Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night. The back cover describes it as an autobiographical novel, but like some other stories of this nature, De Vigan’s book reads as if it is non-fiction. Either way, I found it utterly compelling, an immersive reading experience.

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In the opening chapter the author describes how she found her mother’s body at home one January morning, her skin blue, ‘a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes’. The author’s mother, a woman she names Lucile Poirier, took her own life at the age of sixty-one. Over the following months, the author wrestles with the notion of writing about her mother. At first she strongly resists the idea, keeping it at a distance for as long as possible. The image of Lucile represents too boundless a field, too clouded, too risky. In the end, though, she decides to write about her mother as a way of preserving her character, of getting closer to her:

And then I learned to think of Lucile without it taking my breath away: the way she walked, her upper body leaning forward, her bag resting on her hip with the strap across her body; the way she held her cigarette, crushed between her fingers; of how she pushed her way into a metro carriage with her head down; the way her hands shook; the care with which she chose her words, her short laugh, which seemed to take her by surprise; the way her voice changed under the influence of an emotion, though her face sometimes showed no sign of it. (pg. 7)

In order to do this, the author talks to those who were closest to Lucile at various points in her life – Lucile’s friends, her brothers and sisters, other members of the family – collecting memories and stories along the way.

Born into a lively, somewhat unconventional bohemian middle-class family, Lucile is the third of nine children. Her father, Georges, founder of an advertising agency, is generous, confident and sociable; her mother, Liane, is energetic, full of vitality and unquestionably devoted to Georges. Lucile is very beautiful. By the age of seven she is a successful fashion model, albeit one who is starting to feel ill at ease with life.

…but at the age of seven, Lucile had built the walls of a hidden territory which belonged to her alone, a territory where the noise and the gaze of others did not exist. (pg. 15)

From an early age, Lucile appears somewhat distanced from her brothers and sisters, a quiet, mysterious child who grows up all too quickly. Shortly before Lucile’s eighth birthday, her younger brother, Antonin (aged six) drowns in an accident. There is a sense that from this point onwards, the concept of death would be part of Lucile’s character, ‘a fault line’ or ‘indelible imprint’ marked in her DNA.

As de Vigan compiles her story, various revelations about the Poirier family come to light, especially in relation to Georges, Lucile’s father and the author’s grandfather. There are hints of a murky side to Georges’ character at the very beginning of this book. From a young age, Lucile had always intrigued him; he is fascinated by her. As a child, Lucile shares a connection with her father, but over time she becomes increasingly aware of her father’s limitations, his intolerances and contradictions. By the end of the book, a much darker side to Georges has emerged, and I was left wondering how his behaviour may have contributed to Lucile’s collapse.

When she is eighteen, Lucile falls in love with a friend of the family, the confident and athletic Gabriel. Lucile falls pregnant and marries Gabriel a few months before the birth of their first daughter, the author. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Lucile’s future appears bright and radiant. And yet there is an inherent sadness in the film footage of Lucile and Gabriel’s wedding. While they appear to be in love, something in Lucile’s eyes seems weakened; a sense of absence sets her apart from the scene.

Throughout the story, the author reflects on the difficulty of writing this book, of trying to find a truth within the myriad of disparate fragments and impressions of Lucile’s life. She talks of the limitations of writing, how at best it can enable her to pose questions and examine memories. There is a desire to get behind the myths surrounding the Poirier family in an effort to get to the source of Lucile’s pain. And in doing so, she knows how painful this will be for those closest to her mother.

But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering, as though there were a precise moment when the core of her self was breached in a definitive, irreparable way, and I cannot ignore the extent to which this quest – as if its difficulty were not enough – is in vain. It is through this prism that I interviewed her brothers and sisters, whose pain in some cases was at least as visible as my mother’s, that I questioned them with the same determination, eager for details, alert to the possibility of an objective cause that eluded me as I thought I was getting close to it. That was how I interviewed them, without ever asking the question which they nonetheless answered: was the pain already there? (pgs. 61-62)

Perhaps the author goes some way towards identifying one of the factors when she reflects on her mother’s marriage to Gabriel, the years of immense loneliness that play their part in the breakdown of Lucile’s life. She likens the meeting of Lucile and Gabriel to the coming together of ‘two great sufferings’. Contrary to the law of maths whereby the multiplication of two negatives leads to a positive, this union gives rise to ‘aggression and confusion’.

