November 22, 2009

La place

My French professor assigned La Place as our last novel of the semester.  I had read Ernaux's Une Femme, and I wasn't sure what La Place would be about but I decided to start.

The first page was deceptively ordinary.  The second page was a sneak attack, a surprise "Gotcha!" that made a headache start to build behind my eyes and around my temples from holding back tears.

"Mon père est mort deux mois après..."

The sentence made my breath catch; it hitched inward and ratcheted into my lungs, stopping for an instant in my throat.

Oh.  This could be hard. 

Even the few pages afterward--all that I have read, so far--the wait beside the body, the careful closing of the eyes, the preparations for the funeral, the condolences of her neighbors--all this is like being transported back in time, three years, six months, five days, to a Tuesday in May that was sunny and mild and terrible.

Already, I imagine myself in class, responding to the novel, and try to prepare myself for what may be inevitable: the knowledge that Ernaux's words are not just crafted well but are a true representation of grief, that her description could be a timeline of my own thoughts, that the numbness that you feel in reading her account is not contrived or there for a purpose but instead the product of shutting off the world so that you can function.  I see myself defending her style, my eyes tearing up and needing to leave the room, my intimate relationship with the subject becoming apparent; the vulnerability of sharing that with people who hardly know me is excruciating, terrifying. 

Then, I imagine myself instead: numb, quiet, not participating, my silence (mis)taken for not having read the book.  Is this better or worse?  I would have insights that hopefully my classmates haven't had.

As always, it seems to be a struggle between being honest and accepting the social niceties that follow ("I'm so sorry."  "I didn't know." and others) with just keeping it quiet, holding back, not sharing so that I don't have to lie ("It's all right.  It was a while ago.  That's okay.  Thanks") or react to sympathy or worse, know that thereafter they could look at me and see this background piece of information like a filter, a special insight into how I respond to things, a clue to my emotions, something that most do not have.

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