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When something important happens to you—a love affair, a humiliation, a success, an illness, a divorce, a death in the family—how does it shape the person you become? How does it shape the other people involved? And how is this process different if you are a woman, not a man?
The French writer Annie Ernaux, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, has asked herself these questions since 1958, when she was 17, when she left her overprotective parents, storekeepers in a Normandy village, to take a job at a summer camp. Literary and ambitious, the most brilliant pupil at her convent school, she was ashamed of her humble background. In 2016, trying to reconstitute this past self, “the girl of ’58,” Ernaux wrote: “She does not know how to make a telephone call, has never taken a shower or bath. She has no experience of environments other than her own, which is Catholic and working class, of peasant origin.” At the camp, young Annie flung herself at a man who was indifferent to her, made a fool of herself, but gave no thought to the impact her first sexual encounters (she remained a virgin, barely), her shame, and her feelings of rejection might have on her future self. That impact was incalculable; but it could be recovered, excavated, Ernaux believed, through writing. “I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over 50 years earlier, to which her memory can add nothing new at all,” Ernaux wrote in A Girl’s Story. “What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?” Her goal as a writer has been to let others absorb that knowledge through her words.
In her 20 works of fiction and nonfiction (searing, stark novels written in a style she calls l’écriture plate—flat writing, direct and unadorned), Ernaux conveys the reality of the lives of the woman she is and was, and the people she has lived among, with utter lack of euphemism, and with a detective’s hunger for evidence. Reading her makes you catch your breath as you startle to see the patterns of human experience—intimate, professional, familial—that you thought were distinct to you, as universal and specific to certain time, social class, gender. She compares her technique to writing with a knife, not a pen— shearing flesh off the bone, exposing what lies beneath. It was the summer of 1960, when she worked as an au pair in London before beginning literary studies at the university in Rouen, that made her a writer. That was the year, she writes in A Girl’s Story, “when I started to make a literary being of myself, someone who lives as if her experiences were to be written down someday.” The first experience she would turn into literature took place three years later, when she was a literature student at university.
In November of 1963, a week before John F. Kennedy was killed, before she had started teaching, before she had published a single text, and before she was married, Ernaux discovered, to her shock, that she was pregnant. She knew instantly that she wanted an abortion. In France in 1963, abortion was illegal. There was no safe way to get one.
She had only had sex the first time that summer, and was naive about birth control. She relied on the rhythm method, deluding herself that a pregnancy couldn’t “catch on” in her, because it was so antithetical to her plans for her future. In French films of the era, like Breathless, Jules and Jim, and Contempt, young women appear liberated and carefree, but the reality was that France was a Catholic country, “nice” girls were expected to remain virgins until marriage, and the pill was not available. Ernaux had no one to turn to for help.
She could not tell her parents—they would have been devastated, and their image of her shattered. The man responsible, a political science student, didn’t see what her plight had to do with him (they married the following year, and divorced two decades later). When she begged doctors to terminate her pregnancy, they turned her away, unwilling to risk being sent to prison or to “sacrifice their career for some young doe-eyed damsel foolish enough to get knocked up.” The word abortion could not even be mentioned. “This thing had no place in language,” Ernaux later wrote.
When she confided her situation to a progressive male student, he hit on her, but she still regarded him as an ally. He gave her the name of a married journalist he knew who’d had a back-alley abortion. “She almost croaked in the process,” he warned.” Ernaux went to that back-alley abortionist, and she, too, nearly died. Her panic and fear still haunt her today, at the age of 82. As she wrote in A Girl’s Story, “A thing experienced in a world that existed before 1968, and condemned by its rules, cannot radically change meaning in another world. It remains a singular sexual event whose shame remains insoluble in the doxa of the new century.”
Ernaux fictionalized her abortion ordeal in her first book, Cleaned Out, published in 1974, a decade into her marriage, when her two sons were young. Her telling was bluntly lyrical, written in a high literary style. But as she continued writing over the years, in a series of genre-crossing books about her father, her mother, her divorce, an obsessive love affair, she developed her l’écriture plate style. In 2000, in the book Happening, in an age when abortion was no longer illegal, she brought that style to her terrifying, clandestine, solitary ordeal. Even in 1998, she wrote, abortion was still “surrounded by the same veil of secrecy as before.” She resolved to retell her abortion story as truthfully and unsparingly as possible. “These things happened to me so that I might recount them.”
In Ernaux’s most acclaimed book, The Years (2008), she excavated the facts and memories of her own life and the lives of everyone she knew—the working-class people she grew up with in the 1940s and ’50s in the Norman village of Yvetot; the generations who came up with and after her in Rouen, Paris, and other French cities; and the bourgeois literary sphere she entered as an adult. Setting them in order into the shifting social landscape that unrolled behind them, she created a kind of cyclorama. Reading The Years is like turning the pages of a flipbook and watching a moving image of people long gone yet eerily still alive in their own times. It isn’t a memoir of one woman, though Ernaux’s memory guides the whole. It’s a memoir of an entire society over an 80-year span—from 1941, when the world was at war and life centered on family and community, to the atomized present, when technology and globalism blur identity and borders, and “put an end to the sensation of time marching on.” Her purpose, she wrote in the book, was to retrieve “the memory of collective memory in an individual memory,” using the evidence of her own remembrance to “capture the lived dimension of history.”
People often compare The Years to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but it took Proust 3,000 pages to achieve the startling effect of reanimation that Ernaux creates in 200 pages. And there are other differences. For one: Proust wrote in an elaborate, embellished literary style, with long sentences and paragraphs. But more significant still: Annie Ernaux is a woman, and in her body of work, she presents a breathtakingly frank, fearless, many-sided account of the female experience—familial, sexual, professional, personal—during the past century.
“How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, their ways of being, even their acts?” she asked in A Girl’s Story. Her work shows us the answers, makes us see the interconnections that define us when we don’t recognize them ourselves; when we don’t even dare ask who we are, who we become, and why.
Liesl Schillinger is the author of Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century.
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