Old photographs: Annie Ernaux in 1988. Image: Sophie Bassouls / Sygma via Getty Images

What Annie Ernaux owes to memory

How the French Nobel laureate has dedicated her life to literature
December 8, 2022

In the Anglosphere, we tend to group the books that we read into one of two camps: “fiction” or “nonfiction”. Putting aside the implicit nod of approval this gives to the former at the expense of the latter—by saying that there is fiction, then there is everything else—this labelling is still problematic in that it is mutually exclusive.

A novel, which is fiction, can never be classified as nonfiction—indeed, a “nonfiction novel” sounds like a contradiction in terms. This is because when we use these two categories, we are not talking about form or content—as we might with more granular terms, such as autofiction, memoir or biography—but making a judgement call. We are saying: these are the books that tell “the truth”, whereas these are the ones that do not.

Annie Ernaux, the latest recipient of the Nobel prize in literature, exposes the linguistic shallowness of these classifications. She is an author of novels that adopt only the most threadbare fictional guises; a deeply personal memoirist who looks back on her life, as she puts it, “like a historian with a character from the past”; and the writer of an experimental autobiography, The Years, that wound up on the shortlist for an international prize in fiction. Any contradiction or category error here is a quirk of translation. In Ernaux’s native France, the concept of la non-fiction is virtually non-existent; she is at greater liberty than we are to dismiss such poor attempts at labelling. “Our experience of the world cannot be subject to classification,” she writes in Exteriors.

To spend any time reading Ernaux’s work is to quickly forget about categories and classification altogether. She leaves you thinking that, in place of genre, perhaps the only real distinction that can be said to exist between any two forms of literature—fiction and nonfiction, autofiction and memoir—is in their interpretation of memory. All the stories we tell, about ourselves or others, we owe to the memories that together make up the sum of our life experience. But how we decide to write about those memories is up to us. You can take the “real facts”, she writes in Exteriors, and either “relate them in detail, exposing their stark, immediate nature, outside of any narrative form”—or incorporate “them into an ensemble” like a novel. In both instances the nature of authorial control has changed, but the result is similar. Both create versions of the truth that are not quite the same as the real thing.

Born Annie Duchesne in 1940 in Normandy, in northwest France, Ernaux grew up in the town of Yvetot, where her parents—“Catholic and working class, of peasant origin”—ran a small café and grocery shop. Any academic ambitions were hindered by feelings of insecurity inherited from her class background: an abandoned attempt at studying to be a primary school teacher at the École normale in Rouen left her feeling like “an emigrant from the land of failure”.

It wasn’t until one summer afternoon in 1960 by an outdoor swimming pool in London, near the end of a short stint as an au pair for a well-to-do family in Finchley, that Ernaux experienced the “first intimations” of the writing life she would eventually lead. As she lay beside the pool with her eyes closed, the sound of a plane flying overhead took her back “to the war and the bombardments, the shriek of bomb alerts in the street”: suddenly, she became aware of the involuntary power of memory. From that point on, she began to “make a literary being of myself, someone who lives as if her experiences were to be written down someday.”

The effect of reading Ernaux is a bit like wandering through a house where the rooms have no doors

She has been true to her word ever since. For over six decades—and between teaching—Ernaux has made it her life’s work to document, diligently but not necessarily in chronological order, her life’s defining events: her first night of intimacy with a man at a summer camp in 1958 and its aftermath (A Girl’s Story); her illegal abortion at 23 (Happening); her year-and-a-half affair with a Soviet attaché (Getting Lost, Simple Passion); the life and death of her father (A Man’s Place); the life of her mother and her subsequent decline from Alzheimer’s (A Woman’s Story, I Remain in Darkness).

In each account, she adopts a style that is simple but not sparse, with “no lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony”; she leaves us continually aware of the investigative work she must undertake, through writing, to make sense of “the absence that is memory”. She sifts through old photographs and describes them in minute detail, searches the internet for the signs of people she has never forgotten about even as they have long forgotten her. She revisits real places, including the street of the illicit abortion clinic and the abandoned site of the summer camp, to “assess the gap” between who she was then and who she has since become.

