“for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”

— The citation for Annie Ernaux.

A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison Strayer

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. Everything they believed about themselves vanishes. They dissolve and watch a reflection of themselves act, obey, swept into a course of events unknown. They trail behind the will of the Other, which is always one step ahead. They never catch up.

There is no submission, no consent, only the stupefaction of the real. All one can do is repeat “This can’t be happening to me” or “It is me this is happening to,” but in the event, “me” is no longer, has already changed. All that remains is the Other, master of the situation, of every gesture and the moment to follow, which only he foresees.

The Years, translated by Alison L Strayer

All the images will disappear.

– the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, after the war, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the café

– the tearful face of Alida Valli as she danced with Georges Wilson in the film The Long Absence

– the man passed on a Padua sidewalk in the summer of 1990, his hands tied at the shoulders, instantly summoning the memory of thalidomide, prescribed to pregnant women for nausea thirty years before, and of a joke people told later: an expectant mother knits the baby’s layette while gulping thalidomide pills at regular intervals—a row, a pill, a row, a pill. A friend says in horror, Stop, don’t you realise your baby may be born without arms, and the other answers, It’s okay, I don’t know how to knit sleeves anyway

– Claude Piéplu who leads a regiment of légionnaires, waving a flag in one hand and leading a goat with the other, in a film with Les Charlots

Shame, translated by Tanya Leslie

My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon. I had been to Mass at a quarter to twelve as usual. I must have brought back some cakes from the baker in the new shopping precinct – a cluster of temporary buildings erected after the war while reconstruction was under way. When I got home, I took off my Sunday clothes and slipped on a dress that washed easily. After the customers had left and the shutters had been pinned down over the store window, we had lunch, probably with the radio on, because at that hour there was a funny programme called Courtroom, in which Yves Deniaud played some wretched subordinate continually charged with the most preposterous offences and condemned to ridiculous sentences by a judge with a quivering voice. My mother was in a bad temper. The argument she started with my father as soon as she sat down lasted throughout the meal. After the table was cleared and the oilcloth wiped clean, she continued to fire criticism at my father, turning round and round in the tiny kitchen – squeezed in between the café, the store and the steps leading upstairs – as she always did when she was upset. My father was still seated at the table, saying nothing, his head turned toward the window. Suddenly he began to wheeze and was seized with convulsive shaking. He stood up and I saw him grab hold of my mother and drag her through the café, shouting in a hoarse, unfamiliar voice. I rushed upstairs and threw myself on to the bed, my face buried in a cushion.

A Man’s Place, translated by Tanya Leslie

The practical test for my CAPES examination took place at a lycée in Lyon, in the Croix-Rousse area. A new lycée, with potted plants in the buildings for the teaching and administrative staff, and a library fitted with a sand-coloured carpet. I waited there until they came to fetch me for my practical, which involved giving a lesson in front of an inspector and two assessors, both distinguished lecturers in French. A woman was marking papers haughtily, without a flicker of hesitation. All I had to do was sail through the following hour and I would be allowed to do the same as she did for the rest of my life. I explained twenty-five lines – referenced by number – taken from Balzac’s novel Le Père Goriot to a class of sixth-formers from the maths stream. Afterwards, in the headmaster’s office, the inspector said to me disapprovingly: ‘You really dragged your pupils along, didn’t you.’ He was sitting between the two assessors, a man and a short-sighted woman with pink shoes. And me, opposite. For fifteen minutes he showered me with criticism, praise and advice, and I barely listened, wondering if all this meant I had passed. Suddenly, in unison, the three of them stood up, looking solemn. I too rose to my feet hurriedly. The inspector held out his hand to me. Then, looking straight at me, he said: ‘Congratulations, Madame.’ The others repeated ‘Congratulations’ and shook hands with me, but the woman did it with a smile.

Getting Lost, translated by Alison L Sayers

On 16 Nov, 1989, I phoned the Soviet embassy in Paris and asked to speak to Mr S. The switchboard operator did not reply. After a long silence, a woman’s voice said: ‘You know, Mr S returned to Moscow yesterday.’ I immediately hung up. I felt as if I’d heard this sentence before, over the phone. The words were not the same but they had the same meaning, the same weight of horror, and were just as impossible to believe. Later, I remembered the announcement of my mother’s death, three and a half years earlier, how the nurse at the hospital had said: ‘Your mother passed away this morning after breakfast.’

The Berlin Wall had fallen several days before. The Soviet regimes established in Europe were toppling one after the other. The man who had just returned to Moscow was a faithful servant of the USSR, a Russian diplomat posted in Paris.

I had met him the previous year on a writers’ junket to Moscow, Tbilisi, and Leningrad, a voyage he had been assigned to accompany. We had spent the last night together, in Leningrad. After returning to France, we continued to see each other. The ritual was invariable. He would ring to ask if he could come around to see me in the afternoon or evening, or, more rarely, a day or two later. He would arrive and stay just a few hours, which we spent making love. Then he left, and I would live in wait for his next call.

Simple Passion, translated by Tanya Leslie

From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man: for him to call me and come round to my place. I would go to the supermarket, the cinema, take my clothes to the dry cleaner’s, read books, and mark essays. I behaved exactly the same way as before but without the long- standing familiarity of these actions I would have found it impossible to do so, except at the cost of a tremendous effort. It was when I spoke that I realised I was acting instinctively. Words, sentences, and even my laugh, formed on my lips without my actually thinking about it or wanting it. In fact I have only vague memories of the things I did, the films I saw, the people I met. I behaved in an artificial manner. The only actions involving willpower, desire, and what I take to be human intelligence (planning, weighing the pros and cons, assessing the consequences) were all related to this man:

reading newspaper articles about his country (he was a foreigner) choosing clothes and make-up

writing letters to him

changing the sheets on the bed and

arranging flowers in the bedroom

jotting down something that might interest him, to tell him next time we met

buying whisky, fruit, and various delicacies for our evening together

imagining in which room we would make love when he arrived.

