Is Annie Ernaux the Most Brutally Honest Writer Alive?
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Perhaps with no clearer motive than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “France has the only two things toward which we drift as we grow older — intelligence and good manners,” we packed up our possessions during the last dark days of one December and decided to move to Paris. It was pleasant, I had often been told, for a writer to live somewhere where reading and writing were accorded the highest respect, and it was true that — in Paris at least — these were semipublic activities: In every park and cafe, on the Metro and on the benches along the Seine, people were openly engaged in what for me had always been the most private and solitary of occupations. Bookstores still held their ground here among the shopfronts, and the deification of French writers living and dead was evinced everywhere in street names and statues and advertising hoardings for new novels. I listened on the radio to an astronaut reading passages aloud from Marguerite Duras from his space station to his earthbound audience below.
Then, last October, the writer Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Frenchwoman ever to do so. We had been in France for nearly two years, and amid the alternating sensations of regeneration and disarray that this upheaval had inevitably incurred, Annie Ernaux had come to represent for me a troubling point of constancy. During my initial months in Paris, when it seemed for the first time in my life that lying on a sofa reading a book was something I was not only permitted but encouraged to do, I made my way slowly in my clumsy French through one slim text after another: “A Man’s Place,” “A Woman’s Story,” “Simple Passion,” “The Possession,” “The Years.” The story they told, rigorously excluding anything that did not directly pertain to it, was that of Annie Duschene (Ernaux’s maiden name), only child of a working-class French couple who ran a humble café-epicerie in Yvetot, a small town in Normandy.
By means of scholarly excellence, Annie claws her way out of the mire of her origins to teacher-training college, marries the first man who presents himself, is submerged in a bourgeois purgatory as housewife and mother and slowly breaks her way out of that new prison by writing books — books that try to stop time by questioning and reconstructing as precisely as they can the events that have brought her to the existence she is now leading. Who is she, and where has she come from? Who were her parents, and why did they live as they did? Why did she act in certain ways as she became free of them, and to what degree is her life the consequence of those actions? Has she ever lived consciously even for one minute, or is this task of writing and reconstruction the effort to apply consciousness to blind fate?
Despite the differences — of nationality, generation, social class, familial situation — between my own life and that of Annie Ernaux, I found myself plunged as I read into a more and more profound state of recognition. Yet what I seemed to be recognizing were things that no one generally admits. Ernaux’s honesty had the effect of illuminating a profound and unsuspected lack of freedom in her reader. How, through the simple story of her origins, had she laid her hand so surely on the human tragedy of our ability to make ourselves unfree? The answer perhaps lay in her faith in writing as a sacred and transcendent activity. She believed in writing as some people believe in religion, as a sphere where the self, the soul, is entitled to find refuge.
Who she was as a writer bore only one very specific relationship to who she was as a woman: They inhabited the same body. It was to this body that she was confined, actually and artistically — to its social and economic destiny, to its gendered limitations, to its geographical and temporal location. What had happened to and in this body, what it in turn had made happen in the years from its birth to the present moment, was the limit and extent of her material.
France being a nation that holds itself in high esteem for its literary culture, the Nobel news caused a feverish outburst of pride, but also some startling paroxysms of venom. How could a woman who wrote only about herself be awarded the literary world’s highest accolade? Madame Ovary, as she was called by one conservative French critic, was the prime example of the erosion of literary art by narratives of self-pity and marginalization. The intelligence — indeed the sanity — of the Nobel committee appeared to be questioned. It was explained to me that in France the exposure of unglamorous aspects of female reality — the complaints of the bonne femme, or housewife — was widely considered to be distasteful. There was also apparently the matter of jealousy — of Ernaux’s success, of the youthfulness of her readership and now of this greatest of honors — among the literary male old guard. Yet it seemed to me that such explanations were, in fact, unnecessary: The aggression was simply the evidence that the nerve of truth had been touched.
