Outside the elite

For a long time Annie Ernaux was ignored or patronized by the French literary establishment, appreciated only for her sociological explorations of her lower-middle-class origins. Passion Simple (1992), a tale of romantic and sexual obsession, was ridiculed. L’Événement (2000), her account of an illegal abortion at twenty-three, met with an embarrassed silence: two decades later a film adaptation by Audrey Diwan won the Venice Lion d’Or. Now, in her eighties, Ernaux is considered a major writer, a feminist icon, a pioneer of “autofiction”. She is even spoken of as a future Nobel laureate.

Her fourth book, La Place (1983), saw her break with fiction, saying that she’d found writing the simple account of her father’s ordinary life a fairer way of conveying his experience. In L’Événement, that fairer way became a credo, albeit one couched in careful parentheses: “(… to live through something – whatever it is – gives one the unimpeachable right to write about it. There are no inferior truths, and if I don’t tell this tale to its conclusion, I’m guilty of obscuring the reality of women’s lives…)” (my translations). Responding to Ernaux’s work, the young French novelist Édouard Louis has said: “Literature is … produced and consumed by the dominant class. Isn’t it then in the interest of these people to maintain [it] as a sort of suggestive whispering? If you don’t speak directly about the world, it’s much harder to change it.”

In her new book, Le Jeune Hommeher first since Mémoire de fille (2016), Ernaux gives an account of the unconventional affair she had, aged fifty-four, with a man thirty years her junior: “It was impossible, when we were in the outside world, to ignore how visible we were to society; and I embraced this challenge.” Ernaux started writing Le Jeune Homme in 1998, but only completed it this year. It’s a forty-page miniature that pushes beyond the personal into the private; The author wants to capture all of her love affair’s intimate games of reflection, and how the passage of time, as it presents itself to lovers, affects her writing. On the first page she says: “Often, I have made love to compel myself to write … I hoped that the cessation of the most extreme anticipation there is, that of orgasming, would confirm for me the certainty that there’s no greater ecstasy than that of writing a book. It was perhaps this desire to trigger the writing of the book … that induced me to take a home with me.”

The text is marked by circularity: Ernaux begins by wanting to write and to make love, and ends by getting down to work on what became L’Événement. A is her “unlocker of memory”: in him she hears the echo of a class to which she no longer belongs. He is a student in Rouen, where Ernaux studied in the early 1960s. He takes her to the cafés she used to frequent. The windows of his apartment look out over the derelict hospital where Ernaux convalesced thirty years earlier, after her clandestine abortion. “I wasn’t any particular age any more, and I drifted from one era to another”, she writes. The affair permits a form of time travel: A’s present propels Ernaux into her past, and she immerses herself in her childhood in Yvetot, Normandy, where her parents ran a grocery store. She has the sense that she is living her life backwards: “…when I was 18 or 25 … I was completely bound up in what was happening to me, without any sense of a past or a future; in Rouen with A, I had the feeling I was replaying scenes and gestures that had already been enacted”.

To coincide with Le Jeune Homme, Éditions de L’Herne is publishing a festschrift of essays on Ernaux by writers such as Nicolas Mathieu, Delphine de Vigan and Ivan Jablonka. (Getting LostAlison Strayer’s translation of 2001’s Se perdrewill be published by Fitzcarraldo in September.) The Cahier Annie Ernaux also includes extracts from the journal she has kept for many years, and which will be published in its entirety only posthumously. A revealing section concerns her regard for the work of Marcel Proust. The two writers might seem like opposites: Ernaux writes short sentences and (mostly) short books, and is suspicious of the many-sided artifice of the novel. Furthermore, and that celebrated devotee of the Faubourg St Germain, she has always unlike sided with the oppressed, written about them, and returned repeatedly to her own very ordinary origins. These commitments are publicly underscored by her support for the far-left political party, La France Insoumise.

But in her contribution to the Cahier Maya Lavault suggests that, like Proust, Ernaux “conceives of writing as a process of seeking the truth by recoverings with words… the sensation between her works and his is characterized by ambivalence and complexity.” And in her journal Ernaux acknowledges: “At root I feel close to Proust, but what I have to say and the manner in which I have to say it have nothing to do with him.” A newly expanded version of L’Atelier noir – a sort of writer-at-work view of her notebooks and materials, first published in 2011 – clarifies the extent to which she was influenced by À la recherche du temps perdu when it came to formulating her own conception of the “total novel”. The creative result was Les Annies (2008), the book that secured Ernaux’s reputation in France. In Strayer’s translation it was shortlisted for the Booker International prize in 2019, bringing Ernaux, at last, to the attention of the anglophone world.

In Les Annies Ernaux prioritizes collective experience. Its pronouns are “we” and “they”, whereas the Pronouns mémoire involontaire is always a single-seat time machine. That is why Le Jeune Homme represents an important new stage in Annie Ernaux’s development: it represents her final capitulation to Proust, her own Temps retrouvé.

Nelly Kapriélianis literary editor of the French culture magazineLes Inrockuptibles

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