Happening, translated by Tanya Leslie

I got off at Barbès Métro Station. Like last time, men were idly waiting, clustered at the foot of the overhead subway. People were trudging along the sidewalk with pink shopping bags from the discount store Tati. I turned into the Boulevard Magenta and recognised the clothing store Billy with its anoraks hanging outside. A woman was walking toward me – plump legs sheathed in black stockings with a bold pattern. The Rue Amboise-Paré was almost empty until you reached the vicinity of the hospital. I made my way down the long passage inside the Elisa wing. For the rst time I noticed a bandstand in the courtyard running along the glassed-in corridor. I wondered how I would be seeing all this on the way back. I walked through door 15 and up two floors to the reception area of the screening unit. I handed the secretary a card with my number. She consulted a box of les and pulled out a brown envelope containing documents. I held out my hand but she didn’t give it to me. She laid it down on the desk, instructing me to take a seat and wait for my name to be called out.

A Frozen Woman, translated by Linda Coverdale

Fragile and vapourish women, spirits with gentle hands, good fairies of the home who silently create beauty and order, mute, submissive women search as I may, I cannot find many of them in the landscape of my childhood. Not even in the next-best model, less elegant, more frumpy, the ones who work miracles with leftovers, scrub the sink until you can see your face in it, and take up their posts outside the school gates fifteen minutes before the last bell rings, all their housework done. Perfectly organised unto death. The women in my life all had loud voices, untidy bodies that were too fat or too flat, sandpapery fingers, faces without a trace of make-up or else slathered in it, with big blotches of colour on the cheeks and lips. Their cooking skills did not go much beyond stewed rabbit and rice pudding, they had no idea dust was supposed to be removed on a daily basis, they worked or had worked on farms, in factories, in small businesses open all day long. There were the old ladies we visited on Sunday afternoons, with their boudoirs and the bottle of eau-de-vie to sweeten their coffee, wizened women all in black whose skirts smelled of butter going rancid in the pantry. No connection with those sugary grandmas in story books who wear their snow-white hair in a neat bun and coo over their grandchildren while they read them fairy tales. My old ladies, my granny and my great-aunts, they weren’t nearly that chummy and didn’t like it when you jumped all over them – they’d lost the habit. A peck on the cheek was all, at the beginning and end of the visit, so after the inevitable “You’ve gone and grown some more!” and “Still studying hard in school?” they really had nothing more to say to me, too busy talking with my parents in patois about the high cost of living, the rent, the lack of living space, the neighbours; they’d look over at me every once in a while, laughing.

A Woman’s Story, translated by Tanya Leslie

Mother died on Monday 7 April in the old people’s home attached to the hospital at Pontoise, where I had installed her two years previously. The nurse said over the phone: “Your mother passed away this morning, after breakfast.” It was around ten o’clock.

For the first time the door of her room was closed. The body had already been washed and a strip of gauze had been wrapped around her head and under her chin, pushing all the skin up around her eyes and mouth. A sheet covered her body up to her shoulders, hiding her hands. She looked like a small mummy. The cot sides had been taken down and left on either side of the bed. I wanted to slip her into the white nightdress with a crochet border that she had once bought for her own funeral. The nurse told me one of the staff would see to this and would also take the crucifix my mother kept in her bedside drawer and place it on her chest. The two screws that pinned the copper arms on to the cross were missing. The nurse wasn’t sure they could be replaced. It didn’t matter, I wanted her to have her crucix all the same. On the trolley stood the bunch of forsythia I had brought the day before. The nurse suggested I go straight to the administration office while they drew up an inventory of my mother’s personal belongings. She had very few things of her own left – a suit, a pair of blue summer shoes, an electric shaver.

Exteriors, translated by Tanya Leslie

For the last twenty years I have lived in Cergy-Pontoise, a new town forty kilometres outside of Paris. Before that, I had always lived in the French provinces, in cities bearing the signs of history and the past. To find myself in a place suddenly sprung up from nowhere, a place bereft of memories, where the buildings are scattered over a huge area, a place with undefined boundaries, proved to be an overwhelming experience. I was seized with a feeling of strangeness, incapable of seeing anything but the windswept esplanades, the concrete façades, pink or blue, and the empty residential avenues. I felt I was continually hovering in some no man’s land halfway between the earth and the sky. My gaze resembled the glass surfaces of office towers, reflecting no one, just the high-rise buildings and the clouds.

I gradually emerged from this state of schizophrenia. I began to enjoy living there, in a cosmopolitan district, in the midst of lives started elsewhere – in Vietnam, the Maghreb, Côte d’Ivoire, the French provinces or, as was mine, in Normandy. I watched children playing at the foot of the tall buildings; I watched people strolling down the indoor galleries of the Trois-Fontaines shopping centre or waiting under bus shelters. I paid attention to the conversations exchanged in the RER. I felt the urge to transcribe the scenes, words and gestures of unknown people, who are never to be seen again, graffiti scribbled on walls, no sooner dry than hastily erased; sentences overheard on the radio and news items read in the papers. Anything that, in some way or another, moved me, upset me or angered me.

Annie Ernaux’s English translations are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and Seven Stories Press.