A Girl’s Story

Annie Ernaux trans. by Alison Strayer

May 13, 2020 
The following is excerpted from A Girl's Story by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison Strayer. Ernaux is considered by many to be France’s most important literary voice. She won the Prix Renaudot for A Man's Place and the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her body of work. Strayer is a Canadian writer and translator.

It was a summer with no distinguishing meteorological features, the summer of de Gaulle’s return, the new franc and the New Republic, of Pelé, champion of world soccer, of Charly Gaul, winner of the Tour de France, and Dalida’s Mon histoire est une histoire d’amour.

A summer as immense as they all are until one is twenty-five, when they shrink into little summers that flit by more and more quickly, their order blurred in memory until all that remains are the ones that cause a sensation, the summers of drought and blazing heat.

The summer of 1958.

As in previous summers, a small percentage of young people, the most affluent, departed with their parents for the French Riviera, while others from the same group, schooled at lycées or the private college of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-la-Salle, took the boat from Dieppe to perfect six years of stammering English, straight from the manual, never spoken. Yet another group— schoolteachers, lycée and university students, possessed of long vacations and a little money—went off to look after children at holiday camps located all over France, in mansions, even in castles. Wherever they went, girls packed a supply of disposable sanitary towels and wondered with mingled fear and desire if this would be the summer they’d sleep with a boy for the first time.

That summer, too, thousands  of  servicemen  left  France to restore order in Algeria. Many had never been away from home before. In dozens of letters, they wrote about the heat, the djebel,* the douars—tent villages—and the illiterate Arabs, who after one hundred years of occupation still did not speak French. They sent photos of themselves in shorts, grinning with friends in a dry and rocky landscape. They looked like Boy Scouts on an expedition, almost as if they were on holiday. The girls asked the boys no questions, as if the “engagements” and “ambushes” reported in the papers and on the radio involved others. They thought it was normal for the boys to perform their duty, and (as rumor had it) that they availed themselves of tethered goats to assuage their physical needs.

They came back on furlough, brought necklaces, hands of Fatima, copper trays, and then left again. They sang Le jour où la quille viendra* to the tune of Gilbert Bécaud’s “Le jour où la pluie viendra.” Finally, they did return to their homes all over France and were forced to make other friends, virgins of war who had not been to the bled** never referred to fellaghas or crouillats.*** Out of step with their surroundings, incapable of speech, they did not know if what they had done was good or bad, or whether they should feel pride or shame.

There are no photos of her from the summer of 1958.

Not even one on her eighteenth birthday, which she celebrated at the camp, the youngest of all the group leaders. Because it was her day off, she’d had time to go into town for bottles of sparkling wine, sponge fingers and Chamonix orange biscuits, but only a handful of people had stopped by her room for a drink and a snack, and quickly disappeared. Perhaps she was already considered unfit company or simply devoid of interest, having brought neither records nor a phonograph to camp.

Of all the people she saw each day at the camp at S, in the Orne, in the summer of ’58, do any remember that girl? Probably not.

They forgot her as they forgot each other when they disbanded at the end of September, returned to their lycées, teachers colleges, nursing and PE schools, or joined the squad in Algeria, most of them content to have spent their holidays in a manner both financially and morally rewarding by taking care of children. But she, no doubt, was forgotten more quickly, like an anomaly, a breach of common sense, a form of chaos or absurdity, which it made no sense to tax their memories with. She is absent from their memories of the summer of ’58, which today may be reduced to blurry silhouettes in a formless setting, or to the painting Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night, their favorite joke of the summer, along with Closed Today (“I passed the theater and saw a sign for a new play, called Closed Today”).

She has vanished from their consciousness, the intertwined perceptions of the others who were there that summer in the Orne. Vanished from the minds of those who assessed acts and behaviors, the seductive power of bodies, of her body, who judged and rejected her, shrugged their shoulders or rolled their eyes when someone said her name, itself the object of a pun invented by a boy who strutted about repeating, Annie, what does your body say, Annie, qu’est-ce que ton corps dit? (Annie Cordy the singer, ha ha!).

Permanently forgotten by the others, who have melted into French society (or society someplace else), married, divorced, or single, retired, grandparents with gray or tinted hair: beyond recognition.

I too wanted to forget that girl. Really forget her, that is, stop yearning to write about her. Stop thinking that I have to write about this girl and her desire and madness, her idiocy and pride, her hunger and her blood that ceased to flow. I have never managed to do so.

There were always references to her in my journal—“the girl of S,” “the girl of ’58.” For the last twenty years, I have jotted “’58” among my other book ideas. It is the perpetually missing piece, always postponed. The unquantifiable hole.

I have never gotten beyond a few pages, except for one year when the calendar precisely coincided with that of 1958. On Saturday, August 16, 2003, I began: “Saturday, August 16, 1958. I bought jeans for 5,000 francs from Marie-Claude, who paid 10,000 at Elda in Rouen, and a sleeveless jersey with blue and white horizontal stripes. It is the last time I will have my body.” I worked every day, writing quickly and trying to make the date of writing match the corresponding date in 1958, the details of which I recorded pell-mell, as they came to me. It was as if this uninterrupted, daily anniversary writing were the kind best suited to purging the interval of forty-five years, as if this “day-for-day” approach gave me access to that summer in a way as simple and direct as walking from one room to the next.

Very soon I fell behind in my recording of the facts. The stream of words and images ran riot, branching off in all directions. I was unable to seal time from the summer of ’58 into my 2003 diary—it constantly burst the sluices. The further I advanced, the more I felt that I was not really writing. I could plainly see that these pages of inventory would have to change form, but how exactly I did not know. Nor did I try to find out. Deep down, I remained steeped in the pleasure of unwrapping memory after memory. I refused the pain of form. After fifty pages, I stopped.

