Lucy Thynne

The Truth About My Mother

A Woman’s Story, Annie Ernaux trans. Tanya Leslie, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2024, pp.72, £9.99

Annie Ernaux’s mother died eight days before Simone de Beauvoir, aged 80, as Ernaux tells us in the account of her life, A Woman’s Story (1988). That fact might seem arbitrary, but grief can make you read into things. For weeks, Ernaux writes, she wakes from ‘heavy slumbers’, instantly beset with the cold weight that ‘everything was definitely over’. It is a struggle to even write the sentence, “My mother died”. But as the sentences accumulate, something in her resolves: ‘I am writing about my mother,’ she clarifies, ‘because it is my turn to bring her into the world.’

It is a betrayal to write about your parents. Ernaux understands this. But having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022 for the ‘courage’ of her work, Ernaux has never been one to shy away from difficult subjects. Her memoir, Happening (2000), is the account of her illegal, almost fatal abortion she procured as a university student, and it spares no detail: at the book’s most climactic scene, the foetus is expelled ‘like a grenade’ from Ernaux’s body. Her accomplice helps her cut the cord, and together they wrap the ‘baby doll’ mess in a melba toast wrapper. The scene is shocking; to read it is to have something rearranged in you. When Ernaux concludes that ‘any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled’, you believe her all the more strongly.

A Woman’s Story, now republished by Fitzcarraldo Editions and translated by Tanya Leslie, is less personally intimate than Happening. But it contains that same pursuit of exact truths: Ernaux tells us she wants to ‘capture the real woman’ that is her mother, ‘the one who existed independently from me, born on the outskirts of a small Normandy town’. That desire lives concurrently with the blindness children so often have with their parents: ‘To me, my mother has no history. She has always been there.’

But a ‘history’ is what Ernaux distils, and in less than a hundred pages.

By doing it in so little, she shows how much exists in one’s tiny corner of the world: there is leaving school at twelve to work in a margarine factory; marrying a man because he was more dignified than the rest; running a café-épicerie with him, ‘the only ambition which lay within her reach’. She gives birth to a daughter who dies of diphtheria, then Annie, whom she encourages throughout her studies, determined that her one daughter might have the educated, bourgeois life she never had. That ambition continues even when she is older and widowed, and moves in with Ernaux, now a teacher: ‘“Leave that [housework] alone, you’ve got better things to do!” (When I was ten years old, this meant doing my homework; now it meant preparing my lessons and behaving like an intellectual)’.

Ernaux’s unornamented, clinical style can feel harsh on her subject. ‘When she took me to the museum,’ she writes, it is not for her own viewing but ‘for the satisfaction of helping me acquire the knowledge and tastes that she attributed to cultivated people.’ But this style, as she explains in the memoir of her father’s death, A Man’s Place, allows her to report with almost ‘sociological’ objectivity, with ‘no lyrical reminiscences no triumphant displays of irony’. Sometimes it’s as though Ernaux is hardly there (‘I am only the archivist’), the invisible reporter. But together her factual details accumulate into something with flesh – we learn that her mother ‘learned to watch her language’ and ‘never went out hatless’ – and the portrait of her mother swims slowly, like a polaroid photo, into focus.

What struck me reading A Woman’s Story is that A Man’s Place is better known, but it was her mother’s struggle that really made Ernaux a writer. She might have seen her daughter’s class differences as a threat (‘Later you’ll spit in our faces’), but she was also proudest of her writing, the embodiment of her rise. Ernaux has recounted the anxious night when her mother locked herself away to read the manuscript of her first novel, Cleaned Out.The next morning, her mother was silent, showing her acceptance of the situation. Given that the novel drew back the veil on domestic life – and effectively dissolved Ernaux’s marriage – that assent bordered on the extraordinary.

And in her mother, Ernaux had a witness. Amusingly when she moves in, older, Ernaux panics about this: ‘From then on, I shall have to live out my life in front of her.’ But a writer needs a witness to tie them back to Earth. The entirety of A Woman’s Story centres on the two of them noticing each other, in the way that only a mother and daughter would: Ernaux notes her mother’s fluctuation through dress sizes, the way she takes to eating only ‘sweet things’ as she ages, the ‘flesh that bulged through the criss-cross of laces’. And Ernaux’s mother is frightened by that, too: ‘She didn’t like to see me grow up. When she saw me undressed [aged 13], my body seemed to repel her’.

In the process of writing this review, I went back to the books I had largely consumed over my second year of university: Happening, A Man’s Place, Simple Passion. I didn’t reexperience that first sensation of being recognised – there’s something in the novelty of discovering Ernaux and the things she knows about you – but it did put me back in touch with that process of reading her work as a whole, its addictiveness. I remember that after my first (A Man’s Place), I had sought out every book of hers that I could find. The cost, edition, shipping fees: none of it mattered; somehow it felt it would be worse for one of her books to exist out there without my having read it. I’d never seen set down before the warped relationship that most women experience, at some point, with food: ‘[It was] all I thought about. My whole existence revolved around what I could or could not eat at the next meal.’ Then there were experiences I didn’t know: affairs, divorce. And yet in Ernaux’s head I felt that I did.

This time reading A Woman’s Story, one word kept recurring in my underlinings: order. ‘In 1967,’ she writes, ‘my father had a coronary and died four days later. I cannot describe these events because I have already done so in a different book [A Man’s Place] and there can be no other narrative, no other possible choice and order of words.’ She is always forgetting how to do her ‘daily chores’ in the ‘right order’. And then there is the writing of A Woman’s Story itself: ‘I spend a lot of time reflecting on what I have to say and, on the choice, and sequence of words, as if there existed only one immutable order which would convey the truth about my mother…When I am writing, the only thing that matters to me is that particular order’.

What emerges is something that verges on the mystical: Ernaux writes as though she is not writing but unearthing something that already exists. The great French writer and influence on Ernaux, Marguerite Duras, has also written of this ‘immutable order’: ‘what you’re going to write is already there in the darkness… It’s a matter of deciphering something already there, something you’ve already done in the sleep of your life.’

This unearthing isn’t anything passive, though. I almost wonder whether it’s a way for Ernaux to create her own timeline, a sequence of events she can hold onto once it exists as a book: to read her creation back and ‘feel the detachment which makes it easier to analyse one’s memories’. And her idea of the ‘order’ of things is as much about the writing process as it is the way she lives her life. In her early twenties she vowed to ‘make a literary being of myself, someone who lives as if her experiences were to be written down some day’. Life and writing: it’s a sort of chicken and egg for Ernaux; each brings its order to the other.

The only mystery, then, is why Fitzcarraldo has published A Woman’s Story so much later than Ernaux’s other books. The account, so sensitive in its attention, proves that Ernaux’s observation about Simone de Beauvoir is not so arbitrary after all. In A Woman’s Story, Ernaux more than fills de Beauvoir’s feminist and existentialist shoes. And as the family’s ‘archivist’, she is every bit the dutiful daughter.

Lucy Thynne is a freelance writer and editor from London.

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