Not for her. For me. Or the other way round.
CHANTAL AKERMAN REMAINS one of the most important European filmmakers of the last 50 years. Across her remarkable filmic output, Akerman developed an avant-garde cinematic language that recalibrated modes of cinematic attention, rethinking representations of the body and experiences of time. From experimental epistolary films like News from Home, through her most celebrated fictional work Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, right up to her final film, the 2015 documentary No Home Movie, Akerman’s work explores questions of class, gender, domesticity, sexuality, and alienation without ever being circumscribed by them. Her films are never quite about these things: there are always elements that remain too playful, too difficult, too elusive. This elusiveness is part of what makes Akerman’s films so beguiling, and also why they always present a problem for critical interpretation; uneasy with identification, her films operate through paradox.
Throughout the course of her creative life, and indeed the course of her own everyday life in general, the most important figure in Akerman’s world was her mother, Natalia. A Polish survivor of the Holocaust, Natalia came to Belgium and settled in Brussels, where Akerman and her younger sister Sylviane were born and brought up. Akerman’s closeness with her mother courses through a great deal of her work, whether it be explicitly, as in the letters, phone conversations, and Skype calls between the two that feature in a number of the documentary films (Letters Home, News from Home, and No Home Movie), or within the embedded maternal imagery of her fiction films including, among others, Jeanne Dielman (a film which Akerman described as “a love film for my mother”). In the autobiographical monologue A Family in Brussels, their closeness even crosses the boundary of the self, the voices of mother and daughter merging and becoming one. The intensity of their loving relationship had an extremely tragic conclusion. On October 5, 2015, after completing No Home Movie, a film which deals directly with her mother’s illness and death, a work of such personal magnitude that Akerman said of the film, “I think if I knew I was going to do this, I wouldn’t have dared to do it,” Akerman took her own life in her Paris home. Though the reasons for any person’s suicide are often more complex and multiple than we might think, and Akerman was a long-term sufferer of severe depression, it is exceedingly difficult not to see the absence of her mother, the space left by her death, as the principal cause of Akerman’s actions.
My Mother Laughs, translated by Daniella Shreir, was written in and around the same time that No Home Movie was made, and in some sense the two can be understood as companion pieces. Like the film, My Mother Laughs puts Akerman’s relationship with her mother at the heart of the work and in doing so creates something extraordinarily powerful, difficult, and discomforting in equal measure. The book covers a period of time from 2013 onward, as Natalia’s weakening condition and frequent hospital visits left her unable to manage on her own, leading to Akerman flying back from New York to Brussels to live together with her mother. During the daily process of feeding, clothing, and assisting Natalia, Akerman writes. This writing details not only the everyday tasks and minutiae which the care of her mother has imposed upon her but also works through elements of her past, describing New York and Paris, her own mental illness, her relationships, and the shadow of the Holocaust. As a result, from the confines and frustrations of the present, the narrative shifts backward and forward through a fractured and irregular timeline.
Daniella Shreir’s translation is not the first appearance of My Mother Laughs (Ma mere rit) in English, as an edition translated by Corina Copp was published earlier in 2019 by Brooklyn-based publisher Song Cave. Both texts evidence a clear familiarity with Akerman’s work and bear a strong degree of similarity, to the extent that no reader of either edition could fail to be struck by the weight of Akerman’s words. But the Silver Press edition includes a series of useful supplementary materials, particularly the perceptive introduction provided by Eileen Myles, which is attentive to the work’s strange music, its prayer-like qualities, its awkwardness. Both introduction and afterword, the latter given by writer and critic Frances Morgan, help center Akerman’s queerness and her Jewish heritage, two factors that permeate the heavy spaces and dark corners of the text.
But these components aside, it is also, to my mind, Shreir’s translation which is the more effective, though, given the combination of syntactic eccentricity and lexical simplicity of Akerman’s writing, it is more a question of tone, tense, and cumulative effect than individual word choice. There are occasional phrases in Copp’s version which don’t quite seem to fit and awkward moments of sentence structure that appear unintentional. For example, Copp translates the final lines of the book as:
We loved each other, we split up, I’ve forgotten why, and we love each other.
