Annie Ernaux transforms memory into art
People don’t tend to film their arguments and fights. Ernaux has alluded to her husband’s banter, but, true to form, she’s inclined to view their split as both a public and private phenomenon. “All around them, divorce proliferated,” Ernaux writes, in “The Years,” referring to his cohort of women who had grown up being told that premarital sex was a sin, and pregnancy out of wedlock a disaster, only to see the next generation met with “unanimous approval” when they ducked the altar. In 1981, Ernaux published his third novel, “A frozen woman», the story of a young wife and mother who ends up feeling suffocated by the constraints of domestic life. This is when family videos end. Ernaux had left the marriage for good.
Now Ernaux has become hers. She published the books about her father and her mother. She had an audience, a name. Then, in 1991, came “Simple Passion,” and everything readers thought they knew about this cerebral, sober woman went out the window. “Since last September, I have done nothing but wait for a man: for him to call me and come to my house,” Ernaux writes at the start. The sixty short pages that follow constitute a story of voluntary captivity. During the months of her liaison with A., as she calls her lover, Ernaux leans towards him like a flower towards the sun. She stays home when she should be out; she doesn’t use the vacuum cleaner for fear of drowning out the ringtone. A. is a foreigner, an Eastern European; her weakness for Western luxury reminds Ernaux that she was a teenager”reached, ” envy of the dresses and the holidays that his richest friends had. A. shares none of his intellectual interests, but so what? She herself can only listen to love songs.
After A. returns home, Ernaux becomes morbid. If he gave her AIDS, she thinks, “at least he would have left me this.” And yet, in this sex-saturated book, there isn’t much sex. Ernaux is at her most graphic in the preface, where she describes watching an X-rated movie on TV, stunned by its factual depiction of what for centuries had been taboo. Writing, she thinks, should try to achieve the same effect: “a feeling of anxiety and bewilderment, a suspension of moral judgment”.
“Simple Passion” was a major bestseller, and no surprise; if you have experienced the kind of agony described by Ernaux, you will not find a more distilled description. Some readers, however, felt betrayed. When Ernaux was asked to lecture at Wellesley, the students attacked her for her submission. Didn’t she claim to be a feminist? Yes, and that’s what made “Simple Passion” so powerful and terrifying. Ernaux had succeeded in conveying the force with which desire can make the rest of life – the rest of oneself – instantly empty. She was not advocating that women lose their minds to a man. She was describing what it feels like when that happens, like you might describe a tornado that leveled your house.
A decade later, Ernaux does something surprising and publishes excerpts from the diary she kept during the case. This book, “To get lostwas released in the United States in September, in a translation by Alison L. Strayer. Here is finally the sex that Ernaux had above all elided in “Simple Passion” – the positions, the fluids – and the torture of waiting, unfolded in all its misery in real time. “My whole life has been an effort to tear myself away from male desire, that is to say from my own desire,” confesses Ernaux. (Perhaps the Wellesley students were right.) As a rule, Ernaux is not a funny writer, but the friction between her finely developed mind and the tyrannical demands of her body produces moments of genuine comedy. When she loses a contact lens and finds it on her lover’s penis, her first thought goes to Zola, “who has lost his monocle between women’s breasts”. Then there’s the chasm between her devotion to her lover – “addiction” might be the best word – and her awareness of his obvious mediocrity. Now called by his real initial, S., he turns out to be a thirty-five-year-old Soviet apparatchik whom Ernaux, forty-eight, met during a writer’s trip to the USSR. “, she records. “And yet, it all boils down to this: he fucks, he drinks vodka, he talks about Stalin.”
Here Ernaux risks indulgence. “The Years,” which covers the period from 1941 to 2006 and is practically cosmic in tone and scope, covers well over two hundred pages, but “Getting Lost” is somewhat longer. What prompted her to publish? In the period after the affair, she told me, “A very jealous lover forbade me to read the newspaper. She agreed to seal it in an envelope, where it remained until their breakup six years later. “Then I read it, and I discovered that it had a fabulous unity. But it was not at all the same as “Simple Passion”. It was another text. And I was also another woman. I felt like I was reading a novel. It was the writing itself that worked on me, as if I didn’t know what was coming next! It was the ecstatic abandonment not of the lover but of the reader. Ernaux was transfixed by a fictional character, who happened to be herself.
This notion of becoming another woman – of oneself transfigured by time – animates all of Ernaux’s work. As she says in “Shame,” writing about her missing, younger self is one of only two ways she knows “to bring the two of us together.” (The other, orgasm, “the moment when my sense of identity and coherence is at its peak,” is, of course, more fleeting.) But, she explains in “Simple Passion,” the time passing can also be a comfort, even a creative necessity:
Ernaux sometimes ends her books with the dates of their composition, as if to link them to this precious period when she lived alone with them. “Happening”, published in 2000, was written between February and October 1999, thirty-six years after the events it relates. “I had the feeling that I was writing out of time,” Ernaux told me. Abortion had been legal in France since 1975. People took it for granted; no one seemed interested in commemorating the struggle, led by Simone Veil, to legalize it, or remembering the horrors that women had faced before. “There is a parade every July 14,” Ernaux said. “We celebrate that; we are not supposed to forget. But if it concerns women? It’s all over, no one needs to talk about it. I had the feeling that I was going to die one day and that there would be no trace of it. I wouldn’t have been able to convey everything I needed.
What Ernaux needed to convey, in this brutal and indelible book, was what it had been like to have an abortion in the fall of 1963 and the winter of 1964, when anyone performing an abortion, or seeking one, or encouraged it, or even advocated for the use of contraception, could be fined and sent to prison. Ernaux was studying in Rouen when she discovered she was pregnant. “Somehow I felt there was a connection between my social background and my current condition,” she writes. So much for his whimsical upbringing: “My ass had caught up with me, and the thing that was growing inside me, I saw as the stigma of social failure.” Even so, she thought getting an abortion would be easy. She had read about abortions in novels; she had heard women from Yvetot talking about it in low tones. She knew it would be painful. She had no idea she could die.
She learnt. Although Happening is written with Ernaux’s usual piercing clarity, the book seems to unfold in a sort of suffocating twilight as the avenues pursued by twenty-three-year-old Annie close one by one. A friend in whom she confides invites her to dinner with his wife and child and then tries to seduce her. Doctors refuse to help. Annie desperately tries to find a friend of a friend who is rumored to know an abortionist. She is supposed to work on her thesis, on surreal women, but she can only focus on her own feminine reality. “In a strange way, my inability to write my thesis was far more alarming than my need to abort,” writes Ernaux. “I had ceased to be ‘an intellectual’. I don’t know if this feeling is widespread. This causes indescribable pain. Another type of pain follows an unsuccessful attempt to solve one’s problem with a pair of knitting needles. All the while she feels “time is flowing inside and outside of me” – the common timeline is moving forward, her private timeline is moving backward.