“Maman died this morning and it’s the first time she ever caused me pain.” It took Eric- Emmanuel Schmitt two years to come to terms with the intolerable death of the woman who brought him into the world. These pages tell of his “duty to be happy” and his long, determined and di@icult struggle with grief. To remain inconsolable would have been a betrayal of the tender, life-affirming mother who gave him his zest for life, his passion for the arts, his sense of humour and his faith in joy.

This book explores the distress of the present and the happiness of the past as the grown man, now no longer “somebody’s child”, is reconstructed. As in Night of Fire (La nuit de feu), Eric- Emmanuel Schmitt achieves universality with a personal and intimate story about dealing with grief for a loved one. In so doing, he turns the experience of death into a wonderful lesson on how to live.


Le Monde - « Always remember you are alive. »

Novelist and playwright, Goncourt Academician, film director and actor, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has now published a tribute to his mother: Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”). At the Rive Gauche Theatre in Paris meanwhile, he is appearing on stage in his play Madame Pylinska et le secret de Chopin (“Madame Pylinska and Chopin’s Secret”). At 59, he is one of the most frequently translated and performed French-language writers.

I wouldn’t be here if...

If I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet a woman who loved life, the arts, the theatre and literature and who was generous, exciting and passionate: my mother. I feel as if my life is her work, and that’s fine by me! Some sons are confrontational and keen to break away. Not me: I see myself as continuing her trajectory. Since her death [in March 2017], it’s not my mother I miss, it’s her.

In Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”), the book you dedicate to her, you write: “The key to my life is that I believed in my mother’s gaze...”

The way a person looks at you is extremely important. Hers was a look of love that made me feel lovable and it enabled me to trust myself and to trust life. By accepting who I was, she pushed me on and looked for the best in me. She was a former top athlete, a competitive sportswoman, and she had the idea that, when you do something, you’ve got to aim for the top or you may as well stay where you are.

But this sprinter, who became a physical education and sports teacher never pushed you into sport.

Not in the slightest! Whereas my father, who’d been a boxer and a judo competitor before becoming a physiotherapist, placed a lot of emphasis on it. He prioritised e_ort, whereas she didn’t at all. It was so natural for my mother to run fast that she barely thought about it: she just came in first. For years, I found it so natural to write that I didn’t think about it either. I was convinced all children sat down to write when they got home from school.

What did you write when you were a child?

Swashbuckling stories, because I’d read The Three Musketeers. And I wanted to do loads of other stu_ besides writing. But a vocation sneaks up on you from behind and you can’t get away from it. It’s not a revelation, it’s an organic necessity that ends up taking over. Everyone predicted I’d be a writer – everyone except me!

Who was the first person to predict it?

My teacher of French, Latin and Greek, Mr Barney, when I was in Year 9. I was at the Saint Just School in Lyon where my mother taught physical education. They used to meet in the sta_room and Mr Barney told her I was a “born writer”. He was always spotting the influence of the books I’d read when I wrote. I was a chameleon, you see. Then, when I was 16, Alban Vistel [awarded the Order of Liberation after WWII and a writer and publisher of graphic novels] whispered to me as he handed me the “Resistance Prize”, “You will find your salvation in writing”.

As a child, you fought with your father. You even talk of defiance. Why was that?

I refused to acknowledge he was my father. He’d seen me come into the world with a harelip and showed me no a_ection; instead, he used to check me over for defects. He was afraid for me almost all his life. I met his suspicion with defiance. And then, he belonged to that class of

people who think they’re always right. I can’t stand that. We were total opposites. He was very conventional. Nothing was fun with him. I like fooling around. Fun is a part of my lifestyle, which doesn’t preclude serious thought. I rebelled against him. It got quite violent to the point of hatred on my part, although not on his. I could see he loved me, but I had trouble returning his love. Later on, we managed to fix our adult relationship.

At the Ecole Normale Supérieure (graduate teaching college), you did a PhD in philosophy. You were a model student. Did you like the college?

I approached it the way I approached the rest of my life: I grasped it by the horns! I was very keen. I continued studying because I wrote well. I became a philosophy teacher and taught for five years, and I loved it. I still see my old pupils. Philosophy isn’t about passing on knowledge, it’s about freedom. I gave them a toolkit for thinking and told them, “Don’t say what I say, don’t think what I think: think for yourselves”.

What made you stop teaching?

The fact that I could earn my living immediately with royalties. It just seemed to happen and then things moved very fast. My first play (La Nuit de Valognes – Don Juan on Trial) in 1991 went down well and the second one (Le Visiteur – The Visitor, 1993) won accolades. I discovered I’m one of the lucky ones who can write for a living and so I devote my time to writing. But I wasn’t reckless about it. I started o_ by taking a year’s leave of absence, then I took a second one... and when I got to the fifth year, they politely asked me to resign, which I did, because my plays were already being performed in several countries. I didn’t run away from state education: I found another kind of life.

Another kind of life associated with the “event” you described in February 1989 in the Hoggar Desert in Algeria. You say it represented “a second birth”.

