No great writer will live up to a school of thought, even if she has one. Thinking can adhere to ideology, but writing cannot. By writing, I mean here something that is not bound by rationalist, a priori constraints. Writing has its constraints that are determined by writing itself. In other words, the constraints of writing are deeply subjective, and are of a paradoxical nature: what constraints writing, also enhances it. All writing is free within a structure. This structure is not an objective, predetermined one, but something the writing itself produces.
I got familiar very recently with Annie Ernaux, the 82-year-old French writer who has just been declared the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize for literature. The three books of hers I had to return to in order to write this piece are A Man’s Place, A Girl’s Story and I Remain in Darkness. Ernaux took inspiration from the works of French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, who belonged to the left.
Ernaux is self-confessedly a leftwing feminist. It is her political identity. The inner-world of a writer, personal and political, is ultimately revealed in the body of texts she produces. Ernaux is a complex writer whose craft is bound to take her beyond political labels.
In A Girl’s Story, Ernaux invents a new kind of writing, where “girl” and “story” inhabit a disjunctive relationship. The girl will not allow a story to remain story. The story will not allow the girl to remain girl. Between girl and story lies the writer herself, a much older woman who’s reminiscing her past. Ernaux infuses something new to what we understand as fiction:
“As I advance, the former simplicity of the story deposited in memory disappears. To go all the way to the end of ’58 means agreeing to the demolition of all the interpretations I’ve assembled over the years. No glossing over. I am not constructing a fictional character but deconstructing the girl I was.”
This is a radical declaration of the deconstructive method in fiction. Ernaux seeks to destroy the myth of her past (which is always a myth of origins, the origins of myth) and interpolate it with analytical tools she has at her disposal at the time of writing. It is particularly striking that Ernaux is out to deconstruct her own former self. It is an act of internal deconstruction.
How does she do this?
A Girl’s Story begins with a clear nod to de Beauvoir’s classic, The Second Sex, where Ernaux writes on being trapped in the gaze of the other. The other introduces the impossibility of experience. There is no experience if one cannot experience oneself in it, except through what is denied. This other is Sartrean, a negative figure that inhabits the outside world based on pure ego. The other can also be the master, the one who dominates, rules the scene.
This other in the story is a man who’s much older than the girl whose story is being told. But there are “others” in the story as well. These “others” are other male students at the holiday camp, who forgot the girl whom they judged, the one they tried to inflict the guilt of shame upon. “She’s absent from their memories”.
Ernaux is revisiting her girlhood in 1958. She writes she too wanted to forget that girl she was, like the others did. She failed. Writing is the beginning of a failure to forget. Right at the beginning of the story, Ernaux produces a split writing subject, an older woman who must write on the younger girl she was, but not quite how the girl would have understood her story, or written about it.
The writer is enchanted by the painful project of remembering her past alone. It was as lonely as the shame that was thrust upon her. Writing is an overcoming of the shame of experience, not because experience is shameful, but because the world interrupts our relationship with experience and calls it names. Writing is the renaming of our experience, where we confront the shame of shaming.
Ernaux, influenced by Sartrean phenomenology, is interested in the philosophical question: “am I to dissolve the girl of ’58 and the woman of 2014 into a single ‘I’?” Ernaux understands the pangs of dissociation between one I and another, and the introduction of “she” for a former self. She faces a tough moment of split subjectivity, which in her case is ruled by time. Time separates the girl from the woman. It also opens up the rift of space where writing can take place.
The writing wounds its way into the act of memory that she wants to deconstruct: “Her submission is not to him but to an indisputable, universal law”. The act of submission, which is an act of sensuous reciprocity, is tainted by what precedes and intercepts it, which for Ernaux is the mythified figure of the male other. She deconstructs her relationship with this myth in the story.
In this act of recounting, Ernaux faces another important question, at once philosophical, and aesthetic: that of sequence. How to sequence memory when one is out to deconstruct it? “I can only write about what happens next by jumping from one image or scene to another scene that in reality would usually not have lasted more than several minutes, even seconds, but which memory has distended out of all proportion, as if it had added a little extra to each passage.”
This is a cinematic technique (exemplified by the French New Wave) that Ernaux brings into her writing, where memory is reconstructed by a sleight-of-hand that connects what is not connected by time. A few pages later in the book, Ernaux tells us that she may have taken up the task of writing this story “to test the limits of writing”. Here writing is to be understood as a mode of writing the self, a self that is split in two by time, where one has the unenviable task of recovering the other. Ahead in the story, Ernaux attests to the difficulty of her project: “A historical snare to which the writing of the self is prone: though for many years it served as material evidence of my ‘misconduct’”.
Writing memory for Ernaux is double-edged: she recovers what shall serve as proof of her humiliation. This is a confession of acute venerability written into the act of writing itself. Writing for Ernaux is a vulnerable act that is not safe from the risk of humiliation. Writing, in other words, is not safe from life, and from the world’s judgments. But this is not a predicament that Ernaux shall surrender to. Rather, she affirms:
“But what is the point of writing if not to unearth things, or even just one thing that cannot be reduced to any kind of psychological or sociological explanation and is not the result of a preconceived idea or demonstration but a narrative: something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded”.
This is the crux of Ernaux’s idea of writing: it is not an act that is reducible to the human sciences, not a cold product of objectivist knowledge, nor an a priori Kantian idea. Writing emerges from the folds of the unfolding of a story. It is that vulnerable being of neglect and forgetting that leaps out of its hiding place.
I am nevertheless left with a question: Does Ernaux believe that the woman knows better than the girl, and is better equipped to tell the story of her former self? Is there an objectivist, retrospective bias working there? To her credit, Ernaux has a complex admission to that.
At an early moment in the story, she writes: “Though I am unable to retrieve the girl’s language all the languages that make up her private discourse – which there is no point in trying to reconstitute…” There is no easy, clean, possible recovery of all that is lost to time and the folds of experience. Writing is a broken act of memory, and it is as a broken act that it retains its vulnerability.
In A Man’s Place, Ernaux remembers her late father as a man of labour who could not adjust to the world as he moved up in life: “He was both worker and shopkeeper and, as such, was doomed to a life of solitude and distrust. He didn’t belong to a union.” It is a precise picture of the man. Ernaux makes a subjective decision of rejecting artistic forms of affect in favour of a “neutral way of writing” about a man whose life was “governed by necessity”.
She reflects on the nature of her writing this slim book: “I am writing slowly. By choosing to expose the web of his life through a number of selected facts and details, I feel that I am gradually moving away from the figure of my father.” A clinical act of memory deconstructs the subject of writing. These facts are often detailed descriptions of her father’s creaturely habits and bodily functions, including his breathing. Filial intimacy is often registered in minute observances of physical acts. Observation becomes the politics of memory. Ernaux wants to revive the man of labour by describing her father without sentimentalising the patriarchal figure.
In I Remain in Darkness, Ernaux writes movingly about her mother who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. Early on she writes, “Writing a book about one’s mother inevitably raises the issue of writing.” What is the issue involved here?
Ernaux details her mother’s state of mental and physical imbalance and degeneration like a detached observer, writing what the disease is doing to her body. Her prose is unsentimental, and matter-of-factly. Her love for her mother lies in the folds of her language, where memory and reality meet. Perhaps the “issue” of writing Ernaux cryptically mentions in the beginning has to do with addressing one’s relationship with one’s mother in writing, of what separates them, and brings them together.
There comes a moment when she writes on the mother: “She will never again wear the clothes left behind at my place, which seem to belong to a dead person. Yet she is alive and can still make me feel guilty.” In one stroke, Ernaux observes her double predicament: helplessly witnessing her mother’s passing away, and yet consumed by the guilt of her mother’s ailing presence.
Guilt chases Ernaux like a shadow: “When I write down all these things, I scribble away as fast as I can (as if I feel guilty), without choosing my words.” Guilt hurries the writing because one is writing about the dying. Guilt is a suffocating room one must pass through in the course of one’s responsibility towards the dying mother.
Ernaux has an uncanny interest in observing the nature of her writing at every stage of a book. She is keen to understand what a particular subject does to the nature of writing. She wants to know in the middle of writing why she writes, and the way she writes on a particular subject. This draws her attention to the present, to the moment when memory becomes writing. It is a memory whose origins have to be rewritten to free it from shame and guilt.
The process of liberation through writing is complex. It draws inspiration from various sources. When Ernaux mentions her surrealist predecessor André Breton’s “(unclassifiable) texts, simultaneously theoretical and poetic, neither novels… nor autobiographies, but quests for an individual truth, perhaps a salvation, that anyone can undertake in turn”, she speaks of a translatable quest which is also her own.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Nehru and the Spirit of India (Penguin Viking, 2022), The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture during Lockdown (Copper Coin, 2021), and Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India (Speaking Tiger, 2018).