At the end of the Catacombs, having walked among the bones of six million Parisians, you come to a single gravestone. Somewhere in the ossuary are the remains of Racine, Charlotte Corday, Robespierre and Montesquieu, yet the only monument is to Françoise Gillain, who, you discover, died in 1821 after spending years trying to free a writer unjustly held in the Bastille. Arriving at her tombstone is a confrontation. Even if you weren’t already thinking that every skull stacked here represents a person who also had parents and lovers and wondered what to have for dinner – or that every pair of femurs is now nameless, as one day your own femurs will be; or that the snatches of poetry from Lamartine and verses from the Bible painted on the wall aren’t as comforting as they might be – now you are. To us, our lives are full of texture and incident and feeling, but to history, we are two dates engraved in stone, if we’re lucky.
It was the death of Annie Ernaux’s father that prompted her to write memoir (her previous three books had been novels), as if the assumptions and structures of fiction crumbled when she wanted to recuperate someone she loved from the mass of history. But writing about her father in the early 1980s, more than a decade after his death, she didn’t want to make a gravestone for him, to produce something ‘moving’ or ‘gripping’. As she collected his ‘words, tastes and mannerisms’ in her writing, ‘the external evidence’ of his existence, she found herself reminiscing and then, catching herself in the act, would tear herself away from ‘the subjective point of view’. Her intention was not to commemorate or reanimate him but to discover the ‘nature and limits of the world where my father lived’. She was attempting to see him from the point of view of history and from the point of view of his daughter, to see the bones and the tombstone at once. La Place (1983), translated as A Man’s Place by Tanya Leslie in 1992, won Ernaux the Prix Renaudot and a large readership in France, but, more important, it allowed her to begin feeling out her territory. She had in mind a book she felt she couldn’t write, that was perhaps impossible to write, a book that would tell the story of France itself since 1940, the year she was born. The impossible book was impersonally personal. It would be as if the bones in the Catacombs were made to speak.
If Annie Ernaux were a lesser memoirist, it would be easier to lay out the bare facts of her life. She was born in Normandy in 1940, to parents who worked in factories in Lillebonne before moving to Yvetot to run a café-épicerie, but for a reader it is much easier to remember that they sold hazelnut milk chocolate but no whisky. Her parents had another daughter, Ginette, who died of diphtheria at the age of six, before Ernaux was born. Annie was sent to a private Catholic school, where she was often top of the class. She went to train as a teacher in Rouen, abandoning her studies when she realised her heart wasn’t in it. She then spent six months as an au pair in Finchley, before heading to Bordeaux to work on a PhD on Marivaux. She had an abortion when she was a student, when it was still illegal in France. At university, she met Philippe Ernaux, got married, and had two boys, Eric and David. She returned to teaching, working for 23 years at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance, a sort of French Open University. The family moved to Cergy-Pontoise, a new town on the end of the RER A, on the north-west edge of Paris. Her father died in 1967 after a short illness. She wrote while her children napped, once the teaching and housework were done.
Her first book, Les Armoires vides (Cleaned Out), a novel depicting her early life and her abortion, was published by Gallimard in 1974, when she was 34. Her mother died in 1986 after living with dementia for several years. While her mother was ill she had an affair with a married man; the year before her mother died, she divorced Philippe. In 2000 she retired from teaching; at last she would have the space and time to work on the book she had dreamed of for so long. But then, cancer was discovered in her breast. She wrote all the way through her treatment, recovered, and Les Années eventually came out in 2008 in France (and as The Years in the English translation by Alison Strayer, published in 2018). She became more famous still, the first living woman to have her work appear in the Gallimard Quarto series (the cooler younger sister of the Pléiade), nominated for the Man Booker International, winner of the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize and the Premio Strega Europeo. Her children had children; she had other relationships, and sometimes the men moved into the house in Cergy, which she kept in the divorce. Now in her eighties, she still lives in Cergy.
I’ve pieced this together from my reading, and googling, and I may well have things wrong. Ernaux hasn’t written about her life in a neat this-then-that sort of way. Reading her is like getting to know a friend, the way they tell you about themselves over long conversations that sometimes take years, revealing things slowly, looping back to some parts of their life over and over, hardly mentioning others. Ernaux hasn’t written very much about her marriage in her memoirs, but there is a depiction of a failing partnership in La Femme gelée (translated as A Frozen Woman by Linda Coverdale in 1995), the last novel she wrote, which was published in 1981 and is dedicated to Philippe. She began to write non-fiction with the book about her father in 1983, then wrote one about her mother, Une femme, in 1988 (translated as A Woman’s Story by Tanya Leslie in 1991). Then there are three books which I think of as linked to or arising out of A Woman’s Story, all overlapping in time: Passion simple in 1991 (translated as Simple Passion by Tanya Leslie in 1993), a very short book, almost an essay, about the year-long affair she had around the time her mother was dying; Journal du dehors in 1993 (now published in the UK as Exteriors), a diary of her encounters on the RER to and from Paris, and her trips to Auchan, the hypermarché in Cergy, written between 1985 and 1992; and Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit in 1997 (translated by Tanya Leslie as I Remain in Darkness, published in the UK in 2019), another diary, covering the period from 1983 to 1986, almost exclusively concerned with her visits to her mother in the nursing home, and ending with her mother’s death and the early weeks of grief. (Ernaux would return to this period, publishing her diary entries about the affair in 2001 as Se perdre, which Fitzcarraldo will bring out next year as Getting Lost, translated by Alison Strayer, and I hope she will return to it again.)
‘It is the absence of meaning in what one lives,’ Ernaux writes at the end of her most recent book, A Girl’s Story, ‘at the moment one lives it, which multiplies the possibilities of writing.’ You might think that as soon as a memoirist has told you that she got divorced, her mother died and she took up with a married man, she has nothing more to give. She has told you everything. But Ernaux’s work proves the opposite, insisting that the bare facts, the freely given confessions, are only the start. A single life may be inexhaustible, and time more malleable than you imagine. A Woman’s Story gives you access to the whole span of a life in less than a hundred pages: leaving school at twelve and a half to work in a margarine factory; meeting a man and marrying him in 1928 because he wasn’t a farmer’s boy; moving to Lillebonne to run a café-épicerie with him; giving birth to a daughter who died three days before Easter; getting pregnant in 1939 with Annie; loving the war years, ‘the great story of her life’; going to church, dressing in turbans, always ‘on’ for the clients, revering everything to do with school and bettering oneself; sympathising with the owners of Fauchon after it was wrecked in May 1968 because she too ran a grocery store; selling up in 1970 and coming to live with her daughter; getting angry when Annie bought a dishwasher (‘What am I going to do now?’); moving back to Normandy, where she made more sense to herself; then strange things starting to happen, like the shops being closed when she went out to get bread; moving to a nursing home; not liking to eat anything other than milk and sweet things; walking hunched over and curled in on herself; friends and family, apart from her daughter, no longer coming to visit; death. ‘I am only the archivist,’ Ernaux writes, but she gives us, in the time it takes to watch a movie, the breadth and depth of a life.
Writing about her mother does something to her own life: she notes that the publication of the book she’s writing will mean that her mother is truly dead, because while she’s still putting sentences together, she is also ‘experiencing again the times and places we shared when she was alive’. We find out in I Remain in Darkness that she wrote A Woman’s Story while her mother was very ill but still alive – Ernaux says several times that she would rather have her mother crazy than dead – and so she lives with a mother on the page who’s demanding and vibrant and alive, and a mother in life whose hair she brushes. ‘I’ve never wanted my work to be seen as autofiction because even the term autofiction is turned in on itself, closed off to the world. I’ve never wanted the books to be something personal. I write about these things not because they happened to me but because they happened, so they’re not unique,’ she told the filmmaker Michelle Porte in 2014, in an untranslated book of interviews, Le Vrai Lieu. It’s as if in trying to write about one woman, Ernaux realised she had to write about a whole milieu, a historical context, ideas that no longer hold, images that will fade when she does. She noted in A Woman’s Story that her mother died eight days before Simone de Beauvoir: ‘She preferred giving to everybody, rather than taking from them. Isn’t writing also a way of giving?’ She was beginning to think that her project of writing, a result of being educated out of her mother’s class, could be another way of continuing the way her mother lived.
Another thing her mother’s death did to Ernaux is to turn her gaze outwards, on the one hand, and inwards, on the other. In Simple Passion, the book she published after A Woman’s Story, she wants her writing to have the quality of sex, ‘a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment’. For a year, she lives from meeting to meeting with the man she said in A Woman’s Story ‘repelled me’. As she waits for his call, she buys new clothes, changes the sheets, does her marking, buys champagne. He likes to be told he looks like Alain Delon, and to tell her the brands of his clothes as he removes them. She is bereft when he goes back to his own country, wishing she had contracted Aids from him: ‘At least he would have left me that.’ But she comes to feel that the meaninglessness of the affair was the point, the freedom it gave her at a difficult moment, the ability to measure time ‘differently, with all my body’. She writes about the affair to capture this but also to find out ‘whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal’. This is the Beauvoirian gift.
In Exteriors, she looks at the world around her instead, in order to ‘ease my grief and keep me in touch with the world that was gradually slipping away from my mother’s own consciousness’. On the train, a little girl tells her mother ‘I want to bite you’; in a copy of Marie-Claire, she reads her horoscope, which promises she’ll meet a man, and then spends the day wondering if ‘each man I spoke to’ was the one they meant; at a cashpoint, her card is declared ‘damaged’ and she feels herself to be damaged too; shopping in Paris, she is overcome with a desire to buy a black coat though she already has one (‘It’s not the same, it’s never the same; tiny differences between the items we crave and the ones we own’), but the desire ebbs when she leaves the shopping centre; she looks at a woman in the Métro and thinks a habitual thought: ‘Why am I not that woman?’ Her world is not centred on the Café de Flore but on Auchan; not on the Comédie Française but on TV; not on walks along the Seine but on journeys on the RER. ‘A supermarket can provide just as much meaning and human truth as a concert hall,’ she says. (She returns to the supermarket: Regarde les lumières, mon amour, not yet translated, is a journal of her trips to Auchan between 2012 and 2013, picking up a thread that began when she was a 19-year-old au pair in 1960 and would walk around the supermarket in Finchley – it was called Supermarket – eating a tube of Smarties. The title of the book is a found phrase, said in front of a Christmas display by a mother bending over her daughter’s pushchair: ‘Look at the lights, my love!’)
Ernaux’s attention to France outside Paris is part of a long conversation she is having with her parents, about the ‘gulf’ she experiences between the class she grew up in and the bourgeoise she has become. Her mother wanted more for her, but sometimes saw her as a class rival; her father kept a newspaper announcement of her exam results in his wallet. She has wondered whether she writes because she can’t align those two worlds. But there is a lightness in her writing about Cergy; a delight in things and attitudes, from student graffiti in Nanterre to her publisher’s belief that all writers should have cats. The politics is in the attention she pays to ordinary things, linking her work to that of Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon as well as Flaubert and Maupassant (who wrote about the part of Normandy she is from), and also to all those, the Gilets Jaunes among them, who are fed up of hearing about the Left Bank as if it were the centre of the country, if not the world.
Exteriors contains the first of Ernaux’s journals to be published, and afterwards she began accumulating several different sorts of text around the main emotional events in her life. She didn’t at first think she would publish the account of her visits to her mother in the nursing home, which appeared as I Remain in Darkness, but thought again. ‘I have come round to thinking that the consistency and coherence achieved in any written work – even when its innermost contradictions are laid bare – must be questioned whenever possible.’ Ernaux often wonders aloud about the purpose of her writing: why she writes, who she’s writing for, what she hopes to achieve. In her journals, she lives a problem day to day; in her memoirs she’s able to shape reality, squash time. The image she uses elsewhere is of a horizontal line crossed at intervals by vertical ones of different lengths, like a graph. The books are vertical and the journals are horizontal, and we have access in our lives to both.
I Remain in Darkness chronicles the smell of dried urine, the fridge that holds only a box of sugar cubes, the lost possessions that are never found, the clipping of fingernails, the television that is always on. But the dailiness – symbolised by her mother’s voice, which for Ernaux is ‘everything. The worst thing about death is the loss of voice’ – is offset by moments of lucidity, as it is for people who live with Alzheimer’s. ‘I did everything I could to make you happy,’ Ernaux’s mother says one day after Ernaux has shaved her chin and cut her fingernails, ‘but you weren’t any happier for it.’ On another day, Ernaux leans over to adjust a catch on her mother’s wheelchair and receives a kiss on her hair. ‘How can I survive that kiss, such love, my mother, my mother.’ A few days after her mother’s death, panic-stricken, unable to read, roaming the house, she says that the journal she is writing is an ‘attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage’. Alzheimer’s is a disease that seems to be about forgetting, but is actually about remembering: what is interesting is not that her mother doesn’t know what happened yesterday, but that she tells the doctor she has two daughters. Some things you don’t forget. Love and grief in I Remain in Darkness are two sides of the same coin, or mirror images, proportionate heights and depths.
After the quartet of books circling her mother’s death, Ernaux turned back to her childhood, in La Honte (1997), translated as Shame by Tanya Leslie in 1998, which depicts the fallout from an incident one Sunday in 1952 when an argument between her parents got out of hand and ended with her father threatening her mother with an axe. It was never spoken of again, though Ernaux carried the shame for years, and writes ‘an ethnological study of myself’ to reclaim the 12-year-old girl she had been before that Sunday. After Shame, she published L’Événement (2000), translated by Tanya Leslie as Happening in 2001 (and now made into a movie by Audrey Diwan which won the Golden Lion at Venice this year), which describes the illegal abortion she had when she was 23. This is the book where Ernaux’s feminism first comes into view, where she starts to answer the question Sartre asked Beauvoir as she was beginning The Second Sex: what has it meant to you to be a woman? And then: why write about it? She answers this directly, by saying that failing to tell the story, ‘distasteful’ as it might be to some readers, would be ‘silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy’. But she answers the question indirectly too.
Ernaux became pregnant in October 1963, after visiting a boyfriend, P., in Bordeaux. She wrote to P. that she ‘had no intention of keeping it’. Doctors couldn’t help because they were in an impossible legal position; she then tried a leftist friend who told her about a friend, LB, who had ‘almost croaked’ during an abortion a few years earlier. The leftist friend then tried to kiss her. Needing an abortion, Ernaux discovered, made her appealing to men. She waited outside the office of the paper LB worked for, Paris-Normandie, but never caught her. She read medical journals for clues. She went to Martainville, ‘a rough, working-class area’ of Rouen, to find a doctor who did abortions, but ended up wandering aimlessly, humming ‘Dominique’, a song by Soeur Sourire that was often on the radio in 1963, a jaunty acoustic guitar-and-voice tune at odds with the despair she felt. But the voice of Soeur Sourire ‘gave me the courage to go on living that afternoon’:
Soeur Sourire is one of the many women I have never met, and with whom I might have very little in common, but who have always been close to my heart. Be they dead or alive, real people or fictional characters, they form an invisible chain of artists, women writers, literary heroines and figures from my own childhood. I feel that they embrace my own story.
In this glimpse of despair and the pop singer that pulls her back, Ernaux offers comfort: in a moment when you feel completely alone, there might still be people there with you, who understand you. And in the telling, she makes herself available for inclusion in the reader’s own invisible chain of artists. (I feel – and I can’t be alone in this – that Ernaux embraces my own story.) It is strange to me that so much of the writing and thinking about her is about place – there is even a Musée Annie Ernaux online, where you can virtually visit Cergy, Lillebonne and Yvetot – when she more often puts herself among other books and other people. She inherits her mother’s liking for Scarlett O’Hara and Gone with the Wind; she reads Anna Karenina with more and more worry as she has her affair with a married man, who we discover in Getting Lost is Russian.