Yes, it was a second birth. I was 28. My first play was starting to do the rounds and I was asked to write a script about Charles de Foucauld [a French soldier who became a Catholic monk and a hermit]. And that was how I fetched up in the Hoggar Desert: I was there to retrace his journey. I was one of a dozen people all from di_erent walks of life, and the trip involved a 10-day hike with nights spent sleeping under the stars, from Tamanrasset to Charles de Foucauld’s hermitage on the Assekrem Plateau. One day, as we were going up Mount Tahat, I got to the top and I was so elated by what I saw that I called down, “I’m going on ahead, I’m going down now”. But I had no sense of direction! In the joy of my escapade, I went o_ course and when I got down, I couldn’t find the camp. It was seven in the evening and night would fall rapidly. I was lost, I didn’t have a drop of water, I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and the wind was getting up.

Were you afraid at that moment?

It was a very abstract kind of fear. A sentence kept running through my mind, “It takes three days to die of thirst”. I called but no one answered. I thought I was about to spend a horrible night. I tried to cover myself in sand to protect myself from the wind, and then... I had the most beautiful night of my life, a spiritual night, a “night of fire”, as Pascal calls it, in other words, a night when I literally experienced extasy. I split into two people, I came out of myself and was met by warmth and light. I entered that space, lost myself in it, vanished into it.

Was it a hallucination?

You could see it like that. But the extraordinary thing is, you’re still free in the moment of revelation. You can accept it or you can ignore it. If you choose to ignore it, you can bring out all sorts of reductive arguments. If you accept it, you can change.

And you changed?

Yes. A real alchemy took place in me that night and totally changed who I was. That’s all I know but it’s what I believe. The human condition is a mystery, but I stopped confronting that mystery with panic: I embraced it with trust. Trust is like a tiny flame that doesn’t light anything up or dispense knowledge, but it keeps you warm.

After that spiritual night, when did you get back to your group of walkers?

Thirty-two hours later. In the morning the sun came up, and I realised then that I was on the wrong side of the mountain. I spent the day going back up. By the end of the afternoon, I was on my way down again, and that was when the Tuareg guide spotted me and came to meet me. He threw his arms around me. While I’d been nestling in bliss, they’d spent the night in a pit of anxiety. My secret seemed almost improper. I couldn’t exactly tell them I was better than ever!

It took you a long time to tell your “secret”.

Yes, because a revelation is a revolution. It was a very private event and I kept it to myself. Then I told my parents.

How did they react?

A lot of envy and jealousy from my father, who was an unhappy atheist. My mother was profoundly moved. She wasn’t mad about religion and regarded spirituality with deep suspicion, so I’d been brought up an atheist. After the Hoggar incident, we talked a lot about such things. She abandoned atheism and became an open-minded agnostic.

But why, several years later, did you decide to go public with the experience?

I was being hassled by readers and journalists, who kept asking me: where does your optimism come from? How do you manage to talk about terrible things without putting the light out? Eventually one day, I gave in. I said: because I have faith. But I’m still just as much a philosopher as a believer, because believing and knowing are two di_erent things. I can’t pass on my faith: I can only bear witness.

Was that second birth what makes you the writer you’ve become?

For sure! The thing that enables me to question and talk about serious things is that I’m always looking for the hope in them. I was given an extraordinary gift when I was born. I’m not a writer who believes, I’m a writer who trusts.

And why do you write so much?

And you know what, I exercise a fair bit of restraint! Otherwise my publisher would never be able to deal with it all. I’m like a sponge for information: I get passionately interested in everything – religions, civilisations, ways of loving, ways of falling out of love... And my interest quickly gets turned into a story. It’s like having an orchard in my head with trees that bear stories, fairy tales, novels and plays. And I go into that orchard every day to see what’s ready to be picked. It’s inconceivable I’ll live long enough to spawn all the stories in me!

Should we see a sense of urgency in this writing bulimia?

Yes, very clearly. It’s generational. If you look at a photo of my class at graduate teaching college in 1980, many of them have died. Girls and boys... I sat with them when they were ill and when they died. So, if I’ve got the odious privilege of living on, I mustn’t waste a second. But there’s nothing sad about that. Old people used to say, “Always remember you’re mortal”. I want to say that in today’s language: “Always remember you’re alive”.

When readers and audience members tell you, “You tell us stories that help us to cope,” do you like being told that?

It’s the best compliment there is! Not that I realised it at first. What it means is: you’ve given me something, you’ve helped me navigate a tough time. For me, literature has that healing dimension. Reading helps us to live. But I fully realise that being on the bestseller lists can arouse immediate suspicion in critics. Even I only find one or two worthwhile titles when I look at those lists. But like all knee-jerk reactions, it’s stupid! I mean, look: 4,000 copies made me a genius; 40,000 meant I was talented; and after 400,000, suddenly I was rubbish! But I’m still the same writer.

Who are the authors who have helped you most?

The first was Alexandre Dumas. He instilled in me a love of reading if not literature. Then Colette, who writes so freely and sensitively about sensual awakening, going right to the heart of things without dogma or judgment. I still like to touch base with Colette now and then. And also Julien Green, who’s a master at exploring the way love and religion a_ect one’s inner life. And then, of course, there are the two big “killers” in literature: Proust and Dostoyevsky. You read them and you put down your pen and think, “I may as well give up now!” And then there’s Diderot. I wrote my doctoral thesis on him. I don’t think like him at all, but he taught me about enthusiasm, curiosity and freedom.

