Brigette Manion reviews: My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman

Translated from the French by Daniella Shreir (Silver Press, 2019)

Chantal Akerman pioneered a uniquely challenging genre of feminist film that resulted in widespread, international acclaim. She made her name in 1975 with breakout classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, covering three days in the life of a single mother who finances her family by working as a sex worker. Her final film was completed in the year of her death in (2015), titled No Home Movie—a radically candid documentary about her relationship to her dying mother. Thus, from the beginning to the end of her career, the lives of women, and the relationship between mothers and their children, remained a consistent focus. Akerman developed works with the power both to unsettle and uplift her viewers, creating a prolific output of some fifty videos and films through which she achieved a reputation as “one of the most profound auteurs in French cinema,” according to critic Gwendoline Audrey Foster. 

But throughout her lifetime, Akerman also frequently commented on the significance of literature in her creative practice. From childhood, she harboured ambitions to become a writer (“When I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer,” she said in an interview in 1999), while later she reflected: “Without doubt, books were more important for me than cinema,” and cited the key influence of literary theorists Deleuze and Guattari—pioneers of the notion of “minor literature”—on her cinema. The final work in Akerman’s small but significant body of written texts, Ma mère rit (first published in French in 2013), will this month be reissued in English as My Mother Laughs by Silver Press in a new translation by PEN Translates award winner Daniella Shreir. This republication, coupled with the release of another text on Akerman due out in the same month, presents an apposite moment to reflect on the relatively under-examined significance of writing to Akerman, and the attendant complexities of working as her translator.  

Akerman’s final works for page and screen have many shared features. Like My Mother Laughs, No Home Movie focuses on Akerman’s relationship with her mother, Nelly, whose health wanes over the course of both works as she succumbs to the illness that ultimately takes her life. The fine details of domestic settings and the politics of personal, female, and lived experience are studied with considerable intensity in both media, rooting her for many within a firmly feminist aesthetic. In No Home Movie, Akerman magnifies everyday events, settings, and interactions that occur. We note repeated, silent, lingering stills of her mother’s chintzy dining room, jauntily filmed extended Skype conversations, and tender interactions over the kitchen table. On the page, a similar approach is found in passages such as the following:  

I like to write down what happened even when nothing has happened. Because then I feel as though I’m a person who has something to do even when nothing is happening. But something always happens, small insignificant events. The phone rings. Words are spoken and exchanged. Silence. Occasional sighs. The neighbours make noise. The lift sometimes gets stuck. The tins have to be taken downstairs and this often involves some words spoken and barely exchanged. (24)
Over the indeterminate time frame of both works, a series of conversations between mother and daughter also takes place, ranging from the banal (when Chantal stresses her need to “get off Skype to do her bills,” for example) to the profoundly moving and revelatory. Though such interactions, details of both women’s pasts, and their lives together, also surface—some of which appear not to have been broached before. Nelly’s experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust recur as a subject to be discussed—a subject that had in fact previously been left untouched for most of their lives: 
When she’d finally managed to join me in the back of the car with the help of her grandson who’d carried her in, she said to me, my daughters, my daughters they’ve got everything. Me, I had nothing but the camps. It was the first time she’d said that. At other times she’d just said that she was happy and that everything had been great, and suddenly there was this. So I thought to myself again, this time she’s speaking the truth, not the truth, but her truth, and it was horrible. But it was better for me, and for her, that it was said (175). 
Such passages highlight Akerman’s commitment to truth, which is privileged over the disquieting effects it may have on her, and on others. At one stage, Akerman remarks on her desire to “write truthfully,” and both works’ heightened focus on everyday, domestic minutiae and on her mother arriving at “her” particular truth seem part of this project. 

How, therefore, does this commitment to truth manifest in Akerman’s style on the page, and what challenges does this pose for a translator? Primarily, Akerman’s writing distinguishes itself by its simplicity.  Her writing in Ma mère rit gives this impression particularly through repeated phrases and sentences that have a childlike directness. “I like that,” “I don’t like that,” “I don’t know,” and “that’s horrible” are all recurrent phrases, for example. Simple terms have an abruptness and a lack of embellishment that feels true to speech, an honest reflection of how someone actually thinks and talks. Yet, at the same time, the simple terms in Akerman’s work acquire complex implications through their repeated deployment almost as leitmotifs within the text—happy, truth, life, death, and groan are all words that repeat regularly. Shreir noted her decision to remain “faithful to this simplicity, even where it seems less natural in English”—an astute choice, but difficult to sustain in practice where one might instead be tempted to vary or embellish phrasing in an English version for the sake of smoothness. However, Shreir’s considered decision allows Akerman’s language to achieve similar effects as its French original. Like the French version, in My Mother Laughs, a stripped-back language that reduces experiences and emotions to their most basic—indeed, truest—essence is rendered throughout: 

I always say one thing at a time. I say one thing at a time knowing that anything could happen. But in this case, there are only two things—life and death. And if life ever leaves her body, she’ll leave with it (15).