From the beginning of her 50-year career, the uncompromising candor of Ernaux’s voice has wielded a formidable power of shock: the lacerating portrait of motherhood and bourgeois family life in “A Frozen Woman”; the masterly, pitiless accounts of her parents’ lives and deaths — and therefore of poor, provincial France — in “A Man’s Place” and “A Woman’s Story”; her analysis of the extreme subjection at the core of sexual relationships in “Simple Passion” and “The Possession.” One after another, her works have alienated or dismayed diverse groups across the social and political spectrum, from cultural patriarchs to feminists. It might seem evident that shock is the signifier of truth and reveals more about the people who feel it than about the artistic objectivity that caused it, but in the case of Annie Ernaux, the usual operation of time in reconciling people to truth did not seem entirely to have occurred.
“This summer, for the first time, I watched a pornographic film,” she writes at the opening of “Simple Passion.” She continues:
“The story was incomprehensible; it was impossible to predict any of the actions or movements. The man walked up to the woman. There was a close-up of the woman’s genitals, clearly visible among the shimmerings of the screen, then of the man’s penis, fully erect, sliding into the woman’s vagina. For a long time this coming and going of the two sex organs was shown from several angles. … No doubt one gets used to such a sight; the first time is shattering. Centuries and centuries, hundreds of generations have gone by and it is only now that one can see this — a man’s penis and a woman’s vagina coming together — something one could barely take in without dying has become as easy to watch as a handshake. It occurred to me that writing should also aim for that — the impression conveyed by sexual intercourse, the feeling of anxiety and awe, a suspension of moral judgment.”
Ernaux in January 1984.Credit…Sophie Bassouls, via Getty Images
Reading Annie Ernaux’s books one after another was like watching an edifice being built in real time, something raised out of the wet ground and constructed brick by brick. The harrowing beauty and brevity of these books and their apparent simplicity disguised somewhat the punishing cost of their honesty. Never had I seen the supposed freedom — the “narcissism,” as we now like to call it — of self-examination so exposed in its brutality. Ernaux grasped the depths of isolation and loss she would need to descend to in order to retrieve the original reality of her being. Her art bears no relation to a privileging of personal experience; on the contrary, it is almost a self-violation. What Annie Ernaux understood was that as a female child of the regional laboring classes, her self was her only authentic possession in this world, and thus the sole basis for the legitimacy of her art.
Lying on the sofa, I became slowly immured in the concrete reality of this edifice and of its facts. The girl Annie grows up in an environment of squalor and industry. She is an only child, an older sister having died of diphtheria at age 6. Her father runs the cafe while her mother manages the shop, the two spaces connected by a corridor that functions as the family’s kitchen. There is no bathroom, just a toilet for customers and family alike out in the yard.
Over time, her reality takes shape around certain foundations, the mother and father most evidently, and the cramped labyrinth of the cafe and shop with its simple living quarters above — a world without privacy or solitude, a world in which the observer is as exposed as the observed — but also around her own nascent exceptionality, which soon becomes the subject of her parents’ mingled terror and pride. She begins early on to perform outstandingly at school. It is clear she will go out into the world, but what world is it, and how and to what end will she survive there? Their social conservatism and Catholicism — immovable features of the provincial working-class landscape in which they live — leave the subject of her burgeoning femininity and sexuality entirely opaque. Were she a normal girl, she would marry young with her virginity intact. This scholarly future is a vaguely nunlike destiny, whose risks of ruination include the possibility that — as a clever oddity — she might never find a husband. Yet her parents, and especially her mother, don’t want her to be like them, economically and socially trapped in a cycle of incessant labor. At school, she quickly becomes aware of her inferiority, but “at home, on her own territory, the grocer’s girl — as the locals call her — has all the rights. Helping herself liberally to packets of sweets and boxes of cookies, lying reading in bed until midday during the holidays, never setting the table or cleaning her shoes. She lives and behaves like a queen.” (I have translated this passage, and the others quoted in this article, from the French.) Her mother’s one luxury is reading, a habit Annie acquires from her.
At once cosseted and imprisoned by her parents, burdened with the prospect of her own liberation from everything she knows, the girl tries to contain in herself the violent forces of ignorance and desire, the problem of owing everything to people who can teach her nothing, the growing discomfort of her origins that is matched by the mystery of how one could live differently. Though she doesn’t know it, her isolation — the only tangible result, in fact, of her exceptionality — is extreme. This exceptionality is the great subject and problem of Annie Ernaux’s oeuvre, the Other with which she spars in book after book, sometimes taking the form of guilt or shame, in others of a savage and dizzying freedom. The exceptionality strives to normalize itself at every turn by making her conform, often to things that directly clash with and contradict one another. The conforming, sooner or later, results in rebellion: She is trapped and frees herself, creates and destroys and survives, learning over and over by this arduous and often disastrous route the opposing facts of internal and external reality. The exceptionality is not, in fact, that of intellectual or physical or moral attributes. It is the exceptionality of the artist, of the person who lives to tell the tale.
