Published 13 February 2019 (UK & Ireland) | Published by Seven Stories Press elsewhere
French paperback with flaps, 80 pages
I got off at Barbès. Like last time, men were idly waiting, clustered at the foot of the Métro overhead. People were trudging along the pavement with pink shopping bags from the discount store Tati. I turned into the Boulevard Magenta and recognized the clothes shop Billy, with its anoraks hanging outside. A woman was walking towards 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 vaulted corridor inside the Elisa wing. For the first time I noticed a bandstand in the courtyard running along the glassedin 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 files 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.
The waiting room consists of two adjoining areas. I chose the one nearer the doctor’s office, where there were more people. I began marking the essays I had brought with me. Soon afterwards, a very young girl with long blonde hair handed over her card. I made sure that she too was not given an envelope and was told to sit down and wait. The people already waiting there were seated far apart: a man in his thirties, fashionably dressed with a receding hairline; a young black guy with a walkman; a middle-aged man with weathered features, slumped in his seat. After the fair-haired girl, a fourth man strode into the room: he settled confidently in a chair and pulled out a book from his briefcase. Then a couple arrived: the girl in leggings stretched over a pregnant stomach, the man in a business suit.
There were no magazines on the table, only a few leaflets on the nutritional value of dairy produce and ‘How to come to terms with AIDS’. The woman in leggings was speaking to her companion; she kept standing up, embracing him, caressing him. He remained silent and motionless, both hands stiffly resting on an umbrella. The girl with sandy hair was staring at the floor, her eyes half-closed, a leather jacket folded over her knees; she seemed petrified. At her feet lay a large overnight bag and a small backpack. I wondered if she had any particular reason to be worried. Maybe she had come to pick up her results before going away for the weekend or visiting her parents in the country. The doctor emerged from her office – a young woman, slim, vivacious, in a coral skirt and black stockings. She called out a number. No one stood up. It was someone from the next room, a boy who hurried by; I glimpsed a ponytail and glasses.
The young black man was summoned, then someone from the other room. No one moved or spoke, except the woman in leggings. The only time we all looked up was when the doctor appeared in the doorway or when someone left her office. We would follow them with our eyes.
The telephone rang several times – people wanting an appointment or inquiring about opening hours. At one point, the receptionist left the room and came back with a biologist to answer a call. He kept saying, ‘no, your count is normal, perfectly normal.’ His words rang out ominously in the quiet room. The person on the phone was bound to be HIV positive.
I had finished marking my essays. I kept picturing the same blurred scene – one Saturday and Sunday in July, the motions of lovemaking, the ejaculation. This scene, buried for months, was the reason for my being here today. I likened the embracing and writhing of naked bodies to a dance of death. I felt that the man whom I had half-heartedly agreed to see again had come all the way from Italy with the sole purpose of giving me AIDS. Yet I couldn’t associate the two: lovemaking, warm skin and sperm, and my presence in the waiting room. I couldn’t imagine sex ever being related to anything else.
The doctor called out my name. Before I had even entered her office, she flashed a broad grin at me. I took this to be a good sign. Closing the door, she immediately said, ‘the tests are negative.’ I burst out laughing. I paid no attention to what she said after that. She seemed in a happy, mischievous mood. I rushed down the two flights of stairs and walked back the same way in a trance. I told myself that once again I had been saved. I wondered if the girl with long blonde hair had been saved too. At Barbès station, crowds stood facing each other across the platforms, with occasional bursts of pink Tati bags.
I realized that I had lived through these events at Lariboisière Hospital the same way I had awaited Dr N’s verdict in 1963, swept by the same feelings of horror and disbelief. So it would appear my life is confined to the period separating the Ogino method from the age of cheap condom dispensers. It’s one way of measuring it, possibly the most reliable one of all.
In October 1963, in Rouen, I waited for my period for over a week. It was a warm, sunny month. I felt heavy and stuffy in my winter coat, especially in the department stores where I had taken to browsing and buying stockings, waiting for classes to resume. When I got back to my room in the girls’ halls of residence in the Rue d’Herbouville, I would still hope to see a stain appear on my panties. I began writing in my journal every evening – the word NOTHING in big, underlined capital letters. I would wake up in the middle of the night and instinctively know that ‘nothing’ had happened. The year before, around the same time, I had started work on a novel; now this seemed faraway, something that was not to be pursued.
One afternoon I went to see Il Posto, an Italian film in black and white. It was the slow, sad story of a young man working as an office clerk – his very first job. The cinema was almost empty. As I watched the frail figure of the boy in his cheap raincoat, the humiliations he suffered during his pathetic existence, somehow I knew the bleeding would not come back.
