Monday June 21st, 2010

The Archaeologist



The Possession by Annie Ernaux
Seven Stories Press, 62 pp., $11.95

Happening by Annie Ernaux
Seven Stories Press, 95 pp., $18.95

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux
Seven Stories Press, 72 pp., $8.95

I can’t recall exactly when “overshare” entered our lexicon. It was voted Webster’s New World Dictionary’s spoken word of the year in 2008, but it was an Urban Dictionary word of the day back in 2005. One thing is obvious: over the past few years, the prevailing usage has narrowed to almost exclusively connote the behavior of a woman writer who, online or in print, exposes details of her personal life deemed by many as inappropriate fodder, either because the experiences described are excruciatingly private and embarrassing or because they’re so mundane that the only reasonable response is an eye-rolling shrug. Or, indeed, both.

But in a culture where reality shows have conquered scripted drama on TV and memoir is unceremoniously shoving fiction off the shelves, there’s apparently a major readership—or at least the perception of one—for narratives whose focus is nothing more than the unexceptional exploits of me, myself, and I. The authors of such books, typically attractive young women for whom publicizing one’s adventures is as important—more, sometimes—as living them, are often irritably condemned, by serious reviewers and anonymous web commenters alike, with those Freudian classifications turned everyday insults: Narcissist! Exhibitionist!

The distinguished work of French novelist and memoirist Annie Ernaux simultaneously validates and mercilessly upstages every entry in the oversharers’ genre. Ernaux’s autobiographical books are breathtaking in their level of disclosure and unflinching as they rehash real-life experiences—obsessive love, bereavement, abortion, marriage, illness, sexual jealousy—that are not bizarre or uncommonly tragic, nor by any stretch uplifting or inspirational in the Eat, Pray, Love vein. Yet Ernaux, who has published 15 books in the past 35 years, has carved out a unique position in the world of letters, while somehow dodging the label of inveterate solipsist. A bestseller in France, she is taught in universities, translated into many languages, praised by critics in the U.S. and Europe, and widely credited with illuminating the most recondite facets of the human condition.

Her fearless, relentless process, which invites various clichéd physical analogies—she anatomizes emotions, rips open her soul, spills her guts, etc.—is most accurately characterized as archaeological: she excavates her memories, picks them apart, rinses them off, and places a ruthlessly curated selection on display (her books are rarely more than 100 double-spaced, wide-margined pages). But it is precisely this paring down to the essentials that elevates her work above a simple retelling of events. Instead of a faithful tale of “this happened, and then that happened,” Ernaux inserts herself at carefully chosen vantage points along the pathways of her past to create narratives that defy definition, that feel truer than chaotic life and more authentic than fiction.

She claims to be exempt from the charge of exhibitionism because she dreads rather than relishes the exposure. The Possession, about Ernaux’s manic jealousy of an ex’s new partner, begins: “I have always wanted to write as if I would be gone when the book was published. To write as if I were about to die — no more judges.” And in Simple Passion, her remembrance of an all-consuming affair with a younger married man, she declares:

I feel no shame in writing these things down because of the time which separates the moment when they are written—when only I can see them—from the moment when they will be read by other people, a moment which I feel will never come. . . . It is a mistake, therefore, to compare someone writing about his own life to an exhibitionist, since the latter has only one desire: to show himself and to be seen at the same time.

The “things” she refers to include confessions like, “I knew that nothing in my life (having children, passing exams, traveling to faraway countries) had ever meant as much to me as lying in bed in the middle of the afternoon with that man” and “[n]aturally I would never wash until the next day, to keep his sperm inside me.”

The man, an Eastern European whose identity is carefully concealed, asks her not to write a book about him. She asserts that she hasn’t, and that neither has she written a book about herself, but has instead translated into words “the way in which his existence has affected my life.” In this and other ways, Ernaux reminds me less of any other writer than of the British conceptual artist Tracey Emin, who, like Ernaux, is preoccupied with smashing taboos and who also refuses to draw a line between self and work, while nevertheless implying that the artistic process places the finished product above and beyond being simply “about” the relationships and experiences it originated from. (In The Possession, she insists: “It is no longer my desire, my jealousy, in these pages—it is of desire, of jealousy; I am working in invisible things.”) Emin’s work, such as her most famous installation, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 -1995,” is a struggle—as Kathryn Harrison acutely put it in her New York Times review of I Remain in Darkness, Ernaux’s book about her mother’s Alzheimer’s—“not so much with mortality as with the consciousness of mortality, the awareness of life and the apprehension of death that we are always trying to deflect or obliterate with sex or food or alcohol or physical labor.” In Ernaux’s L’usage de la photo, co-authored with Marc Marie, photographs of clothes thrown on the floor while the two of them were making love, and of beds in disorder, appear alongside the text, recalling another famous work by Emin, “My Bed.” Both women imperiously brush away the traditional, and traditionally vital, rules for the working-class girl in both the bedroom and the domestic sphere.