In 1958, at age 18, she is given the opportunity to work for a month as one of a group of monitors at a children’s summer camp in S, a village in the Orne. With this first experience of liberty, the whole unfeasible powder keg of her identity explodes. “The list of her social ignorances would be interminable,” Ernaux writes of herself in “A Girl’s Story.” “She doesn’t know how to use a telephone, has never taken either a shower or a bath. She has no experience of any milieu but her own.” In the middle-class world of the summer camp, she is by turns gauche and outrageous, short on manners, taste, charm and savoir-faire — she is, in a word, unacceptable. She alienates both her peers and her superiors, acquires a reputation for sexual availability and even lacks the discrimination to recognize what has happened. Yet she knows too that she is, for those people, entirely forgettable.
“I too wanted to forget that girl,” Ernaux writes. “To forget her truly, meaning to have no desire to write about her. Never again to think that I ought to write about her, her desire, her folly, her idiocy and her pride. … [Yet] there were always phrases in my journal, allusions to ‘the girl of S,’ ‘the girl of 58.’ For 20 years I have listed ‘58’ among my book projects. It is always the missing text. Always delayed. The unquantifiable hole.”
During those weeks at the summer camp, she quietly abandons, without quite realizing it, her academic ambitions. She adjusts her expectations: Instead of going to a prestigious university, she will train to become a primary-school teacher. The weeks of summer camp, which at the time she believed to be the threshold of the future, were in fact a turning point back into the past. She would have to account for every moment of that past, both personally and artistically. What she had been programmed to escape was to become, in a very different form, her destiny.
Sometimes, reading, I would experience the curious illusion that this 82-year-old laureate was not my elder but my junior — that her voice was speaking from a future in which the possibilities for female utterance were bolder, more serious, more liberal. I was as though chagrined by my own compromised femininity in the light of this more evolved future. How had she managed to be so daring, so candid, so autonomous — so free?
The answer, perhaps, was shame: What Ernaux seemed to have understood from the start is that shame is the obverse side of truth. She uses it as a map, the existence of shame at different points in her history unfailingly leading her to a concealment of self buried beneath it. Besides, shame has an excellent memory, “more detailed, more indelible than any other. Memory … is the special gift of shame.”
It was, perhaps, her shame about her origins that resulted in “A Man’s Place,” the book that first cemented her place in French literary culture. Her voice, so unlike any other, told the story of a France that did not usually presume to express itself. Spare, methodical, relentless, shocking — “clinical” was the word chosen by the Nobel committee — the severity of its discipline was matched by its unrepentant liberty. This, then, was the strange fruit of the café-epicerie in Yvetot, this voice whose internal stamina was indestructible yet recognized no conventional laws, that was capable of such suffering yet was so good at learning from it, that had escaped the bourgeois conditioning of character and thus was always stronger than the things that confronted it.
Shortly after my arrival in Paris, wanting to improve my French, I was put in touch with a writer who wanted to improve her English, and we began to meet weekly for conversations that switched language at midpoint, like a soccer team changing ends at halftime. The writer was Delphine de Vigan, a novelist around my own age, like me the mother of two grown-up children who is no longer with their father.
At first we were a little shy, a shyness that seemed to spring from our joint practicality. To be taking time in the middle of the afternoon simply to converse was a luxury to which neither of us seemed to feel altogether entitled. We had each been the wage-earners and managers in our households; each of us for years had written in extremis around the interruptions and obligations of motherhood; each of us had the greatest difficulty in considering ourselves to be artists; yet we each, despite or perhaps because of the exigency of our writing conditions, had chosen the hazardous route of self-examination in pursuit of a somehow ineluctable truth, the truth of who we were in the world and why.
