“The Young Man”, the centerpiece of Annie Ernaux’s writing

New text by Annie Ernaux, “Le Jeune Homme” is a perfect miniature that concentrates all her books in a Proustian gesture of breathtaking beauty.

Annie Ernaux was very present in 2021, but for two films: the adaptation of easy passion by Danielle Arbid, and of course The event by Audrey Diwan, Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. And we can bet we’ll see her a lot for another movie, her this time: The Super Eight Yearsco-directed with his son, David Ernaux, consisting of family films and which will be screened at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.

But just before, fortunately, the writer we have been missing since then memory of the girl in 2016 he published The young man. A text so short that it seems like a fragment, as if it were the escaped chapter of a larger book that would actually be his entire work. In just forty pages, Ernaux concentrates all his literary gesture, all the founding themes of his writing, some of his keys, and shows the comings and goings that constantly operate between life and writing, as life writes.

A lived story

If I do not write to you, things are not finished, they have only been lived”, He notes from the epigraph. And from the first page:I have often made love to force myself to write. I wanted to find in the fatigue, in the abandonment that follows, reasons not to expect anything else from life. I hoped that the end of the most violent waiting there is, that of enjoyment, would make me feel certain that there was no greater enjoyment than that of writing a book. It was perhaps this desire that triggered the writing of the book – which I hesitated to undertake due to its scope – that had prompted me to bring A. to my home.

Young A., a thirty-year-old student younger than her, with whom she had a relationship at the age of 54 in the 90s, will in fact trigger the writing of a book: it will be The eventa disconcerting account of her clandestine abortion at the age of 23 in 1963, published in 2000 in an embarrassed silence from the media, when it was still good to sulk at a female experience seen as “improper“. As if certain things, experienced and told by a woman, concerning in particular her body, her sex, were inappropriate, dirty, shameful. Already in 1992 Ernaux took everything in the face (insults, ferocious jokes, treatments that would never have been reserved for a man) for easy passiona chronicle of her longing for a man, her love and sexual obsession, her waiting, their antics at her home in the afternoon.

It is through this double movement to bring into literature, but without the fantasy of fiction, its clichés or its beautiful metaphors, both the sexuality of women and the life of the dominated popular social classes (his childhood, his family, coffee – grocery store in Yvetot run by his parents), that Ernaux’s impropriety pushed back the limits of what can be said and seen, where women and underdogs were too systematically confined.

Write “the inconvenience”

The young man therefore, it stages an “unseemly” bond – in the eyes of society – experienced by a woman who is free and free to tell about it. But this dazzling text, begun by Ernaux between 1998 and 2000, completed or revised in 2022, quickly doubled into another dimension: a game of mirrors between the times, a temporal reverberation between lovers. “What I felt in this relationship was of an unspeakable nature, where sex, time and memory were intertwined.

She joins the young man every weekend in Rouen, where he studies as she herself had studied there thirty years earlier; as she has worker origins (in front of him, she is the bourgeois, she writes, thus measuring the social change that the passage of time, among other things, has brought about in her). When she falls asleep next to him on Sunday afternoon, she feels the same as she does when she reads beside her sleeping mother at Yvetot; and then the windows of her apartment to her overlook the now disused Hôtel Dieu, but where she was hospitalized to stop the bleeding triggered by the clandestine abortion.

Their relationship becomes a schedule in which Ernaux revisits memories, finds himself in the labyrinth of memory, relives things he has already experienced, as if he were following the script – already written – of their history, like a fictional character. The young man is a “memory opener” and The young man, the story of a reminiscence in the Proustian sense of the term. You must read the beautiful number of Notebooks of Herne which comes out at the same time and which is dedicated to him. In addition to collecting texts by writers (Delphine de Vigan, Nicolas Mathieu, Ivan Jablonka, Geneviève Brisac, etc.) and unpublished extracts from Ernaux’s writing diary, this volume dedicates a chapter to the writer’s relationship with Proust, stronger than ever it would be to think. Maya Lavault reminds us that if everything seems to oppose them – short books, short sentences, rejection of fiction, of the novel, of masks, as a political act with Ernaux, unlike Proust -, the writer said: “More Proustian than me, die!“There are books that can only be written over time, only at a certain age. “With him my memory seemed infinite”He writes in this Young man which is the fulcrum of the puzzle of his life, what Proust called the time regained.

The young man (Gallimard), 38 p., 8 euros. In bookstores on May 5th.

Herne Ernaux (Notebooks of Herne) 320 pages, 33 euros. May 5th.

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