The marriage lasts for seven years, and Lucile is twenty-six when she leaves Gabriel. In time, Lucile and her two daughters move in with Tibère, a freelance photographer and naturist. She gets a secretarial job with a small advertising agency in Paris. For the author, this is the start of the golden age, a four-year period when all is relatively calm. It is the ‘before’: before the fear, the worry and everything that comes later.

In the summer we went to the naturist camp at Montalivet, where Lucile and Tibère rented a bungalow among the pines. We met friends there, a shifting community of people who drifted in and out; some people would move on, others stayed and pitched their tents in the forest […]

The photos of those years, taken mainly by Tibère, are the ones I like the best. They sum up a whole period. I like their colours, their poetry, the utopia they capture. (pg. 151)

After a couple of years, Lucile and Tibère split up, other men come and go. And then, on more than one occasion, Lucile is reminded that death can strike at any moment – I won’t reveal the details for fear of spoilers. At this point, the author (now aged eleven or twelve years) becomes afraid that her mother might take her own life. Lucile seems lonely, tired and detached; she shuts herself up in her room at night smoking grass on her own.

The remainder of the books charts Lucile’s breakdown: the periods of delirium when her imagination runs wild; the periods of numbness as she withdraws from the world; her confinements and hospitalisations. All this might sound very bleak, but De Vigan’s portrait of Lucile is at once painful, compassionate and tender. It is written in a style that immediately draws the reader into the world of this family, so much so that you feel you are observing these scenes unfold before your own eyes. The prose has a glassy, luminous quality, especially in the first two-thirds of the book before Lucile’s breakdown.

There are periods of lightness too. In the years prior to her death, Lucile experiences a kind of renaissance. She goes back to college, and in time becomes a highly effective social worker. In effect, by helping to ease the suffering of others, Lucile finds a sense of meaning her life, perhaps a sense of accomplishment as well.

All in all, Nothing Holds Back the Night is a remarkable book – a genuinely affecting story and an impressive achievement.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. Emma, Guy and MarinaSofia have also reviewed this one.

Nothing Holds Back the Night is published by Bloomsbury. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20, #TBR20 round 2.

69 thoughts on “Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

  1. hastanton

    I LOVED this book . I read it in French ( the language is beautiful) but enjoyed it so much I bought it in English for my daughter when I saw it had been translated . She loved it too . As you say , I’m not sure what I was expecting from it but it ended up having a huge impact on me .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad you loved it too, Helen. It reads very smoothly in English so the translator must have done a good job in preserving the beauty of the language. I got totally caught up in it.

      Reply
  2. kimbofo

    This sounds excellent. I’ve often picked it up in book shops and then put it down, because I wasn’t quite sure if it was for me. But you’ve convinced me that it would be exactly my sort of thing.

    It reminds me a little of a French book I read — ‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux — that takes the same approach: a daughter tries to get to know her mother better by writing about her life (and their strained relationship).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would like this one, Kim. It’s such a compelling story – there’s something remarkable on almost every page. One of the most interesting things about it is the way the author discusses her approach to writing Lucile’s story: how to best represent her mother; the pain she may cause other members of the family; her own dilemmas and feelings. I found it a fascinating book.

      The Annie Ernaux is new to me, so I’ll take a look. Thanks for the tip – it does sound similar to Nothing Holds Back the Night.

      Reply
      1. hastanton

        No, it’s actually very similar ….I’ve read lots of Ernaux ….different story in the Vigan but similar style . What is interesting is the other Vigan I have read ( Les Heures Sousterraines and Noë et Moi) are more ‘traditional’ novels in style .

        Reply
        1. Emma

          Thanks. From what I’ve read of Ernaux in interviews, I’d expected her to be more like Christine Angot and I wasn’t tempted by her books at all. I’ll check them out.

          I loved Les heures souterraines. Such an accurate description of what can happen in the corporate world.

          Reply
          1. hastanton

            Not read any Angot so can’t really say . I love Ernaux …an ‘old style feminist’ but she dares to say many things about women’s lives that most just avoid . I hope you enjoy …she really is one of my very favourite French writers.

            I loved Les Heures too …..but it’s v different from this , isn’t it ?

            Reply
  3. poppypeacockpens

    What a stunning review Jacqui, of what sounds like an incredible story – the intense compelling ‘autobiographical’ fiction sounds very similar to de Beauvoir… have you read others of Di Vigan?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. I haven’t read anything else by de Vigan, but a couple of her other books are available in English.

      I hope you’ll review the de Beauvoir you’re reading right now, I’d like to hear more about it!

