Thursday, September 23, 2004

Record of Alzheimer's Disease

I have some reflections on two books that I recently read.

Annie Ernaux recorded her experiences of her mothers' Alzheimer's disease in I remain in darkness. Not really a diary, the book is a collection of notes that Ernaux would eventually use to write a novel about the disease.

The notes cover about two and a half years. Ernaux places her mother in a convalescent hospital as she cannot continually attend to her. Each note references a visit to the hospital, tracking the progress of her degeneration and death.

The mother loses her humanity first: she knows what it means to remain proper, she is unsure how to accomplish it. The mother waits for people to help her groom herself, hiding away until they can, ashamed that she cannot do these things herself. As she becomes worse, she has visits with people who passed away long ago. Eating becomes the only joy--the only thing the mother looks forward to.

Eventually the mother loses her coordination. She cannot manage to get a fork to her mouth. The hospital staff and Ernaux must feed her. When she tries to feed herself, it is obvious that her sense of shame is gone:
[On Easter Sunday] I brought her a chocolate hen. The piece I break off is too big, she can't put the whole thing into her mouth; it slips out, she tries to catch it but clutches her chin instead. ... After that, she kneads a lump of chocolate instead of bringing it to her lips, then makes a few unsuccessful attempts to eat it. By now she is smothered in chocolate. At this point, everything gets out of hand: horror has ceased to matter, it has even become necessary. Go on, spread it all over yourself, make a real mess of it. I can feel anger swelling up inside me, anger than comes straight from my childhood--an impulse to break everything.
The following scene [breaks my heart]: as I bend forward to check the safety catch of my mother's wheelchair, she leans over and kisses my hair. How can I survive that kiss, such love, my mother, my mother.
Obviously, Ernaux becomes both disgusted and guilt-ridden as the disease progresses. These feeling play out whenever Ernaux tries to leave, and the mother expects to go with her:
I try to reach the elevator and get it to start before she catches up with me, before the door slams shut in front of her face. Such distress at seeing her in her present condition.

This is not a pleasant book to read: not just because of the subject matter, but because it is fragmented in its delivery by necessity. The eventual novel, A Woman's Story, is a highly regarded novela.

Patrick Modiano's Out of the Dark is difficult to describe, but it is worth reading. Modiano gained notoriety after May 1968 for his novels that deal with Jewish experiences in France. This book reflects on the indirection and lack of discipline of people in their early twenties and young students. Ignoring his classes and reading great work of philosophy, the narrator hangs out in Parisian cafes with a couple. He become involved with the woman, Jacqueline, who is obsessed with moving to Mallorca.

Without really knowing why, the narrator follows Jacqueline on her quest: he helps her to steal money, he follows her to London, hangs around the people she is trying to scam. He becomes the ultimate follower: his actions don't reflect his desires, he goes where Jacqueline goes.


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