Annie Ernaux: In Search of Reality

Born into a working-class Catholic family in Normandy in 1940, Annie Ernaux is one of the most popular French writers in the United States, where her books have been translated since 2003. Originally destined to become an elementary school teacher, she ended up working as a literature professor before devoting herself entirely to writing after retirement. This subtle chronicler explores reality in her autobiographical works, novels, and stories such as The Years, a finalist of the prestigious International Booker Prize. A Girl’s Story, which recounts a secret hidden for fifty years, was recently translated into English and lauded by the U.S. press.
Annie Ernaux at her home in Cergy in the Paris suburbs in 2016. © Emmanuel Bovet

Visiting Annie Ernaux requires a trip on the RER A suburban train from Paris to Cergy, the Parisian region’s new town, where she has lived since the mid-1970s. It is here, in a peaceful, bright house surrounded by a garden, that she writes most of her books, autobiographical accounts that sculpt the finer details of reality, the stuff of her own life, her memory, and the weight of words. Combining personal and collective experiences, her masterpiece The Years (2008) looks back over the life of a French woman. From one decade to the next, it draws on photos, historic events, and consumer objects to create what the author calls an “impersonal autobiography.”

The Years, wrote Edmund White in the New York Times, “is an earnest, fearless book, a Remembrance of Things Past for our age of media domination and consumerism, for our period of absolute commodity fetishism.” A Girl’s Story, published in France in 2016 and in the United States last April, hides a secret revealed through writing – the violent loss of her virginity. “This was a fundamental secret that I buried since the events happened in summer 1958,” said Annie Ernaux four years ago. “It was biblically simple, in the true sense of the term. Sexual ‘relations,’ the first, or at least experienced as such. The book retraces this experience step by step and the context surrounding it; how the behavior of girls at the time was monitored, observed, catalogued – as were their bodies. Women are the objects of desire and evaluation, which is certainly still the case today.”

A Sensitive Truth

When you listen to Annie Ernaux, you feel that she is not cheating, that she is in the present, sincere and without affectation. Her voice is soft, slightly high-pitched, and she has a tinkling laugh. Her words are as precise as her memories, whether she is discussing the “girl from ’58” frozen on a station platform or the materiality of writing. Few other authors speak so clearly about their work, about the “pain of form” that consists in “searching and searching again,” tracking down the truthfulness of sentiment and sensation.

Annie Ernaux, age 8 or 9, with her dog and her father. “He is frowning and looks annoyed, probably because my mother is taking the photo and he is worried she will do it wrong.” © Annie Ernaux’s personal collection
Annie Ernaux, age 18, with her mother. “We are outside my parents’ café, in Yvetot, Normandy.” © Annie Ernaux’s personal collection

In A Man’s Place (1984), the story of her father’s life, Annie Ernaux no longer hides behind fiction, although it initially gave her a way to find the freedom to write. “Writing in itself was a way for me to get closer to the world of my origins,” she says. “Reality has a particular weight when you are born in that world; you don’t have your own place from the outset.” This novel was preceded by Cleaned Out (1974), which recounted the transposition of her childhood and adolescence to Yvetot in Normandy, where her parents ran a café-convenience store. This rugged book was born of a violent separation, and paved the way for the themes of her future works: abortion, an event she covered in more detail in Happening (2000), awareness of the gaping divide between the dominated classes and the bourgeois, and the complex figure of her mother, a feminist and avid reader who led her to Margaret Mitchell and John Steinbeck. Finally, A Frozen Woman (1981) is a novel of transition and emancipation. Inspired by her marriage and her first experiences as a literature professor, it dissects alienation within relationships, the boredom of married women, and maternity during the 1960s.

Annie Ernaux, age 20, working as an au pair in the suburbs of London. “I first thought about writing in England. That was when I started to become a literary being, someone who lived things as if they had to be written one day.” © Annie Ernaux’s personal collection
Annie Ernaux, age 24, with her husband. “We were living in Bordeaux; we were still students and we had just had a child, a boy.” © Annie Ernaux’s personal collection

An “Auto-Socio-Biographical” Oeuvre

For Annie Ernaux, writing is a way to legitimate worlds excluded from literature and confront taboos such as social shame, Alzheimer’s disease, the death of her mother (I Remain in Darkness; A Woman’s Story), and her sister, who died before she was born (L’autre fille). It is also used to explore passion in all its crudeness (Simple Passion) and thoroughly analyze the jealousy felt after a separation (The Possession). Just as in Georges Perec’s Things, writing means looking at consumer society, pacing the aisles of shopping malls, and losing oneself amidst faces and bodies (Exteriors; Regarde les lumières mon amour). Influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology, she has extensively described the feeling of social demotion and regularly contributes to public debates by signing opinion columns with other intellectuals in support of the Gilets Jaunes and the movement against France’s pension reform. Last April, she also wrote a letter to President Macron, which was read out on the radio, defending public services and the professions most exposed to the Covid-19 epidemic, and criticizing the state of emergency and the restrictions on freedom.

“I always wanted words to be like stones, for them to have the power of reality,” says Annie Ernaux. “Everyone knows they are an illusion, yet words provoke action.” Her books were decisive for many young writers who, inspired by the author, allowed themselves to say “I.” This was the case for New York writer Lauren Elkin: “It’s thanks to Ernaux […] that I write the world from my body outward, that I attempt to make language from the adventure of my experience,” she wrote in the Paris Review. “I tune myself to Ernaux every time I write, sometimes without realizing it.” During the last publishing season in France, many female debut novelists sent her their work to express everything they owed to her. By writing her life, Annie Ernaux has also changed the lives of many women.

A Girl’s Story
by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Seven Stories Press, 2020.

You can find Annie Ernaux’s other works at Gallimard in France and at Seven Stories Press in the United States.

Article published in the July 2020 issue of 
France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.