When we walk, even our shadows love each other.
The first sentence does not quite capture the sense of circularity and return. Compare with the rendering by Shreir:
We loved each other, we went our separate ways, I don't remember why, and now we love each other.
Even our shadows are in love when we walk.
In her “Translator's Note,” Shreir discusses beginning the process of translation by studying Akerman’s use of English, which the latter used frequently in interviews and public appearances, and this attention comes across. Though, as Shreir admits, she simplifies certain of Akerman’s idiosyncrasies, the achievement of her translation creates anew in English a work pulsing with Akerman’s voice.
Shreir’s translation quickly makes apparent why such differentiations of rhythm and tone are so important. The text employs various devices to mirror the sense of containment, the closeness of the two bodies confined in the space of the apartment, and the result is claustrophobic, circular, even stifling. The repetitious tasks of care become amplified, swollen, and strained by the recursive sentences, broken dialogue, and miscommunications. The closeness of mother and daughter pulls and pulls at each of them, threatening to engulf them both. There are shifts of perspective which dispense with indications of whom is speaking; the words of Akerman and her mother compressing toward one another, becoming a single, uncertain voice:
Stop worrying about it.
She sighs and says no.
Then she groans without realising it.
I leave the room.
I come back in and ask her why she’s groaning.
Am I groaning. I’m not groaning.
She can’t hear her groans.
However, the two bodies, the two voices, do not give in to one another so easily: they resist. Each moment of unity is fraught with uncertainty and division. There are frequent silences and arguments, even resentment:
I’ve bought my mother some white flowers. It’s so grey here in the apartment.
But with flowers maybe we’ll feel it less.
We’re making an effort. It isn’t working very well.
I have nothing to say. My mother is complaining.
Not least because of this dense and uneasy atmosphere, the experience of reading My Mother Laughs is an intensely physical one. The book’s deliberately exhaustive attention to gestures and quotidian functions of the body, a concentrated kind of proprioception, generates an emotive pressure and radically distended sense of time that makes reading the book often feel like having a weight pressed against the lungs. What makes this affective pressure so forceful, and far more interesting than any simple heavy sentimentality or melancholy, is that it remains in continual tension with forces of potential transformation and rupture. These forces take the form of coping strategies, creative impulses, distractions, and reflective lapses into memory. Sometimes these disruptions are actively sought, like the act of writing, of writing the text the reader has in their hands, which Akerman does in a small room which she uses to “hide” from her mother, to avoid the awkward atmosphere. Others are an effect produced by the attentiveness and attunement on the environment itself, the way the cycles of washing, eating, making lists, and so on take on some of the character of the sacred, of the rituals put before an atheological beyond (something which is central to Jeanne Dielman). There are Akerman’s relationships, particularly her long-term and abusive relationship with a woman referred to as C., interwoven with the severe moods of depression and mania which Akerman suffers and for which she takes medication. There is too, the irresolvable trauma of the Holocaust, which Akerman both attempts to reject, having “had enough of all those survivor stories,” but which is ingrained within her history, even her language. Indeed, to such an extent that “conditions are always right for thinking about it again, even words or things that could just as easily make you think of something else.” Akerman gives examples of words like “lice” and discussions of the purity of air before concluding:
The word remember too, and the word memory … and the word smoke also makes me shudder. As well as the word field and the word earth.
But of all the forces threatening to disrupt the delicate ecosystem which Akerman and Natalia have made for themselves, the most evident, the most continually present, is death, specifically the death of Natalia, which is inscribed in the very failing presence of her body, in that object which is the duty of Akerman’s care. Death is the only thing which can ultimately bring an end the discomforting cycles of bodily processes, the chiding and arguments, the atmosphere of unease. It is something, of course, that Akerman dreads but whose inevitability she feels she must prepare for, however impossible that might be.
