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Interview with Annie Ernaux

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. [1] 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.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— So you would not consider yourself a novelist.

A

Annie Ernaux

— No, that’s a term that doesn’t suit me at all. Even more so as we tend to call women writers ‘novelists’, while male writers get to be just ‘writers’. And there are always more men being asked to write about literature than women in the book pages of Le Monde — in the collective unconscious ‘writer’ means ‘man’. Or maybe that’s just how it is in France.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I think it’s like that in the US and UK as well. So are you in favour of the feminisation of language [2]? Do you refer to yourself as an écrivaine?

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes I do. At the beginning I didn’t want to, but now it’s more of a question of habit. I don’t go so far as to use écriture inclusive [3] but it doesn’t bother me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Would you describe what you do as autobiography, or as essay-writing?

A

Annie Ernaux

— Neither. I’m very interested in the idea of a genre-less text. But then you’re taking the risk that others will endanger it by saying it’s not literature if it isn’t assigned a precise genre. But there are more and more texts like this — and many of these writers persist in calling them ‘novels’ even when it’s clearly not what they’ve written, because novels sell. I’ve refused to do that.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In an essay you wrote about Journal du dehors #91;Exteriors], you said that it was an attempt to write in a ‘ je transpersonnel’. What does that mean?

A

Annie Ernaux

— What I mean by that is everything that could be opposed to the autobiographical je. In the je as I conceive of it, it’s not an identity that aligns with me and my history, it’s not a psychological je, it’s a je that is marked by the communal experiences which many of us have known — the death of one’s parents, the condition of women, illegal abortion. The epitome of this je transpersonnel is The Years, where the je completely disappears. For me the je is not an identity, but a place, marked by human experiences and human events. That is what I try to illuminate through my writing. I say je transpersonnel because it is not the individual, or the anecdotic, that interests me, but that which is shared, whether that be social, or even slightly in the order of the psychological, in the realm of reaction. That is how I may be sure that I’m bringing to light something that isn’t reducible to a personal history. Essentially, I want to put myself at a distance, the greatest distance between what I’ve lived, who I am — it’s about being able to distance yourself. It’s an attitude, of course, and it took time to construct; my earliest books are very marked by affects. There are still affects later on, but you have to find a way to talk about affect without having it be attributable to the writer herself.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Does that come through in the ‘flat writing’ style people often talk about with regard to your work?

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes — flat because I wrote it that way, it came to me that way — it’s more objective, distanced, factual.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— When you say it comes to you that way, does that mean that you don’t write a whole mess of a draft and then cross out everything that is too personal or affective?

A

Annie Ernaux

— No. It’s born of a certain approach to the blank page, which is perhaps easier in my position — it’s very important to have changed classes, because I don’t take writing as a given. I am between what Bourdieu would call the habitus — my class habitus, my first culture, my way of life in the working class, and literature, and what I experience as literature. In writing I’m always striving to resolve these two worlds, and the difficulty lies in trying to carry into literature something of my first culture.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s very spatial, the way you describe it.

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes, as you say, it’s very spatial, as if there were two different places that had to be brought together: the place I started from, which has a certain violence, and the world of literature. In a way, every time I write, I’m conquering something. Do you see what I mean?

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Yes, completely. It’s something you have to strive for; it isn’t a given.

A

Annie Ernaux

— It isn’t a given.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There are a lot of blank spaces in your books — is that a visual translation of this spatial relationship to the act of writing and to writing itself?

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes. But not in all of my books — in The Years there aren’t as many blanks.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— But there is something interesting in the way you’ve laid the text out on the page.

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes — the spacing! For me it’s fundamentally important to include this space. It’s the site of the illegible, of difference — of rupture, of forms of rupture. Yes, it’s a bit like that. But then it’s not a space for me, but rather for the reader.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— One of the most striking things for me about The Years is that it is one of the only books in your entire career where you use the third person. How did you conceive of this voice? What happened to the je which is so important in your other books?

A

Annie Ernaux

— It evolved to the point of disappearance in The Years, and also in my last book, Mémoire de fille [A Girl’s Story], which is in two different and very distinct voices, the first and the third. Je for the woman who writes, and elle for the person I’m describing, the young woman of 1958.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Was The Years the first time you wrote in the third person?

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— How did that feel? I can’t write at all in the third person, it always feels so artificial!

A

Annie Ernaux

— You may just need time! And in any case it’s not necessarily an ideal. What happened to me is the opposite — after years of writing in je, now I can no longer write in the first person.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Why?

A

Annie Ernaux

— I don’t know. I just feel it the same way I felt I had to write in je — as a necessity.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Is this elle perhaps just another, prismatic way of writing je? A way of turning je on its side?

A

Annie Ernaux

— There is a lot of je in elle, it’s not an invented elle, it’s elle/je — but elle for short. Everything elle does is je. Je has just become impossible for me, not just grammatically.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s another way of putting distance between yourself and the page.