In your book, you say you felt like throwing yourself under a ship a few months after your mother died. It’s surprising to find a suicide urge in someone who says he loves life ...

Every optimist knows exactly what pessimism is because he’s 10-20% a pessimist, and vice versa. I love life, but sometimes I’ve su_ered terribly and just wanted to leave it. On that ship, which I’d gone on so often with my mother, all I could see was what I was missing. I couldn’t cast o_ my grief. But I didn’t jump in the end. I can at last say now that I’ve survived her departure.

Sandrine Blanchard

FNAC - « A novel and a monument to love. »

Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) is a lot more than another novel for the new literary season. In this one, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt opens up about himself. You can’t read these 251 pages and not be moved by them and share the feelings of grief and loss he describes.

“Maman died this morning and it’s the first time she ever caused me pain.”

So begins Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s latest book, Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”). The diary is a frank, insightful record of his two-year journey from suKering to acceptance, the fragmented form echoing his sense of dislocation after the death of his mother.

How do you go on living, how do you even want to live when, as Roland Barthes wrote in his Journal de deuil (“Mourning Diary”), “What can’t be cured is tearing me apart but it also contains me”, and that’s what seems to keep Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt going, too, because he no longer has to suKer at the thought of losing his mother: the fatal event has occurred.

The novel is like a monument erected by a son for his mother, and it reads like a hymn of praise to love. As much as a diary of bereavement, it’s a diary that documents a rebirth and the unveiling of a life to come, thanks to the departed loved one and also without her. During his long battle, in which Schmitt learns how to live again not for two people but for himself, he also reassesses his relationship with his father and feels able at last to shower his tomb with love.

“So here I am. She has succeeded. When she died, Maman bestowed on me a gift: she gave me back a father, my father, love for my father, love for her father.”

And because each sentence goes hand-in-hand with another, we can savour the closed circle formed by the first and last sentences of the diary:

“Maman died this morning and it’s the first time she ever caused me pain.” “Maman is alive this morning, and it’s not the last time she will cause me joy.”


La Presse (Canada) - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: bereavement or the sorrows of love. »

Overwhelmed by grief at the death of the mother he adored, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt clung on to life by writing. His moving Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) describes his gradual return to joy and his gratitude for having loved. Interview

Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) describes your overwhelming grief as “somebody’s child”, although you were already 57 when your mother died. Were you caught oI guard by the immensity of your grief?

The love I bore for my mother was total, but it was nevertheless an anxious love. Whenever she was late coming home when I was a child, I was afraid she had already died. Throughout my adult life, if the phone rang at some incomprehensible hour, I always expected to be told the news that would destroy me. I lived with that fear for 57 years; then, one day, it happened. I was totally devastated. I’m not remotely nostalgic and I live in the present, but suddenly, I was seeking refuge in the past and in memories, because she was in them. I hid in my sorrow because that was the form my love for her took at that moment. It was so strong I lost my will to live.

Was the diary written out of necessity?

I’d only ever kept a diary sporadically, but the day she died, it became central to my life. I began by writing sentences each day, then whole pages [...] I needed to talk to her, and I didn’t want to open up to friends because I couldn’t control my emotions, and also because I’ve got this special power, which is that I can conjure up life using words. I think I had an instinctive need of that power.

The book describes a bereavement. Reading it, I got the feeling you didn’t really know it was going to be a book or even that it would be part of the mourning process...

There’s a kind of natural development in living from day to day. You’re shipwrecked then you cling on to sorrow [...] After she died, all I could see was her absence; the world was suddenly empty. Gradually, it began to fill up again, not with her presence but with memories of her and also of myself, and that’s what healing is about: it gives memories another status. It enriches the present with the past.

There’s a kind of shamelessness about the book. Was this the first time you felt you’d opened up about yourself to this extent?

Yes, for sure, but I wouldn’t use the word “shamelessness”. You’re shameless when you don’t know what you’re revealing. I reckon I know what I’m revealing. I haven’t portrayed myself as a hero. I’ve shown myself through my faults and fantasies, through the stupid ideas I harboured about my father, and through my failures and moments of intense feeling. Those are the true keys to my life. I thought I’d feel embarrassed about it all, but I realised it was an exercise in liberty and it liberated me.

You write, “the banality of unhappiness doesn’t make unhappiness any easier.” There’s also something liberating about that kind of statement. It grants permission to be unhappy even though there’s nothing unique or original at root of our grief...

What this book says is that you’ve got to go right to the heart of your pain. It says, it’s normal to feel pain and above all, you shouldn’t take a pill not to feel it! The book is a reaction to our age, which tries to medicalise everything. It’s normal to be sad when a person as extraordinary as my

mother dies. I had to go to the heart of my grief and find out what it was doing to me. You’ve got to accept the intensity of your feelings and let them make you who you are, whether you’re dealing with love or lost love, whether with joy or sorrow.

Have readers shared their own secrets with you since the book came out?