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    I did find this engrossing and touching, but I felt in the end that there was a great silence around Lucile. And I felt de Vigan acknowledges that it’s probably, in the end, impossible really to know or understand another person.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I guess it’s hard to gain a complete and thorough understanding of another person, especially one as complex and wounded as Lucile, but I do think de Vigan achieved her aim of getting closer. I kept thinking how hard it must have been for all the children the Poirier family, so much trauma to deal with at such young ages. Lucile seemed terribly isolated even as a young girl.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wonder if this approach is becoming more popular these days. There are similarities with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s approach to writing about the loss of his father in A Death in the Family, but I preferred de Vigan’s approach. Her book is more focussed and more concise than Knausgaard’s. It’s beautifully written, too – definitely worth seeking out.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    An insightful and thoughtful review as always Jacqui.

    The technique of writing about her mother’s life sounds like it opens up narrative possibilities as the “storyteller” can write about the writing process and still integrate such musings into the novel.

    The passages that you quoted are very well written and seem genuine.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, as I mentioned in my reply to Kim’s comment, the author’s discussion of her approach to writing about Lucile adds another dimension to the story. De Vigan is very open about the dilemmas she faces, how she knows her research and interviews with those closest to Lucile has the potential to reopen old wounds. She comes across as a very genuine, caring person, someone who is seeking to understand rather than passing judgement on anyone. It’s an absorbing read.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui and it sounds really powerful. As someone who’s often had a complex relationship with her mother, I think this could be illuminating but also painful to read!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. It is very powerful, and it could have been one of those awful misery memoirs, but de Vigan’s approach is pretty open and compassionate. I loved the way it was written. That said, I can understand why it might not be a book for everyone, especially given the subject matter. I found parts of Knaugaard’s A Death in the Family very upsetting, so much so that I wasn’t sure whether to write about it at the time.

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I know what you mean – I’m thinking there might be certain kinds of book I need to avoid at the moment.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does have that effect, doesn’t it? Quite a sobering read in many respects…

      I liked the fact that de Vigan was so open about the dilemmas she wrestled with throughout the process, both her questions about her mother and the effect her research might have on the family. It made me warm to her as a person.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. Yes, you’re right. Even though de Vigan doesn’t dwell on grief, completing this book must have been part of her own grieving process. It could have been one of those terrible misery memoirs, but far from it. The prose really lifts it.

      Reply
  7. litlove

    Oh this is right up my street. I am very fond of a crazy mother memoir/autobiographical novel. If you liked this, you might appreciate Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska (who is a wonderful author). But now I’m off to check out this de Vigan book – what treasures you have in your collection, Jacqui! And a gorgeous review as always.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! Well, if you like this sort of thing I would have no hesitation in recommending it. I got totally caught up in Lucile’s story and the author’s reflections on the writing process. Quite a remarkable book in many respects. (Oddly enough, I bought it on a whim after spotting a pristine copy going for £1.50 in a charity shop – one of my best finds!)

      Thanks for recommending Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska. I’ll have to check it out. So many writers, so many books…

      Reply
  8. Scott W

    I was convinced I’d read something by de Vigan, but I almost certainly was confusing her with Veronique Olmi – another writer who takes on issues of women’s mental health (though this sounds quite a bit more nuanced and less horrifying than the Olmi book I read). I’ll second Kimbofo’s recommendation of Annie Ernaux’s memoir/novel about her mother, as well as the even stronger one she wrote about her father, A Man’s Place (which largely turns out to be about her mother anyway).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, Veronique Olmi. I haven’t read her, but ‘Beside The Sea’ is a possibility at some point. Is that the one you were referring to? It’s pretty devastating by all accounts.

      Nuanced is a good way of describing de Vigan’s book. She’s very open about the writing process and the dilemmas it presents. Also, there’s enough space for her to explore the different events in Lucile’s life, how these episodes may have affected her character/personality, and so on. It’s quite a remarkable book. Possibly not to everyone’s taste, but I found it very absorbing.

      Okay, another recommendation for Annie Ernaux…looks like I’m going to have to check her out!

      Reply
      1. hastanton

        I can ‘third’ the Annie Ernaux recommendation. She is one of my favourite French writers ….I’m not sure how much of her stuff has been translated . This ‘auto -fiction’ is very popular in France …I think to an extent Houllebecq parodies it in his novels .

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Good point about Houellebecq, I hadn’t thought about that. Returning to Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story and A Man’s Place have been translated, so I’ll definitely look out for her work. It might be a while before I’m in the mood for another autobiographical story as it’s best to leave a bit of space between these things!

