Annie Ernaux is an ethnographer of memories, a master of autofiction
Behind her torrential stream of personal memories and collective consciousness, one senses the Nobel laureate's mastery, like a surgeon calmly performing an autopsy
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself with a copy of Annie Ernaux’s book The Years, published in 2008 but only recently translated from French to the English language. The UK publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions has now published eight translated titles belonging to Ernaux’s oeuvre, including The Years, Happening, A Girl’s Story and A Man’s Place.
Two days ago, I opened my browser and was so glad to learn that Annie Ernaux had won the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature, taking the baton forward from the Tanzanian-British academic Abdulrazak Gurnah. Since my discovery of Ernaux’s writing, I have carried a deep sense of gratitude that often accompanies encountering the work of a literary genius; this effect has not receded in the least, over the years.
Reading her memoir, The Years, was a beacon of hope amid the turmoil and insanity of the global pandemic; as a student living alone in London with no place to go and no one to see, I remained in solitary confinement, turning pages of this book. A lyrical condensation of memories, a breath-taking work of autofiction, The Years is based on the life of a young girl growing up in a small-town working-class family in Normandy, while aspiring to social mobility by joining the ranks of academia.
In each of her works, Ernaux revisits her own hopes, dreams, and aspirations that are pitted against the challenges of pursuing a life of the mind and forging an academic career despite the historical marginalisation from every social institutions of knowledge, based on her class and gender. She ruefully notes that the sacrifices she has made to follow an intellectual life have now granted her the desired social mobility but at the cost of alienating her profoundly from her working-class parents and friends.
Her tenuous relationship with her father is poignantly examined in A Man’s Place. In A Girl’s Story she writes about the death of her mother following a drawn-out battle with Alzheimer’s.
As I parse through her translated writings, I understand that each of the books is deeply interconnected; the events, memories and timeline she is describing for us in the books often overlap, so they can be considered different parts of a single work. By this I do not mean that all her books can be compiled into a monolith, instead I am alluding to Ernaux’s own observation on her writing process that often resembles that of an archivist or ethnographer of memories.
Even though Ernaux’s writing is catalogued as ‘autofiction’, in my view, she defies this categorical imperative. With most works of autofiction one is assuming to find baleful private confessions and solipsistic narratives about a bourgeois inner-life, but instead, one is taken aback by the refined magnitude of her work, specifically exemplified in the craft of melding the personal narrative with the collective history of our time. Within the genre of autofiction, Annie Ernaux by far precedes and exceeds the stature and adoration of contemporary writers like Rachel Cusk, Maggie Nelson and Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Crosshatch of memories
The Years carries us through a dizzying journey of a young woman growing up in France between the years 1941 to 2006; it is a crosshatch of screen memories, newspaper headlines, corporeal residues, diffused longings, the student unrest of May 1968, and meeting grounds of national and global politics, as the French government ban young Muslim girls from wearing headscarves, on the world stage Imam Khomeini pronounces a death sentence on Salman Rushdie.
As second-wave feminism percolates into France, ushering in an era of sexual liberation, corporeal autonomy and reproductive rights for women, in the backdrop French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard walk into the lecture theatres of Paris-Sorbonne University like luminary gurus ‘awash in language hitherto unseen’.
Occasionally, behind this torrential stream of personal memories and collective consciousness, one senses the mastery of Ernaux, like a surgeon calmly performing an autopsy. As the narrative progresses, it becomes difficult to discern whether we are standing alongside her in the operation theatre and admiring the acuity of the manoeuvres, or we are just lying anesthetised on the operating table, dimly aware of some unspeakable process unfolding and impressing itself upon us.
For instance, one becomes acutely aware of what the passing of time does to our memories, as Ernaux writes: “There is traffic noise in the background, and she recalls other times she has curled up this way in the daytime: on Sundays in Yvetot as a child, as she read against her mother’s back, in England as an au pair girl, wrapped in a blanket next to an electric heater… Each time, she had to leave this gentle state of torpor, get up, do home-work, go down to the street, socially exist.
“At these moments she thinks that her life could be drawn as two intersecting lines: one horizontal, which charts everything that has happened to her, everything she has seen or heard at every instant, and the other vertical, with only a few images clinging to it, spiralling down into darkness.”
The indolence of a young girl reading in bed while leaning on her mother’s back, or lying cocooned with a book under the blanket and in front of an electric heater in a foreign country while labouring as an au-pair, is a powerful political reclamation of the pleasures of intellectual repose in the everyday life of a female working-class subject. With this, Ernaux reveals the impoverished cultural imagination gilded by intellectuals and novelists belonging to a particular social class, from which proletariat women have historically been cordoned off.
A near-death experience
Following The Years I began reading Happening, Ernaux’s memoir on experiencing a gruesome abortion, which leads her to a near-death experience at the age of 23. It was a traumatic event that she claims to have resolved only 40 years later in the act of writing this book. In the 1960s, the second-wave of feminism in France is redefining the earlier feminist concerns about the political disenfranchisement of women; it is harking endlessly about sexual liberation for women, yoga, mysticism and other avant-garde practises that fetishize the East, while French government and its health system in collusion with Christianity is clamping down on reproductive rights of women by announcing that abortions are illegal.
Despite the shame and stigma attached to her illicit pregnancies, young Ernaux is painfully aware that education is her only passport to upward social mobility, which she will have to sacrifice if she chooses to become a mother. In the book, she narrates her desperate attempts to self-abort and her resolve to finally seek assistance from a dubious abortionist.
After the second attempt at abortion, she returns to her university residence and sits in a tiny cubicle to terminate the foetus into the toilet bowl. Following which, she proceeds to calmly detach her own umbilical cord and goes to bed without realising that the incision is haemorrhaging.
Ernaux recounts that at that moment, perched on the toilet seat, she understood two things, first that she had given birth to herself through her unwavering resolve to continue her education and second, she had killed her own mother by refusing to be complicit in shameful secrecy surrounding abortions and by rejecting the religious and patriarchal dogmas thrust upon women’s corporealities.
Recently, this book was adapted into a film, L’Evenement directed by Audrey Diwan, that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2021.
In the end, I will return to something I quoted earlier from The Years, where Ernaux ruminates that her own life often traverses two intersecting lines, the horizontal axis, where each moment of her life progressively accumulates and the vertical axis, on which a few startling images flash for a moment, before spiralling down to the vast darkness of an eternal time that exists, both before and beyond us.
The magic of Ernaux’s writing derives from the interaction between the progressive force of history, from whose onslaught our memories are never safe; we keep reinventing ourselves, changing the story, editing the image and rewriting our personal and collective histories based on the facts, information and knowledge we have gained with the passing time.
It is through Ernaux’s work that one begins to learn that simply staying close to the sensations and feelings accompanying a memory belonging to the past, and by paying attention to the details of the imprints it has left behind from the time it occurred, might perhaps be the only way to come as close to the truth as possible.