I’ve been party to some amazing secrets including from journalists and media managers, who I’d thought were robotic professionals! But, no: all of a sudden, they were talking to me like human beings... about themselves and about their sense of dislocation. It obviously really helps. I’m glad I showed people my scars. It meant that others suddenly showed me theirs and everyone felt better for casting oY the mask of bravado. It’s all a masquerade, pretending we’re heroes [...] Trouble doesn’t come between us, it brings us together.

Alexandre Vigneault

Le Soir (Belgique) - « Moving and spot-on »

The day his mother died, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt fell apart. Helpless, angry, maddened by pain, he needed time to come to terms with it and learn to live with his daily grief. Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) describes the “duty to be happy” he owed to the woman who gave him everything: life; his passion for high culture and the arts; his sense of humour; his positivity, and boundless love. The account is moving and spot-on.

This book must have been like a long journey that helped your bereavement.

I think that keeping a diary, which I didn’t originally intend to publish, helped me through a period of extreme distress. Putting words to feelings gives you control of yourself. Writing is a kind of salvation. I’ve always kept a diary on and oL, but it ramped up after my mother died. I used to discuss so many things with her and when I no longer could, I was completely traumatised. I received the gift of being able to create life using words, so I began to write to bring her back to life. After 18 months, I realised it wasn’t just a distraction as I’d thought: I realised it was part of the journey we call mourning. You go through shock, sorrow and reconstruction and finally rediscover joy. At the outset I was writing for myself, but by the end I was hoping to share it to help other people. I wanted to prove on the basis of my experience that you can be very unhappy then happy again.

Was it diCicult writing such a personal book?

Yes, I was really rather afraid of it. I’ve included some pretty raw details about my life although I’m usually very reserved. But I managed to maintain my reserve as I revealed myself, because the opposite, shamelessness, involves not realising what you’re revealing. And although it was hard, I had to do it. I write from my imagination and in some 45 books, this is only the third that’s personal. I decided to say “I” to give it the weight of truth. The book describes the loss of maternal love but also the search for and recovery of paternal love. Yes, it’s true: love was easy and natural between my mother and me; for more than half a century, we found mutual fulfilment; but with my father it was always fraught and diLicult, like navigating a narrow ridgeway with a precipice either side! So, the book is a tribute to love, including complicated love. I came to love my father in my past and, with the distance of time, I came to understand certain things that had happened. You always see the past through a prism of the present, so there are several pasts depending on who you are today.

You refer several times to the “duty to be happy” that you owed your mum...

Yes, because she gave me the gift of a beautiful life. Maman had an infinite love of life because she was curious, enthusiastic and sparky and she loved the arts. When you’ve got the privilege of life, you’ve got to savour it and enjoy the music of the days. She couldn’t have tolerated seeing her son forever miserable and despairing. So, I knew at the outset that I wasn’t fulfilling that “duty to be happy”. But you have to decide to be happy. I sank right to the bottom of my grief and just wanted to end it all, then I bounced back, because the body is cleverer than the mind: it always sides with life. It’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey.

Éloïse Dewallef

La Libre Belgique (Belgique) - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: “My mother, my beloved. »

Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) is a book in which Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt opens up about his childhood and about the critical role his mother played throughout his life and his far more complicated relationship with his father. In this memoir, written as part of the mourning process we all have to go through after the death of a parent, the bestselling author brings together his natural reserve with scenes that are deeply personal and which hold the key to his vocation as a writer.

You begin your diary with a sentence that echoes Camus’ l’Étranger (The Outsider): “Maman died this morning and it’s the first time she ever caused me pain.”

It was a nod to Camus. I’m a big fan of Camus. But my book is about attachment, whereas his novel describes detachment.

There must have been a sense of guilt about your mother’s death. You found her in her apartment in Lyon where she’d died days earlier.

Death is grotesque when the body has lost all dignity, before it gets prettified by ceremonies. At that point, a body is no longer a person. And having loved her so much that we were almost one person for so many years, I was angry with myself for not having sensed her approaching death. I used to be critical of people who didn’t notice their loved ones’ imminent death: I don’t judge people like that anymore.

A deceased mother is the double mystery of birth and death.

It’s flesh that produced life and flesh that has lost life. I was immensely lucky to have had a real mother, a loving mother. My life is a tapestry of sensitivities, and it was she who gave them to me: the theatre, reading... all the pillars of my life. She always had this benevolent regard for me that seemed to say, “Everything is possible if you work at it”. The fact is, it’s not a mother I miss: it’s her.

What has changed for you?

I’m no longer somebody’s child, but I still hope I’m a child. A successful life is an adult who gives what he can to the child in him. Also, the future has stopped being an ever-retreating horizon. My relationship with time has changed and I’ve more than ever got to do something useful with it.

Your mother was your number-one fan. Were you writing to be loved by her?

Not at all! I have this need to reach out to people through the illumination that helps me to live. Even if my name vanished with my books, I’d be mad with joy if I could still do that for people.

Other writers have described their childhood as the breeding ground for their writing. People like Yann Moix, for example...

Before you talk about yourself, you have start with the intention of telling other people about themselves; you have to hold up a mirror. A book is where you reflect in both senses of the word: you reflect on your life and you reflect your life. This is only the third book out of some 45 in which I discuss my life. The others are La nuit de feu (“Night of Fire”) and Ma vie avec Mozart (“My Life with Mozart”).

