Annie Ernaux: Finding Forms for Life’s Continuous Dissolve

Annie Ernaux Interview (c) Louis Monier.

For more than 40 years, the French writer Annie Ernaux has been living in Cergy-Pontoise, a new town created in the 1970s, 40km outside of the French capital. Traveling out to meet the author, I watch from the train window as Haussmannian postcard Paris shuttles into a suburban landscape of residential avenues and shopping centers. Here, like many conurbations carved into a once-rural setting, the natural world wrestles with the recent eruption of concrete. In “Journal du dehors (Exteriors),” Ernaux documents this “place suddenly sprung up from nowhere,” describing its sprawling esplanades and strangers at bus stops. She writes, “I felt I was continually hovering in some no man’s land halfway between the earth and the sky.” 

Ernaux tells me she doesn’t go into Paris much anymore – it’s too hard to park, and at 79, the prospect of being jostled on the underground is hardly appealing; instead, in this liminal place between town and country, earth and sky, she tries to find the solitude necessary to write. It’s not altogether that easy, she says: since “Les Années (The Years)” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in April, the media attention has been unremitting. 

Heralded as her magnus opus, the genre-defying “The Years” weaves autobiographical details of the author’s own life story into an almost ethnographic account of the vast transformation of France’s sociocultural landscape. Born in 1940, Ernaux grew up in Normandy, at a time when the country felt like a large, unconnected landmass. She tells me of her initial trips to Paris in the early 1960s – the first with a friend, where they had lunch near the city’s old food market “Les Halles,” before it became the multi-story shopping center it is today. The next trip she remembers vividly: it was for her illegal abortion in 1964, described in “L’Evénement (Happening),” a book that, as the author says, was largely hushed up when it first came out in France, but now constitutes one of her most well-known works.

Ernaux’s studies soon took her back to the capital: she was writing a dissertation on women in Surrealism, so travelled to the Jacques Doucet library, one of the rare places where readers could consult journals like “La Révolution surréaliste” and “Littérature” or first editions of André Breton’s “Nadja” and “L’Amour fou” at a time when Surrealism lay dormant, awaiting a revival in interest come 1968. At first glance, the parallels between Surrealism’s clashing imagery and its preoccupation with the unconscious, and Ernaux’s matter-of-fact style and concern with lived experience, are not readily apparent. What was it about Surrealism that attracted Ernaux, and how did this early interest influence her later work?  She explains: Surrealism was a literary movement that fascinated me because it was both a literary revolution – in poetry, automatic writing, a whole ensemble of things – but also always had a political content, especially at the beginning. I wanted to apply this to my own writing in a way, both in terms of the political meaning, and, at the same time, in the pursuit of new forms.”

The political dimension of Ernaux’s work might be found in her desire, described in “The Years,” to “capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.” Her books often touch on the interplay between the public and private spheres, examining how the structural organization of gender or social class filter down into individual feelings of shame or dislocation. The Surrealists’ earlier formal experimentation also reverberates in Ernaux’s work – perhaps less radical, but no less powerful. Her neutral, descriptive writing style is wholly devoid of excess emotion, even when describing emotionally charged subject matter, leading to a widespread characterization of her work as “écriture plate” (flat writing). Asked whether she agrees with this term, she laughs, “No, not at all! It’s terrible because it has followed me for more than 30 years, because I used it in my book ‘La Place (A man’s place).’ But I used it innocently, meaning that it’s a form of writing that is factual, and that I wasn’t trying to seduce the reader with my writing. Between finding the right words or a beautiful expression, I choose the right words – that’s what it means.”

Ernaux’s rejection of the stylistic flourishes of literary language might be understood, as the author puts it, as “a way of resisting a dominant form of writing.” Here, she adopts the Surrealists’ belief in the political possibilities of form, where the subversion of conventional modes of expression leads not only to novel ways of writing but also new modes of perception and new realities. In a similar vein, Ernaux’s experimentation with the conventions of literary genre – her blurring of the lines between autobiography, memoir and fiction – also calls into questions the established modalities of how individual and collective experience is written.

