Annie Ernaux’s Memoirs Ask a Radical Question

Annie Ernaux’s Memoirs Ask a Radical Question

To Disremember the Somewhen

The groundbreaking memoirs of Annie Ernaux. 

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In 1958, Annie is 17 years old and has barely left the small rural town in northern France where she was born, never lived with anyone but her parents, used a telephone, taken a shower, or been to a “real party,” has yet to “read Beauvoir, Proust, Virginia Woolf,” have sex or seen it depicted. She is a girl constituted by the time ahead, by all she has still to do. She has been hired to be a summer camp counselor, despite having never been trained or attended camp, eager to earn some money and independence before she goes to college in the fall. She is the first in her family to continue her education—both of her parents left school at 12 to work at farms and factories—and this status (of being the first, the exception) makes her simultaneously proud and afraid of her future. She has “a bold certainty about her own intelligence” yet “no defined self, but ‘selves’ who pass from one book to another.” Annie is at the nexus of terror and longing known as teenage girlhood, ready “to leave [home], escape the watchful gaze of her mother, the school, the town, and do what she wants: read all night, dress in black like Juliette Gréco.” And most importantly, Annie, who describes herself as “Catholic and working class, of peasant origin,” wants to fall in love.

This is a familiar start to a mainstay of French literature, the story of a girl’s sexual awakening, but what follows for Annie is more like a sexual somnambulance. Within a couple of nights at the camp, the head instructor, H., takes her back to her room after the welcome party. He is older, engaged to be married, essentially her boss. Within five minutes of their encounter, he comes on her face, having tried and failed to penetrate her. By the next morning, a crush has descended. She falls madly in love with him, willfully salvaging whatever scraps of romance she can. The next night she lies on the floor with a group of counselors, teenage couples in darkness, “united by a twilight hankering,” and, hearing that she’s easy, one boy tries to have sex with her in their sleeping bag. She weeps in the darkness, but “she does not think to get up and leave.” “The situation is neither good nor bad,” she thinks, “but somewhere between distress and the consolation a substitute body provides: the same male desire in a different body. Her body is only on loan.” These intimate memories, flushed with subjectivity, are written in the third person, “she,” a formal choice that evokes the feeling of looking back at the past, at a younger girl who no longer exists, and inhabiting that young girl in the moment, sliding away from herself, looking up at a person carelessly imposing one’s own narrative over hers.

Published in 2016 and translated into English this year, A Girl’s Story is the recollection of this summer in 1958 and its outpourings into the adult life of memoirist Annie Ernaux. The book might easily be categorized as a glinting particle within the larger constellation of Me Too writing, especially as Ernaux was vocally supportive of the movement, which was considerably less popular in France. In The New York Times this year, she said of the experiences in A Girl’s Story, “Had it been a rape, I might have been able to talk about it earlier, but I never thought about it that way.” It’s true that she is especially invested in saying what has until recently been unsayable—not because she requires permission but because her work has always traced the internal processes of “afterwardsness,” a psychoanalytic term for a remembered event’s acquisition of new or greater meaning retroactively. This can also be a cultural feeling, when something in the past, seemingly individual, transforms its shared profundity or political valence before all our eyes. Written in 2013, although coming out a few years later, A Girl’s Story predates Me Too as a narrative genre, but Ernaux’s body of work speaks to the simplest and possibly best thing Me Too offered women. It is her foundational exigency: how to remember politically, in collective form.

Across the ample particularities of over 40 years and 21 books, almost all short, subject-driven memoirs, Ernaux has fundamentally destabilized and reinvented the genre in French literature. Her subject matter is often unorthodox, bypassing stories proper for singular, stark events, as in Happening, which calmly transcribes the harrowing sequence of an illegal abortion in 1963, or whole, nonlinear lives, as in A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, which memorialize her father and mother, respectively. However, it is not the content of the books that makes the work so exciting but the rigorous and expansive form of their telling. Ernaux’s writing is often described, by herself and others, as keenly sociological, a category I find increasingly vague, but that might be because of the difficulties of describing a practice of literary memoir that is thoroughly rooted in class analysis—an account of one’s experiences that takes relations of capitalist production as the framing methods of understanding them. Ernaux has done repeatedly what many believe to be impossible in memoir writing: articulate the subterranean or starry machinations of economies, histories, and nations without ever sacrificing the acute truths of having a body in the world.

