Thanks to Emma, I was introduced to French author Delphine de Vigan’s novel Underground Time, but Nothing Holds Back the Night is completely different. This is a non-fiction book about the author’s mother, Lucile, who committed suicide at the age of 61; she died alone and was in her apartment for 5 days before her daughter found her. The book was written by Delphine de Vigan partly as a way of understanding her mother, a woman who was a bright, beautiful child model, whose life somehow took a wrong turn as she made a series of bad choices in men, plunged into madness and was institutionalized.
Through the process of writing this book, the author basically discovers it’s not so much a question of what went wrong, but more an issue of uncovering the incidents that shaped Lucile, nicknamed “Blue” by one of her brothers “because of the sad expression on her face.” On the surface of Lucile’s family life, it would appear as though she was part of an incredibly rich, boisterous family with happy parents and nine children (one is adopted), and at one point in the book we discover that Lucile’s family was the subject of a television documentary filmed in 1968 and aired in 1969. Delphine de Vigan watched the film which “shows a happy united family in which priority is given to the children’s autonomy and the development of their personalities.” But reading about the film through the author’s eyes, we can glimpse that there is something terribly wrong with this seemingly perfect picture of family life. Scrape away the surface, and there’s something quite different underneath… .
While the book is about the life of the author’s mother, Lucile, it’s also a quest to understand this complex, very private woman. Part of the quest involves the author’s struggle to write the book and her doubts about where to start, what to include, what to leave out. She’s also very aware that as she peels back the layers of Lucile’s childhood and the “myth” at the heart of the family, she risks hurting people even as she wrestles with various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan describes her journey–the interviews she conducted with relatives, the family photos she pored through, and the tapes she listened to.
But the further I go, the deeper my conviction that it was something I had to do, not as an act of rehabilitation, nor to honour, prove, re-establish, reveal or repair something, solely to get closer. Both for myself and for my children–who, despite my efforts. feel the weight of distant fears and regrets–I wanted to go back to the source of things.
And I wanted some trace of this quest, however futile, to remain.
When the book begins, there’s a definite, curious emotional distance between the author and her mother, and this is one of the elements of the story that interested me so much. The book is obviously not only the author’s attempts to understand her mother but it’s also part of the grieving process and a legacy–an explanation for the author’s own children.
The book is a little awkward at first as it describes Lucile’s childhood in the moments when the author places thoughts in Lucile’s head that quite obviously could not belong in the head of a small child–it’s the author’s words as we read Lucile thinking about a “nameless protean being,” for example. But as Lucile grows older and increasingly more withdrawn and remote, her daughters enter the picture, and then we read about Delphine’s childhood and her views of her mother. The author appears to become much more comfortable with her subject as the book builds, and she’s also very frank about the difficulties she faced during the composition of this book. As the years tick by in Lucile and the author’s lives, we slowly, as the tragedy of Lucile’s life is revealed, begin to understand the emotional distancing between the author and her mother. ‘Dysfunctional families’ is a term that’s vastly overused these days. Most of us seem to have crawled out of the debris of some domestic disaster or another, but Lucile’s family is the epitome of the term for while a façade of normalcy and function is maintained, underneath there’s rot.
The author’s journey to understand her mother addresses the past, and that includes complex questions regarding memory and various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan’s journey to the heart of the past includes the idea that family pathology is so easily skirted and avoided in silence. The author also shows how versions of events can collide, tainted by fragmented memory, absence or even simple misinterpretation of events, but in spite the novel’s subject matter and its examination of the very damaged Lucile, there are triumphs here. Even though the darkness in Lucile’s life never completely left but seemed to lurk in the corners of her mind, she beat incredible odds, and later in life, battling her demons, she managed to overcome mental trauma and find a level of peace and happiness.
Lucile made friends everywhere she went in the last fifteen or twenty years of her life … She exerted an odd and eccentric form of attraction around her, mixed with a great spirit of seriousness. This brought her strange encounters and lasting friendships.
Nothing Holds Back the Night is at once an incredibly private and painful book, and one gradually feels, turning these pages, that its completion is also a triumph for Delphine de Vigan.
Thanks to Emma for pointing me towards this book.
Translated by George Miller. Review copy.