Annie Ernaux’s ‘A Woman’s Story’: Her Own Words

Arun Sharma

I had not heard of this 84-year-old French writer Annie Ernaux until she earned the title of ‘2022 Nobel Prize’ in Literature . I was intrigued, fascinated, bewildered to read the reviews and the comments about  her new journalistic style memoir-based expression, which didn’t quite fit with the  existing  contemporary norms. I found her writings novel, fresh, honest to the core of her own  raw intense feelings. Often  reader finds the author has split herself into a real sensitive person going through events of life and also at times comes across a dispassionate observer (of life) and yet she is cruising through an “intense emotional journey of  as a woman. “Annie is real, fearlessly, brutally and bluntly honest about life events and her memories.”  Her  critics noted as being  known “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.

A Woman’s Story(1988) is about her mother: “a cross between literature, sociology, and history” and she herself  as an “archivist,” about her social world  of six decades of life. Born in to a working-class family in rural France, the family struggled with existential  challenges in early life including the lack of indoor plumbing in her home. She writes:” In the old days one did not go to school like today. One listened to one’s parents and so on.” By the time she was 43 years old her parents had moved up socially  and owned a grocery store, a small café and, she  received university education, became a teacher and was married to an upper-class husband. By the time  she  was in mid-forties, he got already a divorcee with two sons. “My husband and I had the same level of education. We discussed Jean Paul Sartre, we shared the same the same left wing, and yet we were not from the same background. In his family they weren’t exactly rich  but they had been to university, they were good conversationalists, and they played bridge”

Her mother dies after years of suffering from Alzheimer as she notes: “the last bond between  me and the world ‘I’ come from has been severed.”

A decade later after A Woman’s Story, Ernaux refreshes the memories of her mother’s life, through, I Remain in Darkness. About the  reported inconsistencies and contradictions of the two versions, she says “I have come round to thinking that the consistency and coherence achieved in any written work—even when its innermost contradictions are laid bare—must be questioned whenever possible”

Writing about her mother she swings between a passionate as well  a dispassionate observer. She even wonders if she should be “detached” in her writings.

“Nobody knows I’m writing about her. But then, in a sense I feel I am not writing about her. It’s more like experiencing times and places we shared when we were together.” and: “She is the only woman who meant something to me. She had been suffering from senile dementia for two years. Perhaps I should wait for two years until her illness and death have merged into the past, like other events in my life-my father’s death, and the break up with my husband -so that I feel the detachment which makes it easier to analyze one’s memories.”

“ I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I have to say the choice and sequence of words, as if there existed only one immutable order which would convey the truth about my mother.  (Although what this truth involves, I’m unable to say.)”

During  adolescence  Annie  broke away from mother and there remained only constant struggle between them. “In the world where she grew up, the very idea that young girls could enjoy sexual freedom was unthinkable,  those who did were doomed for life. Sex was either presented  as a saucy business  unfit for “virgin ears” or else it served to dictate moral standards -people behaved “properly” or “improperly”.  I can remember the feeling of panic when I had to confess that I had period and say the word in front of her for the first time. I can also remember she handed me a sanitary towel, without explaining what to do with it.”

“ She called me  a beast, a slut and bitch or told me I was unpleasant.”

“Everything she did was done noisily. She would not put things down she seemed to throw them. She would often hit me usually by slapping my face. (I could have killed her.)”. Five minutes later she would take me into her arms and I was her “proppet.”

He mother got so drunk in a reception that she watched her getting sick and out of control.

” I eyed her arm resting on the  table, and the hand holding the glass, and prayed with all my might that she wouldn’t raise it to her lips.”

“She didn’t like to see me grownup. When she saw me undressed my body seem to reel her. No doubt she saw my breast and hips as a threat and afraid I would start running after boys and loose interest on my studies. She wanted to see me stay a child. I know she was terrified “I would have an accident” that I would start to sleep around and get pregnant.” She was always suspicious:” Who were you with? Are you getting your work done?”

“Sometime I thought her death would have meant nothing to me.”

As she grows up  studying at the arts faculty, mother saw her “in simpler light, without the shouting and violence. I was both certain of  her love for me and aware of one blatant injustice: she spent all day selling milk and potatoes so that I could sit in a lecture hall and learn about Plato.”

About the feeling of  alienation with mother: “When I came back home. We behaved towards each other with kindness almost shyness, as is the case with people who have stopped loving together.”

Ernaux’s own feelings of guilt and despair are  chronicled: “I feel absolutely nothing when I am with her, as soon as the elevator door snaps shut, I want to cry.”

Her pangs are  raw and confessional, reinforce  the story by showing  the writer’s pain, anguish and softer a loving and empathetic side of her.

