My mother was blue, a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes. Strangely, when I found her at home that January morning, her hands were darker than her face. Her knuckles looked as though they had been splashed with ink.
My mother had been dead for several days.
I don't know how many seconds or possibly minutes I needed to take this in, despite how obvious it was (my mother was lying on her bed, unresponsive to all entreaties); it was a very long time, a clumsy, frantic time, until a cry came from my lungs, as though I had been holding my breath for several minutes. Today, more than two years later, that still puzzles me: how did my brain manage to keep the perception of my mother's body at such a distance, especially its smell? How could it take so long to accept the information that lay before it? That's not the only question her death left me with.
* * *
Four or five weeks later, in an unusually impenetrable state of numbness, I received the Booksellers' Prize for a novel which featured a mother walled up in herself and withdrawn from everything, who regains her ability to speak after years of silence. I gave my own mother a copy of the book before it came out, probably feeling proud of having completed a new novel, but also conscious, even through fiction, of turning the knife in the wound.
I have no memory of where the prize-giving took place nor of the ceremony itself. I don't think the terror had left me; and yet I smiled. A few years earlier, when the father of my children reproached me for rushing headlong into the future (he mentioned my annoying ability to put on a brave face, whatever the circumstances), I had self-importantly told him that I was in life.
I kept smiling at the dinner in my honour; my only concern was to remain upright, then seated, not to suddenly collapse into my plate, or plunge head-first as I had done at the age of twelve into an empty swimming pool. I remember the physical, indeed athletic dimension this effort to hold on required, even if no one was taken in. It seemed to me better to contain the sadness, to bottle it up, muffle it, silence it until I was finally alone, rather than give in to what could only have been a long howl or, even worse, a deep moan, and would undoubtedly have prostrated me on the floor. Over the past few months, events in my life had sped up markedly and life had once again set the bar too high. And so, it seemed to me, there was nothing else to do except put a brave face on it or else face up to it (even if it meant pretending).
And as far as that is concerned, I have known for a long time that it's better to remain upright than lie down, and better to avoid looking down.
In the months that followed I wrote another book I had been planning for several months. In hindsight I don't know how I managed it, except that there was nothing else to do once the children had gone to school and I was in the void, nothing apart from that chair waiting in front of the computer, nowhere else for me to sit, I mean, nowhere to put myself. After eleven years with the same company — and a long confrontation which had left me feeling drained — I had just been sacked; I was conscious of feeling a kind of dizziness when I found Lucile at home, so blue and still, and then the dizziness turned into terror and the terror to a kind of fog. I wrote every day and no one but me knows how much that book, which has nothing to do with my mother, nonetheless bears the imprint of her death and the state of mind it left me in. And then that book came out and there was no mother to leave hilarious messages on my answering machine about my TV appearances.
One evening that same winter on our way back from an appointment at the dentist's, as we walked side by side on the narrow pavement on the rue de la Folie-Méricourt, my son asked me, without warning or anything in our preceding conversation which could have led him to it: 'Did Grandma ... commit suicide, in a sense?'
Even today when I think of this question, I feel overwhelmed; not for its meaning but its form, that 'in a sense' from the lips of a nine-year-old child, a precaution for my sake, a way of testing the water, of tiptoeing. But maybe he was genuinely asking a question: given the circumstances, should Lucile's death be considered suicide?
The day I found my mother at home I was unable to pick up my children. They stayed at their father's. The following day I told them about their grandmother's death; I think I said something like, 'Grandma's dead', and in reply to their questions: 'She decided to go to sleep' (and yet I have read Françoise Dolto). A few weeks later, my son was calling me back to order: a spade is a spade. Grandma committed suicide, yes, she did herself in, rang down the curtain, gave up, called it a day, said stop, enough, basta, and she had good reasons for coming to that conclusion.
I don't know when the idea came to me to write about my mother, around her, starting from her. I know how strongly I resisted the idea, kept it at a distance for as long as possible, making a list of the countless authors who have written about their mothers, from the earliest to the most recent, as a way of proving how thoroughly the seam had been mined and the subject overworked. I banished phrases which came to me in the early hours or prompted by a memory, and so many openings of novels in all possible forms whose first words I didn't want to hear. I listed obstacles which would inevitably arise and the incalculable risks I would run in undertaking such a task.
