Archive for the ‘Annie Ernaux’ Category

The Years

July 2, 2018

In 1985, as described in her newly translated (by Alison Strayer) autobiography The Years, Annie Ernaux begins to consider writing the book we are reading:

“…the idea has come to her to write ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, set between 1940 and 1985. It would be something like Maupassant’s A Life and convey the passage of time inside and outside of herself, in History, a ‘total novel’ that would end with her dispossession of people and things: parents and husband, children who leave home, furniture that is sold.”

It is worth noting that at this point Ernaux had been a published writer for over ten years working in the autobiographical genre, and that what she was imagining was clearly something which went beyond the work she was already producing. Previously her books have tended to focus on one aspect of her life: of the two I have read, for example, Cleaned Out relates her experience of abortion and I Remain in Darkness tells of her mother’s dementia. Now the intention was to produce something all-encompassing and cumulative, a new form which would require a new method, which, twenty years later, she describes:

“It will be slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life… There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before.”

It begins in valedictory fashion: a series of memories introduced with the phrase “All the images will disappear.” The conclusion to this prelude is equally certain:

“Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it.”

What follows both answers and emphasises: The Years preserves the memories within it, but in presenting a lifetime in two hundred pages it encapsulates the brevity, the impermanence.

Ernaux uses the frozen images of photographs as milestones on her journey, beginning with one of “a fat baby with a full, pouty lower lip and brown hair”. She begins, not with her own memories, but with those of the adults around her in her post-war childhood:

“The voices of the guests flowed together to compose the great narrative of collective events, which we came to believe we too had witnessed.”

Ernaux intends not only the milestones of her own life, but the milestones for France in the second half of the twentieth century, ‘the great collective narrative’, while at the same time distrustful of that narrative, noting that the adults “lacked the talent and conviction to speak of things they’d been aware of but had not seen.” Ernaux lacks neither talent nor conviction, and manages a tone that is both incisive and bemused, observant of the tides of change while not immune to being washed along; she is both camera and subject.

What most astonishes in reading The Years is the pace of change. Partly this is material: in her childhood Ernaux tells us:

“We lived in a scarcity of everything, of objects, images, distractions, explanations of self and the world…”

As an adult she sees the development of the ‘consumer society’:

“The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.”

(In case this seems rather distant and high-handed, Ernaux will happily satirise her own behaviour, teaching the dangers of advertising while buying all the latest technology “with a sense of using modernity to intelligent ends” – “For us and by us, consumption was purified.”)

By the book’s end, we find a very different world to that of her childhood:

“We lived in a profusion of everything, objects, information and ‘expert opinions’.”

Similarly there are striking changes in attitudes, to women, for example, and sex. Sex is a topic Ernaux returns to again and again, beginning with the judgements of her youth:

“The unwed mother lost her entire worth and had nothing to hope for, except perhaps a man who would sacrifice himself and take her in, along with the fruit of her sin.”

The contraceptive pill changes everything for women, though initially “we didn’t dare ask the doctor for a prescription and the doctor didn’t offer, especially if one wasn’t married.” Later, too, Ernaux reflects:

“With the pill they had become sole rulers of their lives, but word hadn’t got out yet.”

Ernaux also charts the political scene, the wars (Algeria, Vietnam), the elections, May 1968 and its aftermath. Of course, some of this is less fascinating for the non-French reader, but much of it mirrors political movements in Europe as a whole.

Ernaux’s real success, though, is in combining all of this – political, social, economic – with the personal in a seamless narrative which is breath-takingly sustained. Time and again she finds exactly the right phrase to bring a new experience or thought to life (a Walkman, for example, is “the first time music entered the body”). The overall effect is intelligent, moving and, at times, revelatory.


Cleaned Out

August 19, 2017

Annie Ernaux’s Cleaned Out (translated by Carol Sanders) begins with an illegal abortion (first published in 1974, this scene takes place in 1960). Ernaux spares no detail – the story, as with most of her work, is autobiographical:

“I was on the table, all I could see between my legs was her grey hair and the red snake she was brandishing with a pair of forceps. It disappeared. Unbearable pain. I shouted at the old woman who was stuffing in cotton wool to keep it in place.”

The abortion, however, is the novel’s endpoint rather than its subject. Ernaux is instead intent on exploring the journey which has taken her narrator, Denise Lesur, from childhood to this moment:

“First I was the storekeeper’s daughter, always top of the class. Then a great big lump wearing socks on Sundays, the scholarship student. Then screwed up by a back-street abortionist, and that might be the end of it.”

It’s the story of a young woman caught between two cultures – her working class background and the middle class world she has entered via education – but belonging to neither of them:

“I didn’t always hate my parents, the customers, the store… I hate the others too now, those with education, the professors, the respectable people. I’m sick to death of them.”

Her parents own a store and bar in a poor neighbourhood, providing a level of prosperity which sets them above their customers. Denise’s childhood is a happy one – “I was like a fish in water” – the store means she never has to want for anything on its shelves, and the bar provides her with all the adult attention, unsavoury as some of it is, she needs. She is sent to a private school – a claim on entering the middle classes which her parents shrug off with, “not that we’re snobs, but the private school is nearer.” Though uneducated (or perhaps because they are), her parents place their faith in education – her father pronounces ‘school’ in the same tone as ‘church’. Denise is studious, but finds school “strange, indescribable, I was completely disorientated.” School and home seem like two different worlds: “Not even the same language.”

Denise, of course, does not fit in with the other pupils:

“In feel clumsy and awkward in comparison with the private-school girls, who are confident, who know just what to do.”

Her stories from home are “in poor taste.” Her marks, however, continue to be high:

“The others recognised that I got good marks and was at the top of the class. That knowledge made me feel free, warm, protected.”

The better she does at school, however, the more distant she feels from her life at home:

“I’m not like them. I’m different. I have nothing to say to them.”

School and home also create another dichotomy in Denise’s life. Her sordid origins become connected in her mind with sex; school, on the other hand, represents purity. As her sexual desire develops she sees it as something else that singles her out, a view exacerbated by her Catholic upbringing:

“There’s a monster growing between my legs, a flat, red cockroach, unclean. Don’t ever look at it, don’t ever touch it, don’t let anyone see it, the Devil’s down there…”

She sees her sexuality as something to resist, and her inability to resist it a sign of her own inadequacy, her true, inherited nature which she cannot escape through learning.

Cleaned Out is a fierce, physical book. In Ernaux’s hands, Denise’s emotions are often tangible, spreading through her senses. In an afterword, she talks of, “describing a life in all its aspects, including the affective and sensual, the taste of food, the smell of summer Sundays…” It’s a coming of age story, but also a coming to terms, in which Denise must wrestle with who she is before she can decide who she wants to be.