Chantal Thomas’ evocatively layered memoir, Memories of Low Tide, relates the complex, shifting relationship she has with her mother and their mutual love for swimming in the sea.
I first read Memories of Low Tide (translated by Natasha Lehrer) at the beginning of this year. I’ve read it several times since, each time finding something different, something new, like a shifting layer of language revealed by the outgoing tide. Lately, as I’ve read again under lockdown and with this series in mind, I’ve been struck at how language can resemble the sea. Always the same, yet ever-changing; our words evolve as we ourselves evolve, as our situations change, as the sea of people we surround ourselves by ebbs and flows. Different lovers bring different terms of endearment. Our language with our parents changes as we realise they are human, they are growing old, they aren’t going to be with us soon. Like Chantal Thomas’ beloved sea, it’s fluid, and reading Memories of Low Tide is like reading across a lifetime of language – not just Chantal Thomas and Natasha Lehrer’s, but mine, and perhaps yours.
Early in Memories of Low Tide, Thomas’ memoir of a life spent in the water, her mother, Jackie, peels off her clothes and dives into the Grand Canal at Versailles. No one stops her. There are no shouts, no running footsteps hurrying to command this young woman out of the water. Instead, she swims freely, “responding to an invitation…from the glimmering water itself”. Below her lies the debris of centuries, the treasures and detritus of the ghosts that Thomas imagines watching her from the windows of the château, but Jackie is oblivious. For her, only the present moment exists: “whatever might exist around, below, above her, she gave no thought to it”. In reading Thomas’ slender memoir, it’s easy to get caught up in the fluidity of that present moment. Each short chapter comes like a sparklingly clear wave, bringing with it a new memory of her mother, of childhood, of days spent swimming in the ever-changing sea. Flashes of humour abound, like shells glinting in the sunshine. But there is also a depth to both Thomas’ writing and to Natasha Lehrer’s translation that brings out the nuances, not only of the sea itself, but of the complex, shifting relationship between a mother and her daughter.
The story begins well before Thomas is born when, in 1936, the ruling Front Populaire passed legislation enshrining the right to paid holidays. Eugénie and Felix, Thomas’ grandparents, were entitled to free train tickets through Felix’s work as a graphic designer for SNCF: Arcachon, on the Atlantic coast of France, became their annual escape and eventual retirement home. The landscape here is described as an almost otherworldly place of green sea, “astonishingly clear, limpid as oyster water”, vast dunes, and swathes of pine trees. It was a place where people went to holiday, where for two weeks out of every year they were free from time itself. When their only daughter followed them there after the war, tiny baby in tow and husband (her childhood sweetheart) not far behind, it was with the intention of holding onto that holiday feeling for as long as possible, and at this point in the book Arcachon becomes a place suspended, held delicately in the grip of a never-ending summer. Jackie was already a prodigious swimmer, her days patterned only by the sea and by her time in the water, and Thomas describes the days of her early childhood spent on the beach with nameless friends, most of whom came and went like the tides. “We lived and breathed a kind of instant rapture, a thousand things took place but by evening we had nothing to tell”. Her mother, intent only on swimming, was “a child apart. A summertime child, definitively uncoupled from any notion of return”.
It’s this uncoupling from reality that brings a darker undertone to the narrative. In purposefully trying to forget the world beyond the sea and swimming, Jackie becomes depressed, morose, prone to outbursts of anger. Thomas relates how round after round of prescription drugs made no difference, how doctor after doctor could or would not see that so-called normal life – the life expected of women, filled with children, family, sewing and cooking – was precisely the problem. Thomas doesn’t labour the point, but leaves it there gently, almost like a shell washed up on the beach. How might things have been different for her mother had she been born in a different era? It’s a question that can never be answered, and while Thomas never blames her mother, the violent swings between ecstasy and gloom form a barrier between them like glass. Her mother, Thomas feels, is unknowable.
It takes the premature death of Thomas’ father, always a background figure in this story of mother and daughter, to jolt Jackie out of melancholy. The house is sold, belongings given or thrown away. The wild coastline of Arcachon is swapped for the glittering heat of the Mediterranean. Jackie begins her life over again in Menton and then Nice, epitomising the young, glamorous widow with cocktails, dancing, and a succession of suitors and lovers, while Thomas moves first to New York and then to Paris. What still connects them, beyond short postcards and awkward phone calls, is the sea: they swim on opposite sides of the ocean, drawn together by the pull of the waves. It’s a primal but tender force, the ties of salt water where most people would talk about the ties of blood, and it comes to a poignant conclusion when Jackie’s lifelong determination to forget -–the past, the real world, responsibilities – becomes involuntary. Arcachon, already pushed back to the depths of her mind, is lost completely to dementia. And when Thomas takes her mother to the beach at Nice, Jackie uncharacteristically refuses to go into the water. Her overriding fear is that she has forgotten how to swim.
A moment in a storm proves to be an epiphany for Thomas: after landing at Nice airport and catching the bus to town, she sees her mother out in the deluge, frail but striding purposefully into the wind, her face lit up by “the radiance that is generated by touching the sublime”. In that moment, Thomas writes, “it was as if we were the same person”. Years of unknowing washed away by the water. Soon after, Jackie stops swimming. It’s a subtle change in the connection between mother and daughter, but there’s a sense that the sea remains in both, a force linking them even when words and memories cannot do so.
Chantal Thomas’ Memories of Low Tide is translated by Natasha Lehrer and published by Pushkin Press. It is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
This piece was completed for Life in Languages, a new series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leila Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes