Annie Ernaux: Redefining Autobiography

Last month, the shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize was announced featuring Annie Ernaux, Olga Tokarczuk, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Jokha Alharthi, Alia Trabucco Zerán, and Marion Poschmann. This year’s shortlist for the annual £50,000 ($65,000) prize for literary fiction in translation was unusual on two accounts. Firstly, because of the unprecedented gender balance (five of the six authors and all six translators were women). And secondly, because an autobiography was nominated for a prize usually reserved for fiction: the French novelist Annie Ernaux’s “The Years.” After heated discussion, the Man Booker judges eventually concluded that the genre-defying nature of Ernaux’s memoir provided a “much needed riposte to the every-narrowing trajectory of auto-fiction,” rendering the work eligible.

Ernaux has already received numerous literary prizes in France and is one of that country’s most celebrated contemporary authors. Long featured on university curriculums, she remained little known to the wider English-speaking public until 2017, when Alison Strayer’s brilliant translation of Ernaux’s 2008 book “Les Années” (The Years) was published, now shortlisted for the Booker. 

Ernaux’s work, which includes “Les Armoires vides” (1974, “Cleaned Out”), “La Place” (1983, “A Man’s Place”), “Une Femme” (1989, “A Woman’s Story”) and “L’Evénement” (2000, “Happening”) has always had a strong autobiographic dimension. Her books recount her childhood in Normandy, her later integration into bourgeois Parisian society, her familial and romantic relationships, and, perhaps most famously, her harrowing experience of an abortion, carried out in secret before abortion was legalized in France. Her work has often sought to give voice to experiences that have been hushed and hidden from public view: particularly those experiences that, despite progress in women’s rights, remain taboo.     

Alongside Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc, Marguerite Duras, and Georges Perec, Ernaux belongs to a lineage of French authors whose writing experiments with boundaries between fiction and autobiography. In different ways, these writers examined the conventions of autobiographical writing, exploring the literary devices and stylistic norms that constitute the genre, as well as the aims and assumptions behind it. Conceived as her magnus opus, Ernaux’s “The Years” represents the culmination of 40 years of autobiographical experimentation. The book charts the years from 1940 — the year of her birth — to the present day, offering glimpses of her family life, children, marriage, divorce, teaching career, retirement, and experiences as a writer. 

Yet, from the off, Ernaux is clear this is no traditional memoir: early on in “The Years” she describes her desire to “capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.” Her aim is to write an autobiography that transcends the individual: one that, while anchored in her own personal experience (what she calls the “lived dimension of History”), reflects a collective experience. Shifting between literature, history and sociology, “The Years” shrugs off the introspective concerns of conventional memoirs, charting instead defining events of the last six decades: Kennedy’s assassination, May ’68, Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin War, September 11, and so on. It surveys major social and political changes, including shifting attitudes to gender and sexuality, growing migration and the subsequent rise in anti-immigration rhetoric, rampant consumerism, the economic and cultural dominance of the US, the explosion of the Internet, social media, and new technologies. Meanwhile, it pauses on the things that constitute the everyday fabric of an epoch: fashions, films, songs, slang, and advertising jingles.

Amid this vast survey, Ernaux explores the intertwining temporalities that complicate a strictly chronological account of history. She depicts how each era is constituted by how it looks back on its past, analyzes its present, and envisages its future. From decade to decade, the past is integrated into the narrative of a shared history, soon to be revised by consecutive generations. Meanwhile, each vision of the future recedes as the actual future materializes — and that once-future vision speaks of the hopes and fears of the present. In “The Years,” Ernaux reflects on her desire to capture this “palimpsest sensation,” so that time appears less as a succession of chronologically discrete moments, but as a perpetual form of sedimentation. 

Rejecting the first-person voice typical of autobiography, Ernaux exclusively uses the pronouns “she” and “we.” The book bears Ernaux’s characteristic “écriture plate,” or stylistic flatness, which resists the emotional and psychological probing of traditional memoirs, preferring instead to describe and recount. Ernaux has often referred to her work as a form of ethnography. Yet, rather than adopting the conventions of scientific writing (which, striving for objectivity, often eliminates the subject altogether), she embraces the absolute singularity of experience, and reinserts the beholder as a necessary prism through which objective reality is mediated. This is where Ernaux’s rejection of autobiography is most marked: her own subjectivity remains a prism through to the outside world, and never the subject of the book itself. She does not attempt to examine her own experience, to make sense of herself, or to construct an identity through the text.

“The Years” opens with a quotation from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “All we have is our history, and it does not belong to us.” This encapsulates a major theme of Ernaux’s book: individual history is always, necessarily, the history of others too: those whose lives are inextricably interwoven with our own. The desire to carve out an “I” from a “we” — an individual self from a collective history — is a futile gesture. If autobiography often labors under this false pretense, fiction, conversely, often seeks to capture the universal dimensions of human experience. It was perhaps this aspect of Ernaux’s work that led the Man Booker judges to accept this extraordinary, genre-defying book as a nominee for its international fiction prize.    

The results of the Man Booker International Prize will be announced on May 21. 

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.