‘These things happened to me so that I might recount them,” Annie Ernaux writes in Happening, her slim retelling of the clandestine abortion she had in the 1960s, when the procedure was still illegal in France. “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing. In other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”
I felt a thrill when I first read these words. A greater rationale for autobiographical writing has perhaps never been asserted, at least not so poetically and politically. For a woman to write her life without shame or fear remains a radical and often transgressive act. As women, so much of our experience resides in the body; Ernaux’s lifelong project of rendering her own in writing – from the rape her younger self cannot name as such to her abortion, her experience of desire – has profoundly feminist implications, as much now as ever.
It’s cheering to see Ernaux’s genius and her fearlessness acclaimed by the Nobel committee. The daughter of parents who owned a cafe-cum-grocery shop, she has something in common with Elena Ferrante in her reflections on social class and education and the gulfs they can create. Her work echoes the experiences of many women of her generation who sought liberation through learning and creativity. We are made of words, she told one interviewer (in French); they travel through us. That is how it feels to read her, too.
There is a sense from hearing Ernaux speak about her work that for her, an experience is not fully lived until it is written. Memory alone is insufficient: experiences must be transcribed. Her project is to retrieve and reconstruct lived emotions, many uncomfortable, shameful, or difficult to pin down, giving her prose a vividness that feels unmediated by wisdom or hindsight. Rather, to read her feels as though you are witnessing a series of distilled moments and feelings, captured and collected and held in suspension until their required deployment.
The Years is her masterwork as far as this technique is concerned. It is a book that manages to be both an intimate history and a grand, sweeping one. It is the chronicle of an entire generation told through the subjectivity of just one woman’s body and mind. If the modernists gave us stream of consciousness, Ernaux gives us a kind of merging of that individual consciousness into a profound, unified collectivism. To read, for example, Simple Passion is to bear witness to a doomed love affair between two people at a certain point in history. But it is also to feel that thwarted desire, that rejection and desperation ourselves. A more abject book about love has never been written – which makes it sound downbeat, but it isn’t, it’s effervescent.
Similarly, A Girl’s Story can be said to be a very personal tale of sexual awakening and humiliation occurring half a century before #MeToo, but it is also the work of an emotional historian who believes in the universality of certain experiences. This may be the story of one girl in 1958, but we know that she is far from unique in her experience of male aggression. Her dedication to her own emotional archaeology precipitates a powerful resonance. The New Yorker likened her to “a detective cracking an unsolvable case: the mystery of her own past”. There is truth to this, though I picture her more as being on her hands and knees in the earth, dusting off and assembling fragments.
The way she excavates her own life without shame or supplication and offers it to us feels supremely generous. The reader might be silent on his or her own mortifications or moments of pain, but a small part of them can reside in Ernaux’s words, if we let them, and in the process free us – if only momentarily.
Some call Ernaux a pioneer of autofiction. Whatever you term it – fiction, memoir, autobiography or, as Deborah Levy has it, living autobiography – it has been a life’s work that has eroded the boundaries between such categories and seen her lauded in France and cemented on school and university curriculums there. In the English-speaking world she is less well known. The small publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, which also publishes the work of fellow Nobel laureates Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk in translation, has doggedly championed her in a climate that can often be indifferent to literary work in other languages. I imagine it’s a pleasure for her English translators, Tanya Leslie and Alison L Strayer, to work with her clean, almost clinically precise prose which somehow manages to so richly evoke true life.
Because what is true life made up of, after all? It is a collection of moments: the interior architecture of our own memories and recollections is populated with seemingly meaningless objects, sounds, images, and words, all of which combine to build a whole. Ernaux has come closer than any writer in conveying this in prose. It is a uniquely feminine way of historicising, because it is a history that locates its meaning in the margins.
Take, for instance, Ernaux’s reflection: “If I had to choose one painting to symbolise that episode in my life, it would be a small table with a Formica top pushed up against a wall and an enamel basin with a probe glowing on the surface. Slightly to the right – a hairbrush. I don’t believe there is a single museum in the world whose collection features a work called The Abortionist’s Studio.” (This paragraph alone inspired a scene in the Céline Sciamma film Portrait of a Lady on Fire.)
The probe, the hairbrush, the Formica table: these objects combine to create a social history, and in doing so give voice to the silences of many women of that generation. For those of my own, and many more to come no doubt, Ernaux is an inspiration who has helped secure us the right to tell our own stories, to try to locate the potential for human connection in the flotsam and the fragments of our own lives.