DIGEST February 2023

“Writing is like wielding a knife.” said Annie Ernaux. The Nobel Committee agreed.

When French author Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, many conservative commentators in France became quite agitated. Hostility against Ernaux is not primarily literary, but political: Ernaux holds progressive, feminist political opinions, and she acts on them. She signs petitions, such as one to boycott the 2019 Eurovision song contest held in Tel Aviv or to support French-Algerian decolonial activist Houria Bouteldja against false accusations of antisemitism. She regularly marches to protest government inaction on the climate crisis or the rising cost of living for ordinary folks.

Annie Ernaux, 44, in 1984.

But the biggest grudge against her seems to come from her 2012 campaign against Gallimard editor Richard Millet. Millet wrote an essay (Éloge littéraire d’Anders Breivik [In literary praise of Anders Breivik]) allegedly denouncing but, in fact, justifying the actions of the Norwegian neo-Nazi mass murderer. Ernaux’s open letter, which 118 other writers signed, got him fired. His pals never got over "L’affaire Millet."

Ernaux also troubles because she writes about herself. An avowed feminist, she has spent her entire career (she is now 82 years old) writing about her life as a woman. While her first three books were novels based on her own life, she later moved to autobiographical writing. She recently even published parts of her diaries.

Of course, many other French (male) authors wrote about themselves, often at great length, including most famously Marcel Proust. But Ernaux’s topics are not the usual fare of French literature. She writes unsparingly, unsentimentally and in detail, from a girl’s and a woman’s point of view, about the shame of her working-class origins; the struggles and humiliations of her uneducated but entreprising mother and father; her lonely and unsafe abortion; her rage and despair as a young wife, mother, professor and would-be writer; her disappointing marriage to a leftist intellectual turned unreconstructed patriarch; her torrid sexual encounters with younger men; and her voracious sexuality and desires. These are topics that French society long considered (and that some circles clearly still do consider) unworthy of “classical” literature: uncouth, ordinary, unreadable, useless.

Annie Ernaux, 82, after she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Credit: Bettina Pittaluga for the New Yorker

Frankly, the more I engage with the fearless Ernaux, the more I like her.

Ernaux also disturbs the French literary world because she doesn’t try to write “beautifully,” although her writing is indeed beautiful. She uses what she calls l’écriture plate or “flat writing”—writing simply, without adornment, metaphors or stylistic effects. It reminds me of the style of writing that George Orwell advocated for in his famous 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Ernaux is the opposite of insincere. She is clear, sometimes brutally so. I’ve felt regular jolts of recognition as I’ve immersed myself in her universe. The nerdy and awkward top student in Catholic school, the pre-teen preparing to name her “sins” to a creepy old priest in the confessional, the 14-year-old observing the habits and manners of more sophisticated girls and their families? Check. The girl in despair when a self-involved boyfriend fails to call, the young woman entering a (first) marriage because it seems the thing to do, even though it feels off? Check again.

In a recorded conversation with author Frédéric-Yves Jeannet, Ernaux describes her writing as “wielding a knife.” The Nobel Committee praised her “courage and clinical acuity” in tackling issues of gender, class and language. I’ve read many of her books since October, and I’ve often gasped or chuckled as I read. Yes, this, exactly this. At times, I had to put the book down until the next day. She wields a very sharp knife indeed, one that goes to the bone and spares no one, especially not Ernaux. Most of her 23 excellent (and short) books have been translated into English.

Her first book, Les armoires vides [Cleaned Out] was published in 1974, a year before the Loi Veil (named after then Minister of Health Simone Veil) first decriminalized abortion in France. A semi-autobiographical novel, it recounts 21-year-old student Denise Lesur’s illegal and terrifying abortion, and the struggle to escape her working-class background that this pregnancy nearly derails. It was a critical and popular success, unusual for an unknown female author dealing with such taboo material. (In 2000, Ernaux revisited this abortion in L’événement [Happening], this time describing the events as they happened to her.)

In Les armoires vides, Denise feels growing disdain and rage for her poorly educated but hardworking parents, their coarse manners and language, the poor and rough clients of their café/grocery store. Education is her way out, but it involves a painful and humiliating process that begins when she enters a private Catholic school:

“There was something bizarre, indescribable, a complete disorientation… Not even the same language. The teacher speaks slowly, in very long words, she is not trying to rush, she likes to speak, and not the way my mother does. ‘Please hang your clothing on the coat hook!’ My mother, she’d yell when I came in from playing: ‘Don’t chuck your damn jacket in a ball, who the hell will pick it up? Your socks are down!’ Worse than a foreign language, you don’t understand anything in Turkish, in German, it’s obvious at once, no need to worry. But there, I understood more or less everything she said, the teacher, but I could not have found the words myself, neither could my parents, the proof being that I had never heard those words in their home. Completely different people.”