Her relationship with Beauvoir and her writing begins when Ernaux is nineteen, and influences everything from her choice to work as a teacher to how she feels about having sex and what she writes about and how. Capturing and contextualising experience, writing as one woman in order to illuminate her own times, Ernaux brings together aspects of Beauvoir’s work that Simone perhaps didn’t imagine could be brought together: the four-volume memoir that begins with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and the analysis of the feminine condition in The Second Sex. The experiments with form that progress in each book Ernaux publishes from 1983 to 2002, when she retires from teaching and discovers she has cancer, all push against this division between the personal story and that of the times, reaching out for what is common experience without coldly insisting that the individual is of no importance. She finds this form, of the collective or impersonal autobiography, the ‘total novel’ or story of a ‘woman’s destiny’ with the publication of Les Années in 2008, hardly believing it herself.
‘Toutes les images disparaîtront,’ Ernaux wrote in 1985, the year she got divorced, and the year she began trying to write the book she had always wanted to write. ‘All the images will disappear.’ In the first sentence of The Years, you are already on another plane – Ernaux has said that the book is almost narrated by time. The book covers the years 1941 to 2006, collaging forgotten ways of speaking, objects, brands, songs and ways of behaving, using the ‘on’ singular plural as a way of portraying collective experience. Here are the woman’s sons talking over dinner in the mid-1990s:
They compared PCs and Macs, ‘memories’ and ‘programs’. We waited good-naturedly for them to abandon their off-putting lingo, which we had no desire to elucidate, and return to subjects of common exchange. They mentioned the latest cover of Charlie Hebdo and the most recent episodes of The X-Files, quoted American and Japanese films, and advised us to see Man Bites Dog and Reservoir Dogs, whose opening scene they described with relish. They laughed affectionately at our musical tastes – total crap – and offered to lend us the latest Arthur H.
This narrative, like time’s flow, is interrupted by descriptions of photographs and then video of a girl who becomes a woman, mother, orphan, divorcée, lover and grandmother over the course of the book, a woman whose life resembles the writer’s, but who is written about as ‘she’. Here is a home movie from 1972-73:
The film’s first image is that of a door standing ajar (it is night) … A woman enters, wearing a long brown fitted coat, her face hidden by the hood. She carries two cardboard boxes stacked one on top of the other. Grocery items protrude at the top. She pushes the door closed with her shoulder. Disappears from the frame, reappears without the boxes and removes her coat, which she hangs on a ‘parrot’ coatrack … Her light brown shoulder-length hair is pulled back with a barrette. There is something ascetic and sad, or disenchanted, in her expression.
The Years remembers in all the ways Ernaux’s work has already remembered, by salvaging things, by providing testimony and evidence, by giving of herself so that others may feel less alone. When she does public readings in France, people laugh with recognition at the things she has put in the book: the forgotten jingles, the old brands of sanitary towel, the way people preferred frozen peas to fresh ones. I couldn’t read the early parts of the book, about life in France just after the war, that way, but as the book came closer and closer to the world I know and experiences I recognise, I began to laugh and marvel at the things the book seemed to know about me. I’d never seen set down before the way I felt after my divorce at 32, as if I’d simply picked up ‘the thread of her adolescence where she’d left it off, returning to the same kind of expectancy, the same breathless way of running to appointments in high heels, and sensitivity to love songs’. It is as if the resolute impersonality of The Years allows the reader just the right amount of space for the book to feel personal, to belong to each person who reads it, French or not, woman or not, divorcée or not.