Delphine de Vigan’s first novel, “Days Without Hunger,” was an account of her near-death from anorexia as a young woman, but in the novels that followed she moved determinedly away from autobiographical material, so that that first slim and agonized text remained there like an unanswered question. What had driven her — what drives anyone — to starve herself to the point of extinction at the very moment of gaining autonomy? This particularly female form of self-attack seemed to delineate something, a corresponding shadow or a silence, lying centrally across the field of self-expression.
I, too, at certain points, had felt at risk of becoming fundamentally separated from my own material, when my biological life as a woman began to generate conditions and experiences that were alien to and inadmissible in the writing of fiction. How was I to approach as a subject something whose power of nullification was so great that it menaced the very act of representation? To write about motherhood for instance — to bring objective scrutiny and distance to the biological invasion of the self — seemed to be not only a practical but also an intellectual impossibility. In order to succeed as an artist — it seemed — both the inconvenience and thus the reality of femininity had to be scrupulously concealed.
“My mother was blue, a pale ash-blue, the hands strangely darker than the face, when I found her at her house that January morning,” begins de Vigan’s riveting 2011 memoir, “Nothing Holds Back the Night.” “The hands as though stained with ink, at the folds of the knuckles. She had been dead for several days. I don’t know how many seconds or even minutes it took me to understand this, despite the evidence in front of me — a long time, awkward and febrile, until a cry escaped my lungs. Even today, more than two years later, it remains for me a mystery: By what mechanism was my brain able to hold itself apart from the sight of my mother’s corpse, and most of all from its smell, how had it taken so much time to accept the information that was in front of it? It was not the only question that her death left me with.”
With this book, de Vigan spectacularly marked the end of her self-annexation, or rather the point at which the internal pressure of truth forced its content out into the world. Her mother’s suicide was a sort of refusal or breakdown of the female narrative. To comprehend it, every aspect of de Vigan’s reality had to be dismantled: the entire carapace of self, of history both personal and impersonal, of memory and fact and myth, of the collective life and the individual reality, and most of all of writing — narration — and its relationship to being. The book is not so much a reconstruction of her mother’s life as a gathering of evidence, by which the private and subjective is made public and accountable. It required a painstaking examination of her wider family — a formidable and traditionally French clan of aunts and uncles and grandparents — and therefore of family culture itself. The resulting book is an inquiry into the “reality” a child is born into, a domain tyrannized by authority structures and social codes in which the personal binds fatally with the authorized and communal to make a theater of blood relationships.
“To write about one’s family,” de Vigan writes, “is without doubt the surest means of falling out with them.” Throughout her narration, she remains terrified and tormented by her power of disclosure, like a child being handed a dangerous weapon. She reveals, among other things, that her mother claimed to have been raped by her own father as a teenager, an accusation the mother made in writing at 32, sending the text to every member of her family. No one ever mentioned it: Life continued as normal, the family meeting regularly for Sunday lunch at the grandparents’ country house.
Midway through the book, rived with anxiety about the secrets she is revealing, de Vigan recounts a dream in which such a gathering of the long-dead is occurring. “Everyone is there, nothing has changed: the collection of porcelain plates on the wall, the serving baskets placed here and there around the table, the smell of roast lamb drifting in the air.” As the food is being served, a silence suddenly falls, and her dead grandmother turns to her, “with that sorrowful or disappointed expression that sometimes alters her gaze, without hostility. ‘It isn’t nice what you’re doing, darling,’ she says. ‘It isn’t nice.’”
“Nothing Holds Back the Night” was published in France to a wave of recognition, selling a million copies and winning numerous prizes. In this literature-loving country, Delphine de Vigan became a modest sort of rock star, yet the aims of her book were in a sense challenging or undermining the tenets of that culture and the story it told about itself. Among other things, what de Vigan — and the powerful response of her public — testified to was the personal cost exacted by life in this exalted, beautiful yet patriarchal nation. Her book is a girl’s story, her own girlhood as well as that of her mother, yet she finds that there is no template for it. Her mother’s pain “was part of our childhood, and later of our lives as adults,” she writes. “Without doubt her pain formed us, my sister and me. Yet any attempt at explanation is bound to fail. Instead I must make do with a writing made of odds and ends, of fragments, of hypotheses.”
After Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize, I received a call: I was invited to appear on “La Grande Librairie” to talk about her work. “La Grande Librairie,” a weekly 90-minute television show about books, had often been cited to me as the emblem of France’s exceptional relationship to literary culture. Once a week, the country sat down to watch a special-effects-free sequence of interviews and debates with the writers of the moment. The prestige and sales figures of these writers were considerably advanced by an appearance on “La Grande Librairie” — an invitation was among the most fiercely desired laurels for the contemporary French writer. It was unusual, I had been told, for a foreign or non-French-speaking author to be invited; the need for an interpreter slowed things down too much.
On the phone, I explained that my French was not good enough to accept the invitation. There was silence on the other end — evidently no one refused such an offer; it simply wasn’t possible. What wasn’t possible, I continued, was that I would speak French on national television when I was still capable of making basic errors ordering a baguette in a boulangerie. It was explained to me that not only would I do so, I would do so very well. A special edition of the program had been put together for Annie Ernaux: The author herself would be there. My appearance would be a nice surprise for her, and besides, they needed someone to give the international perspective.
The near-hysterical national pride one might have anticipated at the Nobel accolade had, it seemed, been accompanied by some self-reproach. There was a general feeling that Annie Ernaux had somehow escaped appreciation, had been denied justice in her own country. Despite the French reverence for literature, it had required non-French eyes to see her true worth. The Anglophone world, for instance, had long understood her importance — it was seemingly as a witness to this debatable notion that I was invited to participate in the special edition of “La Grande Librairie.”
I went to ask Delphine de Vigan’s advice, but she, too, seemed to be inhabiting this other reality, in which I could discuss literary matters in French before an audience of a million people. You’ll be fine, she said. She offered to help me practice. Afterward we sat and talked about writing, about the blankness and terror that sometimes overcome each of us at the idea of having to write another book, as though it were some awful duty. Would either of us write again, if we had sufficient means not to? It seemed to me that for each of us it was this binding of writing with practicality — which for years had lent legitimacy to an apparently impractical activity — that now darkened the prospect of exercising our craft. I felt sure that neither of us knew any greater joy than that of doing our work, yet the framing of it as a job rather than art had become habitual.
After the startling success of “Nothing Holds Back the Night,” Delphine de Vigan wrote a clever, tenebrous faux-memoir called “Based on a True Story,” in which the splitting of herself, first by writing the book about her mother and then by the extraordinary fame it brought her, is incarnated in a woman she meets at a party who insinuates herself into her life and nearly destroys it. While writing this book, she felt, she says now, the most crippling self-consciousness and anxiety, as though a goblin critic were sitting on her shoulder laughing cruelly at every line she set down. She was certain it was a failure and nearly didn’t publish it at all: It was a huge success and won the prestigious Prix Renaudot, as well as the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens.
This fear of writing, which is not perhaps a fear of failure so much as a deep and half-unconscious belief that writing is socially and morally wrong, seemed to me to be the very reverse of Annie Ernaux’s vocational objectivity. “It is the absence of a sense of what one is living at the moment one lives it that multiplies the possibilities of writing,” Ernaux writes in “A Girl’s Story.” “To explore the gulf between the frightening reality of what happens, at the moment it happens, and the strange unreality, years later, of what happened.”
On the set of “La Grande Librairie,” amid the cameras and wires and blinding lights, where an atmosphere of sustained nervous frenzy was running through everything like an electric charge, Annie Ernaux was sitting among the other participants on a plush sofa — small and still and composed, like a statue depicting sanity. It was before the eyes of this sanity, rather than those of x million French people, that I would consider myself to be judged.
For me, the conversation was like a ball being thrown very fast from one participant to another. I could understand very little of what was being said: My strategy had been to learn by heart a number of all-purpose lines, which I delivered every time the direction of the others’ eyes indicated the ball was being thrown to me. Afterward I was ready to faint. The producer and presenter congratulated me. You see? they said. We told you it would be fine!
There was a small drinks reception for us all downstairs, and I was surprised to see Ernaux, proud and elegant, standing there alone, away from the talking groups. Her solitude and apartness seemed like things she carried with her wherever she went. I approached her and said hello, and she took my hand and patted it. Hers was soft and warm. Her eyes were like searchlights. We stood there, our hands clasped together. I would be very glad, she said after a while, if in a week’s time everyone could forget this had ever happened.