The book is a diary.

The diary covers a two-year journey, starting from my mother’s death in spring 2017. At the end of that journey, I realised that my wanderings had changed how I related to my memories of her. There are two descriptions of Lyon in the book: one just after her death when the city seemed empty because she wasn’t there anymore; and then later on, when the city became a special place because it was full of memories of her.

You say you contemplated suicide when you were on a literary cruise. That seems odd for a perennial optimist like you...

An optimist knows what pessimism is. I’m strong-willed and dynamic and I wanted to outwit my grief by committing suicide. But my body proved more resilient than my mind and I stood there, kind of hypnotised by the ocean. And I remembered my mother’s wish: I kept hearing her telling meIhadadutytobehappy.

You loved your mother very much but your love for your father was complicated. Sounds very Oedipal...

When he saw I’d been born with a harelip, he thought I wasn’t normal, and he never really thought the good grades I got at school and university could be right for someone like me. My father loved me in his own awkward way. It wasn’t until I lost my mother that I managed to reconnect with him.

You recall how you even peed in bottles of alcohol and didn’t tell him until he’d drunk them!

I wanted to make him ashamed of drinking.

And you were convinced he wasn’t your father?

If you’d seen us together, you’d have seen how di\erent we were. He looked like Paul Newman! I tried to find out the secret of my birth, and it was a long time before I accepted that he really was my father. It was very Oedipal wanting to be the only man my mother loved.

Did your faith help you?

Not remotely! The loss is still there, and faith makes a person’s death even more cruel because it plagues us with questions like, where is the woman I loved so much?

But death is a scandal...

No, it’s not! It’s part of the human condition and it’s necessary, even if another person’s death is terribly painful. My faith consists in “trusting mystery”, in trusting what surpasses my understanding.

Guy Duplat

Journal de Montréal (Canada) - « A duty to be happy. »

For two years, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt cut himself o7, buried himself in work and only talked to his diary. Devastated by the death of his mother, to whom he had been extraordinarily close, he gradually came out of his seclusion and learned to subjugate his grief and his sense of loss. In a frank, heart-rending book, he describes that di7icult time: Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”).

Two and a half years ago, the sudden death of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s mother, at a time when everyone thought she was at her favourite spa resort, devastated the writer and his sister.

In a frank diary of this family tragedy, he eloquently and truthfully opens up about his childhood and adolescence, describing his passion for the theatre and revealing his di7icult relationship with his father and his suspicions about his birth.

While he was chairing the Québec Book Festival, Schmitt was worrying about his daughter-in- law, Coline, who was seriously ill. Nevertheless, and despite a recent knee operation (he had slipped on black ice) he came on stage in Montréal.

A duty to be happy

Convinced that he has a “duty to be happy”, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt went through a long and di7icult battle with depression, overcoming his grief one day at a time. As a tribute to his mother, Jeannine, a dynamic, fun-loving woman who had once presented the French Baroque dances at Expo 67, he chose to be reborn.

“You can’t prepare for this. You don’t know how you’ll react, and it’s a time of immense inner turmoil,” he says, in an interview.

“That’s what I describe in my diary: you’ve got to learn to go on without the person who gave you so much love, the person who taught you to love life. You’ve got to understand that you’re not loving life but that it’s your duty to love it. We have a duty to be happy. My mother wanted me to be happy. She would never have put up with the inner catastrophe I experienced when she died.”

Optimism, no matter what

He had to go through the slow process of recovering his equilibrium and his sense of joy. “I’m an optimist. I knew joy was out there, but it gets buried under layers of sorrow, anxiety and distress.”

Joy returned because the “status of my memories changed,” he says. “Before, the memories of my mother made the world empty: all I could see was her absence. My memories were stopping me living in the present. At the end of the book, I describe how, now, memories add pages. They’re like jewels which I add to my experience of the world. The world has filled up again; when she died, it was totally empty.”


For two years, he turned his back on the world. “It takes a long time, and you can’t believe you’ll ever get over it. You think: is it going to be like this till I die? So, you start to think about suicide. That kind of su7ering is unbearable. But at the same time, I still thought about her, and I thought about her relationship with her father, my grandfather. She knew how to be happy, how to be with us. I told myself this was a tough time, but I held on to my optimism.”

To rebuild himself and eventually to live happily, the writer tried to bring back to life everything his mother had taught him, like his love of the theatre. “I performed more than ever before during those two years, because it helped. I tried to experience all those gifts: love of literature, love of animals, of life, of travel...”

Marie France Bornais

L'Avenir - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt learns to live without his mother. »

In his diary, Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”), Schmitt o:ers a very frank account of the pain he su:ered at the loss of the woman he had loved so much.

“Maman died this morning and it’s the first time she ever caused me pain,” he writes, as the opening sentence of Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”). The event was doubly traumatic: not only had he loved his mother more than anyone in the world, not only was it she who had introduced him to the magic of the theatre (with Cyrano de Bergerac), she who had never let him down and who had given him “a beautiful life”; added to that was his pain at not having sensed she was about to die. That, at least, is what he thought. In reality, when in late March 2017 her body was discovered on the kitchen floor of her apartment, she had been dead for several days and at the time of her fall, Schmitt had been writing a kind of sequel to Madame Butterfly: a letter from a son to his beloved mother who was dying.