The strand of Ernaux’s work evident in Exteriors and her supermarket writings becomes more political in The Years. ‘I don’t like the words we use to think about the world today, the language of consumption, the language of liberalism,’ Ernaux said in 2014 and The Years proves her point, stuffed with brands, products, things and the ways they operate in our lives. The divorced couple divide up the things they owned together: ‘The inventory ratified our death as a couple.’ Things accumulate throughout the book, as France supposedly becomes more modern. ‘With pleasure or annoyance, lightness of heart or deep despondency, depending on the day,’ Ernaux writes, ‘the acquisition of things (which we later said we couldn’t do without) was more and more life’s magnetic north.’ Sometimes, reading The Years again for this piece, it reminded me of going through my grandmother’s possessions after her death this year: finding photos of women I didn’t know, some of them my grandmother and my mother and my aunt as younger women, and being surrounded with things she had kept, from a Norwegian painted horse to old Quality Street tins and fifty pence pieces with Peter Rabbit on the back. ‘Now we knew that all we had didn’t add up to happiness, but that was no reason to abandon things.’ It becomes embarrassing, buying the DVD player, then the MP3 player, the mobile phone, the iPod, the computer, and as a way to live on a finite planet, it is a disaster. And yet I also think of a moment from Exteriors, when Ernaux is watching a girl on the RER unwrap a blouse and a pair of earrings she has bought, and comments: ‘So moving, our connection to things.’
As The Years nears its end, and the woman’s need to write the book we’re reading becomes more pressing, she has a strange feeling, one she thinks could be brought on with drugs if she did that sort of thing, that she calls the ‘palimpsest sensation’. She has felt something like it once before, in the supermarket queue, a sense that all the women in line are her past and future selves, ‘images of herself, taken apart and separated like matryoshka dolls’. She remembers these other selves, but they are also not her. Sleeping after sex with her 29-year-old lover, she feels time collapse. She is 58. ‘All at once, she’s in her cubicle at the girls’ dormitory, in a hotel room (Spain in 1980, Lille in the winter with P.), and in bed as a child, nestled against her sleeping mother. She feels herself in several different moments of her life that float on top of each other.’ Like Proust at the beginning of À la recherche du temps perdu, she finds freedom in that hazy, semi-conscious time when you are not quite awake and not quite asleep, a time when history falls away, when language, ‘actions, all events, everything that she has learned, thought and desired’ recedes. The feeling – maybe because it resembles nothing so much as death – makes her want to write her book, to ‘save everything that has continually been around her. She wants to save her circumstance.’ To record the context that allows her to be in the position even to have this thought. And when she thinks about the palimpsest sensation’s heuristic power, the way it brings her so quickly to what matters most, the only analogy she has are to the times in her life she feels she is Jane Eyre, or Molly Bloom, or the French pop singer Dalida. It is being there and not there, like Lila’s sense in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet of her boundaries dissolving. The notion scares me in Ferrante, but in Ernaux it becomes liberating, a spur to writing, an opportunity to see that the world has changed for women, and mostly for the better.
The Years ends as it began, with a series of images that would disappear if Ernaux hadn’t saved them. ‘The wine tap at the Carrefour on rue du Parmelan, Annecy.’ (Of course there’s a supermarket.) ‘A bar and a jukebox that played Apache at Tally Ho Corner, Finchley.’ (Teenage Ernaux, who would surge up again in A Girl’s Story, the memoir that appeared eight years after The Years, chain-reading novels, bingeing, not having periods, stealing sweets from Woolworth’s, giving older boys blow jobs, but not out of desire.) ‘The man in pyjamas and slippers who wept every afternoon in the lobby of the old folks’ home in Pontoise, and asked visitors to call his son, holding up a piece of dirty paper on which a phone number was written.’ (Ernaux the daughter, Ernaux the chronicler, Ernaux, who is also a man in pyjamas, holding out her experience for all of us to use.) I want to add my own image, of a woman in her late thirties standing before a single gravestone in the Catacombs on a hot September evening, masked against the coronavirus though she too will become bones and is not guaranteed a gravestone. ‘To save something,’ Ernaux says in the last line of The Years, ‘from the time where we will never be again.’