“More often than not, we get the sense that events are unfolding in the background, often detached from individuals, and that yet they will somehow influence individual lives” says Dr Elise Hugueny-Léger, Senior Lecturer in French at the University of St Andrews, in this interview with Kasia Krzyżanowska.
Kasia Krzyżanowska: It is not so obvious for a journal about democracy to talk about the personal memoirs of a writer. But Ernaux indeed tells us something about the world we live in: the post-wartime acceleration, consumerism, individualism, and the role of politics and History in individual’s life. In fact, her memoirs can be read as a sociological account of post-war France, and yet evoke familiar emotions and a sense of nostalgia. The universal is mixed with the particular. What makes Ernaux’s works so appealing?
Elise Hugueny-Léger: Indeed, Ernaux has built an original autobiographical oeuvre, where even the most intimate experiences are anchored within their historical context. Take L’événement (The Happening) for instance: Ernaux recounts in detail the back-street abortion that she underwent in 1964, but it is not just the bodily experience that her writing reconstructs. It is also the set of beliefs that governed people’s actions and reactions at the time. Had the young Ernaux come from a wealthy background, she may have been able to seek abortion at a private clinic abroad. In this book, she denounces the hypocrisy of a society where those holding power – like doctors – condemned abortion, leaving its most vulnerable members to seek options that put their lives in danger.
I think that her uncompromising, precise, sociological look at things is what makes her work so appealing to many – but it is also what has attracted criticisms.
It’s also the fact that she writes about memories and life episodes which so many of us go through at some point in our lives and which tend to be silenced – whether it is writing about abortion, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease; female sexuality, including the sexuality of a mature woman; the “symbolic violence” – in Bourdieu’s words – of social classes and hierarchies; family secrets; the violence of first sexual experiences, and the way all of these intimate experiences say something about the world we live in.
I am not sure, though, that I would call her writings nostalgic, precisely because of the writing process and the distance between the act of writing, on the one hand, and the events which are recalled on the other, as well as the difficulty in some cases – especially because of time – to bridge that distance. Because of her ethnological gaze and her understated style of writing, it seems to me that her writing tries to resist nostalgia, but there are times in her books – for instance in Les Années (The Years) where she writes about collective longing for the past, and the feeling that “things used to be better”.
You mention the criticisms Ernaux received. From which part of society did this criticism come? Was it exclusively related to issues which were not socially acceptable?
Here there are two aspects to be considered. First, there is the fact that she has been writing openly about female experiences. In Passion Simple (Simple Passion), which came out in 1991, a middle-aged woman talks with passion about her love affair with a younger man. The book received a lot of criticism, mostly from male journalists. I believe this has to do with the fact that, in that short text, she wrote with no shame about being an object of desire, as well as being a desiring subject. Secondly, she was hit by criticism for writing about the working class. She received accusations of “miserabilism”, as well as accusations for suggesting that social hierarchies tend to be reproduced.
We could read her also via a historical lens. Can her experience be exemplary for a leftist French voter? Were her political disappointments and little hopes representative of a whole post-war French generation?
The political views that are expressed in her books, especially The Years, are representative of the post-war generation but not in its entirety. They represent, for instance, progressives, pro-women’s rights activists, and socialists.
Indeed, they represent the left-wing part of the population, which was exhilarated by May 1968, the women’s liberation movement, the election of Mitterrand in 1981, and perhaps a portion of the population which became disillusioned with politics in the face of economic crises, and ever more prominent anti-immigration discourse (with the rise of the National Front).
These are views which are exemplified through the use of “we” instead of “I”, especially in The Years. We can see also how, to some extent, this usage is a sort of cultural construct and a collective narrative. But what I find interesting is that Ernaux decides to look even beyond political events: she thinks about how cultural, social, and technological changes affects the way we think and the way we are.
How does Ernaux merge personal narrative with a generational experience? Is it only through the constant exchange of the pronouns “I” and “she” for “we”? What kind of strategies does she apply to express who she really is?
There are many textual strategies that Ernaux uses which contribute to her unique style of writing. First of all, even if there is a continuity – a thread – throughout her autobiographical oeuvre, the writing of each book is different, and each text has a specific narrative form. Her first three books were expansive, polyphonic autobiographical novels, with the use of colloquial language. They were novels that expressed a sense of anger, but then in the 1980s she moved to a much more understated style of writing, still in the first person, but with books focusing on other individuals and on trajectories other than her own – namely her parents in La Place (A Man’s Place) and Une femme (A Woman’s Story). Some of her texts are written in the form of diary – some are highly personal journaux intimes, others consisting of fragments of everyday scenes witnessed in public spaces. Many of her texts heavily feature photographs – most of the time, these photos are not reproduced in the book (apart from L’Usage de la Photo) but instead they are described. Photographs are crucial in her work because they act as evidence of “what once was” – Roland Barthes’s famous ça a été. They hold clues about consumerist modes and fashion, about objects, places, clothes, posture – things that situate individuals within society and within a historical time. But photographs also point to the difficulty for the auto-biographer to re-live moments from the past.
