:: Article

Me, Myself & I: On Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story

By Daniel Baksi.

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story (Fitzcarraldo Editions, UK/Ireland, Seven Stories, elsewhere, 2020)

A Girl’s Story, Annie Ernaux’s latest memoir, is not about Annie Ernaux. Known in the novel as ‘the girl’, or more simply ‘her’, its subject is instead Annie Duchesne. She is, or was once to-be, Ernaux’s younger self  who, through a process of gradual and willing exorcism, has been divorced from the now commanding authorial figure. To Ernaux, Duchesne is ‘a stranger who imparted her memory to me’, and it is the origin and development of this estrangement that her memoir sets out to describe.

The events in question transpire during 1958, at a summer camp where Duchesne, liberated at last from the clutches of an overbearing mother, has just been hired as an instructor. It is, as ‘on that August afternoon, beneath the shifting skies of the Orne’, the equivalent of a calm before the storm. Duchesne is only seventeen years of age, on the precipice of adulthood. She is also unremarkable. ‘Of all the people she saw each day at the camp … does anyone remember that girl? Probably not’, says Ernaux, weighing up the significance of her story, deliberating in this moment whether to continue with its telling. For the reader this imbues the memoir from its outset with a fragility, as though it were a lived experience that may cease at any moment. Yet in Ernaux’s mind the opposite is true: ‘To think I am the only one to remember, which I believe to be the case, enchants me. As if I were endowed with a sovereign power, a clear superiority over the others who were there’. Ernaux is stating her rights, declaring ownership of her past, and laying claim to an identity that, more than half a century prior, ceased to be her own.

The precise nature of what befell Duchesne that summer can be traced to a number of physical causes, all of which offer only an insufficient explanation for what would afterwards ‘forever be behind her’. The most obvious of these is her sleeping with a boy for the first time, though he is older, and a head instructor at the camp, so the memoir delivers an important lesson in the power relations between men and women, and the practically helpless impressionism of a young girl. Ernaux’s narration of the female experience is refreshingly frank, and—with its delicately weighted ebb and flow, its moments of quiet rumination, and sudden volta shifts—seamlessly translated by Alison L. Strayer. The sexual encounter unfolds ‘like an X-rated film in which the woman is completely out of sync with the man because she has no idea what will happen next’, and the idea of losing one’s virginity becomes ‘a sacred experience’. Ernaux expertly captures the subliminal implications for female (and male) psychology of a phrase, the very meaning of which, she says, is ‘lost inside of me and the greater part of the French population.’

But Ernaux, whose indebtedness to The Second Sex is a made explicitly clear, is less interested in re-treading this ground than conducting a post-mortem of the occurrence, in her own psyche, of Duchesne’s displacement:

One day, or rather one night, they are swept away inside the desire and the will of a single Other. Everything they believed about themselves vanishes. They dissolve and watch a reflection of themselves act, obey, swept into a course of events unknown. They trail behind the will of the Other, which is always one step ahead. They never catch up.

The use of the third person is, on the one hand, an effective statement of distance. Ernaux’s ability to stand outside events—which proceed from her ‘collector’s pride’ in being ‘the object of lust’, and a compensatory obsession with food, to self-imposed, perfectionist starvation—magnificently exacerbates the sense of her own naivety. But it is also a symptom of a condition that the author has already tried and failed to overcome. ‘I too wanted to forget that girl’, Ernaux writes. This does not mean eradicating her past (a feat she has already achieved) but recalling it: ‘that is, stop yearning to write about her … her desire and madness, her idiocy and pride, her hunger and her blood that ceased to flow.’ This irrefutable desire, Ernaux’s need to fix down events in-words, is as central to her memoir as the events themselves, so that much of the book is focussed not on Duchesne outright, but more properly upon the act of writing, and the manner in which Ernaux strives to ‘deconstruct’ the girl she once was. It is a focus that serves the memoir well—for the reader, but also the writer, for whom A Girl’s Story is not only an effort towards closure, but an assurance of life, an imperative record of an experience that will be otherwise lost, that will ‘have been lived for no reason’. In so doing, Ernaux affords herself the advantage of looking back with disdain not only at her younger self, but at the inchoate iterations of her own work, the first drafts, which have remained despite her efforts ‘the perpetually missing piece, always postponed.’ We see Ernaux playing the role of historian, recounting the past, whilst assessing its evidence—cross-referencing letters scrawled long ago, disclosing journal entries, lists and quotes collected over a lifetime of reading that help elucidate her assertions, or universalise her pain.

