“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Annie Ernaux insists at one point in Happening, one of the many thin books through which she has delivered her life in slices over the years, continuing:

“There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.”

This has long been the raison d’etre for her work, now finally beginning to reach a wider audience since the appearance of her life-long chronicle of France, The Years. Happening, translated by Tanya Leslie, and originally published by Seven Stories Press in 2001, tells the story of an abortion Ernaux underwent as a student, which also formed the basis of her first novel Cleaned Out in 1974. It begins with Ernaux waiting for the results of an AIDS test, and the difficulty she still feels in connecting the potential consequences to the act:

“I couldn’t associate the two: love-making, warm skin and sperm, and my presence in the waiting room. I couldn’t imagine sex being related to anything else.”

In a book which is about memory, it is at this moment she is reminded of the abortion:

“I realised that I had lived through these events at Lariboisiere Hospital the same way I had awaited Dr N’s verdict in 1963, swept by the same feelings of horror and disbelief.”

When Ernaux falls pregnant (the father is a fellow student with whom the occasional sexual encounter has not been representative of any deeper relationship) she immediately decides she cannot have the baby, which she describes as “a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs.” Abortion is, of course, illegal at this point, but she says she had little fear of it:

“I wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about getting an abortion. It seemed a highly feasible undertaking, admittedly not an easy one, but one that did not require undue courage.”

Her problem is the legality as she does not know who to turn to:

“Girls like me were a waste of time for doctors. With no money and no connections – otherwise we wouldn’t accidentally end up on their doorstep – we were a constant reminder of the law that could send them to prison and close down their practice for good.”

The book is as much the story of the time attempting to find someone that will help her as it is of the abortion itself. At one point she reminds herself:

“I must resist the urge to rush through those days and weeks, and attempt to convey the unbearable sluggishness of that period as well as the period of numbness that characterizes dreams, resorting to all the means at my disposal – attention to detail, use of descriptive past tense, analysis of events.”

The first person she confides in, a married student, attempts to seduce her. Typically, Ernaux conveys her attitude at the time rather than applying further outrage in hindsight: “It was an unpleasant episode but of very little consequence compared to my condition.” When she is eventually directed to a woman who will perform the abortion for her (in return for payment) it is described in excruciating detail, both the process itself and the aftermath, which will eventually see her taken to hospital. Ernaux is always a very physical writer and does not shy away from the torments of the body as well as the mind, though she is equally brutal with the psychological truth, describing the abortion as “giving birth to me” –

“At that point I killed my own mother inside me.”

Ernaux creates the truth of the book in layers: her recreation of the events, quotations for her journal of the time, and discussion of the process of writing, often delivered in parentheses. She does not proselytise, presenting the abortion neither as a courageous choice or a terrible mistake. Though her books are deeply felt, they are, in a sense, dispassionate, attempting neither to excuse nor justify:

“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.”

Tags: ,

6 Responses to “Happening”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve not read any Ernaux yet, though I do tend to keep stumbling across The Years in bookshops. i’m not sure if I’m ready for something as visceral as this though – but it’s good that she’s approaching something like this so honestly.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I think I need to give this author a go at some point, probably not with this one as it sounds a little too close to the bone. Would The Years be a good entry point or would you suggest I look at something else?

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    A Man’s Place / La Place (1983) is the one the French start with, since it is often assigned in high school. It is about Ernaux’s childhood but centered on her father. It is the beginning of and seems like a good introduction to what became her lifelong autobiographical project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: