It was 1974 when the French writer Annie Ernaux published her first book, Les Armoires Vides (Cleaned Out). It is a fictionalised account of her illegal abortion ten years earlier, as a student gradually moving away from a working-class upbringing in Normandy. The book came out 25 years after Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist text The Second Sex, yet French society remained judgemental – and often hypocritical – about women’s reproductive rights. Cleaned Out acknowledged the many working-class women who had to resort to clandestine, often life-threatening procedures before the laws were changed in 1975.
From the beginning, Ernaux’s stark prose helped establish her as an uncompromisingly honest writer. In the 1980s and 1990s, she would rise to greater prominence through autobiographical works such as La Place (A Man’s Place), an account of her father’s life, which won her the Renaudot Prize in 1984. She is now seen as one of France’s major writers and her texts are widely taught in schools and universities.
But, until relatively recently, she was unknown to most of the English-speaking world. That started to change changing thanks to two translations. Les Années (The Years, 2008) is a “collective autobiography” spanning six decades of personal and collective history, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. In L'Événement (Happening, 2000), Ernaux returned to the subject of illegal abortion, but this time tells her own non-fictionalised story.
The Years gained almost unanimous recognition when it was published. It sits at the junction between autobiography, sociology and collective memoir, highlighting the profound socio-cultural changes that Ernaux witnessed from her childhood in the 1940s to the end of the century. The book was praised for its original narrative form, using “she” or “we” instead of “I” to tell Ernaux’s story.
To trace the inescapable passing of time, The Years draws in everything from popular phrases to songs to advertisements, from iconic objects to historical events to personal anecdotes. Along the way, the book tells the evolution of women’s place in French society and their fights for sexual freedom and independence.
When Happening was published in 2000, the French media reacted much more cautiously. It is likely that some critics were not comfortable with the subject matter and the raw style of writing. Here’s an extract, for example, about the woman carrying out the abortion:
Only now can I visualise the room. It defies analysis. All I can do is sink into it. I feel that the woman who is busying herself between my legs, inserting the speculum, is giving birth to me. At that point I killed my own mother inside me.
Ernaux said that part of her intention with the book was to lift the lid on what the French abortion laws had meant in practice:
Although abortion was mentioned in many novels, no details were given about what actually took place. There was a sort of void between the moment the girl learns she is pregnant and the moment it’s all over.
With precision, but without pathos, Happening details the prevailing atmosphere of moral judgement of 1960s France – and Ernaux’s isolation and despair at a time when the word abortion “had no place in language”. She describes the gruesome conditions in which she nearly died: after finally finding a back-street abortionist, Ernaux had a probe inserted and was told it would cause her to miscarry in a few days. This then happened at her student residence and she was taken to hospital with a haemorrhage.
Happening is not only an account of this intrinsically physical, traumatic and personal experience. It is also about society’s attitudes to women at the time – particularly working-class women – explored through the reactions of various men to her predicament. The father of the unborn child, a middle-class student at the Sciences Po university in Bordeaux, leaves her to her own devices. Doctors show her little sympathy for fear of the laws of the time.
Male students that she talks to are fascinated by her “condition”, and one even tries to take advantage in the knowledge that there’s no danger of getting her pregnant. Having been admitted to hospital, Ernaux is humiliated by a junior doctor, who on seeing her bleeding shouts that he’s “no plumber”. When he discovers that she is a university student, he becomes much more sympathetic.
Nearly 20 years after it was originally published, Happening has come to be seen as a landmark piece of writing about abortion. The text is now often mentioned during debates on the subject. On the day of the Irish abortion referendum in 2018, the radio station France Culture devoted a feature to Ernaux.
Ernaux acknowledges in Happening that “this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful”. The same could be said of much of her other work. Ernaux has written from the same direct perspective about numerous issues not deemed “literary”, including sex, stains, illness, the ageing body, dementia and drunkenness.
Writing is for Ernaux a matter of making lived experience visible, especially that of women – and not taking their rights for granted. As she writes in Happening:
If I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.
Giving a voice to those being silenced lies at the heart of Ernaux’s writings. She spoke of her support for the #MeToo movement in a recent interview, but has also expressed affinity with the gilets jaunes, which she sees as a manifestation of deep social injustice and the elite’s contempt towards the working class and unemployed. In 2018 this made her “arrival” in the English-speaking world particularly timely at the age of 78.
When French politician Simone Veil died in 2017, many “merci Simone” tags were left on walls, not least for the crucial role she played in shaping the country’s modern abortion laws. Many readers have written to Ernaux to say “merci Annie” in acknowledgement of her feminist writings. She deserves to be recognised in the international canon of great French writers, and hopefully we are now finally seeing this starting to take place.