Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Parenthesis by Elodie Durand

What do you do if things happen that you can't remember? What do you do if the people you trust tell you something is wrong, and you can't tell at all?

Brain problems are the most frightening and insidious: they attack the part of us that knows and understands, short-circuiting our ability to react, to fight back, even to know that anything is wrong.

Elodie Durand went through that: working on her master's in art in her early twenties, living with her parents in Paris, she started having epileptic seizures.

Wait. Back up. Durand was told by her parents and others that she was having seizures. At first, she didn't know it, didn't have any memory of them. But she went to a neurologist, she got checked out, and learned she had a very small tumor, deep in between the two hemispheres of her brain. And then her treatments began.

Durand tells her story in the bandee dessinee Parenthesis. Like any memoir, the fact that the book exists at all tells us a lot: she got through, she was able to tell her own story. Durand made Parenthesis a decade after the end of her treatments, about fifteen years after the first diagnosis: that's a lot of time, that's a lot of disruption. And she's quite clear in her book that she's not "back to who she was" - that will never happen. At the end of this book, she says "I feel more fragile physically. I've lost some hearing, and I've never recovered the energy I once had."

Parenthesis is structured as a monologue: Durand is telling this story. But not to us - to her mother. Sometimes haltingly, retelling what she's been told, what she has no memory of normally, and sometimes with more confidence and specificity. Her mother knows all of this, of course. This is not new to her. But it's Durand's story to tell, and telling the story is proof that she remembers things, that she can pull all of the details together, that she is out the other end of this horrible time.

And the way she tells the story - carefully, precisely, full of details, incorporating drawings she made at the time and instructions for the "gamma knife" that destroyed her tumor - also tells us a lot, also shows that Durand has recovered, has taken back her brain and her thinking from the tumor.

Durand's art is organic and dark, grey charcoal in various shades with carefully-placed but fuzzy lines and large masses of blackness. She moves back and forth seamlessly between what happened - scenes of the real world, of the woman she was at the time and what happened to her - and how it felt, darkly monstrous scenes of devouring mouths and twisted bodies. All of it accompanied by her narration, all these years after the fact: weighing up what she remembers, what she was told, what the family has said over and over since then.

This is a book about memory and the destruction of memory, about brains and how they can fail their owners, about one woman and what happened to her. It's told brilliantly and fearlessly: Parenthesis won three awards at Angouleme in 2010, the year it was published, and for good reason. This English-language edition finally came out last year - another decade after the French original, now twenty-five years after this started to happen to Elodie Durand - in a fine translation by Edward Gauvin. It's well worth reading, for anyone interested in stories about the things we remember and the things our memories couldn't capture.

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