I too wanted to forget that girl. Really forget her, that is, stop yearning to write about her.

Over ten years have passed, eleven summers that raise to fifty-five the number of years that have elapsed since the summer of ’58, with wars, revolutions, and explosions at nuclear power stations, all in the process of being forgotten.

The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them. I am haunted by the idea that I could die without ever having written about “the girl of ’58,” as I very soon began to call her. Someday there will be no one left to remember. What that girl and no other experienced will remain unexplained, will have been lived for no reason.

No other writing project seems to me as—I wouldn’t say luminous, or new, and certainly not joyful, but vital: it allows me to rise above time. The thought of “just enjoying life” is unbearable. Every moment lived without a writing project resembles the last.

To think I am the only one to remember, which I believe to be the case, enchants me. As if I were endowed with a sovereign power, a clear superiority over the others who were there in the summer of ’58, bequeathed by the shame I felt about my desires, my insane dreams in the streets of Rouen, my blood that ceased to flow at eighteen, as if I were an old woman. I am endowed by shame’s vast memory, more detailed and implacable than any other, a gift unique to shame.

I realize that the object of the above is to sweep away anything that holds me back, stands in my way, and keeps me from progressing, like something in a bad dream. A way to neutralize the shock of beginning, of taking the plunge, as I am about to do, and reunite with the girl of ’58 and the others, put them back where they were in the summer of a year when 1914 was more recent than 1958 is in relation to today.

I look at the black-and-white ID photo, glued inside the academic performance booklet issued by the Saint-Michel d’Yvetot convent school for the baccalauréat in classics, Section C. The face, in three-quarter profile, is of smooth contours, a straight nose, slightly prominent cheekbones, a high forehead partially covered (possibly in order to reduce its height, though the effect is a little odd) by frizzy bangs on one side and a kiss curl on the other. The rest of the dark brown hair is pulled up and back into a bun. There is just a hint of a smile, which could be described as gentle, or sad, or both. A dark sweater with a mandarin collar and raglan sleeves creates the austere and flattering effect of a cassock. All in all, a pretty girl with bad hair, who emanates a sort of gentleness (or is it indolence?), and who, today, we might say looks “older than her age,” which is seventeen.

The longer I gaze at the girl in the photo, the more it seems that she is looking at me. Is this girl me? Am I her? For me to be her, I would have to

be able to solve a physics problem and a quadratic equation in math
read the whole novel inserted in Bonnes Soirées magazine each week
dream of going to a real party—a sur-pat—at last!
support the continuation of French Algeria
feel my mother’s gray eyes follow me everywhere
not yet have read Beauvoir, Proust, Virginia Woolf, etc.
be called Annie Duchesne.

Of course, I would also need to be oblivious to what the future holds, to the events of the summer of ’58, and to develop instant and total amnesia with regard to my own history and that of the world.

The girl in the picture is not me, but nor is she a fictional creation. There is no one else in the world I know in such vast and inexhaustible detail, which allows me to assert, for example, that

to have her ID photo taken, she went to the photographer’s studio on the Place de la Mairie with her great friend Odile, one afternoon during the February break
the corkscrew curls on her forehead are produced by rollers she pins into her hair at night, and the softness of her gaze is the result of myopia—she has removed her spectacles with their Coke-bottle lenses
at the left corner of her mouth is a claw-shaped scar, invisible in the photo, the result of falling on a bottle shard at age three
her sweater is from Delhoume, a dry goods wholesaler in Fécamp that supplies her mother’s shop with socks, school supplies, cologne, etc., whose traveling salesman appears twice a year with cases of samples he unpacks on one of the café tables, always the same fat salesman in a suit and tie who got her hackles up the day he remarked that she had the same name as the popular songstress Annie Cordy, who sings “La fille du cow-boy.”

And so on, ad infinitum.

No one besides this girl so thoroughly fills my memory. And I have no other memory but hers with which to represent the world of the fifties, the men in duffel coats and Basque berets, the front-wheel drives, the song “Étoile des neiges,” the crime of Father Uruffe, Fausto Coppi and the Claude Luter Orchestra, with which to see things and people in the light of their original reality, the reality of then. The girl in the picture is a stranger who imparted her memory to me.

Yet I cannot say I have nothing in common with her now, or with the person she will become the following summer, judging from the violent distress I felt on reading The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese and Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, and on seeing the following films, whose titles I felt the need to list before starting to write:

Wanda, Love Is My Profession, Sue Lost in Manhattan, Girl with a Suitcase, and After Lucia, which I just saw last week.

When I watch these films, it’s as if I were abducted by the girl onscreen and were no longer the woman I am today but the girl from the summer of ’58. She overtakes me, stops the flow of my breath, and for a moment makes me feel I no longer exist outside of the screen.

This girl of 1958, who from a distance of fifty years is able to resurface and provoke my interior collapse, must have a hidden, indomitable presence inside me. If the real is that which acts, produces effects, as in the dictionary definition, this girl is not me but is real inside me—a kind of real presence.

This being the case, am I to dissolve the girl of ’58 and the woman of 2014 into a single “I”? Or proceed in a way that is, if not the most precise (a subjective evaluation), certainly the most adventurous, that is, to dissociate the former from the latter through the use of “she” and “I,” in order to present the facts and deeds to the furthest possible degree, and go about it in the cruelest possible way: in the manner of people we hear talking about us through a door, referring to us as she or he, which makes us feel we are dying on the spot.


The variety of spaces between paragraphs is intentional on the part of the author. 

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