The consequence is a layered reading experience, in which Ernaux seems at times to be addressing herself rather than the reader, if only to draw us deeper, its effect like that of a secret shared or overheard. In this diligent attempt to convey her own truth is evidence also of the author’s acute sensitivity to her own role, for the responsibility that comes with having the power to shape her own narrative, and its implications for women more broadly. We hear Ernaux fret over her presentation of Duchesne’s behaviour—whether it should be ‘according to the mores of today, when nothing sexual, apart from incest and rape, is reprehensible, and on the Internet I can read headings like ‘Vanessa will spend her holidays at a swingers’ hotel’?’, or its alternative: ‘the view of French society in 1958, which reduced a girl’s entire worth to a question of ‘conduct’’. A Girl’s Story does not reside solely within either of these modes. Rather, it achieves within each sentence, and so across the entirety of its form, precisely what Ernaux modestly proposes as her ‘dream’—that is, to contain both past and present ‘seamlessly, by way of a new syntax’. It is a necessary approach, too. Through this this method alone, Ernaux’s delicate blending of tense, is she able to capture the precise nature of a social system that has not absolved itself through change, but which to this day remains complicit in her suffering. Her reality is one in which ‘the meaning of things one has experienced remains unchanged’, her shame one that has persisted despite the years because it has been branded as something to avoid, to go unexplained.

Such aphorisms, though common to Ernaux’s style, are never overwrought—the hallmark of a writer comfortable in the knowledge that in writing about herself, she has already faced the most complex topic of all. Accordingly, the preceding fifty years of French culture and history are dispatched with ease. Her account of the French occupation of Algeria offers an interesting and grounding context to an inner turmoil that is otherwise isolated from the outside world. And so too is she able to render what it meant ‘the grocery woman’s girl’ to enter the world of the French bourgeoisie. Duchesne is an outsider, ‘as in the novel by Camus’, and ‘having brought neither records nor a phonograph to camp’, is thrown by the ‘lightness and naturalness’ with which her more affluent acquaintances move through the world. It is a myth, oft repeated, that the memoirist is an exclusively self-indulgent figure, plagued rather than empowered by egotistic introspection. In her ability to see beyond herself, Ernaux proves nothing of the sort, and yet performs a more exacting, and vitally necessary, self-examination that possibly any to come before her.

In Ernaux’s opening line, she ventures the idea that ‘there are beings who are overwhelmed by the reality of others, their way of speaking, of crossing their legs, of lighting a cigarette.’ As a summary of the life of Annie Duchesne, it proves more than apt. But is there not also a knowing irony here, for how closely does the relationship that Ernaux describes—the injury, that would shade the ensuing decades of her life until its final ‘exhausting with words’—resemble that between an author and their reader, the one writing, the other rapt with anticipation, their eyes fixed to the page? It is possible that there is no meaning in this metaphor. But perhaps, too, the writing of A Girl’s Story is a final defiance—Ernaux’s telling of, and enactment of, her self-reclamation, an ultimate renunciation of shame—that, in the reconciliation it brings about, also confirms once and for all the gulf that divides ‘girl’ from author, Annie D from Annie E. As Ernaux says, upon seeing a picture of the former object of her infatuation, the boy, aged and happily married, on the screen of a computer where she sits at her desk, at home, alone: ‘I do not envy him: I’m the one who is writing.’

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Baksi is a writer and critic based in Norwich, UK. His writing has appeared in Literary Review and The Arts Desk, amongst others. He tweets at @danielbaksi.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 20th, 2020.