By Annie Ernaux. Translated by Anna Moschovakis
62 pp. Seven Stories Press. Paper, $11.95
A review by NANCY KLINE
Since 1974, Annie Ernaux has published more than a dozen books in France, most now available in English, each a brief, intense first-person narrative that flares up like a lighted match in the space between memoir and fiction. Such ambiguity of genre (are these novels or “creative nonfiction”?) and narrative voice (is “I” the writer or a character invented by the writer?) may perplex Americans, but not the French. Ernaux has written that she wants “to transgress all boundaries,” rhetorical as well as substantive. And she does, in language she herself characterizes as “brutally direct, working-class and sometimes obscene,” which takes issue with “the French tradition of the polished sentence, of ‘good taste’ in literature.” (It must be said, however, that even her obscene sentences are polished.)
Ernaux’s books embody a woman’s life: the small-town working-class cafe and grocery run by her parents, in Normandy, in the years after World War II; an icy marriage; a back-alley abortion; the death of her parents; and so on. Although sometimes bearing a different name, the same voice seems to speak in each of these texts, as though they were successive chapters in one novel. And whatever the immediate plot, Ernaux braids into every story the story of writing it. Her major preoccupations remain language and the body.
“The Possession” starts with the sentence “I have always wanted to write as if I would be gone when the book was published” and moves, in its second paragraph, to “The first thing I did after waking up” was grab his penis, after which, Ernaux introduces the “occupation” that gives the book its French title (mysteriously rendered as “Possession” in the English translation). Although it is the narrator who has left her lover, the minute he says he’s moving in with someone else, the idea of this other woman moves into the narrator, overruns her, mind and body, like an alien horde. Ernaux’s vocabulary here is military (unfortunately, untranslated as such in “The Possession”). Her lover’s announcement feels like a “débâcle,” the French expression for a military rout, as when Germany overran France in 1940 (the year of Ernaux’s birth). The narrator’s existence is “invaded” by the existence of the Other: “I was, in both senses of the word, occupied.”
The second meaning of “occupied” is, of course, busy, and the book meticulously charts a very busy six months, during which the narrator’s obsessive occupation is to imagine ways to get her lover back, or at the very least to learn the name of the Other, which her ex withholds. Powerless and as crazed with jealousy as Othello (the comparison is hers), she feels that to know her rival’s name would be to “own” a piece of her, whom she has never even seen — and yet sees “everywhere.” To the obsessed “I,” every woman looks like the one woman who has replaced her.
Although Ernaux’s stripped-down prose (“writing like a knife,” she has called it elsewhere) and reckless honesty are, as always, bracing, readers unfamiliar with her work might do better to begin with an earlier book, like “Cleaned Out” or “The Story of a Woman.” Anna Moschovakis’s translation is spirited, but sometimes misses the mark; and the layout of the English edition ignores the author’s chapter breaks (to conserve paper?), thereby squeezing the air out of what is already a short book. This does not serve Ernaux well, for even in French her text feels abbreviated, especially when set beside that great narrative of sexual jealousy, “Swann in Love.” Proust is as indomitable a rival on the page as the Other is in the ex’s bed.
Nancy Kline’s latest book, a translation, with Mary Ann Caws, of René Char’s “Furor and Mystery and Other Texts,” will be published this summer.