A few weeks later, Delphine de Vigan and I drove out to Cergy, where Ernaux lives. It is the suburb she describes in “The Years,” the 2008 novel that finally carried her reputation outside France. “The Years” is a longer and more ambitious book than its predecessors: The familiar facts of Ernaux’s life are there, but this time they are integrated into a broader context of social history, political and cultural events, and most of all the advance of capitalism into every aspect of life in the second half of the 20th century. For the first time Ernaux sees herself not as the anomaly from Yvetot but as part of the wave of history, a gendered organism shaped and driven by forces both seen and unseen, forces whose operation around individual consciousness and destiny has been far more powerful and fundamental than the myth of self-will and personality would seem to allow.
The Oise River, seen from the rise behind Ernaux’s house, winds shining through the valley below among groves of bare trees. It is a square, somber house in a large, sloping garden: Its broad and unimpeded view of the river is startling. Along the lanes and cul-de-sacs we passed on the way the houses are closely packed, their territories demarcated with walls and hedges and security gates that block one another’s line of sight and leave no space empty. Ernaux’s ample shaggy lawn and trailing trees giving way to a wide perspective of sky and valley seem the fruits not of privilege but of artistic and moral consistency: She has lived in this house for 40 years, during which time the world has filled in all the space around her.
Standing outside her front door, I was conscious that we were in one of her literary sites, the home that was the stage set for the woman she became, burning with oppression and desire and her indefatigable power of truth. “From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man,” she writes in “Simple Passion,” the story of her midlife affair with a married Eastern European diplomat. “For him to call me and come round to my place … I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment. I would try to leave the house as little as possible, except for professional reasons . . . forever fearing that he might call in my absence. I would also avoid using the vacuum cleaner or the hair dryer as they would have prevented me from hearing the sound of the telephone. Every time it rang, I was consumed with hope, which usually only lasted the time it took me slowly to pick up the receiver and say hello. When I realized it wasn’t him, I felt so utterly dejected that I began to loathe the person who was on the line.”
Ernaux was widely upbraided by her feminist readers for this portrayal of female dependency on male sexual attention: The clinical spotlight of her regard, so revelatory when it illuminates that which one is willing to see, becomes distinctly uncomfortable when it falls too close to home. Those same readers may later have found themselves forced to salute her for “The Young Man,” her account of her relationship in her late 50s with a man 30 years her junior. She describes encountering, when out with the young man in public places, “the looks of heavy disapproval from people around us. Looks which, far from causing me to feel shame, reinforced my determination not to hide my liaison with a man ‘young enough to be my son,’ when any man in his 50s could be seen with a girl who was evidently not his daughter without arousing the slightest reprobation.”
She answered the door, beaming with welcome. Inside the house was filled with cold, clear light. It was uncluttered and tidy, modestly and tastefully furnished with antiques, yet it was evident that very little had changed here: The small, spare kitchen where she prepared coffee for us was a kitchen from 40 years ago. Yet the house seemed expressive of a double achievement: her rise from the café-epicerie and her stoical resistance of the temptation to falsify or adorn the facts that surround her. We sat at the table in the sunny dining room. She talked about the imminent Nobel Prize ceremony, for which she needed to travel to Stockholm. Her main concern was her descent, before the audience, of a long staircase: At 82, she was worried she’d fall over. We asked whether someone couldn’t accompany her down, and she instantly looked startled. Later, I realized that this well-meaning suggestion was rather tactless: Her autonomy, her uncompromising independence from everyone and everything she has met with in life, was the reason she was going to Stockholm in the first place.
When she talked about her age, and the handful of years she imagines are left to her, the luminosity of her countenance was arresting, and I was struck by the sheer aliveness of this creature and by her undimmed force of inquiry. The question, she said, is how to live when life is nearly over. What, in that context, can life mean? A few months earlier, she and her son David made a documentary, “Les Années Super 8,” that is a collage of the home movies of their family life shot by her then-husband, Philippe, from 1972 to 1981. The images, so indelibly dated, put the past into a long and almost unbearable perspective. Talking now about the film, and about the clarity with which it summons back her past selves as a young wife and mother, she recalled the secret life that the images did not show: her determination, amid the detritus and preoccupations of conventional family life, to record her inner world in writing.