In her latest publication, Mémoire de Fille (A Girl’s Memory), she resorts to citation a lot by quoting extracts from letters that she wrote to friends at the time (late 1950s-early 1960s).
The alternation between I/ she/ we (and we in French can be either a collective nous or a general on) is something she put in place in Les Années, where she wanted to provide the sense that personal experience is always caught within the flow of History.
But in her latest book, Mémoire de Fille, she alternates between the present je who writes, the historical je that she struggles to identify with after so much time, and the elle which refers to her former self with critical distance.
Another strategy which is at work in her writing is commenting on the writing process as it unfolds – something which she started doing with La Place and which has become highly prominent in Les Années, L’Autre Fille and recently in Mémoire de Fille. It is a way to pause and reflect on writing strategies.
I find it difficult to answer your question about “expressing who she really is”, since autobiographical writing struggles precisely with the notion and the unveiling of a “real self”, but in Ernaux the importance of textual form and the significance of the writing process suggest that only the writing self can give shape and meaning to past experience.
Through her work Ernaux contributed to the genre of autofiction. It is very interesting to see how she uses all those forms and strategies that you have mentioned. Can you tell us more about autofiction?
Interestingly, Annie Ernaux has never fully embraced autofiction. She used to clarify that her writings were not pieces of fiction, for she wrote from real experience, her own life and memories. What she was really inventing, however, is literary forms. Of course, in terms of literary process, there is a process of invention but the author is always wary of using that word.
As I said earlier, Ernaux tends to offer a critique, and we are not imposed to buy into that. However, autofiction as opposed to traditional biography is characterized by a sense of fragmentation as well as by narratives which do not seek to encompass the whole life – from childhood to the moment of writing. This genre tends to look at smaller episodes and implies a bending of reality with fiction. It is not easy to locate Annie Ernaux within autofiction, although many sees her as an instance of this gendre.
How does Ernaux experience History? What does History mean for a simple individual, a mere middle-class citizen?
I think it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, History with a capital H – what Georges Perec in W or the Memory of Childhood famously called “l’Histoire avec sa grande Hache”. It means History with a capital H, but the word hache means “axe” – so it is History with a large axe, capable of destroying, executing, and causing inexplicable damage. On the other hand, there is history without the capital letter – everyday history made up of smaller events, which is more of a social and cultural history, made up by films and songs, changes in consumer society, and ways of talking and being. The individual is never detached from the collective in Ernaux.
There is, however, often a sense of disconnection from History with a capital H, a sense that individuals are only very rarely in tune with important historical events as they happen – that is what she calls in Les Années “un moi hors de l’Histoire” – “a self outside History, the self of suspended moments”.
This sense of disconnection is probably experienced by most “simple individuals”, as you say. This is what creates History beyond scattered individual perceptions, history books, the media, and collective narratives of the way History is told and transmitted.
There are a few notable exceptions, which we witness in Les Années – for example the election of socialist president Francois Mitterrand in 1981, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But, more often than not, we get the sense that events are unfolding in the background, often detached from individuals, and that yet they will somehow influence individual lives. This is well rendered in Les Années with the choice of the imperfect tense – what she calls imparfait continu – as opposed to the more historical simple past to refer to historical events, which is a highly unusual narrative choice.
What kind of challenges does the contemporaneity pose to us? Does the seriousness of these challenges change through the times she describes in “The Years”? It seems that Ernaux really detests consumerism and technology, as these deprive families of time that could be devoted to telling stories.
I am not sure that Ernaux is firmly condemning technology or consumerism. As someone born during World War II, she has been witnessing these changes with, at times, a sense of disbelief. In Les Années, we clearly get this sensation that things keep unfolding and changing faster and faster. But she does not exclude her je from the collective on or nous. She, too, is a consumer and she is not ashamed of writing about her compulsive desire to acquire something.
If you have a look at another book, the short diary Regarde les Lumieres Mon Amour (Look at the Lights My Love), published in 2014, this diary charts everyday scenes witnessed by Ernaux at her local supermarket and in the shopping center. And what we see there is a kind of ethnological gaze at this space of consumerism which has replaced traditional shops and village squares. These places can be sites of symbolic violence. We see it with the appearance of supermarket aisles with discounted products for those with low wages, which are not as attractive as other supermarket aisles, as well as the violence of a market which makes some items like toys no longer desirable or even valuable after Christmas. Thus, there is a criticism of mass consumerism, but these places can also be sites where beauty and fascination are encountered – that is the meaning of the title, a mother tells her young child, in the shopping center “regarde les lumieres, mon amour” – “look at the pretty lights, my love”.
So, I believe that the main challenge that we face and that we see in Ernaux’s writing is the inexorable passing of time – how it affects the individual, but also and maybe primarily, how it affects memory and the writing process.