In this way, My Mother Laughs bears similarities with other works of mourning, such as C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, which seek to contend with and find meaning in an event which presents them with the greatest meaninglessness and horror: the death of someone close to them. However, in the case of My Mother Laughs, such thoughts are preemptive, any act of mourning having arrived too soon. Besides, as Akerman says herself:
it’s meant to be impossible to really prepare yourself so I’m wasting my time.
Anyway, she has this terrifying desire to live.
The corporeal stubbornness of the body denies the act in every fiber of its being even as its visible decay presents the contrary. The attempt to face the void of meaning presented by death is itself emptied of meaning by the absence of the event. The body presents an impasse which cannot be resolved. The body is what is there, but it is also passing, de-forming, ebbing away. The tasks of care which give the body its due are frustrating, awkward, dull, yet in their repetition they become imbued with the character of prayer. When the sacred appears in the act of washing, of eating, it takes away from the everyday, undermines the ephemeral character of the act which is so important to it. This problem of the corporal and the ethereal is part of the activity of writing and of film: a film takes away from the body, flattens and monumentalizes it, transforms it into an image. The physicality of Akerman’s depictions of time and human gesture and movement resist this derealization by making us aware of it. Likewise, by writing about Natalia, Akerman presents the frustrating and ordinary character of their relationship but in doing so transforms it into something preserved, lasting.
There is then a double impulse, at once irreconcilable and inevitable, faced by the body and its physical/mental activity. The first is toward transformation, to leave the body, extend beyond its transient nature, to resolve it into elsewhere. This tendency is conceptual, even religious, pointing toward unification and higher meaning. The other rejects such attempts at resolution, stays with the body in its presence, its failings, and wishes to preserve each moment as it is. Grief and familial care are, under this aegis, private, personal. The events are not able to be given meaning beyond their brute facticity. For Akerman, this is: her mother, her mental illness, her caring, her sorrow. The two present a paradox which densely textures My Mother Laughs and engages the reader not merely to feel or respond to grief, either Akerman’s or their own, nor to reflect on its possible meaning, but to actively experience the impossibility of those two tendencies which grief actually presents.
This paradox makes itself evident across the various transformative aspects that operate across My Mother Laughs, thoughts and actions continually undermining and exacerbating one another. Akerman links her mother’s “stubbornness” to her being a survivor, Natalia’s intransigence a vital part of her history. And for Akerman herself, writing proves not to be a suitable escape or mode of survival, because in the end she “does not like” what she has written. In the case of filmmaking, Akerman, despite those around her seeing her work as a project into which she has put “her whole self,” feels as though she only leaves traces, deliberately conflating her own body with her body of work when she writes: “I needed to leave a trace, really I did. But my body’s tissue was still rotten.” The symbiosis of work and authorial identity does not offer the prospect of healing, of salving the wounds of the self through creative impulse. Each act of transformation, each kindling of meaning, comes up against the barrier of the body, the present, finds resistance, and lapses back. All identification entails exclusion. The individuality of the body, its haecceity (a term for the indivisible uniqueness of an individual thing, its thisness) can only be destroyed by the desire to move beyond.
Ultimately My Mother Laughs represents a vital document for the ongoing reception and interpretation of Akerman’s work more widely, distilling and deepening many of the complex threads woven in the fabric of her films. However, what makes the book one of the most interesting and vital works of literary nonfiction of recent years is a startling reciprocity of content and form that faces the paradox of illness and death presented by the loss of our most beloved, refusing both to simply take refuge in any restorative meaning or merely drowning in its void. The uncertain tension between presence and absence captured by the heaviness and silence that pervade the atmosphere between Akerman and Natalia is replicated at the level of the sentence by the stuttering repetitions, the refrains of “I don't know” and “I’m not sure,” as well as the forced attention on the activities of domestic care. This tension, amplified by a fragmentary temporality, manifests itself at the level of thematic content with the body as the site of an unyielding contestation between preservation and transformation, between here and there.
Daniel Fraser is a writer, critic, and award-winning poet from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. His work has appeared in a wide-variety of print and online journals and has spoken about literature, Marxism, and cinema at academic conferences across the globe.