In A Girl’s Story, the reframing of Ernaux’s encounter with H. and the other boys at camp happens slowly. Sexual attitudes and norms are revised in fits and starts, and her memory accrues many different kinds of pleasure and anguish as the years unfold. One night in 1958 means something different in every decade that follows, up to now, when the characters read as both staunchly old-fashioned and achingly familiar. She writes of the shame that immediately blooms that summer: “It is a different kind of shame from that of being the daughter of shop- and café-keepers. It is the shame of having once been proud of being an object of desire…. the shame of being laughed at, and held in contempt. A girl’s shame.” She describes this as “shame of a historical variety.” The night with H. continues to happen inside her, and so does 1958, by extension. But in other ways, the endless remembrance of that event makes what is fixed in experience mutable through repetition. There is nothing more Ernaux than this: the subtle categorization of various shames, noticing the way they join together and stray apart, the way some belong to another time while being felt so fully in the present. She asks, Which do we carry forward, and which do we leave behind?

Shame, historical and otherwise, has always been the connective tissue of Ernaux’s work. In fact, it is the title of one of her many memoirs, published in 1999, about a brief, violent episode between her parents. She has written so many books, each pulled into tight focus on a single aspect of her life, that together they almost become chapters in one vast epic. I would recommend reading them en masse. They are a collective of their own. Stacked, the books make you feel as if you could sew them together to create a patchwork woman. In their fragmentation, they carry with them some spectral possibility of material cohesion, an entire life in sequence. But with even the most casual attempt to set them in order, this inclination is quickly dispelled. There is too much intermingling, overlap, fray. Partly this is because Ernaux is consistently amending her version of events—not correcting or contradicting herself, exactly, but complicating what she has already established to be true. She never fictionalizes but simply repeats herself. Every time she tells a story, she tells it slightly differently, stretching the membranous container of memoir to hold the same life again and again, in all its ongoing detail and paradox.

The most striking examples of this are the books about her parents. She wrote A Woman’s Story, published in French in 1988 and in English in 1991, in the months after her mother’s death. It describes her mother’s life in toto, from end to beginning to end again, a whole life coiled tightly into a slender volume. It is a record of grief’s urgency, the vertiginous need to restore the absent person to objecthood again. At first, the boundaries of such a project seem clear: a woman, a life, a book. But A Woman’s Story is the partner—a wife, one might say—to Ernaux’s A Man’s Place (1983, 1992), which tells the story of her father’s life and death. The two books are almost identical in structure, but the marriage creases across its doubled telling, folding the child, who is also the author, within its seams.

Neither life is particularly remarkable, except in the unlikely odds of their transcription. Ernaux’s parents were working-class Roman Catholics, born in rural Normandy, factory workers born to farmers, who saved up and purchased a small shop in a nearby town, above which the family lived and together ran a grocery and café. As they climbed from manual laborers to business owners, their child was able to continue school and become a teacher, a writer, an intellectual, the unimaginable descendant of her grandfather, who couldn’t read or write.

It is a plain story, told in plain language. Ernaux does not silently justify the telling of it with ornate phrasing, belle lettres, throwing poetry over their lives like a net, hauling back meaning. This stylistic choice was quite deliberate for her. “If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach…. No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally. It was the same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.” Nothing dramatic happens in either book, in a traditional sense, except her jump in class positions. Conflicts remain mostly unspoken and unresolved, her parents’ marriage remains intact, and the sorrow of their stories comes not in narrative eruptions but in the slow unfurling of childhood poverty across adult lives. It’s no different from most. And yet at the end of A Man’s Place, you weep, because a person lived, and then that person died. What ending were you expecting?

Ernaux’s straightforwardness is often mistaken as purely analytical, an acquired sociological voice rather than a colloquial style rooted in her history. Perhaps this is because of her unwavering clarity about class hierarchy, how it shapes lives, deaths, and personhood. In A Woman’s Story, she never detaches her mother from the economic system of which she is a part. “When I think of my mother’s violent temper, outbursts of affection, and reproachful attitude, I try not to see them as facets of her personality but to relate them to her own story and social background.” The emotional permutations of her family’s everyday life are steeped in “necessity,” as she calls it, material survival, and as Ernaux leaves home and becomes bourgeois—someone who luxuriates in ideas and is paid to do so, who hushes her young children in the train’s first-class carriage, who travels for pleasure, who gets divorced, who lives in a large city—the dynamic between her and her parents becomes strained by their widening difference. Pride and shame intertwine. Her father’s “greatest satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’être of his existence, was the fact that [she] belonged to the world which had scorned him.” She describes their family as a “fractured love,” a document of class experience.