Asked whether her writing stems from specific ideas she wants to explore or episodes she wants to recount, Ernaux explains that each text carries its own specific genesis. Some books, such as “La Honte (Shame),” “L’Evénément (Happening)” and “Mémoire de fille (A Girl’s Story),” corresponded with “a desire to excavate something that had been buried.” Others started out in one form and quickly morphed into another: “‘La Place (A man’s place)’ took a really long time because I decided to write it after the death of my father, but it provoked a reflection on my status as a ‘class defector.’ We didn’t use this term, I didn’t have a word for it, but in reading Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘Les Héritiers (The Inheritors)’ I was at last able to define what I’d done. The scholarship student – the student who wasn’t designed or destined to be one… So that was linked up with my father, and all the feelings I had about him, and I didn’t write about my father in the end, but I wrote ‘Cleaned Out’ instead.” 

“The Years” involves an even longer history: Ernaux first had the idea for the book back in 1982, although it wasn’t until 2002, 20 years later, that she started to pursue the project properly. I kept thinking about it, but I couldn’t see it… No doubt I had to write all the other books first,” she says. This long gestation period seems fitting for a work that is intimately concerned with the passage of time and with finding forms for the formlessness of daily existence. As well as the book’s tight chronological structure, one of the ways she captured, as she puts it, “the relentless flow of events, of things that happen, of words that disappear” was through the use of the imperfect tense. This French tense “where things disappear without a precise duration,” with no clearly defined start or end point, is what Ernaux calls the “slippery imperfect” [“l’imparfait glissant”]. She continues, “I began writing ‘The Years’ in the imperfect, as I was effectively talking about the War in the past tense, and I just stayed forever in this imperfect tense. At the very beginning, I thought the book would end up in 1995, then I thought perhaps a little later, then I thought 2000, But no, the more it kept extending, the more I had to continue. Given I was writing in the imperfect but referring to the present, saying ‘It was the time of the presidential elections in 2007, and people needed such and such,’ had a very strange effect.” But, she reflects, “If you got rid of the imperfect tense, it certainly wouldn’t be the same book. Everything is always linked in ‘The Years’ – there are breaks, with meals, with the analyses of photographs – but everything is always merged and dissolved. It’s a kind of perpetual ‘fondu enchaîné’ [the cinematic term for a ‘dissolve,’ where scenes fade out in continuous succession].” 

I ask Ernaux whether there are aspects of her work that are important for her as the author, but that her readers or critics haven’t picked up on. She replies, “There’s always a risk that aspects will be overlooked or interpreted differently – it’s perfectly natural in a way. Of course, sometimes when a book comes out it bothers me to see that it has been simplified and that the meanings have been reduced.” Her most recent book, “Mémoire de fille,” led to lengthy discussions about whether the events it recounts constituted a rape or not; a focus that might be explained, in part, by the book’s publication in 2016, shortly before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, with the #MeToo movement in its wake. “But,” Ernaux suggests, “this isn’t really the subject of the book. It’s about something else. It talks about lots of things: who we are at 18 years old, when we don’t really know anything about life; what do we know about sex when we have no experience of it yet? How do we deal with shame? With having been a sexual object? With being completely thrown off balance and becoming bulimic? It’s all of that. There’s a whole ensemble of questions, but I saw a kind of reduction.” 

She says the same was true for “Happening”: “there was a lot of talk about the details of the abortion, but it’s also a book about memory, about how to write something that happened many years earlier, about how memory functions and how we make use of it. That doesn’t get talked about.” Ernaux pauses for a moment, then adds that there is a final important but invisible dimension that is often overlooked: “I think that what doesn’t get spoken about, or doesn’t necessarily get spoken about, is essentially the writing itself – and that is what sustains a book across time. We tend to see the aspects that can be easily summarized, but it’s the writing that constitutes the real strength of a book.”

The English translation of Annie Ernaux’s most recent book “Mémoire de fille (A Girl’s Story)” will be published by Seven Stories Press in spring 2020.    

Article published on Blouin Artinfo. Translations from the French are my own.