          P.S. While you’re here, Helen, I reviewed a Javier Marias novel that might be of interest to you: All Souls. It was back in July so you may have been on your hols. :)

          https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/all-souls-by-javier-marias-tr-margaret-jull-costa/

          Reply
  9. 1streading

    This sounds interesting in lots of ways – not just as a memoir, but as an investigation into her mother’s suicide and as an examination of the possibilities of writing. Not a writer I was aware of – thanks, as always, for bringing it to my attention, though, as I’ve just bought the last book you reviewed I may not immediately get this!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I took a chance on this one, but it definitely delivered on more than one level. You’ve made a fine choice with Madame de___, though – I doubt you’ll be disappointed!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is hard not to read it as non-fiction, especially as the author had drawn on interviews with members of her family and a set of tapes recorded by Georges (Lucile’s father). That said, de Vigan has used this material to recreate scenes from Lucile’s childhood (and other episodes she didn’t witness first-hand), so I guess that’s why the book is categorised as fiction. It’s a slightly grey area, I think.

      Reply
  10. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve read of this before, I think Emma of bookaround liked it a lot, and you do make a good case for it. I’ll have to check though as I think I had another de Vigan I had planned to read first.

    All biography is fiction anyway. Writing it as fiction gives you more freedom I suspect to write something true.

    There’s a review of Beside the Sea at mine. It’s not the cheeriest read it’s fair to say.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right about Emma’s response to this book (and Guy liked it too). Oddly enough, I hadn’t realised Emma had read it until she mentioned Delphine de Vigan in another post a couple of weeks ago. I was right in the middle of reading the book at the time…it’s funny how these coincidences happen every now and again.

      As I was finalising this post, I couldn’t help but think of your comments about Denis Johnson’s prose in Jesus’ Son – whether the style can detract from the content in some way. I don’t think that’s the case here even though de Vigan’s prose is luminous. Lucile’s story is hard-hitting and quite shocking at times, but I wonder whether a more direct prose style might have made it too brutal. It’s an interesting thought, though.

      Thanks for alerting me to your Olmi review. I’ll definitely take a look at it, along with your latest review of the Jim Thompson. :)

      Reply
  11. Violet

    I really enjoyed reading your review and am rather keen to read the book now. Nothing Holds Back the Night is such a perfect title, it seems to me. It sounds as though Lucile struggled to hold back the darkness all her life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, the title is perfect. The French title, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit, comes from Osez Joséphine, a song by the singer Alain Bashung. On a similar theme, I had another quote that didn’t make the final version of my post, but it seems to capture something of the darkness in Lucile’s life:

      “Lucile became the fragile, funny, strikingly beautiful woman who was silent and often subversive and who stood on the edge of the abyss for a long time without ever taking her eyes off it entirely, she became this woman who was admired and desired, who aroused passions; this woman who was bruised, wounded, humiliated, who lost everything in a day and had several spells in psychiatric hospitals; this inconsolable woman, under a life sentence, imprisoned in her solitude.”

      Reply
      1. Emma

        Bashung was an excellent French singer. He’s someone to check out.
        When I read the title of de Vigan’s book, I immediately connected it to the song. It’s a famous one and Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is in the chorus.

        Reply
  12. Caroline

    I’ve got this but I need a good moment to read it. I was pretty upset by Olmi’s book and suppose will have a similar reaction to this one. I gues those of us who had mothers like that enjoy reading about it a little less.

    Reply
      1. Caroline

        Yes it’s bleak but unfortunately the mother was a lot like mine. The day she died it felt like the storm clouds that had been hanging over my head since my childhood finally lifted.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I can imagine…sometimes these things are a little too close to our own experiences. I felt much the same way about Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a book about her endeavour to train a hawk as a way of coming to terms with the sudden death of her father. I knew it would be an emotional read for me. It is a question of finding the right time, I think.

      Reply
    2. Emma

      The Olmi is bleaker than this one, Caroline. At least it was for me.
      Delphine de Vigan also writes about the process of writing this book and it’s a breather from the story and at the same time a good view of how difficult it is to write about someone you know, of the impact the book will have on her family. It shows you that you never really know your family.

      Reply
  13. Emma

    Great post, Jacqui and thanks for the link to my billet. I’m glad you liked it.

    This novel stayed with me. I remember de Vigan’s quest with clarity. How she works out the effects of her book on herself and her family.

