I Remain in Darkness

by Annie Ernaux

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Critical Overview

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By the time Ernaux published I Remain in Darkness, she had already written and published A Woman’s Story, which was based on her mother’s life and death. However, the bulk of Ernaux’s writing revisits the themes of growing up and familial relationships. As James Sallis writes in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, ‘‘Annie Ernaux’s work is remarkably of a piece, each book circling back to paraphrase, correct, emendate, and reinvent earlier ones.’’ Novelist Kathryn Harrison, writing for the New York Times Book Review, points out, however, that the ‘‘sympathy between novel and memoir is not a matter of mere repetition.’’ Harrison finds that the latter work ‘‘serves as a more intimate revelation of the slow death that prompted her to bear witness to the life that was ebbing.’’

Some reviewers shared praise for I Remain in Darkness. Sallis was of the opinion that was ‘‘a very ambitious book.’’ Publishers Weekly called it ‘‘quietly searing.’’ Harrison was a champion of the volume. To her, the details that Ernaux includes showing her mother’s decline had ‘‘such emblematic force and terror that the particular becomes universal.’’ Harrison also explores the important themes that Ernaux raises, specifically the inevitability of death and the inability of literature to provide a meaningful truth to life.

Many reviewers, however, expressed differing opinions of the work, often within the same article. Up for the most criticism was the slight, bare nature of the book. ‘‘There are wonderful moments of grace here,’’ writes Eileen Murphy in the Baltimore City Paper, but she finds the ‘‘complete lack of narrative . . . troubling for the reader’’ and essentially equates Ernaux’s work here with ‘‘arranging’’ and not writing.

By contrast, Wilda Williams, in Library Journal, notes that while ‘‘there is a choppy, unpolished feel to the book,’’ and puts forth the hypothesis that Ernaux’s style may have been deliberate. The length of the work seems not to have bothered Harrison, who writes, ‘‘Ernaux renders the plight of the dying with a seemingly effortless economy.’’

Richard Bernstein, writer for the New York Times, is perhaps a counterpart to Harrison. Although he states that the ‘‘book certainly has flashes of genius,’’ his criticism outweighs his applause. Not only did he find it to ‘‘lack the quiet impact of her others’’ because it was so ‘‘undeveloped,’’ he also questioned the validity of her major theme:

the idea that an aging person reverts to a kid of childlike dependency, leaving the former child in a state of guilty mastery worried about her own inevitable death is not a thundering revelation.

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Essays and Criticism