours after dinner. These moments, the images recorded and replayed in my head, begin to confuse the past and present. A déjà vu occurs that’s only magnified by the physical photos of the dead that surround us in my parents’ home. I feel my future loss and the pain of past loss in those moments, not sure what to say.
“She would say: ‘So-and-so, or such-and-such a dog died of ambition.’ To die of ambition refers to the trauma of separation, of being far away.”
Like Ernaux, I married a man who is of my chosen adult life with no connection to my past. Because of this, though he is kind and patient, and shares many of the same values and tastes as me, he can never fully understand who I am, who and what made me. Eventually, those people will be gone, I know, and I’ll be left with the life I’ve created.
Halfway through my month of Ernaux I had to take a break. My current self began to inject itself into images of the future, and I had no control.
“I shall never hear the sound of her voice again. It was her voice, together with her words, her hands, and her way of moving and laughing, which likened the woman I am to the child I once was. The last bond between me and the world I come from has been severed.”
I had begun to mourn my mother, though she’s still very much alive, healthy, not at all an elderly woman.
One afternoon, while my guy was at work, I sat on my bed, sobbing for a future that hadn’t happened yet. I also wept for the past, for the fracture my life, my needs and choices, had created between my parents and me. But, this is the power of Ernaux’s writing: to create a space filled with language, yet cut by a silence with the power to reach inside a reader and make her feel the resonance of her experiences, to remind her of those connecting ropes, barnacled with pain and disappointment. Ernaux’s work also reminds me that there’s still time.
The voices are recognizable, the images have not yet disappeared, and I am whole.