Books

The Power Of Nobel Laureate Annie Ernaux

The triumph of Annie Ernaux's writing is that she makes the reader feel less alone in the world

A younger Annie Ernaux Opening the veins of one’s life
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It's tough to pinpoint when I fell in love with Annie Ernaux’s writing, but if I had to guess it would be while reading a passage about excrement, from her 1999 book I Remain in Darkness (translated into English by Tanya Leslie). Like most of her books, it’s quite short (under a hundred pages), this masterpiece-in-miniature.

The narrative follows Ernaux’s mother during the last few years of her life, as she struggled with severe cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease. When you’re the primary caregiver for a parent with a debilitating condition, you find that parent-child roles have been acutely reversed. Ernaux was not comfortable with her mother becoming her little girl all of a sudden, a growing discomfort that peaks during a visit to the senior care establishment where her mother was.

“Worse was to come, something I could never have imagined. I opened the drawer of her bedside table to make sure she still had some biscuits. I saw what I believed to be a cookie and took it. It was a human turd. I slammed the drawer shut in utter confusion. Then it occur­red to me that if I left it there, someone would find it, and that subconsciously, I probably wanted this to happen so that they could see how low my mother had fallen. I found a piece of paper and went to flush it down the toilet. I recalled a scene from my childhood: I had hidden some excrements in my bedroom cupboard because I felt too lazy to go downstairs and use the outdoor toilet.”

In October, Ernaux was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”. It was a well-deserved win for the 82-year-old French writer, whose short, intense autobiographical works have a cult following since much before the Nobel happened (in India, her books are available in English translations via the excellent new publishing house Fitzcarraldo, which now boasts two Nobel laureates in less than a decade of existence; the other is the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk).

The bit about “clinical acuity” from the Nobel citation is on display in the passage quoted earlier— see how cleverly Ernaux links childhood and old age with the simple but powerful device of human excrement. Also, the shame associated with hiding a turd is tied up with the feelings Ernaux has about her mother in general — it pains her to see this woman (who was once “moving towards the world” as Ernaux writes) behaving like an out-of-control toddler, eating nothing but cream cheese and sugary snacks, soiling her sheets and so on. Later in the book, Ernaux admits to being disoriented and unsure about I Remain in Darkness — not least because her mother’s last years (in the late 1980s) coincided with the writing of A Woman’s Story, the book Ernaux wrote about her mother’s youth. This is an extraordinary admission of self-doubt for a writer but it also shows the emotional and spiritual limits to which Ernaux pushes the written word.

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Autofiction Some of Nobel winner Annie Ernaux’s books

“I am finding it more and more difficult to cope. Because I am writing about my mother’s childhood and adolescence, I can “picture” her in my mind, radiating energy, beauty and warmth. And then I go and visit her, like today, and catch her in her sleep, mouth gaping, all skin and bone. I need to shout, “Mummy, it’s me!” The two images are incompatible. In my writing, I am heading toward the moment when she will be confined to her wheelchair in her present state. Suppose she were no longer there, suppose life were to outpace fiction...
I don’t know whether I am engaged in giving the kiss of life or the kiss of death.”

Ernaux is one of those writers whose best works incorporate techniques and rhythms from both fiction and non-fiction, thereby
occupying a hybrid space in the reader’s imagination. This sort of hybridity is more commonly attributed to US writers from the 90s onwards, like William T. Vollmann or David Foster Wallace (or more recently, Ben Lerner), but Ernaux has been doing it since the 80s, at the very least. And of late, she has perfected the method.

In her 2008 book Les Années (translated into English as The Years in 2017, by Allison L. Strayer), Ernaux uses the all-encompassing ‘we’ to tell not only her own story from the 1940s to the late 2000s, but the story of her entire generation. The Years (marketed as autobiographical fiction, but it could just as easily have swung the other way) is the perfect example of how Ernaux’s writing incorporates the autobiographical within the socio-historical framework of the overarching narrative. The following passage, for example, sees Ernaux moving from the 50s to the 70s in a series of rapid-fire observations on world history: the simultaneity and the breathlessness are rather the points, as we realise about twenty pages into the book. The narrative momentum generated by that omniscient ‘we’ is incredible.