Ernaux is far bolder in her descriptions than any scholar. She does not shy away from depicting the intolerant middle-class, to which she also belongs, which is suspicious about immigrants. Coming from Poland, I had an impression that she presents the view of the French people as very condescending towards Central and Eastern Europe: it is backward, intolerant, and not ready for freedom after 1989. She remarks in “The Years” that “We did not feel we belonged to the same Europe as them”. Should we read such statements as an expression of the French unconscious: something that is true but does not fit with the ideal? And more generally: does Ernaux judge her nation?
There is a fascination for Russia and Eastern Europe expressed in Ernaux’s work. In The Years, she also writes “the magical words ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ had never ceased to enchant us. The Gulag and the tanks of Prague forgotten, our image of the USSR changed. We noted signs of resemblance with ourselves, and the West in general: freedom of the press, Freud, rock and jeans, haircuts…” (159), which may be a very Western-centered way to look at things.
However, I believe it is important to note that her view of Central and Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR is shaped by Ernaux’s personal trajectory and experience: at the end of the 1980s, she visited many Eastern European cities where she was invited for talks and conferences – Prague, Budapest, Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and Moscow.
This is recalled in detail in Se Perdre (as of yet not translated into English), the diary that she wrote when she was having a passionate affair with a Russian diplomat (this also gave rise to a short text, Passion Simple (Simple Passion) which wasrecently adapted as a film). You see in Se Perdre that her own view of Central and Eastern Europe is a deeply literary one, a romanticized view. It is also one of mystery and fascination for a different history, different landscapes and a different set of values. This sense of alterity is part of the collective representation that she provides.
When it comes to your second question, “Does Ernaux judge her nation, the French nation?”, some of Ernaux’s views are probably not representative of the majority of French people, and she has expressed these views not only in her books, but also in newspaper articles and editorials. For instance, in a newspaper article – Soror Lila – published in Libération in 2019, she does not condemn the wearing of the Muslim veil or head-scarf (which has been an ongoing debate in French in the past few decades alongside the French Republican conception of laicité) – on the contrary, she considers that defending this right is an act of feminism and sorority. But as you say, she does not shy away from expressing positions which may not be widely shared.
Does Ernaux support the feminist movement openly? Does she perceive herself as a face of it somehow?
Yes, definitely. For instance, we can look at her first novel, La Femme Gelée (The Frozen Woman), which came out in 1981. In hindsight, the new generation of feminists are discovering or rediscovering The Frozen Woman and have been impressed with how contemporary this text is. Ernaux has always expressed her view in a sort of pro-women fashion. She has become a face of feminism in France, especially in recent years. For instance, she has spoken with enthusiasm about the ‘me too’ movement. It is interesting to see how, within contemporary changes, a woman in her 80s can be one of the emblems, one of the voices, of feminist movements in France.
How is Ernaux received in France? With “L’evenement”, that won the Venice Biennale, will there be any change in her acclaim? And does she have literary followers in France or beyond?
I believe there are a few things that have made for Ernaux’s international success. Ernaux’s books have gained a broad readership and a popular audience in France ever since La Place in 1983, which won the Renaudot prize and Passion simple in 1991.
But there was also some fierce criticism – including misogynistic criticism – of her work for a long time. In France, she has been studied at school and University for several decades now, but I would say that Les Années (The Years)acted as a catalyst which turned Ernaux into a “living classic”, part of the contemporary canon, and this was highlighted by marks of legitimation of her work.
Since the publication of Les Années, reception of her work in France has been almost unanimously well-received.
I have studied the reception of Ernaux’s work in France and internationally. Abroad, her works have been translated in many countries (37) for a long time, but the translation of The Years and importantly its nomination for the International Booker prize played a big part in widening Ernaux’s readership. 15 years ago, when I arrived in the UK, very few people outside academia knew Ernaux. While now when her name was mentioned as a possible Nobel prize she was seen by many as a very strong contender – or even the favorite. It is striking to see how her international readership has widened over the years.
Do you see any followers, in France or elsewhere, who are using Ernaux’s techniques?
I would say she does have literary followers. In France, we are seeing a new generation of what we may call “social novelists”, such as Didier Eribon, Edouard Louis, Emmanuelle Richard, and Nicolas Matthieu, but also Virginie Despentes, who have all acknowledged and emphasized the influence of Ernaux’s work and the fact that she opened new possibilities of writing lived – auto-biographical – experiences. These writers, who are following in Ernaux’s footsteps, write about social violence, shame, and humiliations – whether they are real or symbolic. They write about the “invisible” or less visible members of society and the structures that contribute to these systems of domination. Ernaux has also inspired a number of feminist writers, for instance Marie Darrieussecq in France and Deborah Levy in Britain. Her number of followers is clearly growing, not only in France but also abroad.
One last question about the changes in the canon: we now see that there are more women in literature, such as Annie Ernaux, Elena Ferrante, and Natalia Ginzburg. Would you say that we are experiencing some shift in the literary canon?
I hope so. I believe there is an appetite to hear these voices, and in general to hear about female experience and vision of the world. In France, we are witnessing a shift away from that idea of grand literature, which has to be highly sophisticated and beautiful. I believe the way literature is conceived of is changing – in my view, for the better.
In collaboration with Giancarlo Grignaschi and Oliver Garner