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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan. 2012 English title: Nothing Holds Back the Night. 

book_club_2Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit was highly praised when it was published and I’m glad we had it on our Book Club list for this month. Delphine de Vigan started this novel after her mother Lucile committed suicide. She found her dead in her apartment, four days after she took her life. Imagine the shock, the sight, the stench and the pain. This book is a quest to find out about her mother, who she was, where her pain came from.

Sans doute avais-je envie de rendre un hommage à Lucile, de lui offrir un cercueil de papier – car de tous, il me semble que ce sont les plus beaux – et un destin de personnage.

Mais je sais aussi qu’à travers de l’écriture je cherche l’origine de sa souffrance, comme s’il existait un moment précis où le noyau de sa personne eût été entamé d’une manière définitive et irréparable, et je ne peux ignorer combien cette quête, non contente d’être difficile, est vaine.

I was certainly willing to pay a tribute to Lucile, to give her a paper coffin – because it seems to me that they are the most beautiful of all – and the destiny of a character.

But I also know that I’m writing to find out the origin of her pain, as if there were a precise moment were the kern of her being had been damaged forever and beyond repair. I cannot ignore that this quest is difficult and most of all, vain.

I don’t think it makes sense to summarise the events that Delphine de Vigan relates in her book. Suffice to say that Lucile faced several dramas in her childhood, that her beauty was a curse. She grew up among eight siblings, three of them died of an untimely death. Her parents were unconventional, bordering irresponsible. She was always a secretive child. She married young and pregnant. She wasn’t cut out for motherhood even if she loved her daughters. She was bipolar and her demons ate her alive, bit her daughters’ childhood and left a permanent dent in their bodies and souls. She had prolonged stays in psychiatric institutions and her siblings and children were always concerned about her. Yet, she was strong enough to start afresh at forty.

This is Lucile’s story and it is a peculiar one, her own, interesting enough to make a book. But that’s not what makes the book so compelling.

The true achievement of the novel is in the narration. The chapters alternate between Lucile’s story and the author’s struggle with her task. Writing this cost her a lost of energy and resulted in sleepless nights. She interviewed her family and dug out memories. Not all of them were pleasant ones. She read all the material her mother left (letters, poems, diaries, notes) She listened to the tapes her grand-father had recorded. She re-read her own diaries. All this stirred a lot of emotions, raised a lot of questions.

J’écris ce livre parce que j’ai la force aujourd’hui de m’arrêter sur ce qui me traverse et parfois m’envahit, parce que je veux savoir ce que je transmets, parce que je veux cesser d’avoir peur qu’il nous arrive quelque chose comme si nous vivions sous l’emprise d’une malédiction, pour pouvoir profiter de ma chance, de mon énergie, de ma joie, sans penser que quelque chose de terrible va nous anéantir et que la douleur, toujours, nous attendra dans l’ombre.

I’m writing this book because I am now strong enough to think about what goes through me and sometimes invades me. Because I want to know what I pass on, because I want to stop dreading that something will happen to us, as if we were living under a bad spell. I want to be able to make the most of the chance I have, of my energy or of my joy without thinking that something terrible will crush us and that pain will always wait for us in the shadows.

This novel is both an homage to Lucile and a therapy for the author, or is therapy too strong a word? Perhaps it was just part of her healing process. I genuinely hope it brought her peace.

Vigan_NuitShe’s well aware that some of the things she writes won’t please her family. She tells her doubts, silently asks for their forgiveness, shares the reassurance she gets from some relatives. To me, she seemed strong and fragile at the same time. Strong in her resolution to finish her project. Fragile about herself. I noticed that she never says my ex-husband or my partner; she says my children’s father or the man I love as if writing my before a noun referring to a spouse burnt her hand or could jinx the relationship.

This book is different from what I expected. She voices her uncertainties about her right to do this, the accuracy of what she’ll write and the fear to reopen old wounds. She’s not here to settle her differences or to judge her family. However, she doesn’t shy away from the truth even if she knows it can only be her truth. She pays attention to her relatives’ feelings but doesn’t let them get in the way of her work, her quest.

Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is remarkable, overwhelming with sincerity. It’s hard for me to convey all the emotion and sadness this book kindled. Life is harder for some than for others; Delphine de Vigan had a difficult childhood but turned into a great novelist.

PS: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is a quote from the lyrics of a famous song by Alain Bashung, Osez Joséphine. Delphine de Vigan says she was listening to Bashung when she wrote the book. She passed this on to this reader, the song was in my head all along.

  1. June 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    I have this on the to-read list: published in English 12/13: Bloomsbury.

    How old was she (the author) when her mother died, and how old was her mother when she committed suicide? I think it’s tough on family members when they are left to deal with a suicide although I respect the decision in case of terminal illness. I had a friend who committed suicide a few years ago, and I was stunned by it. Took me a long time to deal with it as I had no idea there was a problem, and in her case, she seemed to have everything to live for.

