“A place in the world”: The Generational Wisdom of Annie Ernaux

Among the most hallowed and important roles of the literary writer is to preserve the past and transmit its record to later generations. Not all writers, to be sure, consciously take up this role. Nevertheless, it was not without reason the ancients called Memory the mother of the Muses. Memory, rooted in keen observational acumen and attentiveness to one’s environment, is a source of prose literature especially.

Why should this be so? Consider the opening section of The Years (in French Les Années), the 2008 magnum opus of Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature. As is often the case, 2022’s announcement of the new Nobel Laureate was greeted with a collective “who?” across most of the Anglophone world. To most readers outside the literati, Ernaux is an unknown–and yet her approach to the perennial question of preserving and passing on the past to the future demonstrates that her prize is well deserved.

The first sentence of The Years, its own paragraph, is “All the images will disappear.” A varied catalog of images follows, including items from many times and places and several art forms and entertainment media. Then the opening section of the book concludes thus:

“Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and death bed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.”[1]

If the project of writing is to preserve and hand down recollection of the particulars of this world that is always and everywhere passing away, if it is conservative and traditional in that memorial sense, then it is precisely as doomed and futile as memory. In the hands of a capable, sensitive person like Ernaux, much can be accomplished… for a time. But not even the flight from the I into the collective we and the impersonal one, which is a great achievement of The Years, has any ultimate significance. Finally, as entire ways of life and cultures lapse, we just as much as every I and you will pass into oblivion.

What is conspicuously absent from Ernaux’s memorial project is any sense of existentialist triumph, any sense that writing in the face of absurdity is ipso facto heroic. This forsaking of the heroic existentialist’s posture in favor of a much humbler role, closer to that of the chronicler, is of a piece with Ernaux’s selflessness, evident long before she jettisoned the first-person singular in The Years and A Girl’s Story (in French, Mémoire de fille).This disposition is worth locating within larger trends in fiction.

Realist fiction came into its own in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as writers developed fine-tuned psychological insight and descriptive powers which, thanks to a secularizing worldview, they could aim at any part of the world, natural or artificial, no matter how seemingly insignificant or un-beautiful. Now, imagine a spectrum along which realist fiction exists: at one extreme the genre merges with fantasy, at the other with nonfiction. Over the past generation, realist fiction has developed in the directions of both extremes.

The acclaimed Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard is an example of one who has succeeded at both ends of this spectrum. In the second volume of his autobiographical roman-fleuve My Struggle, Knausgaard says, “I write to recapture the world.” This is an instance of what I think of as the heroic disposition. In his case, the stakes are ontological, as well as deeply personal. The sense of the realness of reality has been corroded by the profusion of story and media, and the presence of the actual world is something he hopes to retrieve and elevate through language. If fiction is the cost, so be it. Ernaux described the same problematic profusion of narrative about a decade before Knausgaard. In Things Seen (La Vie extérieure), Ernaux, upon overhearing the lurid story, evidently told with relish, of an abused girl, says: “Later I thought that there will be more and more reality shows, fiction will disappear, then we will no longer tolerate this dramatized reality and fiction will return.”[2]

Knausgaard renounced autobiographical writing—that end of the spectrum where realist fiction blurs into nonfiction—at the end of My Struggle and has turned (or returned) to semi-fantastical fiction. Ernaux, by contrast, never renounced her project; she only worked her way deeper into her quest, which was of such a nature that the author had eventually to efface herself. In Exteriors (Journal du dehors), the first of her diary books, which observe and occasionally reflect on life around her in series of images and scenes organized by year and month, Ernaux writes:

“I realized that there are two ways of dealing with real facts. One can either relate them in detail, exposing their stark, immediate nature, outside of any narrative form, or else save them for future reference, ‘making use’ of them by incorporating them into an ensemble (a novel, for instance). Fragments of writing, like the ones in this book, arouse in me a feeling of frustration. I need to become involved in a lengthy, structured process (unaffected by chance events and meetings). Yet at the same time I have this need to record scenes glimpsed on the RER, and people’s words and gestures simply for their own sake, without any ulterior motive.”[3]

The tension she articulates here is what makes her project a quest, and like all worthwhile quests it is not perfectly achievable: pathos, which is experienced individually, cannot be purged from the writer’s task, because ultimately what we seek to preserve and pass down is passed down to real, individual people in order to better them. As she writes in The Years, “other people’s memories gave us a place in the world.”[4] Such a simple statement; yet it is hard to over-emphasize how much of a gift and a necessity a place in the world is to every individual. It is the artist’s sacred task to give to what would otherwise be airy nothing a local habitation and a name.

Unsurprisingly, then, the language of salvage and salvation cannot be expunged from Ernaux’s project, even if her own personality to a great extent may be. In I Remain in Darkness (Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit), the record of her mother’s final years in a nursing home, afflicted by dementia, she writes:

“I have searched for my mother’s love in all corners of the world. This is not literature that I am writing. I can see the difference with my other books. Or rather, no I can’t, for I am incapable of producing books that are not precisely that—and attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage.”[5]

I will revisit this language and the pathos it is imbued with at the end of The Years, but first I want to show a little more of the suspicion of narrative, let alone fiction, which characterizes Ernaux’s work and a broader moment in the development of literary prose—a moment which may now be drawing to a close, as Ernaux predicted: “fiction will return.”

In Shame (La Honte) Ernaux reviewed her childhood and adolescence and reports on her technique:

“To convey what my life was like in those days, the only reliable method I have is to explore the laws, rights, beliefs and references that defined the circles in which I was caught up…

Naturally I shall not opt for narrative, which would mean inventing reality instead of searching for it. Neither shall I content myself with merely picking out and transcribing the images I remember; I shall process them like documents, examining them from different angles to give them meaning. In other words, I shall carry out an ethnological study of myself.”[6]

And in Exteriors she also invokes ethnology:

“On a sunny day like today, the seams of buildings lacerate the sky, the glass surfaces radiate light. I have lived in the new town for 12 years, yet I still don’t know what it looks like. I am unable to describe it, not knowing where it begins or ends; I always drive through it. I can only write down, ‘I went to the Leclerc hypermarket (or to the Trois-Fontaines shopping mall, to the Franprix in Les Linandes, etc), I turned back on to the freeway, the sky was purple beyond the Marcouville high-rise apartments (or on the 3M Minnesota façade).’ No description, no story either. Just moments in time, chance meetings. Ethno writing.”[7]

The catalogs of images and enumerations of habits, expressions, objects and other cultural details which comprise much of Ernaux’s work are immersive and compelling. It is indeed “ethno writing,” and might for that reason seem dry to some, but it is made special and interesting as the subject of reflection capable of producing insight. The ability to move—judiciously—into generalization enriches the empirical genres of report, chronicle, recollection, as here in Exteriors:

“A young girl on the RER is unwrapping the things she has bought: a blouse and a pair of earrings. She contemplates them and touches them lovingly. It’s a common enough scene: happiness that possessing something beautiful, at seeing one’s longing for beauty satisfied. Our relationship to things is so moving.”[8]

Perhaps it is more accurate to say not that Ernaux effaces herself, but that for her the self is rooted exteriorly. Only such a self is capable of generalization, or to call it by the more venerable term, wisdom. Ernaux represents what could be called a modern wisdom literature—something both more detailed and profound than popular psychology and self-help. Hasty and hostile critics condemn so-called autofiction—that nonfiction end of the spectrum I imagined—as solipsistic and introverted, but I consider it the opposite. Once more from Exteriors:

“It is outside my own life that my past experience lies: in passengers commuting on the subway or the RER; in shoppers glimpsed on escalators at Auchan or in the Galeries Lafayette; in complete strangers who cannot know that they possess part of my story; and faces and bodies which I shall never see again. In the same way, I myself, anonymous among the bustling crowds on streets and in department stores, must secretly play a role in the lives of others.”[9]

I want to end with the conclusion of The Years, an exemplary instance of restrained pathos. The chronicle of Ernaux’s life arrives near to the author’s present, the moment when she prepares to take up the work we have just read. I note the Ecclesiastes-like return of time the devourer, the antipathy to fiction, the sense of the responsibility of tradition, handing down:

“This will not be a work of remembrance in the usual sense, aimed at putting a life into story, creating an explanation of self. She will go within herself only to retrieve the world, the memory and imagination of its bygone days, grasp the changes in ideas, beliefs, and sensibility, the transformation of people…

It will be a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life…

There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we,’ as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before.”[10]

But there is recollection, even here, of the turn to this conservational, outwardly oriented auto-narrative:

“In the old days, when she tried to write in her student room, she yearned to find an unknown language that would unveil mysterious things… But now, more than anything, she would like to capture the light that suffuses faces that can no longer be seen and tables groaning with vanished food, the light that was already present in the stories of Sundays and childhood and has continued to settle upon things from the moment they are lived, a light from before. Save”[11]

What follows is a catalog of fleeting images to match the one that opened the book, and then the final sentence, a paragraph of its own like the first in the book:

“Save something from the time where we will never be again.”[12]

With this where, time becomes a place: our rightful, if solemn, place in the world.

Jonathan Geltner teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University and is fiction editor for Orison Books. He has published a translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes (Angelico Press) and a novel, Absolute Music (Slant Books).

  1. Annie Ernaux, The Years, trans. Alison L Strayer (Seven Stories Press, 2017), 7

  2. Annie Ernaux, Things Seen, trans. Jonathan Kaplansky (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 8

  3. Annie Ernaux, Exteriors, trans. Tanya Leslie (Seven Stories Press, 1996), 75

  4. Ernaux, The Years, 26.

  5. Annie Ernaux, I remain in darkness, trans. Tanya Leslie (Seven Stories Press, 1999), 88

  6. Annie Ernaux, Shame, trans. by Tanya Leslie (Seven Stories Press, 1998), 22

  7. Ernaux, Exteriors, 56.

  8. Ernaux, Exteriors, 77-78.

  9. Ernaux, Exteriors, 95.

  10. Ernaux, The Years, 228-229.

  11. Ernaux, The Years, 229-230.

  12. Ernaux, The Years, 231.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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