Ernaux calls herself a “transfuge de classe”, a “defector from her social class.” The French word “transfuge” suggests passage to an enemy camp. Transitioning into that camp, her alter ego Denise feels regular pangs of self-hatred:

“Even with all that culture, those exams, I’ll never get rid of the Lesur girl of five years ago, of six months ago. I’ll always spit on myself! I have to go beyond, in the end I agree with my professors and my mother. I have to deepen the gap, lose for good the café/grocery, the country bumpkin childhood, the girlfriends with their bad perms… Go to university, become a student…”

Once at university, Denise discovers the pleasures of sex, even as she allows Marc, a law student from a well-to-do family, to relentlessly judge her:

“He was speaking. I was pathetic. He is brilliant, clear, he has opinions about money, the law, he masters politics, easily positions himself. And me, me, not intelligent, a cultural upstart, I only like literature. ‘You are running away from reality, that’s what!’ It’s a huge thing, a discovery I’m making for the first time, there are men like him, many men maybe, who are not afraid of the world, at ease, with boundless freedom. Me, I’m just a poor girl full of humiliations, of the desire to elevate herself, this is all wasted energy. ‘You can’t see what the real problems are,’ he says.”

When she realizes she is pregnant, Denise imagines her parents’ violent reaction:

“Pregnant, with all the sacrifices we have made, everything we did, everything, so that you could go even further! That’s how you thank us!’ It would have been apoplectic, the usual volley of big words, ‘the swine, the slut, she never listened to us, she strutted around, whore!’ It’s better they don’t know.”

Told of the pregnancy, Marc tells her he can’t take care of her and leaves for the United States, but not before having sex one last time while she lies enraged and nauseous. Denise is left alone to find a solution: “Under what roof is she hiding, the dark woman, the sneaky friend, the good mother, who rummages, unbolts and consoles… It took me two months, in the city a house, in that house a room, in that room a sideboard, in that sideboard a bag and then instruments, tubes… The pain, the pain.”

Another of Ernaux’s quasi-autobiographical novels, La femme gelée [The Frozen Woman] (1981) describes her protagonist’s anger and exhaustion after she marries a man she thought was a peer and a partner, only to discover he expects two cooked meals a day and the children bathed and calm when he arrives home. She struggles to obtain her teaching certificate, puts aside her writing:

Ernaux, aged 25, with husband Philippe. She had her first child the previous year.

“Dead for me the rhythm of childhood and of the past few years, with moments full and tense with work followed by others when the head and the body are suddenly floating, open, resting. But it’s not dead for him. At noon, in the evening, on Saturday and Sunday, he is once again in this relaxed mode, reads Le Monde, listens to records, goes through the checkbook, is even bored at times… Suddenly, in a breezy tone, one sentence: ‘The latest Bergman is playing at the Ritz movie house.’ Another: ‘Would you be angry if I went to see it this afternoon?’ The last one, because of my silence: ‘What’s the point of two of us watching the little one?’… Obvious that my place is with my child, and his, at the movies. Of course he went. And after that he went to play tennis in summer, and to ski in winter."

“Today, I want to speak about the unexpected life, unimaginable at eighteen, between the porridge, the polio/DPT shots, the plastic pullup that needs to be washed, the teething syrup on the gums. Absolute, total care of a life. But not the authority over it! I’m raising him alone, the Bicou [her son's nickname], but under supervision. ‘What did the doctor say, his nails are too long, you should cut them, what’s the matter with his knee, did he fall? and you weren’t there?’ Having to report back, all the time, but his tone isn’t tyrannical, it’s suave, normal. When, in the evening, he takes in his arms the glowing, fed, cleaned Bicou, freshly diapered for the night, it’s as though I’ve gone through that whole day to arrive at these ten minutes—the presentation of the child to the father.”

It’s a brutally honest, infuriating and devastating read for all who’ve experienced that loss of self and loneliness in marriage and motherhood, something that many women of all generations know all too well. Not surprisingly, Ernaux’s marriage ended shortly after the book was published in 1981.

