A Girl’s Story

Annie Ernaux has written about the power love and desire have to overwhelm us already in Simple Passion, but in her newest work, A Girl’s Story, published in 2016 and now translated by Alison L. Strayer, she recounts her first experience of this as a girl of seventeen spending her summer as an instructor in a holiday camp. As she points out, her anticipation of love is not unusual:

“Wherever they went, girls packed a supply of disposable sanitary towels and wondered with mingled fear and desire if this would be the summer when they’d sleep with a boy for the first time.”

In this girl’s case, this desire is perhaps particularly intense, exacerbated by a social awkwardness caused partly by her lower class origins, and an education at a Catholic girls’ school which leaves her entirely inexperienced in relationships with the opposite sex:

“I picture her arriving at the camp like a filly that has just fled from the paddock.”

Ernaux generally uses the third person, and ‘the girl’ rather than Annie, to describe her experience. Ernaux has, of course, rejected the idea that she writes autobiography or memoir:

“I reject belonging to a specific genre, be it novel or even autobiography. Autofiction doesn’t suit me either. The I that I use seems to me an impersonal form, barely gendered, sometimes even a word belonging more to “the other” than to “me”: a transpersonal form, in short.”

Here, she feels that the girl she is writing about is not only distant from her, but belongs to a part of her life that she “wanted to forget”. “The entire memory of the camp,” she says towards the end, “has been walled up.” Now she must attempt to recall that period and/as the girl that lived through it:

“I am her ghost. I inhabit her vanished being.”

As she explains the process while examining a photograph of herself taken in a cubicle in a girls’ dormitory:

“I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo. To be there at that very instant, without spilling over into the before or after.”

At the holiday camp a dance with one of the head instructors, H, quickly results in the girl being led back to his room on the assumption that she will sleep with him. She is, in a way, nether wiling nor unwilling:

“I do not know exactly when she inwardly consents to losing her virginity. It is not from resignation: she wants to lose it, collaborates.”

H, however, is unable to penetrate her and she remains a virgin. For H the gaol is simple: sexual satisfaction. For the girl it is more complex: she feels responsible for H’s arousal (“She had no right to abandon this man in the state he was in, raging with desire, all because of her”) and she also feels “there was no turning back, things had to run their course.” Her own desires do not even enter into her thoughts:

“She does not even ask herself if she likes him, or finds him attractive.”

For the girl it is the beginning of a relationship but she does not have the skills to build this relationship. She tells him, for example, that he is the second best good-looking man at the camp, thinking this will be taken as a compliment. She becomes “like a dog who begs to be petted and receives a kick instead.”

“She does not give up but simply waits for him to want her.”

She cannot imagine anyone but H taking her virginity, but at the same time “she is proud to be the object of lust, and quantity seems to her the gauge of her seduction value.” This leads to a series of sexual encounters with other boys which, in turn, influence how others see her at the camp.

Ernaux continues the girl’s story beyond the camp as her exploration of the event suggests that its effects were more sustained than she initially thought. She takes us through her final year at high school, he time training to be a teacher, and a period in London working as an au pair. H is not forgotten:

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.”

She also attempts to become the woman she feels he will love, losing weight, learning to swim and dance:

“To make him like me, love me, I had to radically transform.”

Ernaux’s narratives are never self-pitying or self-justifying. This not a story of blame, nor one where she is a victim. She seeks only to understand:

“What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge? … What compels her is the hope of discovering even a drop of likeness between this girl, Annie Duchesne, and any other being.”

Reading Ernaux’s work I frequently understand something new, have intuitions expressed clearly, and recognise experiences which only rarely seem to feature in literature. Her honesty is not simply in her content but in her craft. If it was up to me, I would give every teenager this book.

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10 Responses to “A Girl’s Story”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    The teenage years can be hellish (I have many unhappy memories of my own and my children’s) – so if this is a book to teach them anything perhaps it should be prescribed reading in schools!

  2. Rico Craig Says:

    Her books are so fantastic!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve yet to read Ernaux but would like to at some point, maybe for WIT later this year. Where would you suggest I start with her? The Years is the one that’s been calling me, but I’d be interested in your view.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s tricky because I would recommend The Years to anyone yet it’s not entirely typical of her work. Of the others I’ve read, maybe A Man’s Place (also published as Positions) about her father.

  4. Caroline Says:

    Very interesting for me since I’ve just read Passion Simple.
    I’m surprised, I thought she called her writing auto fiction herself but maybe not anymore.
    Teenage years, not the fondest memories either. I will have refrain myself from getting this as I still have so many others of her books.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound like it captures something of being a teenager with some power. It would be interesting though to see what a teenager thought of it. Do they recognise it? Or is it true for people looking back, but less for those experiencing it?

    Not sure many people’s teenage years are their happiest. I think it would be a bit sad if they were. There used to be a saying decades ago in England (before my time really) that schooldays were the happiest days of your life. I always thought that an utterly despairing philosophy.

    I still haven’t read The Years, which I have, so while I might read this it won’t be until after I’ve read that.

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