Ernaux is one of those writers whose best works incorporate techniques and rhythms from both fiction and non-fiction, thereby occupying a hybrid space in the reader’s imagination

“The day Saigon fell we realized that we’d never believed an American defeat possible. They were finally paying for the napalm, the little girl on the poster that hung on our walls. We felt the joy and fatigue of things accomplished at last. But disillusion returned. The television showed clusters of humans clinging to boats to flee communist Vietnam. The civilized mug of debonair King Sihanouk of Cambodia, who subscribed to the Canard Enchaîné, could not conceal the ferocity of the Khmer Rouge. Mao was dying and we remembered how, one winter morning in the kitchen, before leaving for school, we heard someone shout ‘Stalin is dead!’”

One of the most subtle and beautiful aspects of The Years is watching how the writer’s own worldview evolves with age. This is a uniquely thorny problem to solve as a writer for a number of reasons, beginning with this: evolution is always observer-relative. Chronicling moral growth isn’t as easily achieved as notching a growing child’s height on the kitchen door every March. It is particularly difficult to do so without coming across as a sad sap or as a self-loathing misanthrope.

Ernaux, however, has mapped moral coming-of-age in a virtuoso manner in so many of her books, works that are very different from one another, tonally speaking. Simple Passion comes to mind immediately, as does Shame (translated by Tanya Leslie), in which we meet the writer as a 12-year-old. Its memorable opening salvo (“My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June”) sets the tone for a book that’s often deeply uncomfortable to read, but also deeply rewarding by the end. It really is a remarkably moving description of how even a single violent memory can cast a shadow over a young person’s life.

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How does memory work differently when you’re suffering from unresolved trauma? Why do we sometimes find ourselves outraged by the smallest of transgressions by strangers? Is there moral redemption to be found in forgiving one’s own transgressions or is that restricted to forgiving others? Shame makes some intriguing observations in these areas and whether or not you concur with her answers or not, it’s always a marvel to watch Ernaux’s mind grappling with these questions.

Ernaux’s father is one of her great subjects, it has to be said. In A Man’s Place (the first of her books that I read; translated by Tanya Leslie) she paints a compelling, complex picture of a man devoted to the idea of work as a quasi-religious activity. He had no use for books or films or music but he told Ernaux that they were “okay for her”. Class identity guided much of his behaviour. He and his wife (who owned and operated a grocery store/café together) were wary of being seen as wealthy yet took pains to keep up appearances (this, of course, necessarily involved working themselves to the bone). Displays of emotion equalled displays of weakness for him (or at least up until well into old age). The book begins when Ernaux is about to start her training as a teacher, and in this passage, she describes her father’s defensive reaction to this development:

“He was neither worried nor excited to see me lead such a strange, surreal existence. He had come to terms with the fact that I was still learning at the age of twenty or more. ‘She’s studying to become a teacher,’ he would tell customers. They never asked which subject, it was the title that mattered and anyway he could never remember. ‘Modern languages’ didn’t ring a bell for him like mathematics or Spanish might have done. He was afraid that people would think me privileged and that they would be seen as rich parents who had pushed me toward the university.”

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Writers like Ernaux inspire a very personal brand of devotion precisely because she mines so much of her personal life. The resultant books end up more ‘universal’ than the best efforts of just about everybody else. Years ago, while in the throes of a personal loss, I read and re-read Joan Didion’s ‘grief memoirs’ (The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights) as well as other books along those lines, including Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. It helped me significantly, I can say with no hesitation. Annie Ernaux is that kind of writer. To avoid putting too fine a point on things, she makes you feel less alone; surely one of literature’s great objectives.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Making You Feel Less Alone")

(Views expressed are personal)

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based journalist, currently working on a book of essays

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