“I wanted to share the journey we call mourning,” says the Belgium-based author. He makes no attempt to hide his grief and how he wept every day, or the utter loneliness that brought him to the brink of suicide. “I didn’t want to make out that I was strong when I wasn’t. I’m much truer to myself in this confession of weakness than if I’d tried to pretend everything was fine.”

What “saved” him was work. He finished o: writing a collection of short stories, La Vengeance du pardon (“The Revenge of Forgiveness”), then he performed to enthusiastic capacity audiences in Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran and Madame Pylinska et le secret de Chopin (“Madame Pylinska and Chopin’s Secret”). “Work helped me to return to the present at a time when I was filled with nostalgia and melancholy, which is completely out-of-character forme.”

The two years recorded so honestly in the diary also settle an issue that had bothered Schmitt since adolescence: the identity of his father, physically so di:erent and always so sceptical of his son’s academic achievements right up until the day Eric-Emmanuel won a national prize for creative writing.

Today, although “the little boy has perished”, the adult has found serenity. Currently [2019], he is juggling stage performances in Paris with his duties on the jury of the Goncourt Prize, the long list of which has just been announced.

Michel Paquot

La Croix - « Gloriously frank! »

In this gloriously “tell-all” book, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt describes his devastating grief at the sudden death of his mother.

It takes significant courage and detachment, when you’re known the world over, to go public with a painful episode in your life. In his latest, splendidly frank account of loss that’ll tap into everyone’s feelings for their parents, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt opens up about himself as never before.

Neither a true diary nor a novel, the book opens with the sudden death of his mother, Jeannine, at the age of 87 in her apartment in Sainte-Foy-Lès-Lyon. Still beautiful and alert, the former champion sprinter was adored by her son (they’d attended the Avignon Festival together every year since 1975) and still in good health. “My mother was mortal, but she was never dying.”

Humour and joy

From a young age, the author was obsessed by the fear of losing his mother. “She never had any idea how I used to panic when she wasn’t there. I wasn’t afraid of being orphaned: I was afraid of something terrible happening to her,” he writes. The fact of no longer needing to feel that fear didn’t make the loss any easier for Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Tears, depression and inner turmoil came out in a psychosomatic pain in his knee, and he couldn’t walk for several months after the bereavement.

It was his mother who gave him his veneration of the arts and the theatre, literature and writing, his love of travel and food, and also his sense of humour and joy. “Not only am I the flesh of her flesh: I’m the spirit of her spirit.” Most poignantly, Schmitt is grieved that he hadn’t foreseen her end, although he had been so close to her: “It made me question my whole concept of our love: how could I have been so blind and deaf?”

Working to overcome depression

His love for her bordered on the possessive and exclusive, especially in light of his visceral rejection of his father, Paul, who had died some years earlier, himself a top athlete, a physiotherapist and a seasonal judo teacher on family holidays to adventure camps in Beauvallon (Var). At a book signing in Strasbourg, Schmitt was approached by two former residents of Beauvallon: “We’ve got a couple of things we can tell you about your father. You absolutely have to know about them,” the couple told him. Then, while he was emptying the flat in Lyon, the author found his mother’s prized private notebooks. He read them avidly, hoping to find revelations about his origins.

Rarely for him (1), Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt also describes his daily life in Belgium, where he lives with his three Japanese dogs and divides his time between writing, directing for the stage, composing and acting, notably in Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran as it tours around France. Working helped him overcome his depression. Apart from La Vengeance du pardon (“The Revenge of Forgiveness”), published by Albin Michel in 2017, he also wrote Félix et la source invisible (“Felix and the World’s Invisible Source”), which came out in January 2019. Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) recounts, oddly, how a little boy brings back to life his depressive mother.

(1) HedescribedhislifeinPlustard,jeseraiunenfant(“WhenIGrowUp,I’mGoingtobea Child”), a series of interviews curated by Catherine Lalanne (Bayard 2017).

Claire Lesegretain

Télépro (Belgique) - « A generous life lesson. »

When his mother died two years ago, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt was overwhelmed by grief. A smart cookie and an optimist who loved reading, travelling and going to the theatre, “Maman” had brought radiance to his life. Their relationship had been extraordinarily close. As a child, his attachment to her was so strong that his fear of losing her bordered on the obsessive. Eventually, that day came.

In these pages, the writer goes right to the heart of his grief, describing with total honesty the diEiculties his bereavement caused him. Writing brought salvation and enabled him to overcome his suEering. Gradually, he subdued his trauma and ultimately succeeded in bringing readers a generous life lesson.

Le Pèlerin - « Boundless love »

Where is she? Where has her soul gone? “Has she been welcomed into Heaven? If only I could have held her hand!” The writer’s acute anxiety about what happened to Jeannine after her death is intriguing: didn’t his deep-rooted faith help to bolster his confidence?

