Book Review

The Young Man, a Book within Another

In this short, striking book just released in the United States, Annie Ernaux recounts her relationship with a student 30 years her junior in the mid-1990s. The winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize for literature also looks back at her illegal abortion in 1963, which was the subject of her book Happening.
© Leemage/AFP

This book, barely longer than a novella, was published in France in May last year, two decades after the author started writing it. It was recently published in English in the United States, in the wake of Annie Ernaux winning the Nobel Prize for literature in December 2022. This latest work, The Young Man, tells the story of an affair she had with a student 30 years younger than her when she was 54. Yet far from being anecdotal, it hones in on the themes that have defined the author’s work to date, such as memory, women’s bodies, and the awareness of belonging to the working class. It also offers an insight into the ties between writing and life itself, with the writer confessing in the first pages that she has sometimes made love to “force [herself] to write.”

Much like Marguerite Duras and her last partner Yann Andréa, the famous author and the penniless student met through literature. He loved her work and wrote her to express his admiration, before later becoming a jealous, clumsy lover. Every movement he makes reminds the narrator of her own youth in Normandy, spent in her parents’ café-convenience store. “He embodied the memory of my first world,” she writes. “He incorporated my past.” In a brutal coincidence, the window of the Rouen apartment where they spent weekends together overlooked the Hôtel-Dieu. This former hospital was where the writer, then a student, was admitted for urgent care following a hemorrhage caused by a backstreet abortion. The traumatic memory from 1963 later became the subject of Happening (2000), and this encounter brought it back with almost photographic acuity.

Presented as a literary echo of superimposed images and eras, The Young Man is caught between two branches of Annie Ernaux’s work: autobiographical accounts of her youth, such as A Man’s Place (1984) and A Girl’s Story (2016), and other books about more recent events, such as Simple Passion (1992) and The Possession (2002). With great sincerity and lucidity, she explores her inner self with the courage to face her traumas. By bringing together two eras, two ages in a woman’s life, she also looks back at her journey to free herself from her shackles. After she caused a scandal in the 1960s for exposing her body in a tight dress, Annie Ernaux braved the public gaze 30 years later by walking arm-in-arm with a young lover. An excellent piece of writing in which the intimate meets the universal.

The Young Man by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Seven Stories Press, 2023. 64 pages, 13.95 dollars.

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.