One evening I was talked into going to the theatre by some of the girls who had a spare ticket. They were putting on Huis clos by Jean-Paul Sartre and I had never been to see a contemporary production. The theatre was packed. I stared at the brightly lit stage at the back, obsessed with the fact that I no longer had my period. All I can remember about the play is the character called Estelle, a blonde girl in a blue dress, and the Boy dressed as a manservant, with red, lidless eyes. In my journal I wrote: ‘Fantastic. If only I didn’t have this REALITY inside me.’
By the end of October I had given up hope. I made an appointment to consult a gynaecologist, Dr N, on 8 November.
In 1963, Annie Ernaux, 23 and unattached, realizes she is pregnant. Shame arises in her like a plague: understanding that her pregnancy will mark her and her family as social failures, she knows she cannot keep that child. This is the story, written forty years later, of a trauma Ernaux never overcame. In a France where abortion was illegal, she attempted, in vain, to self-administer the abortion with a knitting needle. Fearful and desperate, she finally located an abortionist, and ends up in a hospital emergency ward where she nearly dies. In Happening, Ernaux sifts through her memories and her journal entries dating from those days. Clearly, cleanly, she gleans the meanings of her experience.
‘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 an attempt at truth. Not a narrative bend on truth, but an “endeavour to revisit every single image”. ... 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
‘Happening is gripping and painfully inevitable to read – like a thriller. I felt close to Annie Duchesne, in her alone-ness, in a way I’ve rarely felt close to a character in a book. Women will be grateful to Ernaux for her wisdom, concision, and commitment to writing about death and life.’
— Daisy Hildyard, author of The Second Body
‘This short book … is one of the most powerful memoirs I have ever read. Ernaux is famed in France, and is gathering fame abroad ... as an autobiographer of unusual talent and insight, virtually creating (although she disavows the term) a genre called “autofiction”, a hybrid style mixing, as the name suggests, autobiography and fiction, although there is nothing in Happening that suggests any fictional element. This is the truth, as bare as it can be told, although every so often Ernaux reminds us, carefully, that memory is slippery.’
— Nicholas Lezard, Dhaka Tribune
‘Meticulous catalogs of longing, humiliation, class anxiety and emotional distress, Ernaux’s books are unsparing in detail, pitiless in tone. In contrast to those of so many of her confession-minded peers, her shock tactics feel principled, driven less by narcissism or the need for self-justification than by some loftier impulse: a desire to capture the past as it was, undistorted by faulty memories, moral judgments or decorative literary flourishes.’
— Emily Eakin, New York Times Book Review
‘An important, resonant work.’
— Publishers Weekly
‘…the book administers a punch beyond its slim size ... It is unflinching and honest, a frank patchwork of past and present experiences. … The title suits the subject: illegal abortion isn’t confined to history, suspended in aspic, a thing to be examined in the past tense. It is still hotly contested, demanding the present participle of Ernaux’s title. … 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
‘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.’
— Edouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy
‘Ravishing and almost oracular with insight, Ernaux’s prose performs an extraordinary dance between collective and intimate, “big” history and private experience. The Years is a philosophical meditation paced as a rollercoaster ride through the decades. How we spend ourselves too quickly, how we reach for meaning but evade it, how to live, how to remember – these are Ernaux’s themes. I am desperate for more.’
— Kapka Kassabova, author of Border
‘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
‘Attentive, communal and genuinely new, Annie Ernaux’s The Years is an astonishing achievement.’
— Olivia Laing, author of Crudo
‘Annie Ernaux is long overdue to be recognised in Britain as one of the most important writers in contemporary France, and this edition of The Years ought to do the trick. Originally published there in 2008, it was immediately heralded as Ernaux’s masterpiece, her brief Remembrance of Things Past. It has been expertly rendered into English by Alison Strayer, who captures all the shadings of Ernaux’s prose, all its stops and starts, its changes in pace and in tone, its chatterings, its silences.’
— Lauren Elkin, Guardian
‘Towards the end of a long life, Ernaux has gained a long and communal perspective. She reminds us that we are material beings, and that we remember in and with the body. And our communal memory makes us part of one body.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman
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.
Tanya Leslie was the first translator of Annie Ernaux into English and translated a number of her works, including A Woman’s Story (1991), A Man’s Place (1992), Simple Passion (1993), Shame (1998), I Remain in Darkness (1999), and Happening (2001), all for Seven Stories Press in the US.