My mother represented too vast a field, too dark, too desperate; in short, too risky.
I let my sister collect Lucile's letters, papers and writings and put them in a special trunk which soon after she took down to her cellar.
I had neither the space nor the strength.
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.
I thought I ought never to forget anything of her bizarre, dry sense of humour, of her unique capacity for fantasy.
I remembered that Lucile had successively been the lover of Marcello Mastroianni (she clarified: 'I could go for half a dozen like him'), of Joshka Schidlow (a theatre critic on Télérama magazine whom she had never met but whose intelligence and writing style she admired), of a businessman called Édouard, whose true identity we never discovered, of Graham, a genuine tramp and sometime violinist in the fourteenth arrondissement who was murdered. I shan't speak of the men who really shared her life. I remembered my mother enjoyed a chicken stew with Claude Monet and Immanuel Kant one evening in a distant suburb from which she returned on the RER, and that she was refused a cheque book for years as a result of giving away her money in the street. I remembered that my mother ran the IT system of the company she worked for, as well as for the whole of the Paris public transport network, and that she danced on café tables.
I don't know when I gave in; perhaps the day I realised how much writing, my writing, was linked to her, to her fictions, those moments of madness in which her life had become so burdensome that she had to escape it, moments in which her pain could only find expression in stories.
And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories. I recorded them, along with others who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family. I accumulated hours of digital words on my computer, hours full of memories, silences, tears and sighs, of laughter and secrets.
I asked my sister to bring the letters, writings and drawings out of the cellar; I searched, ferreted, scratched around, unearthed, exhumed. I spent hours reading and rereading, watching films, looking at photos, repeating the same questions and asking others too.
And then, like dozens of authors before me, I attempted to write my mother.
For over an hour, Lucile had been watching her brothers as they leapt from the ground to the stone, from the stone to the tree, and from the tree back to the ground, in a jerky dance she had trouble following. They were now huddled round what she imagined must be an insect, but she couldn't see it. Soon their sisters joined them, feverish and impatient, trying to push their way in to the middle of the group. When they saw the creature, the girls screamed; as though they're being strangled, thought Lucile, so shrill were their cries, especially Lisbeth's, who was capering around like a goat, while Justine called to Lucile in her shrillest tone to come and look at once. In her light crêpe silk dress, with her legs crossed so that nothing would get crumpled and her socks pulled up without a wrinkle over her ankles, Lucile had no intention of moving. Sitting on her bench, she didn't miss a second of the scene being played out before her, but nothing in the world would have made her reduce the distance between her and her brothers and sisters, who had by now been joined by other children attracted by their shrieks. Every Thursday, absolutely without exception, their mother Liane sent her unruly brood to the square; the older ones were entrusted with looking after the little ones, their only instruction not to come back before two hours were up. With great commotion, the siblings left the apartment on the rue de Maubeuge, went down the five flights of stairs, crossed the rue Lamartine then the rue Rochechouart before reaching the square, triumphant and remarkable, for no one could ignore these children who were only a few months apart in age, with their blond almost white hair, their bright eyes and their noisy games. Meanwhile, Liane would lie down on the nearest bed and sleep like a log; two hours of silence to recover from the round of pregnancies, childbirth and breastfeeding, the nights interrupted by crying and nightmares, the washing and the dirty nappies, the endless round of meals.
