When Annie Ernaux won the Nobel prize for literature, many saw the victory as a rebuke of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. In the English-speaking world, Ernaux may be most famous for her memoir Happening, with its matter-of-fact account of her illegal abortion in 1963. Her writing about sex, in books like Passion Simple and Getting Lost, has also received great attention, and necessarily so, as Jamie Hood recently argued in The Baffler, at a time “when the gains of feminist and sexual liberationist movements are being reactionarily regressed.”
But it’s essential to read these books within the larger context of Ernaux’s background and literary project: Ernaux is a working-class writer, a “class defector,” in her terms. She is writing into and against the bourgeois tradition of French literature, in which the people she grew up with had no voice. Ernaux is what the French call an écrivain engagé, a politically engaged writer, and her perspective is anchored in the working class into which she was born in Normandy in 1940.
Her parents ran a café that was also a grocery store; this was, as she recounts in her book about her father’s life and death, A Man’s Place (1984), a step up from the farm and factory work he had done before that. Her mother was a “factory girl,” looked down on by her father’s sisters, who worked as housemaids for wealthier families. Ernaux studied her way into the middle class, going to university, passing the competitive exams to become a teacher, and working as a literature professor for many years, writing at first on the side and eventually full-time. From the very beginning, she wrote in her journal, her goal as a writer was to “venger [sa] race”: to avenge her people.
I have read and loved Ernaux’s work since I first discovered it as a university student at the end of the 1990s. I think I recognized something in Ernaux, some determination to read her way into another world, matched by a strong fidelity to the one that produced her. I, too, am an outsider in the literary world. On one side of my family, I was of the first generation to attend university, and the other branch consisted entirely of immigrants from Europe, who’d fled Mussolini in some cases and pogroms in others and settled in New York, helping to dig and build the bridges and tunnels connecting their new city to the mainland. (My grandfather — one of the ones descended from the people fleeing the pogroms — got himself fired from his engineering job for joining the Communist Party in the 1950s.)
I was drawn to the frankness and utter lack of sentimentality with which Ernaux described events in her life, from a passionate love affair to her father’s death or her mother’s Alzheimer’s. The 1990s saw a memoir boom, but Ernaux’s writing bore no resemblance to Frank McCourt’s sentimental bestseller Angela’s Ashes or Elizabeth Wurtzel’s sardonic Prozac Nation. Memoir isn’t the right term for what Ernaux does, nor is autofiction, because there isn’t any fiction in it. A better term is one that circulates in academic criticism to apply to a range of texts like letters, diaries, and autobiographies: life-writing. Ecrire la vie, the French publisher Gallimard titled their collection of Ernaux’s work in 2011.
Ernaux didn’t start out writing this way; an inveterate reader and student of fiction, the novel was a natural place to begin. Her first three books, Les armoires vides (Cleaned Out), Ce qu’ils disent ou rien (Do What They Say Or Else), and La femme gêlée (A Frozen Woman) are monologues that feel like adaptations of her life to the page, whereas the work to come reads like a distillation of life itself.
It is in her fourth book, La place (A Man’s Place), that she struggles most overtly with fiction, and casts it aside. She writes, in Tanya Leslie’s translation,
I started writing a novel in which my father was the main character. Halfway through the book I began to experience feelings of disgust.
I realize now that a novel is out of the question. In order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something “moving” or “gripping.” I shall collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.
No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing [écriture plate] comes to me naturally, it is the very same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.
The Nobel committee praised the “clinical acuity” with which Ernaux writes. But if she writes in this way — neutrally — it is to do justice to the class from which she emerged. She is trying not to make a spectacle [donner à voir] of the people she’s writing about, she recently told the French literary journalist Augustin Trapenard: “When you are a class migrant, it is very difficult to write.” She sought, above all, a form of writing that would “transcribe the reality and the way of life of my family in a literary form that would not betray them.”
The term Ernaux uses, in the section I have cited above, is écriture plate, or flat writing. At times I have felt Leslie’s translation, “neutral writing,” doesn’t quite capture what Ernaux is up to; there is nothing of what I think of as neutrality to her work — restraint, objectivity, detachment, indifference. Literature, I heard her say on the radio after the prize was announced, “is not neutral.” Beautiful writing can be a way of “masking power.” Ernaux’s particular style — stripped back, forthright, unadorned — is an attempt to drop the mask, to write unsentimentally and with great dignity about class, and class mobility, and gender.
For all its clinical acuity, Ernaux’s work activates a blurring of class; she is both the daughter of the working class and the author who wrote her way out of it. We see this in the dénouement of Happening — not included in the film adaptation — when Ernaux is about to have surgery to fix the botched backstreet abortion. She asks the surgeon what exactly he is going to do. “He stood there before my splayed thighs, shouting: ‘I’m no fucking plumber!’ The last words I heard before succumbing to the anesthetic.” Ernaux can never forget these words, she writes; “In my mind, this sentence continues to split the world in two, ramming home the distinction between, on the one hand, doctors, on the other, workers or women who abort, between those who rule and those who are ruled.” She later finds out the surgeon had not known she was a university student and therefore, in the words of an attending nurse, “like him.” “After a moment’s hesitation,” Ernaux writes, “I realized what she meant, in other words, ‘from the same world.’”
Even, for instance, in the midst of the love affair that gave rise to Passion Simple and Getting Lost, she analyzes their respective class positions, noting that her lover, A — raised in a Soviet country and now enjoying the luxuries available in France — “liked Yves Saint-Laurent suits, Cerruti ties, and powerful cars.” Perhaps, she speculates, “I liked to recognize in A the ‘parvenu’ part of myself: as a teenager I would crave dresses, records, and trips abroad, deprived of these things among friends who had them — just like A himself, ‘deprived’ along with the whole of his country, longing to possess the expensive shirts and video recorders displayed in Western shops.”
Passion Simple was originally the first part of Ernaux’s masterpiece, The Years, a book in which the first person is completely dissolved into the third person, and into the collective; she writes, in that book’s conclusion, that she had wanted to write a “total novel” which would “convey the passage of time inside and outside of herself.” It seems to me that if we only read the sexy bits, however fresh and thrilling, we’re missing out on her fuller vision. And likewise, if we reject the sex as merely salacious, we are also missing the point of Ernaux’s work.
Or to put it in her own terms, “to write about the self is to write about the world.”
Lauren Elkin is a Franco-American writer and translator, whose books include Flâneuse: Women Walk the City and No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute. She lives in London.