Between Shame, Desire, and Destiny: On the Genius of Annie Ernaux
Ken Chen Considers the Work of This Year’s Nobel Laureate
On the day that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I flew to Paris. I couldn’t help but see the trip as a chance to flee a country slipping into a furious authoritarianism. This collision between public history and private interiority, as well as the destination, made me think of the work of Annie Ernaux, who wrote two books on abortion: her first novel Cleaned Out and her nonfiction book Happening, which describes an abortion she underwent in the 1960s when the act was still illegal in France.
“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” she writes in the latter. “There is no such thing as a lesser truth.” Happening is a tense, devastating portrayal of how the discourse of the abortion must always lay submerged below the surface of acceptable discourse. Much of the book consists of Ernaux wondering how she can discuss the illicit operation. Who can she ask for help? Who must she hide from? Her parents, obviously. What about a male doctor? What about male friends? What about other women, who seen from a passing glance, may not appear sympathetic? In other words, one way of characterizing how Annie Ernaux describes being a woman is as an experience of surveillance.
To be beautiful, to make oneself desirable to a lover (as she describes in A Simple Passion and Getting Lost), is to be observed. So too is the appearance of chastity. Because a simulation of outward innocence must be maintained, this surveillance also requires the creation of secrets, the hiding and also nurturing of that life that cannot be revealed. Another name for this experience is shame—and as Ernaux writes in The Years, “For girls, shame lay in wait at every turn.”
Should she tell a friend about her affair with a married man? Should she ask her doctor how to get an illegal abortion? The startling impact of Ernaux’s writing emerges partly from the transcription of what is usually hidden from view, a process she describes in a removed third person: “To this storehouse of illegitimate memory she consigns things too unthinkable, shameful or crazy to put into words.” If one were to conduct an inventory of that storehouse, an index of her blasphemies, the list might include the following:
her father trying to kill her mother,
her breast cancer,
her mother’s dementia,
soiled underwear (has any other writer written so insistently about soiled underwear?),
and the war in Algiers.
What this looks like on the page is a writer who operates on knife edge between public and private life. In the radical honesty of an Ernaux book, the self is the home of shame and desire. Both have the same terminus, death. It is not the case that writing, for Ernaux, forestalls death. Writing simply creates another person, a past self who can be observed with a mix of distance and closeness. Despite the stunning intimacy of her work, Ernaux never forgets that the self is also a public object, a substance that lives at the midpoint between the photograph (public) and the diary (private).The contradictory frisson in her work arrives from its mix of erotic shamelessness (in the best sense of that word) and a cool, flatness of style.
Her skepticism of the self made me think of the Ship of Theseus, the philosophical thought question which posits a ship whose various planks, sails, and rudders are replaced until the vessel possesses no parts in common with its original construction. Is the ship the same ship? Or as Ernaux might ask—is the self the same self? The answer is not obvious. In The Years, she describes photos of herself as if describing an intimate stranger. In A Girl’s Story, her past self is “That other, shaped from chubby flesh.”
The throughline that connects past self and present is memory. “Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.” But memory in Ernaux’s works functions differently from the way it does in the contemporary American memoir. Those books believe we have selves. They synthesize our prior incarnations into a unified and therefore imaginary version of personality. Ernaux’s work bares the internal consciousness, but does not invent the self into a character for the reader. Her self-portrait is naked, but never self-conscious enough in its presentation to become nude. Rather, the impossible closeness of her books creates a sensation that no one else was meant to read them.
Because such items come super-charged with the electricity associated with shame, Ernaux can rely on their heat and push her literary form towards an icier dispassion. The contradictory frisson in her work arrives from its mix of erotic shamelessness (in the best sense of that word) and a cool, flatness of style. Less an exhibitionist than an archivist of what other people would be too embarrassed to disclose, she writes in Happening that she will describe her abortion with “All the means at my disposal—attention to details, use of a descriptive past tense, analysis of events.” Notice what this list does not describe—namely, the toolkit of most narrative storytelling: plot, scenes, fully apprehensible characters, dialogue, voice, stylistic performance, figurative language, interpretation.
Instead, what writing should aim for, she writes in A Simple Passion, is “the impression conveyed by sexual intercourse, a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.” Her obsession with recollection links her to Woolf and Proust, but if they played memory as a modernist music, transforming it into a rhapsodic crescendo outside of time, Ernaux hones in on the concrete. Her mode is not the heroic simile, but the list, the diary, the verbal photograph.
The difference between these high modernists and Annie Ernaux is class. They were aristocrats. Ernaux’s mother was a factory worker turned grocer who lived outside of Paris. Growing up with a sense of “belonging to an inferior class,” in her words, Ernaux worked as a high school teacher and her writing sometimes describes the way that mothering and housework can crowd out the ability to think literary thoughts. If Woolf once wrote that the past weighs on the old like a plate of glass, for Ernaux the glass has already been shattered. Her atoms of self never synthesize into molecules.
Over the numinous world of ideas, she prioritizes minor details—an eavesdropped cliché, a half-forgotten brand name, a flasher baring himself in the metro—and this accumulation of social information seems to reflect a leftist insistence on material reality, the signifiers that show what it means to have a class and what it means to desire and be desired.
The only one in her mother’s family who became educated, she said, “writing to me was a way I could bring something. But I was wrong. I thought that if I wrote, I would avenge my whole people, but no, I would simply have succeeded as an individual. Nothing more, nothing less.” Her reluctance to become what she calls a “class defector” finds itself represented in her discomfort with the first person.
While Ernaux is often mistakenly called a memoirist, her great polyphonic book, The Years, is an autobiography without a self. The speaker is described through the third person singular (elle or she), the first-person plural (nous or we), and a distanced, indefinite pronoun (on or one). To write a book from the viewpoint of society reflects a rebellion against the capitalist insistence on the first person singular.
The Years tells the story of the generation that thought they could bring in the utopia in May 1968 and saw their insurgency dissolve into consumerism, technocracy, and the right-wing revolt of the eighties. One of its astonishments, when read in the age of Twitter and a renewed culture war, is its willingness to say something shameful in a less obvious way: it exhibits the humiliation associated with living amongst the culture of the right. As the book approaches the increasingly reactionary present, the opinions attributed to the plural speaker, the “we,” come to seem more and more grotesque and xenophobic.
While many who marched in ‘68 later turned towards conservatism, one reason Annie remains so prescient is that she never abandoned her radicalism, as seen in her support of the remnants of socialism in France, the feminist resurgence after Me Too, and the cause of the Palestinian people. This is why her Nobel victory was greeted in France, the hotbed of anti-Muslim racism, with the hysterical accusation that she is an Islamist.
“She is afraid of losing herself in the profusion of objects that are part of reality and must be grasped,” Ernaux writes of herself near the end of The Years. The book concludes with a mission: to write “a kind of women’s destiny,” a grand temporal project that will “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.” The statement hints at Ernaux’s tacit fatalism and also points towards the greatest enemy, the times in which we find ourselves.
A version of this essay was originally delivered as an introduction to an event featuring Annie Ernaux at Barnard College on Wednesday, October 12, 2022.