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

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

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

Praise for Happening

‘The experience of living simultaneously on the inside and outside of your own body is very particular to the female experience I think – and not only in relation to pregnancy but in myriad other ways too. I like the measured, unforgiving way she works her way through the logic, or illogic, of that. I find her work extraordinary.’
— Eimear McBride, The White Review

‘Universal, primeval and courageous, Happening is a fiercely dislocating, profoundly relevant work – as much of art as of human experience. It should be compulsory reading.’
— Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

‘Ernaux’s work is important. Not just because of her subject matter, but because of the way she hands it over: the subtle contradictions; her dispassionate stoicism, mixed with savagery; her detailed telling, mixed with spare, fragmented text.’
— Niamh Donnelly, Irish Times

‘One of the most powerful memoirs I have ever read.’
— Nicholas Lezard, Dhaka Tribune

‘Administers a punch beyond its slim size ... An essential document of trauma which deserves to be widely read.’
— Xenobe Purvis, Review 31

Praise for The Years

‘The Years is a revolution, not only in the art of autobiography but in art itself. Annie Ernaux’s book blends memories, dreams, facts and meditations into a unique evocation of the times in which we lived, and live.’
— John Banville, author of Mrs Osmond

‘This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read. The Years is an earnest, fearless book, a Remembrance of Things Past for our age of media domination and consumerism, for our period of absolute commodity fetishism.’
— Edmund White, New York Times Book Review

‘I admire the form she invented, mixing autobiography, history, sociology. The anxious interrogations on her defection, moving as she did from the dominated to the dominant classes. Her loyalty to her people, her fidelity to herself. The progressive depersonalisation of her work, culminating in the disappearance of the “I” in The Years, a book I must have read three or four times since its publication, even more impressed each time by its precision, its sweep and – I can’t think of any other word – its majesty. One of the few indisputably great books of contemporary literature.’
— Emmanuel Carrère, author of The Kingdom

‘One of the best books you’ll ever read.’
— Deborah Levy, author of Hot Milk

‘The author of one of the most important oeuvres in French literature, Annie Ernaux’s work is as powerful as it is devastating, as subtle as it is seething.’
— Édouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy

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.