By resisting the temptation to embellish Akerman’s simple style, Shreir’s approach not only seems a faithful rendering of Akerman’s candid style, but also feels like a legitimate response to important sides of Akerman’s character that emerge through the text. In My Mother Laughs, we read her many pointed critiques of the institutions that formed yet rejected her, and an anti-establishment figure with no truck for respecting stultifying conventions is revealed: “I think the most educated people are the most hypocritical” (179), she notes, and “anything natural was frowned on at my school” (180). To modify Akerman’s “simple” style, or attempt to smoothen it out in English, would arguably therefore constitute another example of the “establishment’s” desire to erase or standardise her “true” voice. 

In addition, Akerman also refers to herself repeatedly as “old child”—“the child is her, it’s me. And now I’m old, soon I’ll be sixty. Or maybe older. And I’m stuck in this state” (17). The implication of the “old child” trope appears to be a sense of her caught between two worlds—on the one hand, deeply dependent on her mother, while on the other hand an adult with responsibilities for her care, and increasingly drawn into considering herself an independent figure as she reflects on the imminent loss of a parent. Shreir’s English version retains the moving, poetic quality evoked by the French of this maladapted child in an adult’s world, retaining a voice in English that projects a complex blend of maturity and childishness found in the French original, and in turn showcasing the poignancy of Akerman’s childlike voice: 

Everyone laughs. Nobody remembers why. We all have tears in our eyes. The table is set (69) 

Extending the effects of the “old child” and Akerman’s anti-snobbery, the memoir is also written with slim regard for the conventions of French grammar and punctuation—presenting another challenge for the translator. Akerman deploys punctuation loosely, often omitting speech marks, rarely attributing names in speech, and transferring tense from past to present, which distorts the linearity of the book’s chronology. “I don’t know. You don’t know? I don’t know. You always say you don’t know,” (131) we read in an argument that Akerman relates with a former lover, and “You never know what might happen and I know that better than most because what happened to me happened to me and who would have thought up such a thing” (21). Shreir largely opts to leave the text as it is seen in the original, allowing the free flow of internal thoughts and exchanges between figures in the text to merge:

But the children and grandchildren come and go, hello, goodbye, are you leaving already, yes I’ve got to go to work and you’re off as well. Yes. (92)  

The effect is one of boundlessness—in time, in space, and in person—as identities, memories, and lived experiences converge. The reader is thus left to reflect on the collapsed boundaries between time past and present, adult and child, and mother and daughter—the intimacy of Akerman’s relationship with her mother is blurred to the point where they are at points indistinct from each other. 

While for the most part Shreir avoids modifying the English version, there are moments when we note a subtle, yet conscious intervention of the translator. In her translator’s note, Shreir refers to watching Akerman’s English-language press interviews as a main source of inspiration for her own work. And English is not the only language with which Akerman was familiar. At one point in the text, when Akerman reflects on meeting a Russian or a Polish person, her voice slips into broken versions of both languages: 

But this makes it look as though I’ve understood something so the Russian person starts to speak more quickly and I get into a panic. Ya nie ponimayou, ya ne razumié, sorry I don’t understand. I forget which language to speak, Polish or Russian, and when I’m in the street and I hear someone speaking Hebrew it’s even worse. I say shalom ma nishmah, hello how are you, they reply, well, and walk past without even looking up and I feel hurt. I would like to connect with them and tell them that I learnt Hebrew when I was a little girl at the École Maïmonide and that it’s my father’s fault if I can’t speak it better. 

Of course, the reason why Akerman is familiar with Hebrew and Polish is because she is the child of Polish Jewish refugees. Shreir therefore rightly retains the original text’s multilingualism in this instance. But, for all the work Shreir invests in conveying Akerman’s simple, childlike voice in English, just a handful of words are left in French—“Je t’embrasse” (159) or “Prends soin de toi” (159), or:

She was very ill and I was scared, scared she would suddenly stop breathing in front of me, in her armchair. She fell asleep and I could feel the effort her heart was making to beat so I kept watch, breathe maman, don’t leave me, breathe. Don’t leave me, not yet. I’m not ready and maybe I never will be. (14) 

These are slight, but significant decisions on Shreir’s part. Each French phrase or word is associated with care and intimacy—and all are phrases Akerman uses in relation either to her mother or her lover. In these passages, Shreir’s subtle choices demonstrate a sensitive means of finding ways to evoke the voice of the self-declared “old child” of My Mother Laughs, and the intimacy of the bond  between mother and daughter, and between lovers at crucial stages in their relationship. 

Akerman’s writing has a distinct style and tone that reflect the person and the politics of the author of My Mother Laughs. Simple, but suffused with profundity, her writing displays great tenderness and bracing honesty in conveying Akerman’s relationships—with her mother, her lovers, and herself. Shreir’s wise, considered choices and finely balanced judgements on what should be retained and modified in translation appropriately showcase Akerman’s writerly talents to English-speaking audiences, while retaining an ethical distance commensurate to the handling of this complex text. In its deceptive simplicity, its radical commitment to conveying truth, and its close focus on subjects of dependency and mortality, the work merits comparison with the writing of much better established French authors such as Annie Ernaux. In subject matter, it recalls Ernaux’s I Remain in Darkness, charting the author’s intimate relationship to her own mother at the end of her life, while combining the photobiographical form, stylistic sparseness, and high self-reflexivity of L’usage de la photo. Akerman was known as a filmmaker, but she was also a committed and talented writer—My Mother Laughs provides a new audience the opportunity to appreciate this.