There is a sweetness in the voice on the other end of the phone when writer Annie Ernaux answers and apologizes for not being able to personally attend this interview. “In the current circumstances, it’s better this way,” he says.
At the age of eighty, Ernaux maintains intact the audacity that has always allowed him to speak without modesty about his personal experiences, which in turn are common to thousands and thousands of women.
Without modesty, in fact, she has put her own life on the table: her sexual desire, the diagnosis of breast cancer in the middle of a love story, the eating disorder that she suffered as a result of the desire to be more attractive in the eyes of a man.
The abortion of the son of a man who wrote to him in a letter to manage alone, the passion of an adultery, the whole life that is encrypted in a call to make the next appointment, the absence of menstruation as a sign of guilt, the days spent in the futility of housework, destined exclusively for the women’s agenda; her initiation to sex life, the “watchful eye” of a mother who exceeds care, while the girl “is dying to make love but only for love”, even though she does not know how to talk to Boys; and, of course, the infinite moral judgments that emerge as soon as a woman crosses the line of “what is right”.
The list could get longer. But the truth is that this Norman woman transformed everything that was not talked about into literary writing, not only because it was, or continues to be, taboo, but because it was also considered that “none of this reached even the status of a subject debate, ”she says.
But it was, perhaps, thanks to the emptiness of representation references and the impossibility of speaking openly about those experiences that he managed to build an autobiographical empire of an overwhelming universality.
“The absence of meaning of what is lived in the moment in which it is lived is what multiplies the possibilities of writing”, reads in his most recent book Memoria de chica (2016).
It is true that, at times, the tenderness of that tone of voice contrasts with the harshness and stark honesty that characterize his works and that have earned him multiple recognitions, including Marguerite Duras (2008), for Los años, and the Marguerite Yourcenar (2017), for all of her work, awards that she took as “beautiful distinctions”, as she has “great admiration for who they were: women of extraordinary freedom in their lives and their writings.”
It is difficult to explain, but I can make a comparison: it is as if in my memory there were closed rooms and the writing meant entering those dark rooms, moving forward little by little, touching things, opening doors and windows.
In France, it has been suggested that Memoria de chica should be a compulsory reading in high school. Do you think that the ideal reader of that book are teenagers who are living or are exposed to living what is there?
If that measure were carried out, it would effectively be the sign of an awareness. But beyond that, I think it is the age in which the representation of the other is formed. In this sense, I believe that Memoria de chica can fulfill the function that the reading of The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, fulfilled for me at 18 years of age.
I believe that the situation that I lived and that I tell in a clear and autobiographical way in my book can allow girls and boys to project themselves in the same situation.
The difference with The Second Sex is that it is a philosophical and theoretical book, but I remember that what I loved about it were the concrete situations: the wedding night, which was always a violation; the women who work in the house doing all the work and, at the same time, the great philosophical look that it entailed on how women were in a world dominated by men, in which they represented immanence, is the term that she uses, and men, transcendence.
In other words, men are born with all the possibilities of freedom, whereas women are submissive to the desire, will and laws of men.
The act of reading a book is conjugated with the story itself. I realized my submission and there took place that proud rejection of everything that could touch sexuality from near or far.
The body became for me an object that disgusted me, I fell into bulimia, I was very bad with my body.
There was that ambivalence about reading Beauvoir. In addition, I had the example of my mother: a strong woman who in her partner was the “mistress” who never allowed herself to be dominated, something we find in The Second Sex, when Beauvoir speaks of the equality that can exist in a merchant couple because indeed my parents had a store.
But in society, which was so macho, it was only until the 70s that we were able to say: “My body is mine”, and only there was there a real change. Because before, for example, everything that implied contraception and abortion was prohibited. And, of course, Simone de Beauvoir was very active in that movement.