A Girl’s Story

Annie Ernaux

Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Published 7 April 2020 (UK & Ireland) | Published by Seven Stories Press elsewhere
French paperback with flaps, 152 pages

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.

 

Then the Other goes away. You have ceased to interest him. He abandons you with the real, for example a stained pair of underwear. All he cares about is his own time now, and you are alone with your habit of obeying, already hard to shake: alone in a time bereft of a master.

 

And then it is child’s play for others to get around you, leap into the emptiness you are, and you refuse them nothing – you barely feel their presence. You wait for the Master to grace you with his touch, if only one more time. One night he does, with the absolute supremacy you’ve begged him for with all your being. The next day he is gone, but little does it matter. The hope of seeing him again has become your reason for living, for putting on your clothes, improving your mind, and passing your exams. He’ll be back, and this time you’ll be worthy, more than worthy of him. He’ll be dazzled by the change in your beauty, your knowledge and self-assurance, compared to those of the indistinct creature you were before.

 

Everything you do is for the Master you have secretly chosen for yourself. But as you work to improve your self-worth, imperceptibly, inexorably, you leave him behind. You realize where folly has taken you, and never want to see him again. You swear to forget the whole thing and speak of it to no one.

(...)

‘I too wanted to forget that girl. Really forget her, that is, stop yearning to write about her. Stop thinking that I have to write about this girl and her desire and madness, her idiocy and pride, her hunger and her blood that ceased to flow. I have never managed to do so.’ In A Girl’s Story, her latest book, Annie Ernaux revisits the summer of 1958, spent working as a holiday camp instructor in Normandy, and recounts the first night she spent with a man. When he moves on, she realizes she has submitted her will to his and finds that she is a slave without a master. Now, sixty years later, she finds she can obliterate the intervening years and return to consider this young woman whom she wanted to forget completely. In writing A Girl’s Story, which brings to life her indelible memories of that summer, Ernaux discovers that here was the vital, violent and dolorous origin of her writing life, built out of shame, violence and betrayal.

‘Ernaux is an unusual memoirist: she distrusts her memory... Ernaux does not so much reveal the past—she does not pretend to have any authoritative access to it—as unpack it.’
— Madeleine Schwartz, New Yorker

A profound and beautiful examination of the impenetrable wall that time erects between the self we are, and the selves we once were. I know of no other book that so vividly illustrates the frustrations and the temptations of that barrier, and our heartache and longing in trying to breach it. Annie Ernaux is one of my favorite contemporary writers, original and true. Always after reading one of her books, I walk around in her world for months.
— Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood

Another deeply felt, fearlessly honest exploration of female desire, shame, and intellectual passion from the incomparable Annie Ernaux.
— Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend

Annie Ernaux writes memoir with such generosity and vulnerable power that I find it difficult to separate my own memories from hers long after I’ve finished reading. In A Girl’s Story she detangles an adolescence rife with desire and shame, an era of both internal and external debasement. Ernaux wisely ventures into the gray areas of her memories; she doesn’t attempt to transcend their power, nor to even “understand” them, but to press them firmly into this diamond of a book.
— Catherine Lacey, author of Pew

Revisiting painful periods is hardly new territory for writers, but Ernaux distills a particular power from the exercise.
— The New York Times

‘Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman

‘An exquisite elegy’
— Irish Times

For all that A Girl’s Story is intoxicatingly specific about time and place, it is also a story that belongs to any number of selfconsciously clever girls with appetite and no nous, who must, like Ernaux, reckon with the entanglements of sexism and sexuality. But it is above all personal. In reclaiming the girl she was, Ernaux becomes her own Orpheus.
— Spectator

‘Reading Annie Ernaux recalls the intoxicating company of Ferrante and Beauvoir. I am welcomed by these writers, invited into their worlds by the retrieval of long-ago buried memories and sensations that are deeply and quickly, often painfully, rekindled and brought back to life, sometimes violently, by words on the page.’
— Los Angeles Review of Books

The book is a beautiful contemplation of desire, memory, time, and the self.
— Book Riot

‘Ernaux’s narration of the female experience is refreshingly frank, and—with its delicately weighted ebb and flow, its moments of quiet rumination, and sudden volta shifts—seamlessly translated by Alison L. Strayer.’
3:AM Magazine

Few living writers have exploited this form as effectively; Ernaux does for the internal memory what Svetlana Alexievich has done for the social memory. Quite a feat.
— Jane Graham, The Big Issue

Born in 1940, Annie Ernaux grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. The Years won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008, the Premio Strega in Italy in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work.

Alison L. Strayer is a Canadian writer and translator. Her work has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Literature and for Translation, the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal, and longlisted for the Prix Albertine. Her translation of The Years was awarded the 2018 French-American Prize, shortlisted for the Man Booker International in 2019, and awarded the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, honouring both author and translator.