In 1999, living in France for the first time, I picked up a copy of Passion simple by Annie Ernaux at the Fnac. My French wasn’t great, but the vocabulary was simple, as was the subject: one woman’s obsession with her Russian lover. ‘From September last year,’ she writes, ‘I did nothing else but wait for a man: for him to call me and come round to my place.’ Entire days slip by in this heightened state: the cycle of waiting, then finally hearing from him, or seeing him, then the emptiness again, followed by the immediate hunger to repeat the experience. It taught me so much about the unfulfilment of fulfilment. I loved how spare and almost unemotional the prose was, all while evoking this most emotion-ridden of experiences, and in time, reading her other work, I would come to understand that this écriture plate, or flat writing, was one of its strongest, most unique attributes. From books like La place (A Man’s Place, 1983, for which she won France’s prestigious Prix Renaudot) or Une femme (A Woman’s Story, 1988), about the deaths, respectively, of Ernaux’s father and mother, to Les Années (2008), recently published in English, translated by Alison L. Strayer, as The Years, Ernaux demonstrates a striking ability to take the most wrenching of experiences and render them unflinchingly, without moral judgment.
Ernaux was born in 1940 in Normandy to a working-class family; her parents worked in a factory and later ran a small café and shop. This background informs all of Ernaux’s work, from her early anti-novels Les Armoires vides (Cleaned Out, 1974) and Ce qu’ils disent ou rien (1977) to her later masterpieces L’événement (Happening, 2000), about an illegal abortion, or Mémoire de fille (2016), which takes place during the summer of 1958, when she worked as a counsellor at a summer camp in Normandy, and explores the shame she felt following her first sexual experience with another counsellor there.  Elizabeth Bowen once described herself as a writer ‘for whom places loomed large’; this is also true of Ernaux, for whom the past is a place, class is a place, photographs are places, writing is a place. Perhaps this is because of the way she has moved between classes, as she described to Michelle Porte in a documentary made about her work: ‘My parents lived in fear of “falling back on factory work”, as they put it, but it was much greater, a much older, more visceral fear, a certainty of their limitations. I passed into a world that doesn’t have the same ethos, the same ways of being, or thinking. This disruption remains within me, even on a physical level. There are situations where I feel… No, it’s not timidity, or discomfort. But place. As if I weren’t in the right place… The place where none of this exists is writing. Writing is a place, an immaterial place.’
So, to place what you are about to read: we sat in Ernaux’s beautiful, airy house in the ville nouvelle of Cergy, a half-hour’s drive outside of Paris. She perched on a blue velvet settee; at one point her 15-year-old granddaughter came in to say hello. The house, where she has lived for forty years, and written all but the first two of her books, stayed remarkably cool, in spite of the heatwave; it opened out onto a veranda with a view of a green field and some young, graceful trees. The interview took place in French; any translation errors or infelicities are mine alone. It lasted almost two hours and has been condensed; in what I cut we talked, among other things, about my current pregnancy, her pregnancies, her grandchildren, and the American writers I urged her to read (Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson). What I could not capture in transcription or translation is her laugh — this amazing lovely flirtatious laugh. I wish you could hear it.