Nothing Holds Back the Night, by Delphine de Vigan
Author’s candid memoir about her mother’s tragic life and suicide is unsettlingly real and raw
Nothing Holds Back the Night
Delphine De Vigan
More than 200 pages into this devastatingly ambivalent narrative, an emphatic and candid family memoir that is presented as autofiction yet never leaves one doubting that everything did happen more or less as described by de Vigan, the narrator recalls a taxi journey she undertook, some months earlier, to Charles de Gaulle Airport, outside Paris. By this stage the reader will have already, most likely, retreated into the role of mesmerised listener.
To read this exact book is to engage in an act of silent witness to a private account that is also a wider exploration of life and individual suffering as well as an investigation of the morality, ethics and motivation of writing. De Vigan asks for nothing – not even our sympathy – except our attention. She set out to tell her mother’s sad story, and does. In the course of telling it she looks to her own childhood, as well as to that of her mother.
The reader feels the weight of the series of dawning truths that have assailed the narrator and in turn have a near physical impact on the reader. The taxi ride is untypical: the narrator rarely takes them, probably because of the often horrific taxi trips she associates with her mother. And “the truth is”, she tells us, “that I always end up feeling sick in the back of cars”.
But that day was different; she did take a cab. “The driver began asking me where I was going, the reason for my trip, my job . . . I ended up telling him that I was a writer.” The cab driver’s reaction is stunningly astute – “what caused that?” – and de Vigan describes feeling that he had said it “exactly as though it were an illness, or even a punishment or a curse”. She takes a pause, as if allowing her reader to shudder at the notion and then prepare to read on as a conduit to share in her hell or, worse still, as a voyeur. If this narrative has a prevailing thesis, it is that writing feeds a hunger and can, at times, keep the ghosts at bay.
Full of pain
“When I meet readers in libraries, bookshops or schools, I’m often asked why I write. I write because of January 31st, 1980.” It appears blunt on the page, and it is, if only partly so. On that January day her mother experienced total insanity as her daughters looked on and the police arrived. Throughout the narrative a statement is made, a fact presented, then the narrator, as if looking at a photograph, steels herself before moving on to elaborate. This is a remarkable book. It is full of pain, anger, bitter remorse and a writer’s cool exploration of the demands of a story apparently instigated by her finding her mother’s body, five days after a lethal overdose. Her mother had decided to die while “she was still alive”.
It is also an unsettling and raw monologue, even more so because of the cool control de Vigan sustains, occasionally commenting on her need to probe. She reflects on the many questions she asked members of her dead mother’s family and on the answers that were not always forthcoming. The only way to read this book is to stop, put it down, gasp, absorb the horrors and then read on.
Shortlisted for eight major literary awards in France, it won two, and it is easy to see why. It is an overpowering work, almost impossible to assess because of the extreme behaviour described. The urgent, somewhat relentless narrative draws one in yet repels through its extraordinarily clear-eyed emotional intelligence. Is it an act of love or a plea for forgiveness?
The narrator’s mother is at the centre of the story. It is her life, her doom, and as she drifts into madness the rest of her family are also presented either lying to themselves and everyone else – as did the narrator’s dreadful maternal grandparents, a pair of egoists sustained by delusion – or taking flight into death.
Novel or memoir?
De Vigan has assembled a group of characters too flawed to be other than human and real. Is this a novel or a memoir? Who knows? Is de Vigan playing a complex game? Unlikely. Despite the tricks and the time shifts, it becomes easy to believe that this is the history of a very real family; of the nine children in it, three die by suicide. Before those deaths there is an accident: one child dies by falling into a well during a visit to the countryside. The family grieve. Within months, however, the parents, the narrator’s grandparents, set off for London, leaving the then seven children in the care of an 11-year-old. The craziness multiplies.
Lucile, the narrator’s beautiful mother, born in 1946, the third child to Liane, a woman who simply wanted to produce babies and ignore her husband’s antics elsewhere, is a child model. Her beauty defines her throughout most of her life, even after her breakdowns and humiliations, even after it ceases to prevent her being rejected, even after it fails her.
Probably the first test life hurls at Lucile is the transformation of her little girl’s body and her having to tolerate her other sisters taking her place as a child model.
Her siblings appear to bustle around while Lucile takes to mooning about, wary of sport. George, her father, the narrator’s grandfather, views his life as a subject of endless fascination and records more than 50 hours of his memories. He also makes home movies. He and Liane quickly emerge as a pair ill suited to managing anything. The black humour that bubbles beneath the surface of the narrative conveys a suppressed hysteria, and, as the facts accumulate, the incidents that make up the story of a family, it quickly becomes clear that de Vigan is both a member of this family and also an Everywoman.
“Every day that passes I see how difficult it is to write about my mother, to define her in words, how much her voice is missing. Lucile talked to us very little about her childhood. She didn’t tell stories.” Such a sad comment, yet one that the narrator immediately follows with: “Now I tell myself that that was her way of escaping the mythology, of refusing to take part in the fabrication and narrative reconstruction which all families indulge in.”
As the narrative evolves, the narrator reveals more of herself, including her anorexia. De Vigan’s first novel, Jours Sans Faim, yet to be published in English, records exactly that. The reader feels the writer’s tension, her struggle. On the English-language publication, in 2010, of No et Moi (2007) de Vigan became famous. In that novel a bright little girl befriends a slightly older girl with an array of hopeless addictions. It is a wonderful book. Underground Time, an explicit third-person account of office bullying as experienced by a mother of two children, followed in 2011, two years after its French publication. It is based on de Vigan’s experiences, yet it is told at a remove.
This time it is different. Her mother, beautiful and doomed, even dangerous, collapses repeatedly. Yet at 49 she returns to school and, through sheer strength of will, qualifies as a social worker. It is an extraordinary achievement. Finally she has a normal life and is able to function as a grandmother to the children of the daughters she had not been able to raise. But she relapses.
Even so, after the horror and the scandals, the confirmation of abuse inflicted by her father, Lucile, slowly but surely, is the hero of this novel, memoir, tale. De Vigan’s final sentence concedes: “Today I am able to admire her courage.” It took a strange courage for Lucile, with her beauty, her nervous smile and ever-shaking hands, to even exist and to finally attempt to live before deciding to die while “I am still alive”.
As an account of mental illness this book is bold and ambitious, but it is as a study of one lost woman’s struggle to get through the days, the hours, the years that de Vigan’s not always sympathetic portrait of her doomed, bizarrely heroic mother will physically, never mind intellectually, leave a reader shaken and affected. How many books can do that?
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent