“Silences, or a woman’s life” by Marie Chaix, is the most

beauteous, captivating and dolorous book I have ever deciphered, one of the few that marked my substance and I’ll always reread. Is the book that made me cry for at least three readings out of over ten, even though I like to “brag” – to myself! –  about my solidly established self control when it comes to the manifestation of my emotions. The only one that, whenever I peruse its pages, ignites within me remnants of the former “roller-coaster of thrills” that I used to embody and quite despise, for its baffling and childish (re)actions…absolute clues of exorbitant sentimentalism. Bluntly, this nonfiction novel touches the bosom of my spirit’s winding labyrinth.

I have discovered it while at university, when among labs, projects and outings, I still delved -not as prolifically as before that chapter of existence- into the practice of delighting my senses with brief respites from my actuality, floating in nostalgic and magical realms weaved by others’ imaginations and recollections. It has been years since, and I haven’t found yet one that could equal its impactful message.  A story with revealing title – originally Les silences ou la vie d’une femme -it mainly follows the sinuous road of a woman’s destiny and how it naturally blends with and refines the author’s. It is about what we lastly acquire and bestow on in our ephemeral being, so painfully punctuated with uncertainties in which we seek an enduring sense or an intimate justification. Maybe is also the resonating I grasp with, the loose resemblance I envisage in most of its portrayals with my own (and all ours) fate, but above it all, I identify in it few distinctive elements that, amalgamated,  confer its mesmerizing appeal.

Firstly, is the candidness of the writer’s tone. Raw and accurate descriptions, not excessive, nor scarce, acutely relatable fragments of unadorned reality. There is a sort of detached objectivity that permeates throughout, which instills in you the conviction that veridicality has not been massively altered by personal interpretations.

He’d come back; he’d performed no miracle. A sense of injustice overcame me. Little by little my sorrow changed to bitterness, as I watched a melancholy appear in her countenance, a distress in her eyes that should have never been there –not after the hero was home. She’d promised as much. […]

“So, you noticed!” she said to me. “I know I ought to be happy. It’s nothing, it won’t last. Just a little leftover heartache I’ve hung onto, it’s still resisting our bodies’ warmth. It’s difficult, you know. It takes time.” […]

“It’s late”, she said with a sigh, “you’ve got to sleep. You’ll see later…” Her gaze floated away. I don’t like it when she looks into the future. I don’t want her to leave me for the shores of old age, where people land laden with knowledge and experience, so they think, but most of all with regrets.

“You’ll see”, she went on. “Things are never the way you’d imagined them. Sometimes waiting for an event is so overwhelming that when it happens you have no strength left for it.”

Perhaps I would see, later. I didn’t much care. What I saw then and there was a woman exhausted of her substance, almost invisible, adrift amid sorrows that were draining the color from her cheeks.

I would have liked to restrain her, but she had already gone too far, and I hadn’t yet strength enough. Between us stretched the expanse of years, that incessant, unswerving stream that no bridge –not even the greatest love- can span.

What I would see later is something you never dared teach me, because life means we each are left to our own fate: that heartaches are solitary and, like us, live out their lives to the end. (Pages 99 – 100)

Secondarily, is the authenticity of each and every sentence. There is such a genuine arrangement of words, such an idiosyncratic style that simply engulfs you and all you do is suspire it, with every synapse and without blink, from inception till denouement. And what truly makes it irresistible is the poetic tone, the melodiousness that trickles from each passage, absolute opposite of nondescript.

…I remember, she said, I went on a long journey. I wasn’t in pain. I was floating among voices inside a glass cage. The voices, velvety as feathers, beat softly against my walls. I recognized that you were calling me. […] I was being called from the other side, too, where vast domains of iridescent lights stretched away into infinity and the air was filled with beautiful clear carols and soothing requiems. Whenever I started thinking, my thoughts were liquid and warm, like milk flowing comfortingly through my veins. (Page 111)

Thirdly, is the deviation from monotonous chronology. Yes, in some aspects of our life orderliness is essential, but in writing is indubitably captivating (and a peculiar custom) to be presented with disparate pieces of a message, flashbacks commingled with the present, an enkindling puzzle that provokes your mind as much as it rummages your soul.

A pleasant memory: in our house on Rue de Nordfeld, on the floor above us, lived an extremely agreeable lady who seemed to me out of a fairy tale. She was Austrian, and she used to tell us scrumptious stories. […] She had beautiful red hair and pink plump arms; she left behind her an aura of musk and pastry. In a cupboard hung with thick carved doors, she accumulated exotic preserves – green walnuts in syrup, stuffed prunes… In those days of war and famine, when one would see people falling down in the street from exhaustion, such wonders left us dizzy with pleasure. Where did she find these treasures? Later, Mother explained. It’s true that on the stairs we often passed German officers and pretty ladies wearing a lot of makeup. It hardly matters. When our fairy godmother disappeared at the end of the war along with the Germans, I wept copious tears.

 

My mother’s illness goes on for years. I have never seen her in good health, but always surmounting her pain to laugh and sing and make music with us. She dies at forty-four. It’s impossible to describe my despair. My life has been a series of unacceptable deaths. Looking at her – so beautiful, so gentle- in her gown of black and white taffeta, smiling beneath her big feather hat, it’s hard for me to believe that this young woman was my mother. I cradle her inside myself like a child.

 

I knew love once in my life, and it seared me to the bone. I did everything for this love, gauging the extent of my folly at every instant and with a precision not even the most perceptive among you could ever know. After forty years’ existence (years filled with conflict), it is still intact… (Pages 69-70)

Ultimately, what makes this immaculate and enthralling opera unforgettable is its nostalgic agelessness.  Even though published firstly, in France, in 1976, and revolving around events that occur prior to that date, its actuality and prospectiveness are incontestable. Aren’t, in the end, memories what we all struggle for? For us and, eventually, if a bit more ardent in our utopian aspirations, for posterity? Whatever the space we stride through and whatever part of history we pulsate in, our pivotal impulse is to hold on (and beseech our intimate clock to allow us preserve) and bequeath a bit of what we once were, are and will become.

…My life is a worn-out fabric. In places it’s threadbare, elsewhere it’s unraveling. I try and sew it up again, patching holes, reknotting loose threads. Sometimes I re-embroider it, and then the colors get mixed up or overlap and make new patterns and shadows. What will you make of them? What will you learn about me? Often I myself don’t know anymore, I shut my eyes, and it’s all a jumble. I would have liked you to hold me close to your heart like a favorite book, we could have written the last chapter together, like the final movement of a symphony I would have had time to finish. But words escape me now and all too many pages will be left blank. The notes have flown off their staves and dance drunkenly inside my head […]

I keep busy mingling what is past with what is passing, I dress the latter in the former’s old clothes. I pass time by mending it. When I look at the lines in the wall, I know their every detail and blur by heart. I leaf through albums where each photograph is dated, where certain family scenes are even captioned. I advance, come back, jump ahead, dawdle, stop. I dream. I remember. I play back the images like ill-matched strips of a movie that I’ve never had time to edit… (Page 77)

The above mentioned features echo in two other nonfiction novels by Marie Chaix that I reread a couple of times, “The Laurels of Lake Constance” and “The Summer of the Elder Tree”, but the mellifluous attractiveness is slightly contained in those. I ponder that, no matter how pretentious your preferences regarding literature are,  if you’re a sentient being, “Silences, or a woman’s life” will certainly affect you as least as much as to feel that you not misused your finances on it. Moreover, its lecture revolves around an accessible length, about 159 pages, so it is not a time consuming narration. In my opinion, it is a rare and undiluted treasure, and consequently a valuable acquisition.

 

The photo’s source: My Roby’s personal archive. 🙂

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