Annie Ernaux Turns Memory Into Art

People don’t tend to film their arguments and fights. Ernaux has hinted at her husband’s philandering, but, true to form, she is inclined to consider their separation to be as much a public phenomenon as a private one. “All around them, divorce proliferated,” Ernaux writes, in “The Years,” referring to her cohort of women who

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People don’t tend to film their arguments and fights. Ernaux has hinted at her husband’s philandering, but, true to form, she is inclined to consider their separation to be as much a public phenomenon as a private one. “All around them, divorce proliferated,” Ernaux writes, in “The Years,” referring to her 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 dodged the altar. In 1981, Ernaux published her third novel, “A Frozen Woman,” an account of a young wife and mother who comes to feel suffocated by the constraints of domestic life. That is when the family videos end. Ernaux had left the marriage for good.

Now Ernaux came into her own. She published the books about her father and mother. She had an audience, a name. Then, in 1991, came “Simple Passion,” and everything readers thought they knew about this restrained, cerebral woman went out the window. “From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man: for him to call me and come round to my place,” Ernaux writes at the start. The sixty or so short pages that follow amount to a narrative of willing captivity. During the months of her affair with A., as she calls her lover, Ernaux bends toward him as a flower toward the sun. She stays at home when she should go out; she doesn’t use the vacuum cleaner for fear of covering the phone’s ring. A. is a foreigner, an Eastern European; his weakness for Western luxuries reminds Ernaux of herself as a teen-age “parvenue,” craving the dresses and vacations that her richer friends had. A. shares none of her intellectual interests, but so what? She herself can only listen to love songs.

After A. returns home, Ernaux grows morbid. If he has given her AIDS, she thinks, “at least he would have left me that.” And yet, in this sex-saturated book, there is not a lot of sex. Ernaux is at her most graphic in the preface, where she describes watching an X-rated movie on TV, stunned by its matter-of-fact depiction of what for centuries had been taboo. Writing, she thinks, should try to achieve the same effect: “a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.”

“Simple Passion” was a major best-seller, and no surprise; if you have experienced the sort of agony that Ernaux describes, you won’t come across a more distilled depiction of it. Some readers, though, felt betrayed. When Ernaux was invited to give a talk at Wellesley, the students attacked her for being submissive. Didn’t she claim to be a feminist? Yes, and that is what made “Simple Passion” so powerful, and so terrifying. Ernaux had managed to convey the force with which desire can render the rest of life—the rest of the self—instantly void. She wasn’t advocating for women to lose their heads over a man. She was describing what it feels like when it happens, as you might describe a tornado that has flattened your house.

A decade later, Ernaux did something surprising and published excerpts of the diary she had kept during the affair. That book, “Getting Lost,” was released in the U.S. in September, in a translation by Alison L. Strayer. Here, finally, is the sex that Ernaux had mostly elided in “Simple Passion”—the positions, the fluids—and the torture of the waiting, unspooled in all its real-time wretchedness. “My whole life has been an effort to tear myself away from male desire, in other words, from my own desire,” Ernaux confesses. (Maybe the Wellesley students had a point.) Ernaux is not, as a rule, a funny writer, but the friction between her finely developed mind and the tyrannical demands of her body produces moments of true comedy. When she loses a contact lens and finds it on her lover’s penis, her first thought is of Zola, “who lost his monocle between the breasts of women.” Then there is the gulf between her devotion to her lover—“addiction” might be the better word—and her awareness of his obvious mediocrity. Now called by his true initial, S., he turns out to be a thirty-five-year-old Soviet apparatchik whom the forty-eight-year-old Ernaux met on a writer’s junket to the U.S.S.R. “Again I long to see him,” she records. “And yet what it all comes down to is this: he fucks, he drinks vodka, he talks about Stalin.”

Here Ernaux risks indulgence. “The Years,” which covers the period from 1941 to 2srcsrc6 and is practically cosmic in its tone and scope, runs well over two hundred pages, but “Getting Lost” is somehow longer. What pushed her to publish? In the period following the affair, she told me, “I was forbidden from reading the diary by a very jealous lover.” She agreed to seal it in an envelope, where it stayed until their breakup, six years later. “Then I read it, and I discovered that it had a fabulous unity. But it wasn’t at all the same as ‘Simple Passion.’ It was another text. And I was another woman, too. I felt like I was reading a novel. It was the writing itself that was working on me, as if I didn’t know what came next!” This was the ecstatic surrender 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 the self transfigured by time—animates all of Ernaux’s work. As she says in “Shame,” writing about her vanished, 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 highest,” is, needless to say, more ephemeral.) But, she explains in “Simple Passion,” the passage of time can also be a comfort, even a creative necessity:

Naturally I feel no shame in writing these things because of the time which separates the moment when they are written—when only I can see them—from the moment when they will be read by other people, a moment which I feel will never come. By then I could have had an accident or died; a war or a revolution could have broken out. This delay makes it possible for me to write today, in the same way I used to lie in the scorching sun for a whole day at sixteen, or make love without contraceptives at twenty: without thinking about the consequences.

Ernaux sometimes ends her books with the dates of their composition, as if to tie them to that precious period when she lived with them alone. “Happening,” published in 2srcsrcsrc, was written between February and October of 1999, thirty-six years after the events it recounts. “I had a sense of writing out of time,” Ernaux told me. Abortion had been permitted in France since 1975. People took it for granted; no one seemed to be interested in commemorating the struggle, led by Simone Veil, to legalize it, or in remembering the horrors that women faced before. “There’s a parade every Fourteenth of July,” Ernaux said. “We celebrate that; we aren’t 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 would die one day and there would be no trace of it. I wouldn’t have been able to transmit whatever it was that I needed to.”

What Ernaux needed to transmit, in that blunt, indelible book, was what it had been like to seek an abortion in the fall of 1963 and the winter of 1964, when anyone who performed an abortion, or sought one, or encouraged one, or even advocated for the use of contraception, could be fined and sent to prison. Ernaux was studying in Rouen when she discovered that she was pregnant. “Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition,” she writes. So much for her fancy education: “My ass had caught up with me, and the thing growing inside me I saw as the stigma of social failure.” Even so, she thought that getting the abortion would be easy. She had read about abortions in novels; she had heard women in Yvetot discussing them under their breath. She knew that it would be painful. She had no idea that she could die.

She learned. Although “Happening” is written with Ernaux’s usual piercing clarity, the book seems to unfold in a kind of suffocating twilight as the avenues pursued by the twenty-three-year-old Annie are shut off, one by one. A male friend whom she confides in 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 rumored to know an abortionist. She is supposed to be working on her thesis, on female Surrealists, but she can focus only on her own female reality. “In a strange way, my inability to write my thesis was far more alarming than my need to abort,” Ernaux writes. “I had stopped being ‘an intellectual.’ I don’t know whether this feeling is widespread. It causes indescribable pain.” A different kind of pain follows a failed attempt to solve her problem with a pair of knitting needles. All the while, she feels “time flowing inside and outside of me”—the common calendar moving forward, her private one moving back.

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