Until about a decade ago, when Annie Ernaux published her magnum opus, Les années (The Years), an adjective would often feature in Parisian reviews of the French memoirist’s work: “impudique”, or indecent, shameless.
She says it would not only be applied to books touching on her sexuality, such as 1992’s Passion simple (Simple Passion), which explores her relationship with a married man and earned her the epithet of “Madame Ovary” in a French magazine. The word was also used to describe the diary she kept while her mother was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit (I Remain in Darkness), published in 1997.
“It was a leitmotif when people talked about my books,” she says, over the phone from her home in Cergy, on the northwestern outskirts of Paris. “People would see indecency everywhere.” She pauses. “In reality it was only [targeted at] women.”
Time has been Ernaux’s ally. Few in the French literary world would criticise her work now. Many of her books — 22 in total since 1974 — are viewed as classics. They have been translated into 36 languages — the latest, Mémoire de fille, is published in English this year as A Girl’s Story by Fitzcarraldo Editions — and are the subject of dissertations in France and abroad. “Almost untouchable”, “a living legend” is how a Parisian publisher friend describes her to me: “She used to be despised — ‘a little teacher from the province’, ‘a woman who wrote about herself’. Now, a bit like Marguerite Duras, she writes down her groceries list and everyone finds it amazing.”
It is a status won over a lifetime doggedly working on the process of remembering and stretching memoir into new territory. Ernaux, who is 80 next week, says “necessity, not pleasure” takes her back to her past, which she dissects like a forensics expert examining a crime scene. Each book sheds new light on personal, at times traumatic, events — such as her abortion, aged 23, in L’événement (Happening) and Les armoires vides (Cleaned Out); the death of her parents; or her first, disastrous, sexual encounter in Mémoire de Fille.
All the while she delivers a mesmerising portrait of postwar France, a time of upheaval for young adults, and women in particular. She often returns to her childhood, snatching sweets from the jars of the family café-grocery in a Normandy town, the shame as she realises she belongs to the “dominated” class, and ascends to university — a move she says made her a “transfuge”, a defector — and her experience as a woman in a period of feminist awakening.
Les armoires vides, published in 1974, was her first book and was a model of auto-fiction before French writer Serge Doubrovsky coined the term in 1977 to describe autobiographical novels — well ahead of the current craze. A young woman’s ruminations — with undertones of writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline — on her working-class upbringing, as she undergoes an illegal abortion, the novel was nominated for the prestigious Goncourt prize. A few years later Ernaux decided to shed fiction, as well as metaphors and other embellishments, for the minimalist reporting of a researcher to write La place (A Man’s Place), a portrait of her father. The book, which received the Renaudot prize, France’s most prestigious award after the Goncourt, was a turning point. She defended her approach as “political” — the écriture plate, or flat writing, was designed to remain as objective as possible in depicting her working-class roots. But for some influential Parisian critics it was literary heresy and they cast her as “miserabilist” and “populist”.
Ernaux says that being a woman meant the attacks were more virulent. “In France, literature is a man’s world. All the prizes, everything is controlled by men. Now people say I have legitimacy, but I’ve had to wait to be over 50.” She adds: “I’ve never given a damn. I never feel legitimate and at the same time I persevere . . . Women need more strength to write.”
Criticism abated with Les années, an autobiographical saga spanning 60 years that mixes personal details, historical facts and sociological observations; “auto-socio-biography” is how Isabelle Charpentier, a sociology professor at Amiens university, labels it. The book, which was published in English in 2018, won several awards and was shortlisted for last year’s International Man Booker prize.
At home, longevity and recognition have made Ernaux a role model for a new generation of authors. Some, including Edouard Louis, are drawn to her spartan style and sensitivity to the notion of class, a theme that has come back to the fore with the gilets jaunes protests. Ernaux, who says she is politically more on the “extreme side of the left than the soft [side]”, has sided with them against president Emmanuel Macron. “What the gilets jaunes express, it’s my family, my youth. What’s most important is the world you grew up in. Things haven’t changed.”
Other writers, mostly women, find comfort in her success as a female author. Mathilde Forget says she keeps a pile of Ernaux’s books in front of her when she writes. “She is a pioneer, she is respected, she shows there is a place for female writers who use their personal stories.” Forget feels that whenever a woman writes about her experiences it is perceived as “less relevant”: “There is a refusal to recognise that personal experiences can produce universal knowledge . . . Annie Ernaux is fighting this idea.” She sent Ernaux her first novel, published last year, and was ecstatic to receive a kind response. Later she discovered that Ernaux reads everything she receives and always writes back.
Ernaux, who keeps her distance from the Parisian literary scene — she has refused to sit on the Goncourt judging panel — says her main driver is an urge to bear witness to her existence. “These are books I really need to write . . . When I struggle, when it’s very long, like The Years, I suffer. There’s this idea, which is not arrogant, that ‘only I can write this’,” she tells me. She was influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre, whom she read before Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, another revelation. “How I view my life as a woman, it’s Simone de Beauvoir. Her intervention is brutal and stupendous. I understand that the world is made by and for men.”
“Often, I am seized by the fact that I could die at the end of my book,” she writes in A Girl’s Story, in which she reveals the devastating fallout of a brutal sexual encounter for the “girl of ’58” — her “state of stupor”, the loss of her dignity and self-preservation. The incident acted as a catalyst in her decision to turn herself into a “literary object”, “to observe oneself, to say to oneself, everything can be used”, Ernaux tells me. “It’s at that moment, perhaps at the cost of this violence. I never regret anything, I believe everything that happened to me was meant to.”
Writing does not come easily. “It’s as if I had never written any book,” Ernaux says. “For A Girl’s Story, The Years was of no use.” It is not so much the words that are difficult to find, but the method of slipping back into the past to reconstruct it almost physically. This is a literary struggle she shares with readers: “I am not trying to remember, I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girl’s dorm,” she writes in A Girl’s Story. “I am searching for a reality, one that is no longer apparent, one I must unearth,” she tells me. “In A Girl’s Story, it was the reality of an era and how it actually happened, since it was so long ago. I needed to extract reality from my memories.”
This time, beside the fact her mother had destroyed her diary, the challenge was that Ernaux’s perception of her own trauma had changed, to the point where it was buried and almost forgotten. “Was it something that belonged to a bygone era? Is a girl who sleeps with a boy on the first night a whore? Today she is not. In 1958, I can tell you, she is, no matter how it happened, including within the grey area of consent.”
Ernaux’s raw material is the past but she is also rooted in the present — the coronavirus lockdown was a period she found “fascinating to live” through, despite the death toll. She took a stand against Macron by denouncing his policies in an open letter. “If life has continued during the pandemic, it’s thanks to those Macron thought were nothing, and I exaggerate only slightly,” she says. Macron will never comprehend social inequalities because oblivion is an inherent trait of the ruling class, she adds.
Ernaux has watched the #MeToo movement unfold with excitement. The achievements that women are still to win are “less obvious” than during her youth, she notes, when it was about the right to vote, abortion (legalised about a decade after she nearly died of one) or the entry to France’s top engineering schools. “But it is not over,” she says. “Masculine hegemony is despairing. It’s very slow, very, very slow!”
Ernaux will not disclose whether these themes will inspire her next book. She is “a little superstitious” about her writing, so would rather not even give a hint. “Life is immense and endlessly observable,” she says. “A lifetime is not enough to tell a life.”
Anne-Sylvaine Chassany is the FT’s world news editor
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Source: Financial Times