The new literary season has been marked by some superb female characters, among them Eric- Emmanuel Schmitt’s mother, whose radiance lit up his childhood. Now, he has shared with readers his grief at her loss. “My faith is no help. I’d even say it intensifies my su=ering, adding to my pain questions which an unbeliever wouldn’t ask.” For Schmitt, believing isn’t the same as knowing: believing is about living with mystery. His capacity for genuine optimism is no consolation for the physical loss of the inspiration of his life. “I wouldn’t have become a fulfilled artist without her introduction to music, drama and literature. I am her work of art.” His mother showed him unconditional love; she was his protector and his fortress against the passage of time: “When Maman died, I stopped being a son and became an old man. As long as our parents are ahead of us, the horizon retreats as we approach: year just follows year. When they die, the horizon stands still and subtraction begins.”

The realisation that his life was finite shook the writer to his core, before instilling in him the strength to survive the test. “Now that my days were numbered, I needed to get back my joie de vivre. I owed it to the woman who had bequeathed me positivity.” But the orphaned son still had to allow himself to grieve fully. “The time of su=ering is a necessity. Grief is no more a disease than is death. Both are a function of life. I needed to hide in the memory of the deceased for many months. Ever since childhood, my life had grown out of the stories I told her. In my diary, I continued to talk to her.” A writer doesn’t have the power to resuscitate people, but he can bring them back to life in words. Two years after his mother’s death, the author decided to turn the diary of his bereavement into a book, not a book about him but about us, since all of us will one day have to confront the trauma of losing our parents. Putting words to grief, tracing the journey back to hope is surely the greatest gift a novelist can give his readers. With his inheritance, Eric- Emmanuel Schmitt bought a Steinway grand.

“Never stop playing the piano!” The only order his mother ever gave her son in childhood also gave him his lasting love of music. In his play, Madame Pylinska et le secret de Chopin (“Madame Pylinska and Chopin’s Secret”), Schmitt had the piano shipped to the theatre. Each evening at the Rive Gauche Theatre in Paris, the piano comforted and enlightened audiences under the deft fingers of Nicolas Stavy. Jeannine lives on, alert to the notes of Chopin’s music.

Catherine Lalanne

Femme actuelle - « An extraordinarily frank and heart-rending account! »

The French-Belgian writer won fame in the 1990’s with his plays (The Visitor, Don Juan on Trial and Enigma Variations). When he broke into fiction, his success was just as assured (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran and Oscar and the Lady in Pink). Now, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has written another extraordinarily frank and heart-rending account of a son devastated by the death of his mother.

He agreed to talk about that journey to the magazine “Femme Actuelle Jeux Extra”.

In Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) you talk about yourself and your grief. Was it harder than writing fiction?

It’s harder if you want to achieve universality. Anyone can talk about themselves, but writing about yourself is something else altogether. You’ve got to hold up a mirror to readers, you’ve got to address each one individually. But you have to be sincere and drop the mask, and that involves considerable mental tension. In my book, I describe my inner turmoil and loss of balance at losing someone who’d been my companion for 50 years, someone who was a tower of strength.

How does it diIer from La Nuit de feu (“Night of Fire”) your previous autobiography?

It’s pretty much the same genre, but whereas in Night of Fire (2015) I described how a light was suddenly turned on, this time a light is put out. But the Diary is also a story about loving life and about how, gradually, I recovered my belief in happiness because that’s how my mother had brought me up.

At what point did you decide to write about it?

Within the first few hours. I describe in my Diary how I tended to live in double-time: my experiences were duplicated when I told my mother about them. Suddenly, when she died, I only had one life. In this book, it’s as if I still needed to tell someone about my life. But the decision to publish the book came later.

Did it help you to delve into the past?

It made me realise that memories have diWerent weights. Sometimes, they’re a burden, sometimes they buoy you up. In the early days after her death, I took refuge in them. My memories were my sanctuary and my grief, to the point where I realised that I had stopped living in the present. A kind of battle to reclaim the present emerged. The theatre and the stage helped me. I was acting again. And then came a moment, which I describe at the end of the book, when my relationship with my memories changed: they started to embellish the present, they were giving the present more depth. They weren’t dragging me down anymore. Grief was no longer centre-stage, and I was able to be glad about what had been.

How has this book been received?

In a plethora of wonderful ways that leave me speechless! Everyone seems to see an element of themselves in it, but all in diWerent ways. Some people were cherished children; some didn’t feel loved; some people have managed to forgive their father; others have found the courage to be themselves or to realise their childhood dreams.

Were you pleased at their reactions?

Absolutely! It’s what I was hoping for, that readers would relive their own experiences. The book is a tool, a magnifying glass to highlight life’s nuts and bolts. A bit like Night of Fire when atheists and believers alike recognised themselves in it.

How does a book come to fruition?

For me, a book always comes oW the back of a situation that reveals something profoundly human. L’Enfant de Noé (“Noah’s Child”), for instance, came to me when I heard the story of a priest who had not only hidden Jewish children during the war but had set up a synagogue in the crypt of his church. I was blown away by that story.

And what about your characters’ names?

