The Life, Old Age and Death of a Woman of the People | Didier Eribon | Granta

The Life, Old Age and Death of a Woman of the People

Didier Eribon

Translated by Michael Lucey

My link with my mother placed me within a collective history and a mental geography that a single word can describe: family. In her book Old Age, Simone de Beauvoir calls attention to societies studied by ethnologists where older people are the keepers of the knowledge of family genealogies. Is it not the same in our own society? It is certainly so when it comes to genealogies, and, more widely, to that social memory that is most at risk of disappearing alongside genealogies. The task of remembering in this way usually falls to women, partly because they live longer, on average, than men, but also because, in a general way, women are the ones assigned the task of maintaining family relationships and friendships throughout their lives, and so they keep the register up to date, and understand the complexity of these relationships and the changes that take place within them. So it is that in Patrimony, Philip Roth can insist about his mother: ‘it was she around whose quietly efficient presence the family had continued to cohere,’ and that she was ‘the repository of our family past, the historian of our childhood and growing up’. The point here extends beyond ‘family’ understood in the narrowest sense of the term. I am acutely aware of this now: my mother’s death has cut me off from an entire part of myself which, by way of her, remained connected with even quite distant family connections. When I came across the name ‘Eribon’ somewhere on the internet beside a name I didn’t recognise, I could always ask her: ‘Do you know who this is?’ and she would reply: ‘Yes, that’s one of your father’s brother X’s sons,’ or ‘Yes, that’s the wife of X, one of the sons of your father’s cousin,’ and so on. Her genealogical knowledge extended across several generations.

But now I will no longer have access to this kind of information. And so I lose a connection, however distant and vague it may have seemed, to an entire universe of ‘kinship’. My mother’s clarifications inevitably reintegrated me into that universe, where I would find my bearings without too much difficulty thanks to the map those few names she mentioned laid out for me, reconnecting me to the mental landscape of my childhood and adolescence as she recreated it for me.

My mother’s death cut me off from my family ‘genealogy’; but did it not also break the final threads that attached me to the social milieu I came from? This was a milieu that I had wanted to flee, and only later did I try to rediscover it, something I have managed only partially, and with a hesitating kind of rhythm. ‘I shall never hear the sound of her voice again,’ writes Annie Ernaux at the end of A Woman’s Story, having just described her mother’s death. ‘It was her voice, together with her words, her hands, and her way of moving and laughing, which linked the woman I am to the child I once was. The last bond between me and the world I come from has been severed.’ The same is true for me. It was mainly by way of my mother that my present was linked to my past, to my childhood, to the years of my adolescence. She was of course present in my memories of these periods, just as I was in hers, memories that she enjoyed sharing, sometimes with irony, sometimes with acrimony, though most frequently in a simple, factual tone, defending her stories and her versions of the facts when I challenged or contradicted her. I didn’t always like it when she described the young boy or the teenager I had been – a version of myself I had wanted to put behind me – or when she recalled things I had said that now struck me as naïve or embarrassing, or when she described clothes I would wear that, in retrospect, seemed ridiculous, so typical of a working-class boy whose only way of distinguishing himself from the other boys in his milieu was to look ‘eccentric’, as my mother used to say, even though I still looked working-class to the other students at the lycée, who, for the most part, came from more privileged backgrounds, both economically and culturally. (These weren’t the children of the ‘grande bourgeoisie’ of Reims, of course. They sent their children to the private Catholic schools in the city, where they wouldn’t run any danger of being exposed to the ‘propaganda’ of ‘Communist’ teachers who were thought to ‘populate’ public schools. They went where they would be given a traditional and conservative education, safeguarded from the turpitudes of the surrounding world, with its leftist ideas and principles of social justice and secularism.)

There was a day when I went to school wearing an orange shirt and a purple tie and was summoned to the principal’s office, who then sent me home because I was inappropriately dressed. (What times those were, when you think back on it!) My father grumbled about the way I dressed, which he found ridiculous (there was no equivalent in his world, certainly not at the factory where he worked). My mother, who shared his view, calmed him down by saying, ‘It’s what’s in fashion in the schools,’ which, of course, made no sense. I must have been thirteen or fourteen. This was shortly before I turned into a Trotskyite activist and an aspiring intellectual, which involved a radical change in the way I dressed and acted: long hair, corduroys, turtlenecks, a duffle coat, Clarks sun boots . . . My parents found this just as difficult to understand, but at least it was less colourful. And it did correspond better with ‘lycée fashion’ – much more so with what was fashionable in universities; the students I was spending time with in my political activities all wore the same thing.

Didier Eribon

Didier Eribon is professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens. His books include Returning to Reims, the biography Michel Foucault, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, and other works of critical theory.

Photograph © Thomas Ostermeier

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Translated by Michael Lucey

Michael Lucey’s most recent book is What Proust Heard: Novels and the Ethnography of Talk. He is also the translator of Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims.

Photograph © Xavier Gómez

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