Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L Straya (Seven Stories Press 2020, from Mémoire de fille, Gallimard 2016)
There’s an AI app that‘a in the news just now. I asked it to write a review of Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story/Mémoire de fille. Here are some excerpts from what the app came up with:
“A Girl’s Story” by Annie Ernaux is a highly acclaimed and celebrated memoir that tells the story of the author’s childhood and youth. …
The book is written in a simple, straightforward style that is both raw and emotionally charged. …
She vividly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood, and her descriptions are so vivid that the reader feels as though they are right there alongside her. At the same time, the author’s reflections on her life and experiences are both deeply personal and universally relatable, making the book accessible to a wide range of readers.
Lazy students be warned: almost every word in those paragraphs is misleading. The AI clearly hasn’t read the book.
The book does NOT tell the story of the author’s childhood and youth.
It scrutinises barely two years of the author’s life, when as an 18-year old in 1958 she left her parents’ custodianship for the first time, had her first sexual experiences, developed an eating disorder, read a lot (including Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), attended a prestigious college, decided against entering the teaching profession, worked as an au pair in London, and began her career as a writer.
The book is NOT written in a simple, straightforward style.
Take the opening sentences:
There are beings who are overwhelmed by the reality of others, their way of speaking, of crossing their legs, of lighting a cigarette. They become mired in the presence of others. One day, or rather one night, they are swept away inside the desire and the will of a single Other.
The science-fictional feel of ‘There are beings’ probably isn’t there in the original French, where it’s not unusual for elevated prose to refer to people as êtres (literally ‘beings’). But even without that bit of translationese, you’d hardly call these sentences simple or straightforward. In fact, they almost stand as a warning: if you want a simple, straightforward story, go somewhere else. The hint (‘or rather one night’) that the story is going to involve sex is neither simple nor straightforward, but at least it promises spiciness.
The style is NOT raw and emotionally charged.
The style is intensely intellectual, as is only right for a text that is concerned with the process of remembering. Memories are often there as single images, without a clear sense of how they connect with each other. Where memory fails, the narrator quotes from ancient letters and diary entries, or simply speculates about what ‘the girl of S’ (as she is called from the start) must have been feeling. From the older person’s perspective, the sexual experiences are terrible, but as far as the narrator can tell (remember?) ‘the girl’ didn’t see them that way. See the opening lines quoted above: it’s a story of a young woman who loses and regains her sense of herself. One strand of the book is a troubling inquiry into the nature of consent.
The reader does NOT feel as though they are right there alongside her.
Annie Ernaux considers that she is no longer the person who had those experiences as an eighteen-year-old. It took me several pages to be sure that ‘the girl of S’ is not someone other than the author. If we are ‘right there alongside’ anyone it’s the 70-something writer who sets out to ‘explore the gulf between the stupefying reality of things that happen, at the moment they happen, and, years later, the strange unreality in which the things that happened are enveloped’. At least that’s how she describes her initial intention. The book is more complex, recursive and elusive than that.
She vividly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood
No. Just no!
The author’s reflections on her life and experiences MAY BE deeply personal and universally relatable, but not in the way the AI implies.
This calls for discussion of an actual piece of writing. I’ll pick the moment (on pages 74–75) when the girl, still in the last year of high school and working as a counsellor at a children’s camp, has had two sexual encounters with H (the ‘single Other’ of the book’s first paragraph, which I quoted earlier). After the second time, of which the narrator says she remembers very little but which certainly wasn’t pleasurable for the girl, H promises to come to her room and say goodbye the next morning, the last day of camp. The girl knows that he is engaged to someone else, but nevertheless spends a sleepless night imagining that ‘H is her lover, truly and for all eternity’. When he doesn’t come at dawn, she goes to knock on his door. Though he can see his back through the keyhole, he ignores her. This is definitely a ‘deeply personal’ moment, but the narrator isn’t interested in capturing its emotional intensity. She writes:
Even if it had crossed her mind (and I think it probably did) that by promising to come and say goodbye, he was simply trying to shake her off, no objective sign of reality – the fiancée, the unkept promise, the lack of a meeting arranged for later in Rouen – can possibly compete with the novel that wrote itself in a single night, in the spirit of Lamartine’s The Lake, or Musset’s Nights, or the happy ending of the film The Proud and the Beautiful, with Gérard Philipe and Michèle Morgan running toward each other, or the songs (that Esperanto of love) I can list without a second thought.
She goes on to list five songs, all of which are as unknown to me as the novels and movie. I googled one, Dalida’s ‘Histoire d’un amour’, and it’s as romantic as you’d expect – on YouTube here. You don’t need to be familiar with the references to see that the narrator is considering the girl from an ironic distance. She isn’t mocking. Her project is more intellectually rigorous than that, and much more interesting: she wants to understand how ‘the girl’ really experienced the moment, at the same time as knowing that complete understanding is impossible.
After listing the songs, Ernaux does two things. First, she asserts that this kind of self story-telling is common:
At this very moment, out in the streets, the open spaces, on the metro, in lecture halls, and inside millions of heads, millions of novels are being written chapter by chapter, erased and revised, and all of them die as a result of becoming, or not becoming, reality.
This reminds me of the way Proust’s narrator in In Search of Lost Time writes at length about how he imagined what places were like based on their names, only to be almost always disappointed by the reality. Annie Ernaux explicitly suggests that this is a universal thing. So maybe it’s ‘relatable’ after all.
(By describing this fantasising as novel-writing, Ernaux seems to be suggesting that her writing life began that night, a whole other dimension of the memoir.)
The second thing she does is to leap forward in time:
When, in the subway or the RER, I hear the first notes of Dalida’s ‘Histoire d’un amour’, sometimes sung in Spanish, within a second I am emptied of myself, hollowed out. I used to believe (Proust had a comparable experience) that for three minutes, I truly became the girl of S. But it is not she who suddenly revives but the reality of her dream, the powerful reality of her dream, spread throughout the universe by the words sung by Dalida and Darío Moreno, and covered up again, buried by the shame of having had that dream.
(The RER is the rapid transit system serving Paris and its suburbs.)
This paragraph could be seen as encapsulating the book as a whole. Annie Ernaux the narrator grapples throughout with the nature of memory. Here, she realises that in the intervening years, in non-rigorous mode, she has believed herself to be reliving that moment, becoming once again her eighteen-year-old self and losing all sense of who she is in the present. But with her rigorous mind at work, she realises that what is being revived is the dream, the pattern of thinking and feeling that came into play at that moment. Any mockery that may have been implied in the ironic distance of the previous paragraphs is identified as coming from shame.
It’s no accident that Proust is mentioned here. His ghost hovers over the whole enterprise. At one level, his huge novel tells his alter ego’s life story, while A Girl’s Story tells the much smaller story of a teenage girl’s first more or less traumatic sexual experience. (Proust’s narrator’s first sexual experience is of the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it variety.) At another level, they are both philosophical inquiries into the nature of memory and desire. Ernaux’s book doesn’t have the queerness or the comedy of Proust’s, but it is just as serious, just as challenging, and has the added passion of feminist horror.