Lucile always sat on the same bench, a little apart, but sufficiently close to the trapezes and swings, a strategic vantage point which was ideal for seeing everything. Sometimes she agreed to play with the others; sometimes she stayed where she was, sorting things in my head, she explained, though she never said exactly what, or only made a vague gesture with her hands. Lucile sorted through the shouts, laughter, tears, comings and goings, the perpetual noise and commotion in which she lived. However, Liane was pregnant again; there would soon be seven of them, then probably eight and maybe more. Sometimes Lucile wondered if there was a limit to her mother's ability to bear children, if her belly could fill up and empty like this for ever, producing smooth pink babies that Liane devoured with her laughter and kisses. Or perhaps women were limited to a certain number of children, which Liane would soon reach, and then at last her body would be left unoccupied. With her feet swinging freely, sitting exactly in the middle of the bench, Lucile was thinking about the baby that was on its way and whose birth was expected in November. A black baby. For every night, before she fell asleep in the girls' bedroom, which already contained three beds, Lucile dreamed about a little sister who was entirely, irreversibly black, plump and shiny like a black pudding, whom her brothers and sisters would not dare go near, a little sister whose tears no one would understand, who would howl ceaselessly and whom her parents would eventually entrust to her. Lucile would take the baby under her wing and into her bed, and, even though she hated dolls, she would be the only one who could look after her. The black baby would be called Max, like the husband of Mme Estoquet, her teacher. He was a truck driver. The black baby would belong exclusively to her, would obey her in every situation, and would protect her. Justine's cries roused Lucile from her thoughts. Milo had set fire to the insect, which had burnt up in an instant. Justine came running up and hid between Lucile's legs, her little body racked with sobs and her head resting on her knees. As Lucile stroked her sister's hair, she noticed the trickle of green snot on her dress. It was not the day for this. Firmly she raised Justine's head and ordered her to blow her nose. Her little sister wanted to show her the dead insect and eventually Lucile got up. All that remained of the creature were some ashes and the hardened shell of its carapace. Lucile kicked sand over it, then raised her leg and spat on her hand to rub her sandal. Then she took a tissue from her pocket, dried Justine's tears and wiped her nose, before taking her face in her hands and kissing her, a proper kiss like one of Liane's, with her lips pressed to her sister's round cheeks.
Justine, whose nappy had come undone, ran off to join the others. They had already thrown themselves into a new game and were all clustered around Barthélémy. He was loudly telling them what to do. Lucile returned to her place on the bench. She watched as her brothers and sisters first scattered, then ran together again before separating once more. She felt as though she were watching an octopus or a jellyfish or, now that she thought about it, a squishy animal with several heads, which didn't exist. There was something about this nameless protean being — which she was certain she was part of, just as each segment is part of the worm even when it is separated from it — something that covered her entirely, which submerged her.
Of all of them, Lucile had always been the quietest. If Barthélémy or Lisbeth knocked on the toilet door when she had taken refuge there to read or escape the noise, she would command in a voice firm enough to discourage any repeat attempt: leave me alone.
Lucile's mother appeared on the sandy path at the entrance to the square, waving, looking radiant and beautiful. Liane caught the light in an inexplicable way. Perhaps because her hair was so light and her smile so broad. Perhaps because of her confidence in life, her way of wagering everything, holding nothing back. The children ran towards her. Milo threw himself into her arms and clung on to her clothes. Liane began to laugh her musical laugh and said over and over: my little kings!
She had come to fetch Lucile for her photo shoot. When she announced this, there were mingled cries of enthusiasm and protest — the shoot had been arranged for several days after all — a complete hubbub during which Liane praised Lucile for keeping her clothes spotless and managed to give her eldest daughter a few instructions. Lisbeth was to put the four little ones in the bath, get the potatoes on and wait for their father to come home.
* * *
Lucile took her mother's hand and they headed towards the metro. Lucile had been a model for several months. She had trod the catwalk for the Virginie and L'Empereur collections, two upmarket children's clothes labels, posed for several ads and appeared in the fashion pages of various newspapers. The previous year, Liane had admitted to Lisbeth that the Christmas dinner and all the presents had been paid for by the photos which appeared in Marie-Claire and Mon Tricot, two series in which Lucile had starred. Her brothers and sisters sometimes went to photo shoots too, but Lucile was the most in demand of them all. Lucile loved the photos. A few months earlier, huge posters for a textile brand had covered the walls of the metro, featuring a close-up of her face with her hair tied back. She was wearing a red pullover and giving the thumbs-up. The accompanying slogan was: 'Intexa — it's like this!' At the same time, all the children in her class and in every class in Paris had received a blotter with Lucile's face on it.
Lucile loved the photos, but what she loved best of all was the time she spent with her mother. The trips there and back on the metro, the waiting between shoots, the pain au chocolat they bought in the first baker's they came to; it was stolen time devoted to her alone, when no other child could insist on taking Liane's hand. Lucile knew that these moments would soon cease, because Liane reckoned that at the start of the next school year Lisbeth would be old enough to take Lucile to these sessions or perhaps she could go by herself.