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