Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

This week Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ms. Ernaux’s parents were shopkeepers in the small town of Yvetot, France. They owned a grocery store and cafe, where her mother served women on the grocery side and her father served coffee and alcohol to men in the cafe. The three of them lived in the rooms upstairs.

Her parents wanted her to receive a proper education, to surpass them, and she did. As she writes of her mother in an early book, “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.”

Many writers pay a debt to their parents or to the world they left behind. But by making the past a theme, Ms. Ernaux takes homage further than that.

Consider, for instance, the apparent simplicity of her language. It emerged from an aesthetic decision to have her work remain “a cut below literature.” Ms. Ernaux has written that her aversion to playing with metaphors comes from an allegiance to her parents. She doesn’t want to write in a way that is different from how the people she grew up with speak. […]

Ms. Ernaux presents time as something onto which, if just for a moment, the detritus of civilization attaches; it favors no one thing over anything else. Time leaves behind world wars as lightly as it leaves behind the greatest movie stars, sexual mores, one’s parents, grandparents, children.

“All the images will disappear,” reads the book’s opening sentence, which is followed by a list of the specific things that will disappear, including moments witnessed only by Ms. Ernaux (“the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee”).

Her relationship to time — which demonstrates an almost holy respect for the authentic pastness of the past — developed slowly, patiently, over more than 20 books.

Ms. Ernaux is radically attuned to what it means to look backward. History will always resist our desire to lay our greedy hands on it. This brings a fascinating tension to her books. Despite the writer’s sincerest attempts, the past will always push us away, for it belongs not to us but to a world that was just as complicated as this one, coherent in itself and forever sealed off from the present.

The opening chapter of “The Years” concludes:

Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. … In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.

The beautiful form of “The Years” is utterly its own, and I find it hard to think of a book more moving. She shows that humans are not their insides but their props and their settings. It is reassuring to imagine the self or the soul as something eternal, but it is harder to think that of a can of peas. It is a resolute — yet somehow euphoric — book about mortality, about how everything is always being lost to time, often without our even noticing it.

Although I don’t understand the need to declare winners in art, I was happy when I heard that Ms. Ernaux had been awarded the Nobel. All one wants for the writers one loves is for their names to never vanish into anonymity.

We can’t delude ourselves about what time does to books and civilizations, but with the help of this prize, hopefully an even more distant generation will remember the name of Annie Ernaux.

—  Sheila Heti, from “What Nobel Prize-Winner Annie Ernaux Understands About the Past“, NY Times, October 8, 2022.

 


Notes:

  • Inspired by: “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing. In other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.” —  Annie Ernaux, Happening: A NovelTanya Leslie (Translator). (Seven Stories Press; May 14, 2019)

 

 

My long painful wait… Now I was only time flowing through myself.


Notes:

  • Photo: DK @ Daybreak. 4:58 am. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT.
  • Post title from: Annie Ernaux, “Simple Passion.” Tanya Leslie (Translator). (Seven Stories Press; January 4, 2011)
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