I haven’t had to endure the gradual loss of a loved one to the curse that is Alzheimers, but I have friends who have. How do you process such pain? In the case of today’s authors, by writing heartfelt and heartbreaking memoirs.
The Old King In His Exile – Arno Geiger (translated from German by Stefan Tobler)
I Remain In Darkness – Annie Ernaux (translated from French by Tanya Leslie)
Arno Geiger won the inaugural German Book Prize with We Are Doing Fine in 2005. It was his first commercial success. That it coincided with his father’s descent into dementia was the bitter pill that had to be swallowed. He traces the progress of his father’s illness, and the impact it had on the family from “the slip-ups he started to make after his retirement … For years we nagged, urging him to pull himself together.” for about six years. He did not want his book to end with his father’s death.
August Geiger was king of his own castle, as we would say in the UK: the house that he built for himself in Wolfurt near Bregenz following his return from the Eastern Front, and from which he never strayed thereafter. Not even to go on holiday. The reasons for that lay in his wartime experiences, about which he never spoke. Well, not until the disease took hold and he began to open up. The irony of Arno Geiger’s experience is that he got only to know the man his father was during the time he was losing him.
It was easy to laugh about the little mishaps. August Geiger had always been a little eccentric, but, eventually the awful truth dawns. The family rallies as best they can, not everyone coping in the same way. Conversation becomes increasingly difficult, unless the partner in conversation is willing to speak with August on increasingly surreal terms. Commenting on this, Geiger says
“Such surreal moments became more frequent. they make for good stories – comic and a little bizarre. But, if you listen carefully, besides the comedy, which is liberating, you hear anxiety and despair. And more and more often, it wasn’t funny at all.”
That’s the observer’s view. What about August Geiger’s view? So aware of what was happening to him, and stoical about it. After all, what can you do? However, once the disease has him firmly in its claw-like grip, there is terror. I cannot imagine the hell of waking up each day, completely disorientated, not knowing where you are in a world full of strangers. Nor this (which brings tears to my eyes):
“Worst of all were the nights when he woke and began to look for his children. On these nights our father was inconsolable, miserable, despairing, It was if it was wartime and he were wandering about between bombed houses, looking for a sign of life …”
August Geiger’s decline is slow, inevitable, inexorable, and he is, ultimately, exiled from his own kingdom into a new reality he cannot understand. His son’s memoir, is a considered response to the tragedy – he even tries to find a silver lining.
“Alzheimer’s certainly has not benefited my father, but it has taught his children and grandchildren a thing or two. And the duty of parents is to teach things to their children after all.”
That may be so, but nothing can hide the underlying devastation, one that becomes concrete in the text. As the memoir ends, Geiger’s fluid, thoughtful text, which often seeks solace in the utterances of other literary luminaries (Derrida, Kafka, etc) breaks down into a series of random thoughts, as he tries to prepare himself for the grief he knows is beckoning …
From a son losing his father to a daughter losing her mother. The same tragedy. A completely different feel. There is only one way to describe Annie Ernaux’s memoir: raw. That’s because it consists of journal entries, written as her mother finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1986. Unedited journal entries, delivered in their original form, “echoing the bewilderment and distress” that she experienced at the time.
This is how it begins as described in the author’s prelude.
“My mother began losing her memory and acting strangely two years after a road accident from which she had fully recovered – she had been knocked down by a car that had run a red light.”
(This is chilling – a friend of mine suffered the same accident a couple of months ago.)
Her mother continues to live in an assisted flat for a few months longer. Until one day she faints. It is discovered that she has not eaten or drunk anything for a few days. At which point, the author decides to move her into her own home and the journal entries begin.
Ernaux’s mother’s decline is much more rapid than Geiger’s father, but I think Ernaux’s memoir begins during the final stages of the disease. It’s not long before she is admitted to a care home. She never returns to her daughter’s house, and much of this memoir consists of Ernaux telling what happened on her visits to her mother at the care home and then when her mother was placed in long-term geriatric care. It is not pretty. This is reality when control of basic bodily functions are lost. (“Everything is reduced to shit and pee”), when love can be shown only by carefully trimming the patient’s hair, finger and toenails on a weekly basis. The necessity of leaving the loved one (or as Ernaux tellingly describes her “the woman who once controlled my life”) with a roommate in an even worse state. Not, as Ernaux explicitly points out, that she is criticising the institutions to whom her mother is entrusted. The situation is what it is. One copes as best one can.
And while all this visceral stuff is happening, the daughter has to accept the inevitable. Observing the changes in her mother’s physical appearance. “Her face has changed. the space between her mouth and her chin is growing longer, her lips are becoming obscenely thin.” Mourning the changes in her mother’s character. “When I think of the woman she used to be, her red dresses, her flamboyance, it makes me cry.” Selling her mother’s possessions, her furniture, piece by piece … until there is no space outside waiting for her mother’s return.
This idea is repeated in Geiger’s memoir, when he speaks of clearing out his father’s house, even though his father is remains alive. There are many other shared experiences.The idea of a return to childhood divides the two authors, however. Ernaux’s tending to/cleaning up her mother makes her think of her mother’s ministrations to her as a baby. Geiger resists the idea.
“It’s often said that people with dementia are like small children. Almost all the writing on the subject makes use of the metaphor, which is annoying, because it’s impossible for an adult to REgress to childhood, while it’s in a child’s nature to PROgress. A child develops new abilities; someone affected by dementia loses theirs. When you spend time with children, you gain a keen eye for every step forward; with dementia, for every loss.”
I’m not going to disagree with either author on this score. I see both points of view. I do take issue with Ernaux on one point though. Following her mother’s death, for which, despite everything, she was woefully unprepared, she writes:
“Tomorrow I might throw a flower into her coffin or place a rosary between her hands. But no WRITTEN text, no way. I shudder at the thought of a book about her. Literature is so powerless.”
Right now, I’m holding in my hand, a slim memoir of only 80 pages, that proves her so, so wrong. With a title repeating her mother’s final words, I don’t think I’ll read a more powerful memoir than I Remain in Darkness.