They’re completely unconscious. I choose a few when I start work on a book, but they’re often not right. I know they’re wrong but I can’t say why. In the end, they just come to me. Long afterwards, I realise why he or she had to be called this or that. It’s as if part of my brain already contained my stories, my characters and their names and I just have to go and find them. Every name is important because it determines a life.

How long do you take to write a book?

I spend years dreaming and mulling them over. They’re like ripe fruit, and I just have to pick them and do the writing. I compose my stories slowly then I write it all down in a great burst of activity. I think of myself as being like a woman giving birth... well, more like an elephant! I give birth with mixed feelings of pain and desire. And when the book’s finished, I tidy it up very, very carefully. I polish it up and dust oW any traces of work. Instinctive but tiring!

Will you tell us something about your next opus?

It’s going to be a great long saga. It’s a project I’ve had in my mind since I was 25. I was waiting to feel mature enough to tackle it. But it’ll take time, especially because I’m doing a lot of stage performances this year (2019) and in 2020 I’m on stage about one day in three, in Madame Pylinska et le secret de Chopin (“Madame Pylinska and Chopin’s Secret”), and Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran. I’ll have to write when I’m not acting, because I use up all my energy on stage.

Blogs reviews

Le Carnet et les Instants - « A universal book. »

In March 2017, on the eve of his fifty-seventh birthday, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt became an orphan. Five years after the death of his father, his mother passed away. “On a day like any other, everything changed.” How do you go on when you’re no longer “somebody’s child”? Where would he find the strength to accomplish that “duty to be happy” so important to his mother, when only grief seemed to want anything from him? Everyone told him it takes two years to get over a death, but such clichés rang hollow.

Wrested from the symbiotic relationship that had always bound him to his mother, the author felt the need to write down his thoughts and his suLering and to describe the administrative tasks and his daily life, as well as his memories both recent and distant, his family, his doubts and his musings. In describing his mother, the writer tells us just as much about himself and how he became the multifaceted artist he is today. By bringing centre-stage Jeannine, a mum we’ll all come to love by the end of the book, Schmitt allows readers to share his inner life over the two years it did in fact take him to recover.

A diary is more open than a novel and the form allows him to shuttle easily between brief, isolated thoughts, deeper reflections and long or short accounts of past or contemporary events in a perfectly coherent whole that’s not without elements of intrigue. Because, in any case, isn’t real life just one long stage play? In the play at issue, one that’s already been performed, the main theme is the love between a mother and her son, but you could focus on Paul Schmitt, the father, relegated to a supporting role upstage left, before travelling downstage to the footlights.

Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”) is a deeply personal and frank account. At times, you almost feel you’re prying. For sure, the author selects and manipulates his own projector, but as the reader, you can find yourself wondering if you should be party to all these details or have such a privileged window on to such private, painful events. At the same time, although this is Schmitt’s story, anyone who has lost a loved one will recognise themselves in this memoir. The feelings aroused by bereavement, the aimlessness it triggers, the combination of grief at the loss of a loved one with gratitude for having been close to them, all so elegantly cast in words by a true virtuoso of the arts, make this personal memoir a universal book.

Estelle Piraux

Léa Touch Book - « A wonderful gift for storytelling »

In his latest book, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt invites us to read a diary – his own –, in which he records the terrible sense of emptiness, fear and grief aroused by the death of a loved one. In Journal d’un amour perdu (“Diary of a Lost Love”), the author describes the death of his mother, his beloved “Maman”, whose passing gives rise to a sense of his own mortality and to moments of denial, anger and overwhelming nostalgia. “Maman” was wonderful, dignified, modest and refined – all that and far more. She was for Schmitt a strong, loving mother who instilled in him an appreciation of endeavour, travel, the theatre and the arts. Her death had a devastating impact on Eric and Florence, his sister, despite the support of friends like Yann, Bruno and Nathalie and the comfort of his faithful dogs, Her Majesty Fouki and her oMspring Lulu and Daphné.

For anyone who’s had a similar experience – and in this case we’re legion – Schmitt’s insightful memoir written with such delicate restraint and immeasurable love, will resonate movingly, almost unbearably, with the indescribable feelings of our own loss and sorrow, the scars of which are now sometimes painfully reopened. Schmitt uses his wonderful gift for storytelling to describe every step of the journey of mourning in what is, nevertheless, a deeply personal account. The book takes us to from Lyon to Prague by way of Canada. Memories of his father come into the diary, too, an anxious man who didn’t always believe in his son, engendering in the young Schmitt doubts about his paternity and the feeling that he’d missed out on a father, in contrast to the symbiotic relationship that bound him to his mother. Music, the theatre, his faithful canine companions and various crazy passions also feature here. I just loved the way he opens up about himself, quietly and unobtrusively guiding the reader on his inner journey from inevitable separation and grief. The result is a short book on the huge gulf created by an absence you have to learn to overcome. Life after death...


  • En langue allemande, publié par C.Bertelsmann Verlag
  • En langue anglaise (Inde), publié par Sanbun Publishers
  • En langue bulgare, publié par Lege Artis
  • En langue italienne, publié par E/O Edizioni
  • En langue polonaise, publié par ZNAK.
  • En langue roumaine, publié par Humanitas.
  • En langue russe, publié par Azbooka.