Nicholas Lezard's choice
In October 1963, Annie Ernaux, a 23-year-old student in Rouen, waited for her period to start. It didn’t. “By the end of October I had given up hope.” A visit to a doctor confirms that she is pregnant. “On the doorstep he beamed at me, ‘love children are the most beautiful of all.’ What a terrible statement.” The problem was that Ernaux wasn’t married; and, in 1963, abortion in France was illegal.
What follows is an account of what happens when you try to get an abortion in a country where doing so is forbidden, and when you are young, and naive, and have no connections or money (it is a crucial detail that Ernaux’s parents were working class); attitudes change when it’s discovered that Ernaux is a student. Asinine comments like the doctor’s above are perhaps the least of Ernaux’s problems, but they indicate a certain attitude that can curdle into intolerant disgust. And there is a pervasive, almost prurient nosiness: “On All Saint’s Day, I went back to spend the weekend with my parents as I did every year. I was afraid my mother would ask me why my period was late. I was sure she kept an eye on my underwear as she sorted through the dirty laundry I would bring her once a month.”
This short book, first published in France as L’Evénement in 2000, is one of the most powerful memoirs I have ever read. Ernaux is famed in France, and is gathering fame abroad (she’s on the 2019 Man Booker International shortlist for The Years, published last year) as an autobiographer of unusual talent and insight, virtually creating (although she disavows the term) a genre called “autofiction”, a hybrid style mixing, as the name suggests, autobiography and fiction, although there is nothing in Happening that suggests any fictional element. This is the truth, as bare as it can be told, although every so often Ernaux reminds us, carefully, that memory is slippery: “Writing invariably raises the issue of proof: apart from my diary and my journal, I have no sure indication of what I thought and felt back then because of the abstract, evanescent nature of what goes through our minds.” The result is a stripped-down honesty, a clarity shining through the years. Even when she acknowledges the difficulty of recall, she does so in a way that reinforces her account: “To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.”
It soon becomes clear that she is not going to spare us any details about the actual event, the loss of the child, that is, when it happens, and those who are squeamishly moralistic, or moralistically squeamish, about the body may find this book quite painful to read. Sadly, such people are the ones who might benefit the most from reading it. This isn’t an overtly polemical work, but it is one which makes plain the anguish and suffering of women who are denied the right to make decisions about their own bodies. It is also a book which is remarkably grown-up and matter-of-fact about female sexual desire, which is not something that is often described well; it usually appears only as sub-pornography. Here we are, every so often, reminded that women experience lust too—but it is not seen as something that is somehow different from male lust; I have never experienced such a sense of insight into female desire as I have from this book.
It is, of course, a feminist work. Ça va sans dire. But it is not, except at one point, overtly, declaredly so. It is one that forces a feminist reaction from the reader, simply by the power and simplicity of its telling. (The translation, by Tanya Leslie, reads wonderfully; she’s been translating Ernaux for decades.) But despite its brevity, it contains multitudes: it’s a portrait of an era, an examination of social attitudes, and a meditation on the act of autobiographical writing. I will leave the last words to Ernaux herself:
“When I write, I must guard against lyrical outbursts such as anger or pain. I would not want crying or shouting to feature in this text because they barely featured in my life at the time. Above all I wish to capture the impression of a steady flow of unhappiness, conveyed by a pharmacist’s inquisitive attitude or the sight of a hairbrush by a steaming bowl of water. The distress I experience on recalling certain images and on hearing certain words is beyond comparison with what I felt at the time: these are merely literary emotions; in other words, they generate the act of writing and justify its veracity.”
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.