The form of Ernaux’s writing shifts to fit the specific event she is attempting to recall. Sometimes that might be a conventional narrative, as though the memories are so evocative that they are being relived (Happening). At other points, it might be a diary, where the line between past and present is thinnest and certain things can be recorded while they still sit “outside of time” (Getting Lost, I Remain in Darkness). In later works, distance and old age have made Ernaux regard her past self with greater experimentation, adopting the third person and making use of what she calls the transpersonnel, an approach to the singular “I” that sees it not as an individual identity but “a place, marked by human experiences and human events” (The Years, A Girl’s Story).

Of all these various attempts to “get at” the past, it is often when describing photographs that Ernaux is at her most engaging, perhaps because of all artefacts they best mirror her own writing process. Photographs offer a physical trace of the past, while also affirming that the time they capture no longer exists. They can be described in both matter-of-fact terms—“a black and white photo with serrated edges, five or six centimetres square”—and as a mystery to be unpacked and deciphered. One such photograph is of Ernaux’s empty dorm room at the Convent of Ernemont, where she stayed for a year until 1959, as described in A Girl’s Story:

I examine the photo with a magnifying glass, trying to uncover additional details. I gaze at the folds of the hanging dress, the metal button for the light at the end of a black cable running down the side of the doorframe, a kind that has not been in use for many years. The button replaced an earlier one, which has left a mark above. I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo. To be there at that very instant, without spilling over into the before or after.

Even though she frequently dedicates each book to one specific event—with the notable exception of The Years, which is dedicated to everything—Ernaux’s thoughts are never siloed. No single memory is ever entirely free from the impact of another: a bout of weeping for her Soviet lover is as intense as the tears after her abortion; the face of an old London shopkeeper, seen in the mind’s eye long after it was last seen in real life, suddenly resembles the face that would eventually become her mother’s.

The accumulative effect of reading Ernaux is a bit like wandering through a house where the rooms have no doors, where snatches of other experiences and past selves are constantly being glimpsed from the threshold. Sometimes the connection between rooms is obvious: “There is absolute continuity between the room in S and the abortionist’s room on rue Cardinet. I move from one room to the other, and what lies between is erased” (A Girl’s Story). Sometimes it remains closed: “I wondered why it wasn’t possible to slip into that particular day or moment as easily as one slips into another room” (Simple Passion). Or sometimes those experiences are so fundamental that the boundaries between each disappear altogether: “I had to picture myself once again in that room on that particular Sunday… The desire to cram the first twenty years of my life into that room and that Sunday” (Happening).

What makes all of this so compelling is that Ernaux does not treat her memories as mere source material to be shaped into something better or more refined. Whenever she describes the difficulties she faces when “memory resists”, whenever we read along as she begins “combing reality for signs of literature”, there is not much distance between the process of writing and the finished written piece. It is this that gives her books their unusual intimacy and candidness: she is not a writer who sees writing as an act of performance. She does not try to hide the reality of what she has experienced behind parable, allegory or some other conventional fictive device, as other writers might prefer to do. Literature should spawn from life as it is, and not the other way around. And for Ernaux that is not just a rule of thumb, but the basis of her moral imperative—namely that “any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled”.

Underpinning that inalienable right is shame. “I am endowed by shame’s vast memory, more detailed and implacable than any other, a gift unique to shame” (A Girl’s Story): the shame of desiring a man who does not deserve it (Simple Passion); “the shame of women who aborted and the disapproval of those who did not” (Happening); the shame of belonging to the “shameful sex”; the shame of being working class and “not knowing what we would have known instinctively, had we not been what we were” (A Man’s Place).

For Ernaux, shame is the elusive thing that finds its final resting place in memory. It is neither fiction nor nonfiction; it has such real, tangible power yet leaves no physical trace, being so contingent on the shifts of time, societal attitudes and individual circumstance. What is considered shameful in one period is considered not to be in another. From today’s perspective, we might even look on past shames as incomprehensible: we view them squarely in the simple past, in the same way we might believe “poverty has ceased to exist now that we earn a living”.

Yet shame, like poverty, persists. Past events cannot be reconciled to contemporary attitudes; they remain, in Ernaux’s phrasing, “insoluble in the doxa of the new century”. To memorialise that insoluble past, through the “intelligible and universal” language of the written word, is to assert that an individual cannot be silenced by what society would prefer to forget.

The point isn’t to make us uncomfortable. Quite the opposite: to understand past shames is to better understand each other and where we’re coming from. Ernaux’s work is a testament to the idea that what is individual is also communal—and that empathy derives from turning the “I” into the “we”.