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All Ego, No Boundaries

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books and culture

All Ego, No Boundaries

Annie Ernaux and the sacralization of the self October 21, 2022
Arts and Culture

News that the Nobel Prize in Literature had been awarded to French novelist and memoirist Annie Ernaux met with wide approval in the press, only slightly offset by grumbling about the Nobel Committee’s decision to recognize a European writer and not one from the global South. There is no question that Ernaux is talented and formally innovative. Even so, the prize is in some ways a bad omen.

Ernaux is a practitioner of autofiction—the blend of fiction and memoir now associated most with the Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the six-volume My Struggle. Patrick Modiano, another French autofictionist, won the Nobel in 2014; though Modiano and Ernaux are dissimilar in tone and style, in honoring Ernaux only eight years later, the Nobel Committee is reinforcing a trend. (Knausgaard’s own Nobel now seems inevitable.) Ernaux also joins a tradition of sacred monsters in modern French literature, including Céline, Genet, Sartre, and Houellebecq. For a French writer, to epater le bourgeoisie, whether from the right or the left, is just good business.

Ernaux is fearless. She is also a gifted narrator. Shame (1997) is a reconstruction of a brief, unhappy period in her working-class childhood in Normandy. The book opens with an arresting sentence, one that evokes Camus’s The Stranger: “My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.” Here she describes a photograph taken when she was nearly twelve:

I am pictured with my father in front of a low wall decorated with earthenware jars of flowers. It was taken in Biarritz in late August ’52 . . . My father has on a dark jacket, pale shirt and pants, a somber tie. He is barely smiling, with that anxious look he has in all photographs. I imagine that I kept this snapshot because it was different from the others, portraying us as chic people, holiday-makers, which of course we weren’t. In both photographs I am smiling with my lips closed because of my decayed, uneven teeth.

There is a great deal of work being done in a few sentences here, both in precise evocation and in the creation of mystery. One thinks of the photographs of Philip Larkin and his family on similar seaside holidays. There is the same vague sense of fraudulence, the same pervasive unease.

Ernaux scarcely distinguishes her fiction from her nonfiction. She talks of “testing the limits of writing, pushing the closeness to reality as far as it will go.” While Knausgaard’s My Struggle is deliberately loose and sprawling, Ernaux’s work is economical and sharp, producing short books of twice-distilled experience. Her scrupulosity at the level of craft is, however, belied by a pervasive mood of moral indolence grading into nihilism. One wonders what, if anything, the author believes in, beyond female orgasm, the Prix Goncourt, and the École Normale Supérieure.

Ernaux’s The Years (2006) is a group autobiography, told in the first-person plural, of the generation that came of age in France after World War II. Ernaux tells her story not through the movements of history in any conventional sense but as a list of ordinary events, of television programs and advertisements and minor celebrity. These reminiscences are sometimes striking but more often banal. Writing in the New York Times, Edmund White called the book “a Remembrance of Things Past for our age of media domination and consumerism, for our period of absolute commodity fetishism.” The Years is a provocative experiment in collective memory. But is Ernaux assessing our solipsistic culture or merely reproducing it, albeit with a certain marketable jouissance?

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik argues that Ernaux is “the very first Nobel laureate who is primarily a memoirist in the contemporary sense . . . memoir is perhaps the leading genre of our time, as much as the novel was for the first half of the twentieth century. We feel a need for verifiable, or at least credible, personal history in a time when so much else seems constructed and untrustworthy.” Gopnik is surely right that memoir, “in all its many modes and poses,” has become the dominant motif in Western literature. This is not, however, welcome news. The “need for verifiable . . . personal history” that Gopnik invokes is evidence of the vacuum created by our lack of shared values, one we increasingly fill with narcotizing habit. Gopnik himself analogizes memoir to the new “entertainments,” “from Twitter to TikTok,” that he believes speak to this need for some form of epistemic grounding. But the idea that the novel should be doing the same cultural work as social media is a curious one.

Ernaux has vexed French social conservatives for decades by writing about her abortion, her extramarital affairs, and her ambivalent feelings about motherhood. Of course, it is silly to quarrel with a writer’s choice of subject matter. What rankles is her handling of this material, her evident confusion of brutality and indifference with authenticity.

Unsurprisingly, Ernaux’s relentless concern with her own moods and prerogatives ends in moral abdication. In Happening (2000), the narrator, a college student, has an illegal abortion that kills the baby but leaves it inside her. The climactic scene finds her back in her dormitory room:

I pushed with all my strength. It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord. I couldn’t imagine ever having had that inside me. I had to walk with it to my room. . . . We don’t know what to do with the fetus. O goes to her room to fetch an empty melba toast wrapper and I slip it inside. I walk to the bathroom with the bag. It feels like a stone inside. I turn the bag upside down above the bowl. I pull the chain.

Even in the name of realism, the hatefulness of this scene is inescapable. (In a writer as precise as Ernaux, its brutality can only be deliberate.) Ernaux’s purported tough-mindedness is merely a reflexive Jacobinism. She is the writer for those who find their own choices endlessly interesting but do not assign any particular weight to them.

I Remain In Darkness (1997) is an account of her mother’s dementia, commitment to an assisted-living facility, and eventual death. Ernaux’s narrator never pauses for long to consider her mother’s suffering; these events are worth writing about only because they are imposed on her. (“All that stands between me and death is my demented mother.”) The facility’s smell of decay and human waste is referenced a dozen times in a book of less than 100 pages in translation. (“She smells bad. I can’t change her. I sprinkle her with eau de cologne.”) We are also treated to Ernaux’s description of her mother’s roommate—also suffering from advanced dementia—as “look[ing] just like an old whore.” The narrator pauses to tell us about interviews she has granted to the press (“Last Friday I was interviewed on the television show Apostrophes”), literary awards she has won (“When I received the Prix Renaudot”), and her difficulty carrying on with her university teaching (“I received a batch of essays to be corrected and graded . . . I tell myself that I might just as well not look at them”). Even in light of Ernaux’s troubled relationship with her mother, whom she has described as verbally abusive in her childhood, the book’s tone of grievance is repellent. Ernaux has said that she believes neither in “duty” nor in “boundaries”—which is evident enough.

In Ernaux, French literature seems to have reached a moral terminus. Here are the Nobel winner’s thoughts on whether we ought to euthanize the aged and infirm:

My mother is incapable of eating on her own, the right hand groping toward the left. It suddenly occurs to me that if society follows its present course, people like my mother may not be alive in twenty or fifty years’ time. I have no views on such an eventuality, on whether or not it is justified.

Ernaux is now 84. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Madame.

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for FLC

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