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes, an even greater distance. But it makes it easier for me to speak, to write. I think I could not have written about everything that happened to the young woman of 1958 in Mémoire de fille if I had written it in the first person. It’s really the elle that liberated me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In Le Vrai lieu you talk about the ways in which society speaks through the writers it produces, and at the conclusion of The Years you offer the reader a way of approaching the text:

 

It will be a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life. An outpouring, but suspended at regular intervals by photos and scenes from films that capture the successive body shapes and social positions of her being — freeze-frames on memories, and at the same time reports on the development of her existence, the things that have made it singular, not because of the nature of the elements of her life, whether external (social trajectory, profession) or internal (thoughts and aspirations, the desire to write), but because of their combinations, each unique unto itself. To this ‘incessantly not-she’ of photos will correspond, in mirror image, the ‘she’ of writing.

 

There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before.

 

With that in mind I wanted to talk a bit more about this question of impersonal or collective autobiography. Women who write about their own lives are so often accused of narcissism, of navel-gazing, and the collective autobiography seems to me a more honest way of addressing the relationship between the I, the we, and the world that produced us, that speaks through us, and continually shapes and reshapes us.

A

Annie Ernaux

— Yes exactly. At the beginning I had no intention of writing a collective autobiography. All the steps I took are inscribed within the text. What I wanted was to write the story of a woman who had lived through an era, but I almost wanted for her to not be there, and I didn’t know how to do this — if I had taken her out completely it would have been a history book, there needed to be a consciousness inside the book. So I began accumulating images and memories which were at the same time personal and impersonal, as well as movies, books, memories, lyrics, without attributing them to anyone. I began with the time when I arrived in the world — I have no real memories of the world itself, but just afterwards. So the book became about this world of before — how we come to be aware of it. I wasn’t writing about myself, but through narratives, through our ways of knowing, through the ways in which we encounter the world. It’s not psychological, it’s more about circumstances, family meals. It came to me right away that it wasn’t about a particularly personal experience, but about this history of France, and this history of the country people, workers, the olden days. And then I had to find a way to continue, so I looked at old photographs, like my baby photo, but still, nothing happened, there was no one there. I don’t know how I had the idea to use a [later] photograph, but I found this photograph of the little girl by the seaside, which is me of course, and I described this photo, and as I did, I realised I had to make a choice: was I going to write je or elle.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It was the photograph that prompted you to decide.

A

Annie Ernaux

— I don’t have my drafts here anymore, they’re at the Bibliothèque nationale, but I know that for part of it I was using je as if I were the narrator, and I describe this photograph as a narrator, as the voice who writes. Then I put the book down for a while, and when I picked it back up again I started writing in elle, and after that I stopped using the je altogether as I plunged back into my memories of the 1950s. Then I was able to describe the world I grew up in — radio shows, advertisements, all sorts of memories. I wrote about the ruins after the war, because of course I was in Normandy, as well as the phenomenal joy after the Liberation. I wanted my individual memories to serve as a collective memory. But there’s no real difference, because the memory of particular events — my first circus, my first Tour de France — are collective memories, of which I retain an individual memory. I wanted very simply to make use of them to capture this epoch. It’s not the archival work of a historian, who wouldn’t have written in the first person either, or used his own memories. Whereas I use almost exclusively my own memories throughout the book. Collective memory is, in the end, how I lived, how everyone lived, how that way of life is within me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s very effective.
A

Annie Ernaux

— I really wanted to write it like this but I was worried my editor wouldn’t take it. I was worried it wouldn’t be legible or comprehensible, I worried I’d made some kind of purely avant-garde, illegible text. And I thought oh well, I don’t care, I’m going to write it how I want. And then [after it was published] I read articles where the critics said ‘Ernaux has really done something different this time!’ It seemed this kind of total decentring of the self had produced something worthwhile.
 

 

1. Ce qu’ils disent ou rien and Mémoire de fille have yet to be translated into English; they might be translated as ‘Their Way or No Way’ and ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’. [Note: in the years since this interview was originally published, Mémoire de fille has been published in English as ‘A Girl’s Story’ (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020 tr. Alison L. Strayer)]

 

2. French is a language that genders parts of speech to agree with the person to whom they refer; the word for ‘writer’ is écrivain (this could be a man or a woman but it is the masculine form) and the version used to refer specifically to a female writer is écrivaine. The debate over the feminisation of language has to do with whether it is more important to mark out difference, or to include women in universal (previously male) concepts.

 

3. A response to the ways in which the French language is gendered and exclusionary, which consists of introducing a median period plus the feminine and plural endings to words that would otherwise make it seem like there were only men involved — so écrivains becomes écrivain.e.s.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Annie Ernaux, born in 1940, grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work. In 2022, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Lauren Elkin is most recently the author of No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute (Semiotext(e)/Fugitives) and the UK translator of Simone de Beauvoir's previously unpublished novel, The Inseparables (Vintage). Her previous book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (Chatto/FSG) was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, a New York Times Notable Book of 2017, and a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Her essays have appeared in Granta, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, the New York Times, and Frieze, among others. Her next book, Art Monsters, will be out in July 2023 (Chatto/FSG). She lives in London.

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