The Year I Tore Through Annie Ernaux’s Books

Reading the work of the newly minted Nobel Prize laureate, one novelist discovered the kind of writer she wanted to be.

A photograph of Annie Ernaux in front of a tree
Isabelle Eshraghi / Agence VU / Redux

When I was living in Paris in 2018, a friend passed Annie Ernaux’s book Happening to me as if it were an envelope containing treasure. The memoir tells the story of the abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when the procedure was illegal in France, and, like nearly all of her books, it is an excavation of memory, of self, of the powers and the limits of writing. In its most climactic scene, the narrator, a college student, expels what looks like a “baby doll” from her body “like a grenade” and carries it, still attached to her, in her hand from the dormitory bathroom to her room. An acquaintance helps her cut the cord; they slip the fetus into an empty melba-toast wrapper. I remember the exact place I was sitting, in a train station, when I read this scene, the amazement with which I looked up from the page at the people milling around me, as the book changed something in me.

After Happening, I looked up every Ernaux book I could find in English, and read them, one after another, in chronological order. I had never—have never—interacted with any other writer’s work in this way. Reading Ernaux became a kind of addiction; I now know this feeling is common for many of her readers.

Annie Ernaux, who won the Nobel Prize yesterday at 82, is a writer unparalleled, at least within the limits of my knowledge, in her frankness, her willingness to lay herself bare, to let the seams show in her excavations of the past. She mines her own memory in a sincere attempt to “test the limits of writing, push the closeness to reality as far as it would go.” In her books, she burrows into periods of her life, revisiting “every single image until I feel that I have physically bonded with it, until a few words spring forth, of which I can say, ‘yes, that’s it.’”

Most of Ernaux’s books are slim, many of them are under 100 pages; reading them, you witness a woman trying authentically, transparently, to find ways to understand herself, and to connect, through this understanding, to other people. She recounts events and she interrogates the act of recounting, so that her books are always as much about writing as they are about the story being told. In A Girl’s Story, in which she examines her first sexual encounter and its aftermath, she tries to understand her own motivations for pinning everything down to the page:

I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over fifty years earlier … What desire … fuels the relentless determination to find, among thousands of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, those that will provide the certainty (the illusion) of having attained the greatest possible measure of reality? What compels her is the hope of discovering even a drop of likeness between this girl … and any other being.

There is an intimacy to Ernaux’s work, created in part from the rawness of her details—her openness about sex, about the illness and death of her parents, about her own abjectness in affairs with middling men—and also from the way that she reveals her process to the reader as she writes. A number of her books are diaries in which we witness her mind interacting with the world in real time. The result of this intimacy is that each of us who reads her feels that she is “ours,” that our relationship to her is unique.

Ernaux’s work carries a sense of heightened living, an unapologetic search for pleasure that makes it radically feminist. “I’ve always made love and always written as if I were going to die afterwards,” she writes in a diary from 1988, recently published as Getting Lost. Reading her work, one is inspired to do the same. She invites us into private, female spaces, and then shows us how we have these spaces in common. It is this, perhaps, that is most radical about her work, and about the Nobel committee’s decision to honor her. “I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” she writes in Happening. “There is no such thing as a lesser truth.”

In my year of reading Ernaux, I often wondered why she had such a hold on me. Eventually I realized that Ernaux was exactly the kind of writer I wanted to be: one who uses language to help herself, and hopefully others, to live. “What counts is not the things that happen,” she writes in A Girl’s Story, “but what we do with them.” Ernaux asks what the point of writing is, “if not to unearth … something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded, and can help us understand—endure—events that occur and the things that we do?” Her faith in writing inspires me; she sends me back to work.

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