    It is well written, without pathos but with a lot of compassion. She’s not judgmental and that’s the crux of the quality of her book. She’s not on a campaign to complain about her difficult childhood, and honestly, there’s material to complain, don’t you think? Her youth wasn’t easy and yet she tries to be objective. She’s not writing to air her angst or grief or bitterness. She’s writing to try to understand her mother.
    It makes a huge difference.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. You’re very welcome – I was so pleased to learn you’d reviewed it. Yes, I completely agree with you. It’s such a mature book, beautifully written and compassionate too. I really warmed to de Vigan as a person, her openness and non-judgmental approach comes through very strongly. I can’t even begin to imagine how distressing it must have been for Delphine and her sister, especially in the period leading up to Lucile’s hospitalisation. As you say, she could have been angry about those episodes but there isn’t a trace of bitterness in her account. I couldn’t help but think how distressing it must have been for all the children the Poirier family, so much trauma to deal with at such young ages…

      Thanks for your replies to several of the other comments, too – much appreciated. It’s good to draw on your knowledge of French literature. I think I will read the Olmi at some point – not in the immediate future, but one day. Annie Ernaux sounds very interesting as well. Oh, and I listened to Osez Joséphine on Spotify, a very fitting song.

      Reply
  14. Gemma

    This sounds wonderful – another book added to the tbr list :) I love the quote you feature at the beginning of your review; it really gave me a vivid picture of Lucile. The book as a whole sounds really interesting, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gemma. I love that first quote, too; as soon as I read it I knew I had to include it in my review. It’s quite hard to articulate just what makes this such an absorbing read, but I think it’s the combination of Lucile’s story and the author’s openness in discussing her approach to the book. It’s beautifully written, too – the quality of the prose shines through.

      Reply
  15. Séamus Duggan

    I think this might speak to quite a few things in my own life, including producing a documentary directed by a friend who’s mother committed suicide. Sounds intriguing in a way that may cause my wallet to bleed and my shelves to sag some more.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gosh…well, I would definitely recommend it if you feel like reading around this subject. (Emma and Guy thought very highly of it, too.) But it probably goes without saying that it’s quite disturbing at times…

      One of the most interesting things about the book is the way de Vigan shares her thoughts about the writing process – the questions she wrestles with, her concerns about opening old wounds and so forth. And she never judges Lucile, she just want to get closer. Quite a remarkable book in many respects.

      Reply
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  19. Lady Fancifull

    I have just finished reading this, following a chance remark you made on a review on my blog, on, I think You Will Not Have My Hate – a very different book, but similar in a distillation of the personal experience into a reflection on it, both deeply personal and speaking to more than just individual experience.

    I found it a shocking and immersive read. The writer’s experience (thankfully) completely different from my own, but she touched something quite profound – almost a miasm – my own background, for various reasons, had a close connection to death, from early days, and I think the child is always more sensitive to emotional undercurrents, even if they don’t know what they are. So her writing put me in touch with a certain flavour, and released a lot of compassion – there is a kind of suffering all humans experience, along with joy and delight. I thought she handled all of it most sensitively and subtly. No doubt I will review it at some point, but at the moment am too within the feelings and thoughts it provokes to get to a more objective, critically useful, review. Thank you Jacqui

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I’m so glad you found it of interest, but I sincerely hope it hasn’t proved to be too traumatic a read for you. It sounds as though you found the compassion in de Vigan’s writing, which can only be a good thing. My childhood years were also touched by loss, in my case the sudden death of my father as the result of devastating incident, something that left a mark on my family for the longest time. Maybe that’s why this story resonated so strongly with me too.

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        Yes, Jacqui, for me too, the early death of a father – but there was no ‘agency’ or fault, merely sudden unpreventable illness. Not to minimise the devastating effects of any loss, but, where ‘something’ or ‘someone’ might be held accountable, it adds a further layer of anguish I think. I think children who, young, come into contact with profound adult grieving, feel intensely the pain of a parent, and a kind of helplessness, an overwhelm, a desire to make something better, which they just can’t. I certainly found myself ‘resonating’ with Delphine and Manon, and with Lucile, and stepped into a sense of the panic and overwhelm. It’s far from a ‘misery memoir’ but it does face and acknowledge ‘suffering’

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I recognise that feeling pf helplessness you describe, the sense of not knowing if there is anything one can do to ease the pain of a parent who has lost their soulmate in life. I’m sorry you had to experience this too. Life can be so terribly tough sometimes, especially when these things happen in childhood, when we are still learning and trying to find our way in the world. As you say, a shocking an immersive book, one that highlights the emotional impact on the author and her family.

          Reply
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