    I agree, btw, that beauty is a curse and it brings its attendant issues.


    • June 16, 2013 at 6:32 pm

      Delphine de Vigan was something like 42 when her mother died and her mother was 62.
      They know why she committed suicide. To never know why a friend or a relative committed suicide must be awful, especially for children.

      Some of the things they lived through are truly horrifying. Telling too much about it sounded like spoilers so I kept it simple in the billet.
      I’m looking forward to reading your review.


      • June 16, 2013 at 6:40 pm

        Ok. I was just curious about the ages. I can wait until I read the book to know the rest, thanks. Anyway, an interesting author to watch, right?


        • June 16, 2013 at 6:46 pm

          Yes, she’s interesting. I like her voice very much. I want to read her other books too, especially No et moi. (it’s been made into a film by Zabou Breitman)


          • June 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm

            That’s a children’s or YA book isn’t it?


            • June 16, 2013 at 6:53 pm

              Not that I’m aware of but we don’t really have YA category. This one is in the adult section of bookstores.


              • June 16, 2013 at 7:16 pm

                Just checked and it’s listed as a Bloomsbury Children’s book


              • June 16, 2013 at 8:00 pm

                I checked too, not published by a children publisher here. Weird.


  2. June 17, 2013 at 8:23 am

    I want to read this some day but since it sounds similar to what I have experienced, I have to brace myself. I like that she splits this in two, writing about the writing process and how the suicide affected her. I bought it just when it came out and was surprised that it is called roman – it seems a memoir.
    How awful to find your mother like that.
    I never thought No & Moi is a children’s book. I find that weird as well.


    • June 17, 2013 at 8:28 am

      To be honest, I thought about you when I was reading it and I wondered if you’d like to read it. Several elements reminded me of things you mentioned about your childhood.
      She tried to be fair to everyone in her narration and I enjoyed following her writing process.


      • June 17, 2013 at 5:30 pm

        I had planned to read it with you but the last couple of weeks I was reminded so often of my mother that I couldn’t do it. Maybe it wouldn’t affect me but maybe it would.
        Still, I might read it very soon.
        Growing up with a mother who is very ill is hard but then it still depends how the illness is handled. my mother had sadistic streak. Maybe Delphine’s mother was still very kind… That would make it sad in a totally different way.
        She doesn’t try to write about it in a humurous way, does she?


        • June 17, 2013 at 9:21 pm

          Oh no, she doesn’t write about it in a humourus way. Far from it. She also avoids miserabilism, which is good.
          Her mother was very ill and her worst years were when her daughters were growing up, not when they were adults. It must have been very hard. Her parents were divorced and at a moment, her father got custody of both sisters and they could only visit their mother every other weekend.


  3. June 17, 2013 at 9:35 am

    This looks like a wonderful and beautiful book, though it also looks like quite a sad book. It looks like a memoir (probably novelized) of the author and her mother – like Caroline I also wondered why she called it a novel. The alternate chapter arrangement looks quite interesting. I hope it comes out in English translation soon. Thanks for this review, Emma.


    • June 17, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      It will be available in English this year.
      Meanwhile, you can try her other novel Underground Time (billet here)
      I enjoy her voice and her intelligence, her moderation.


      • June 23, 2013 at 8:20 am

        Thanks Emma! I will look for ‘Underground Time’.


        • June 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm

          I’m interested in your review.


  4. June 17, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Sounds like a really great book to read.

    On the issue about artists portraying their families, it seems very common as does some negative reactions to doing so. Philip Roth writes a lot about it. I have a friend who does something similar with her art and it definitely ruffles some feathers.


    • June 17, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      It’s a great book.
      She wrote this with her family, not against them. They all knew what she was doing but it doesn’t mean that what she writes can’t hurt them. It didn’t come as a surprise and I think she paid attention to her sister’s feelings. This is not a revenge book. It’s more a healing process or the will to leave something of her mother to survive her death. She had a difficult life after all.


  5. June 17, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    This really sounds like a very interesting and touching read. Amazingly, I haven’t heard of the book yet – I say amazingly because I stumbled across suicide in many of my recent reads although I didn’t pick them for the topic and in many cases didn’t even know. Young Gerber ends with a suicide and so does Thérèse Raquin. In the passage that I read this morning Santiago Gomoa introduced a young man into the novel who had tried eleven times to kill himself and who discusses famous cases of suicide with his girl friend! A weird coincidence.


    • June 17, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      Sometimes there are weird coincidences. We stumble upon books which have a related topic or echo a topic that makes the news. It happens all the time.