She wrote her first novel, “Cleaned Out,” in secret and mailed it to a publisher in Paris, giving only the address of the school where she was teaching at the time. She didn’t even enclose a cover letter. The weeks during which she waited for a response were filled with the weighty sense of what she had done. Talking about it now, all these years later, she even recalled the dates: of the mailing of the parcel, of the stages of the wait — fevered expectation followed by doubt followed by the beginnings of resignation — and of the receipt finally of the letter of acceptance. When the news came, she realized that this was not to be a covert contract with the world, of news smuggled out of her domestic entrapment in an envelope — the people who knew her, most of all her husband and mother, would also read it. She feared her husband’s reaction, sure enough, to this written betrayal of their shared life, but it was, she says now, her mother’s response to the book that was in fact the only one that mattered to her.
Her mother had come to live with them after her father’s death, and she took the book with her into her bedroom and closed the door. Ernaux recalls going to that door several times during the night and seeing the light still burning through the crack. In the morning, her mother came down to breakfast and didn’t say a word about what she had read, a silence that signaled her acceptance of the situation. It is extraordinary that this tough and humble woman, whose existence had been led under the severest constraints of a reality in which the breaking of social codes could have catastrophic consequences, could approve her daughter’s actions in publicly smashing the bourgeois veneer of her family life.
Proud as her mother was, Ernaux says now, of her daughter’s achievement in securing for herself the undreamed-of accouterments of a conventional middle-class existence, she was prouder of her writing. In the past, on discovering them, she had burned Ernaux’s diaries and notebooks, doubtless out of terror at what their content implied for her daughter’s future. But in the official acceptance by a publisher she recognized legitimacy.
In the bright, tranquil silence of Ernaux’s dining room, I was struck by the force and meaning of this story, the power that a mother’s acceptance could bestow on a woman artist, arming her against the whole world. After an hour or so, we took our leave. In the car on the way home, de Vigan and I spoke about the palpable and forceful aura that emanates from Ernaux and her home, an aura of unbreakable and radiant autonomy. It is rare, we agreed, to encounter someone of such strength. De Vigan wondered whether it was her survival over the years of the attacks on her work and persona — beginning, to my mind, with the dismay of her husband, who, unlike her mother, could not surmount his embarrassment from her manuscript — that have fortified her. I disagreed: It was, in my opinion, the fruit of love. From the beginning, her parents believed in her fiercely, passionately, as the most important thing in the world. The fact that they were the owners of a provincial corner store makes no difference.
It is something neither of us had, I said, this unbreakable gift of love, the mother-love that extends even to forgiving the betrayal that is writing. Her own mother, de Vigan said, tried her best to be supportive of her work but was very hurt and embarrassed by the portrayal of the mother in “Days Without Hunger.” It is, I surmised, the reason each of us have struggled to contain the splintering of our creative energies around personal truth, this elemental fear of disapproval, rejection, abandonment — the grandmother’s suggestion that what we’re doing isn’t very nice.
I was told that the venom directed toward Annie Ernaux on social media after her Nobel win had become so uncontrolled that it was the subject of an editorial in L’Obs, the French news weekly. When I next saw de Vigan, she was bewildered and upset by such hatred — where did it come from, and why? She admitted she had been slow to recognize the flourishing problem of misogyny in today’s world — like me, she belongs to a generation who grew up believing that feminism had somehow already occurred, that the concepts of social justice and equality were as subject to progress as the evolution of science and technology. Yet if it seems that in our time we have discovered new ways of hating, this belief in the illusion of progress may be the cause. Misogyny, the oldest hatred of them all, plays cat and mouse with this illusion from one generation to the next, to the extent that the experience of misogyny, both private and public, could be said almost to have become a subjective state. If it remains difficult for women to make art about their own lives, it is because femininity still has no stable place in culture. Ernaux recognized and weaponized, as it were, the enforced subjectivity of the female voice. Her mechanism of honesty is highly trustworthy — but honesty, like certain talents, isn’t heritable by the next generation.
In the days that followed, I thought often of Annie Ernaux in Stockholm, descending the staircase alone. Her body, that which has been both her container and her subject, which has been the fragile, mortal basis of her empire, stepping forward into empty space.
Rachel Cusk is the author of several novels, most recently “Second Place.” She has written for the magazine about the female voice in the visual arts.