From then on, Ernaux wrote in her own voice, plumbing her life like an ethnographer and sociologist. She published two short books about her parents after each of their deaths. Ernaux is weary of romanticizing poverty and the working class. The books are at once tough and tender, full of poignant and telling details.

In La place [A Man’s Place] (1983), Ernaux remembers her father’s sudden death at 67 and his funeral. She then proceeds to recount his life as a farmhand, manual laborer and struggling café owner, his concern about “knowing his place” and his tactics to avoid social humiliation. He didn’t understand what his daughter was studying but hoped that she would be “better than him.” She became a university lecturer while he was still alive; if only he could have imagined!

Ernaux aged 8 or 9, with her father

Une femme [A Woman’s Story] (1987) is about Ernaux’s mother, who died from Alzheimer’s in a seniors’ residence (my own mother suffers from Alzheimer’s, so this one touched me deeply). Ernaux grieves acutely: “I won’t hear her voice anymore. I’ve lost the last bond to the world from which I came.” The power struggles between mothers and daughters, the ambivalence and love-hate feelings, the guilt—are all there. As a small child, Annie admires her mother’s energy, ambition and generosity, her good looks, her ability to talk to anyone and authority as a shopkeeper. As an adolescent, she turns away and quarrels constantly with her:

“I stopped trying to copy her. I felt drawn to the feminine ideal portrayed in L’Écho de la Mode. The women I read about were slim and discreet; they were good cooks and called their little girls ‘darling’. They reminded me of the middle-class mothers whose daughters were my classmates. I found my own mother’s attitude brash. I averted my eyes when she uncorked a bottle by holding it locked between her legs. I was ashamed of her brusque manners and speech, especially when I realized how alike we were… I had admired her so much that I couldn’t help but resent her—much more than my father—for not being able to accompany me, for leaving me defenseless in the world of school and of the other girls’ book-filled drawing rooms. All she had to offer was her suspicion: ‘Who were you with?’, ‘Are you at least getting your work done?’”

And this warning to Annie about pregnancy: “If you have a misfortune! (you know what to do).” I heard those very words from my own French-Canadian mother, decades later, across an ocean.

My final recommendation, Mémoire de fille [A Girl’s Story] (2016) is about Ernaux’s time as a summer camp instructor, when she leaves her modest home for the first time to work in a group of cool young adults. The 76-year-old Ernaux admits she was reluctant to revisit that summer: “I also wanted to forget that girl. To forget her completely, that is, never to have any need to write about her. Never to think again that I needed to write about her, her desire, her madness, her stupidity and her pride, her hunger and her dried up blood. I never succeeded.”

Ernaux, aged 18, with her mother in front of her parents’ humble café in Yvetot, Normandy. This was taken the fateful summer revisited by Ernaux in Mémoire de fille.

The summer doesn’t go well, but the naive 18-year-old Annie is oblivious to the others’ mockery and snide comments about her ignorance and coarse manners: she is thrilled with her freedom, and keen to discover love and sexual intimacy. Annie is “chosen” one night by head-instructor H. for sexual intercourse, which he repeatedly attempts but cannot complete. The scene would today be understood as rape, but Annie spends her summer hoping he will come back to her. She is openly ridiculed by the others, marked as loose as she has drunken flings with other boys. A second, final night with H. is equally abusive, but she does not think so at the time.

That fall, Annie decides to frantically “improve” herself to win back H. the following summer: she loses weight and begins a two-year struggle with bulimia, stops having her period, colors her hair blond, tries to learn to swim, dance and drive a car, studies philosophy to be able to hold witty conversations. She is shaken by Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe [The Second Sex], the first feminist book she ever read, although she is unsure about its description of “the first penetration [as] always a rape.” The rejection letter from the summer camp is perhaps more of a shock: “They did not want, at any cost and at the highest level, to hear from that girl again.” Slowly and haltingly, Annie feels the shame and indignity of her experience, “a girl’s shame.” But “to receive the keys to understand one’s shame doesn’t give you the power to erase it…”

It’s a potent and cathartic trip down the turmoil, confusion and contradictions of girlhood and young womanhood. As with all her writing, Ernaux remains true to her uncompromising goal: “to explore the gulf between the shocking reality of what happens at the moment it happens, and the strange unreality that, years later, cloaks what happened.”

With love and compassion for all the Annies,