Ernaux’s materialist lens might be austere, but her writing is never cold. It is her attention to class as the animate, abiding foundation of her parents’ lives that produces the most searing moments of embodiment. After her father dies, in bed at home, she recounts how the staircase of their house was too narrow for the coffin. “The body had to be wrapped in a plastic bag and dragged, rather than carried, to the coffin which lay downstairs in the middle of the café, closed for an hour. It was a laborious operation, punctuated by the men’s comments on the best way to proceed.” She does not linger over this scene. The image of the corpse thumping down a cramped staircase is heightened and brutal, but the sentence snags on “closed for an hour.” How to grieve, when a single hour is all the business you can afford to lose? The day continues, and her husband arrives “in the evening, suntanned, embarrassed by a bereavement in which he had no part.” “He seemed more out of place then than he had ever been,” she observes. “We slept in the only double bed, the one where my father had died.” The young pair climb into the furrowed sheets, haunted and warm.

The haunting of Ernaux is also verbal, a phantom behind every sentence. Language is where she and her parents become the most severed from one another, and she points to the scar and the shadow of her speech. In A Man’s Place, there are sporadic phrasings and idioms that she italicizes, a marker that almost functions as quotations, “because these particular words and sentences define the nature and the limits of the world where my father lived.” These include “There were others worse off,” “You don’t want ideas when you’re in trade,” “We were happy in spite of everything,” “out of place,” “town clothes,” “you slut,” “good manners,” “Gauloises,” and “to live,” as in “Books and music are all right for you. I don’t need them to live.” Italics, usually for emphasis, are used here to denote a kind of collective authorship, the words that don’t belong, particularly, to Ernaux. Her father’s parents spoke only the local dialect, but her father “saw patois as something old and ugly, a sign of inferiority…. Even if his French wasn’t perfect, at least it was French.”

In The Years, Ernaux’s memoir about her generation and its origins, she easily reverts to patois at home, “the language that clung to the body, was linked to slaps in the face, the Javel water smell of work coats, baked apples all winter long, the sound of piss in the night bucket, and the parents’ snoring.” This double reality means that “as a child, when [she] tried to express [herself] correctly, it was like walking down a dark tunnel.” Just as standard French and local dialect marked the difference between her father and her grandparents, so her French and that of her father diverge. “Because the schoolmistress corrected me, I naturally wished to correct my father and tell him that expressions like ‘to disremember’ and ‘somewhen’ simply didn’t exist. He flew into a terrible rage…. I realize now that anything to do with language was a source of resentment and distress, far more than the subject of money.” Ironically, I cannot imagine a more profound description of Ernaux’s life project than to disremember the somewhen.

What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?” Ernaux asks in A Girl’s Story. In A Woman’s Story, she describes her grandmother’s craft of domesticity, the way she kept everything, the skin off the milk to bake with, the ashes of the fire for laundry. “This knowledge—handed down from mother to daughter for many centuries—stops at my generation. I am only the archivist.” The transmission of memory from one to the other, the promise that memory can be cracked open and made communal, made infectious or inherited, is the undercurrent that flows beneath the jagged, stony surface of Ernaux’s books. She speaks in proxy, for her mother and father and for her past self, who is neither hers nor theirs. The Years, which has been called her magnum opus, brims with this mutuality and spills into a new form. In the book (published in French in 2008 and in English, translated by Alison L. Strayer, in 2017), Ernaux writes the story of her life using a collective “we.” In French it is the je collectif, nous and on, formal and intimate variations of groupness that we don’t have in English. Beginning with her birth in 1940 and ending when she is a grandmother in 2006, The Years is both a detailed cultural history of the postwar generation in France and a literary account of what it feels like to witness history happening—the steady, increscent glow of shared reality.

The opening of The Years is cinematic—a montage of details, the shivers of juxtaposition, a proclamation of doom. “All the images will disappear.” Ernaux’s images (a woman pissing on the edge of her town’s bombed ruins, the tears of the movie star Alida Valli, a newborn with limbs flailing, an ad for a dishwashing liquid) stack and stack, an index of her memories and others’, rolling in and out of the individual like waves against a beach. Eventually, the book congregates around the scene of a big family lunch. This remains the tether through the next 60 years, as grandmothers, mothers, and babies lay their lives over one another like veils or blankets. The family’s voices “compose the great narrative of collective events, which we came to believe we too had witnessed.” It is this assemblage that Ernaux is archiving, but it is not purely familial. Like shame, it is historical, and like love, it is classed. When the workers speak, “from a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns.” Ernaux moves through the 20th century in this voice, a choral document.