Ignoring rules has always been Ernaux’s modus operandi. She dismisses the boundaries separating book genres (she began with autobiographical novels, moved on to, for want of a better word, memoir, and has written several books about her parents; she has said that she’ll never write another work of fiction), and she constantly breaks the fourth wall. To read Ernaux’s books is to read about writing: her books aim for the opposite of a suspension of disbelief. In Happening, her recollection of undergoing a messy backstreet abortion decades ago at the age of 23, she writes: “I began this story a week ago, not knowing whether I would go through with it. I just wanted to make sure that the urge to write was still there. . . . Despite my urge to fight it, I became obsessed with the idea.” In Simple Passion, she admits that she is stalling on finishing the book, because she wants to cling to it as a residuum of her lost love, but also because “[t]o go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read.”

If the prospect of being read is so traumatic, why does Ernaux continue? She has admitted that she no longer needs the money. Her books contain various, not always consistent, clues. Sometimes, she views the airing of certain ordeals as her moral duty. In Happening, for instance, she describes the terrifying experience of her illegal abortion—carried out by an off-duty nurse—right through to the birth of the three-month-old fetus, which Ernaux’s college friend helps her dispose of:

I tell O we must cut the cord. She gets a pair of scissors; we don’t know where to cut it but she goes ahead and does it. We look at the tiny body with its huge head, the eyes two blue dashes beneath translucent lids. It looks like an Indian doll. We look at the sexual organs. We seem to detect the early stages of a penis.

Ernaux had explained earlier that if she “failed to go through with this undertaking” (the writing of the book), “I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by male supremacy.” Then later she insists: “these things happened to me so that I might recount them.”

As an explicit justification for her decisions as an author, this is plausible, if a touch hubristic. But it is not the whole story. Ernaux admits her writing is compulsive and self-serving, and allows her to addictively inhabit, even luxuriate in, certain planes of sadness and nostalgia—for her late mother, for her rural mid-century childhood, for past lovers. To paraphrase Daphne Merkin, who reviewed Simple Passion in The New Yorker, Ernaux’s is a literature of longing, in which language’s power to transmute memories into something else—something aesthetically shaped and controlled, tidy, and most importantly right here, in front of one’s eyes—is what exerts such an irresistible pull on the author.

Like the novels of Jean Rhys (an excerpt from Rhys’ After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie serves as the epigraph to The Possession), Ernaux’s writing is characterized by the powerful and unabashed expression of female yearning as a perversely compelling, ongoing condition. “I would have liked,” she writes of her lover in Simple Passion, “to do nothing else but wait for him.” Not look at him or be with him, but wait for him. Merkin draws a comparison with Marguerite Duras’ narrator in The Lover, who reflects that she’s “never done anything but wait outside the closed door,” but the line makes me think of Edith in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, whose “idea of absolute happiness is to sit in a hot garden all day, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening.”

This register reaches its apotheosis in The Possession, which charts Ernaux’s burning obsession with the woman her ex-boyfriend is dating. Although Ernaux herself had ended the relationship, the news that she has been replaced allows her to enter a state more potent than sexual jealousy, a kind of self-imposed mystical suffering centered around her spectacularly renewed desire for her ex, and around the existence of this woman, whom she knows nothing about:

This woman filled my head, my chest, and my gut; she was always with me, she took control of my emotions. At the same time, her omnipresence gave my life a new intensity. It produced stirrings that I had never felt before, released a kind of energy, powers of imagination I didn’t know I had; it held me in a state of constant, feverish activity.

“This state,” writes Ernaux, “kept my daily troubles and cares at bay. In a way, it placed me outside the grip of life’s usual mediocrity.” Like writing itself: without a loss to assuage, a poignant memory to resurrect and reconfigure, a sense of longing to immerse in, the drive to write about oneself would cease. At the heart of her latest and largest-scale autobiography, Les Années (The Years), published in 2008 and not yet available in translation, is the knowledge that she is reaching the end of her life, a prospect that would doubtless intensify the urge for self-narrative. Regarding the effort to defy mortality, Ernaux hypothesizes in Happening: “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.” I cannot imagine a more elegant manifesto for oversharers.

Emma Garman is a writer living in New York. She can be visited online here.

Mentioned in this review:

The Possession
Simple Passion
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
I Remain in Darkness
The Lover
Hotel du Lac