“In1967 my father had a coronary and died four days later. There can be no other narrative and no other choice of words to explain what happened. The first night following his death, she lay down beside him in bed. After the funeral, she looked sad and weary and confessed to me: “It’s tough to lose one’s man.”(I have read in a newspaper that despair is a luxury.)”

After the death of her husband, her mother wanted go and  live with her  yet was not too comfortable either.  “In 1970 she came to live with us. He world had suddenly shrunk and lost its sparkle. Now she felt she was no body. Living with us was like living in a world that welcomed and rejected her at the same time. One day she said angrily: I don’t think I belong here.”

During mid 70’s the mother moved in to the daughter’s place but she was never comfortable losing her independence. “She never got used to living there. She resented being dependent on me and the car to buy something. When we bought a dishwasher, so depriving her of an occupation (of washing clothes by hand), she felt humiliated more than anything else:” What am I going to do now?”

One evening in December 15, 1979 her mother was  hit and run over by a car which “drove through traffic light on the pedestrian crossing.”

Mother begun having memory lapses and brain dysfunctions after the accident. “Things started happening to her. The train she was waiting for on the station platform had already left. When she went out to buy something all shops were closed. She turned against her relatives in Yvetot ( town where she lived), accusing them to prying her financial affairs, and refusing to see them.”

The effect of old age and the emotional impact of  her mother’s condition as a loving daughter is riveting and  sadly painful and powerfully moving! Tears flow: “One evening in April, she was already asleep at half past six lying across the rumpled sheets in her slip . Her knees were up, showing her private parts, it is very warm in the room. I started to cry because she was my mother, the same woman I had  known in my childhood. Her chest was covered in tiny in tiny blue vein”

Emotions flow as a riveting river!

“At the end of May she was moved back to the geriatric unit at Pontoise hospital’ as she walks through the entrance,  this is the last time that, she is unmistakably herself :wearing her glasses, the gray chine suit, a pair of smart shoes, and stockings, her head held high. In her suitcase  there are her blouses, her own underwear, and a few photographs and mementos.”

About her mother’s helpless condition!

She slowly slipped into a world without seasons, warm, gentle, and sweet smelling, where there was no notion of time, just the inevitable routine of eating and going to bed. Within a few weeks she lost her self-respect. He body began to sag and she walked around her shoulder hunched and her head bent. She lost her glasses  and her eyes took on a gazed expression.  The following summer she fractured her hipbone. There was no point of fixing her up with an artificial hip, nor, for that matter, making her new teeth and spectacles. Now she never left her wheel chair”

She powerfully describes people’s indifference to her mother’s condition and the mother’s need for love. Does the world understand her mother’s condition and a daughter’s pain to see her mother in a pathetic condition? With pain and anguish she is shocked to see that people want to see her mother die.

“People who had known her write to me, She deserved better than that. They felt sooner she was ‘out of  her misery’ the better. They didn’t come to see her, for them she was already dead. And, she still wanted to live. She liked being kissed and would pursue her lips in an attempt at mimicry. She was a little girl who would never grow up.”

And her passionate  and painful love for mother she (supposedly) hated her when Annie was younger:

“I didn’t want her to die. I need to feed her, to touch her, and to hear her. I felt sudden urge to take her away and give up everything else just to look after her.

She lived through another winter. The Sunday after Easter, I went to see her with some flowers. It was forsythia. It was a grey cold day. I washed her  mouth and her hands. Her skin was warm. Atone point, she grabbed at the flowers in the vase. Afternoon I wheeled her back to dining room. I kissed her goodbye and took the lift down. She died the next day.”

It’s the end of February. The weather has turned cold and it often rains. I returned to the old people’s  room. There was a light on in what used to be my mother’s room.  I was  astonished to realize for the first time: “Someone else has taken her place.” It also occurred to me that one day in the twenty first century, I would be one of the women.”

She powerfully reflects as she misses her mother: “Throughout the ten months I was writing this book, I dreamed of her every night, Although I realize  she is dead, sometimes, for a split second, I expect to see her come downstairs and settle  in the living room with her sewing basket. This feeling-which puts my mother’s illusory presence before her real absence-is no doubt the first stage of healing.”

On the aspect of giving part in life and healing of lingering loss of one’s mother Annie writes:

“She preferred giving to everybody, rather than taking from them. Isn’t writing also a way of giving?”

“I shall never hear the sound of her voice again.  It was her voice, together with her words, her hands, and her ways of laughing, which linked  the woman I am to the child I once was . The last bond between me and the world I come from has been severed.” (Sunday 20 April 1986-26 February 1987)

No doubt Annie is brutally honest, real, transparent and reflectively effective in her writings!

(Arun Sharma is a semiconductor engineer and a writer with seven published books.)