But the working class is not a static subject. Its shape changes more rapidly and drastically over the course of Ernaux’s life than anyone could have anticipated, and her identity within it becomes unclear. She was born in Nazi-occupied France, but the book opens in her early childhood after the fall of the Vichy regime in 1944, and it closes in despondent anticipation of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidency and the impending financial crisis. From the echoes of subsistence agriculture, Fordist factory work, and the petit bourgeois business, Ernaux becomes a Parisian intellectual, mother to young professionals in a globalized economy. In this new paradigm, she pushes the vestiges of a very particular social demographic (the white rural workers of midcentury northern France) into a larger question of how people gather around the past, circling into groups, doing and undoing identity in the process.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the oral tradition of her parents and grandparents was spoken in “a language without praise or flattery…express[ing] reasonable desires and expectations: clean work, an indoor workplace, enough to eat, dying in bed.” By the mid-1960s, as rebellious twentysomethings, “we saw the family milieu from the outside as a closed world that was no longer ours. The ideas that possessed us were alien to illness and factory layoffs, vegetables to be planted with the waxing moon.” By the 1970s, the meal is shared among new parents and the trendy Parisians who have moved in next door, in search of rural authenticity. The number of active farmers in France went from 7.4 million in 1946 to 2 million in 1975, leading to a boom in empty farmhouses, quickly filled. As the 1980s near and Ernaux turns 40, “we instinctively avoided topics that awakened the old social longings and cultural differences, and instead examined the present we shared…. The recitations of memories from the war and the Occupation had virtually ceased.” Where is the family meal of ’68? She watches much of that fateful May on television. Only a few years older at the time than the students, she was already married with a child when that revolution appeared.

In The Years, the latter half of the 20th century includes a massive reallocation of memory: the outsourcing of the archive. As Ernaux’s class identity transforms, so does the texture of recollection. During her childhood, the family structure was the container of the past, in which the realities of the factory, the village, and the farm were held suspended in a tight weave of gossip, anecdote, and craft. Previously, history was “passed body to body, over the years…a repertory of habits and gestures shaped by childhoods in the fields.” After upheavals in technology, education, and language, by the mid-1980s, “the time-before vanished from family tables, and fled the bodies and voices of its witnesses. It appeared on television in documentary archives with commentary by voices that came from nowhere. The ‘duty of remembrance’ was a civic obligation, the sign of a just conscience, a new patriotism.” By the turn of the millennium, “the media took charge of the process of memory and forgetting. It commemorated everything that could be commemorated, the appeal of Abbé Pierre, the deaths of [François] Mitterrand and Marguerite Duras, the beginnings and ends of wars, the first step on the moon, Chernobyl, September 11. Every day was an anniversary of something.” Ernaux elegantly reveals that it is not only the content of our memories, what it includes and what it elides, that makes up our culture but also what form that remembering takes, how the past is distributed among the collective and by whom.

The present century is crowded, the town square has gone digital, and there is nothing as claustrophobic as a future that shrinks as we step further into it. At the end of the book, Ernaux observes that the weather is changing—our most lurid understatement of 2006. With the Internet, there came “the inability to picture our lives in ten years’ time, or ourselves perfectly adapted to technologies yet unknown. (Someday, would we be able to see, imprinted on a person’s brain, everything they had done, said, seen, and heard?)” With the ease of photography, “the obscurity of previous centuries would disappear forever…. We were resurrected ahead of time.” The abstract deathliness of this new, constant archive converges with her approaching old age. The elasticity of Ernaux’s “we” loosens. The source of its knowledge dims and surges: The speaker stands, and contexts grow over her like moss.

Ernaux writes “the memory of collective memory in an individual memory…from inside her language, which is everyone’s language,” a game of telephone with oneself and the world. She is wed to her origins, but they are never romanticized. If anything, the new ways of living and remembering that have developed over her lifetime allow her to experiment with memoir as a genre. Ernaux does not hark back to a reproduction of oral histories; she furthers the shifts of language as she documents them. The political consequences of such a project are sustained in every work, as gender constrains and transforms, sex loops and unravels, and economies are embedded in bodies, which are both solid and temporary. Nothing remains unchanged. In the end, food, work, rest, talk, sex, life, and death have not ceased. There are only new ways of eating, making, sleeping, laughing, fucking, birthing, and dying. Soon we will remember what it was like, after it has all become different again.

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