      It’s a very touching book and it’s available in German, Das Lächeln meiner Mutter. Why did they change the title? and especially for this one. Weird. I think the original title (same as in English) is better and definitely suits the book. Nothing holds back the night, except Delphine de Vigan’s writing, maybe.


      • June 18, 2013 at 12:45 pm

        Well, I don’t know why they changed the title of this book, but German publishers seem to love doing that even when the original title isjust perfect and can be translated literally without loss of meaning. Sometimes I can get really annoyed…


        • June 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm

          It happens with French publishers too.


      • June 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm

        Thanks Emma for giving me the German title of ‘Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit’ although if I can lay hands on the French original, I’ll read that one… some time. My existing pile of books to read will last for at least a year as it is. So many good books and so little time! Sigh.


        • June 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm

          I’d love to have more time to read, my TBR is huge.


  6. June 17, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    I was put of earlier book in english as it seemed rather light ,I pleased this is coming in English ,Thank Guy for mentioning that down on my to get list as well ,all the best stu


    • June 17, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      I really recommend Underground Time as well. I’m looking forward to reading your review.


  7. June 18, 2013 at 12:47 am

    Just checked with the publisher and the release date is March 2014


    • June 18, 2013 at 6:43 am

      In the UK, it’s August 2013


  8. June 19, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    I love how the title sounds in French! There’s nothing wrong with the English version, but the French one just sounds more lyrical to me. Interesting that it’s a song lyric!


    • June 19, 2013 at 11:20 pm

      You’re right, the sentence rolls on the tongue (is that even a correct sentence?)
      You can probably find the song (Osez Joséphine) on youtube. Alain Bashung was a talented artist and his untimely death was a shame. He had a deep voice, like Johnny Cash and his songs are worth listening for the music and the lyrics.


      • June 20, 2013 at 10:08 pm

        I found it, complete with slightly bizarre music video set in a circus ring with a horse riding around the edge. Yes, his voice did remind me of Johnny Cash actually. Heard the line too. I’ll listen more carefully another time and decipher the rest of the lyrics – too tired now!

        The idiom is “rolls off the tongue”, although “rolls on” actually makes more sense now that I think about it 🙂


        • June 20, 2013 at 10:26 pm

          He was really a great musician.

          Funny about rolls “off” instead of “on” for me, if translate the French literally.
          I find it endearing how Anglophones and French people react the opposite or see things the other way round. Of course there’s the driving, where England is concerned.
          It’s also book titles on the side of books: look at my shelves and you get a neck ache. Bend you head on the left to read the titles of French books and on the right to read the ones of English books. You got a literary version of Wimbledon tournament.
          It’s in tiny things like going to your “Uncle’s” to pledge clothes in English and to your “Aunt’s” in French. (discovered while reading Hunger by Knut Hamsun in English)
          Same for the title of this book. In French, it means more “Nothing stands up against the night” which isn’t exactly the same image as “Nothing holds back the night”.


          • July 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm

            Wow, I never realised there were so many opposites 🙂 That’s funny about the book spines. And yes, the image is really the opposite – holding back vs standing up against!


            • July 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm

              “book spines”, great, now I know how to say it in English. I didn’t know the word. Thanks


  9. June 26, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    For some reason I can’t bring myself to read non-fiction books about grieving/losing a loved one. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because, like most people, I have my dead and reading the grief of others might bring back my own. Perhaps they make me feel too helpless since there’s nothing I can do to help. Anyway, it sounds good but while I may yet read Underground Time I suspect I’ll skip this precisely because it sounds well written.


    • June 27, 2013 at 6:27 am

      I have the same reaction as you; I’m not tempted to read non-fiction about grief. It’s a feeling I don’t want to willigly expose myself to. (I dont want to read Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, for example) This is different. She doesn’t talk about her pain or her grieving process, she just wanted to grant her mother eternity through a book. She could have written her mother’s story before or a book about her childhood. In a way, I think she also wanted to put secrets in the open for her own family. She says she started to think about this project when her son asked her if his granny had committed suicide.


  10. August 18, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    I just posted my review this morning, so now I can read your billet! It’s a remarkable book. Oddly enough, I found the two strands equally compelling. I was gripped by Lucile’s story and drawn in by the author’s openness and non-judgemental approach.

    It must have given rise to a fascinating discussion at your book group. How did the others find it?


    • August 21, 2015 at 6:38 pm

      It is a remarkable book and I enjoyed reading about de Vigan’s quest on how to write this properly. It must have been a difficult but cathartic journey for her.
      I’ve seen this book on display tables in bookstores in New York, Copenhagen, Vienna. It has been widely translated and it seems well put forward. I’m happy for her. Like Virginie Despentes, she doesn’t come from the usual mold of French writers.

      The others liked this book very much too. It is a very personal book for the writer and everybody was touched by her work and awed by her approach. What a family!


  1. August 18, 2015 at 8:33 am

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