Almost exactly two years ago I began work on an expanded translation and ‘writing through’ of the surviving screenplay for the French impressionist filmmaker Louis Delluc’s lost film Le Silence (1920). I did not speak French, but was drawn to the idea of a struggle with language, of what it is to speak, and read, problematically. Still working with Delluc’s script, I am now also working with Camille Lauren’s Cet absent-là (2004). I now have some French, a little, but not enough. These two texts, comprising silence and absence, made me wonder if I did owe my mother something, after all…

Aged about six. What was I reading? My mother, in shadow, sits behind me.

My mother used to sit in bed in the mornings—refusing to get up—reading French detective novels, so materially strange. They were, in the hand, even before the encounter with their language, unfamiliar objects. The touch of the paper, the subtle differences in conventions of typesetting and design. The dark green edging to every page rendered them, to me, impenetrable territory, a foreign body that even when opened was closed. This, at least, is how I remember them. But this is the thing. She did not speak French, though on holidays, so I am told, she would chatter away to bemused, uncomprehending French faces: a collage of sounds that spoke to her, if not to them. So when she read, refused me, ignored me, what was she doing? When she held those books, what were they for? Perhaps they were the artefacts, the words translated into objects, through which she refused to speak the language of the household, the language of being a wife and mother and nothing else. She had born six children, and had recently moved out of the marital bedroom into a room of her own. Viewed from the door the novels seemed proffered, held formally, two handed, infront of her upright breast. Her eyes turned down to the page, her mouth tightly closed, she was purposefully oblivious to vocalised appeal. These texts, double mysteries—this is what I think now, from the distance of years—were of necessity presented silently. Not a language she could speak, but a language she could show: a different tongue, a political act, a gesture, an outfacing palm, a stubborn and opaque ‘non’ that I both could and could not understand.

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