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October 2023 Issue [Reviews]

All the Images Will Disappear

On Annie Ernaux’s spectacular impersonality
Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Discussed in this essay:

A Girl’s Story, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer.
Seven Stories Press. 160 pages. $18.95.

A Man’s Place, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie.
Seven Stories Press. 96 pages. $13.95.

A Woman’s Story, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie.
Seven Stories Press. 104 pages. $12.95.

Getting Lost, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer.
Seven Stories Press. 240 pages. $18.95.

The Young Man, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer.
Seven Stories Press. 64 pages. $13.95.


In 1978, the French writer Guy Debord made his sixth film. “I will make no concessions to the public,” he says in voice-over at the start. That public was made of “spectators”—of the cinema and of life itself, a life so ravaged by market forces that it had been torn from its own experience. France’s postwar boom was really an impoverishment, a mass deadening. And most pathetic were the pleasures of the expanded middle classes. Stupefied by their amusements and in love with their pointless work, these “low-level skilled employees” in “management, control, maintenance, research, teaching, propaganda, entertainment, and pseudocritique” were proud to toil in a system that mashed their minds to paste. “How harshly the mode of production has treated them!” Debord marveled. “With all their ‘upward mobility’ they have lost the little they had and gained what no one wanted.”

To be one of these people was the dream of Annie Ernaux’s youth. Born in Normandy in 1940, she excelled at her Catholic high school. At eighteen she left her hometown of Yvetot and then attended university in Rouen. Exams, diplomas, moves; mastering the canon of French writers and snapping up the latest by Françoise Sagan; acquiring the certificate to teach literature at the lycée: these were normal gratifications for a daughter of the middle class. But she wasn’t one. She’d been transplanted, fantastically, from another, far-flung world. Her parents ran a small café-grocery, but before that were virtually peasants; both had left school at twelve. They met at a rope factory between the wars and spoke the Norman dialect, her father clamming up if he was forced to use proper French.

So the girl was a gift, and a riddle. She learned to dress differently, talk differently. She became a teacher and an intellectual (while doing the duties of mother and wife), cultivating chic appetites and striking metropolitan postures: all the pretty self-mutilations that befit her newfound status. One day, as she plays with her young son on the train—so he wouldn’t bother the other passengers in their first-class compartment—she’s hit by two thoughts at once. “Now I really am bourgeois”; “It’s too late now.” The train is speeding away from Yvetot, where after a slightly fumbled ceremony, she’s seen her father’s coffin get dropped into the pit.

Both the train scene and the funeral are planted near the start of A Man’s Place (1983)—technically Ernaux’s fourth book. Forty years on, it has the drama of a debut. The volume marks the decisive first step in the sequence that has launched her to prestige in France, sown a fistful of acolytes, and made her first three works, all novels, look like feints before the stunning project that’s established her proper genre—a kind of autobiography. Or autobiographical act:

I shall collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, as well as the main events of his life. In short, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.

No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally. It was the same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.

The tight-lipped tone is typical. So is the reflexivity. Every work returns to her past or her parents, and like A Man’s Place, most are short. On the one hand, length is a limit; economy is required here. So each book is pinned to a period or episode (say, a sexual humiliation), or runs through an entire life in a brutal miracle of compression: her father’s in A Man’s Place, her mother’s in A Woman’s Story. “This neutral way of writing” is l’écriture plate in the original: flat writing.

But the brevity has a function. Ernaux’s works aren’t coy or glancing; they’ve been sharpened to a point. Though she seems like a writer of details, each book is a vital mission, carried out with thrusting force. “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony”—and no sentimental preciousness or descents into self-pity. The charge is to see and to do something: Rifle through the particulars so you can synthesize and thus transcend them. Reap some fearless insight from the arid patch of facts. Yes, she knows that she will fail, and that any task she gives her writing will only slap her back to the self that writes. Nevertheless she tries—to reach outside herself but through herself, in search of a place or substance beyond the caprice of subjectivity and the lacquered box of bourgeois style.She’s not afraid of the word “truth.” As she proclaims in A Woman’s Story, she will seek “the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words.” But: “I would like to remain a cut below literature.”

Below literature. What form should this writing take? A formless form: a text that mutates and proliferates but also lops off its own limbs. The works slam into and displace one another, skitter across their boundaries or seize uncharted territory, drilling repeatedly into certain eras while leaving others unexposed, such that the power of this corpus—its philosophical intensity and moving execution—only fully strikes you once you’re four or five books deep. That’s not to say that a given volume won’t be affecting on its own. Aesthetic pleasure glints at the jagged angles of the fragment.

The code of behavior of the perfect storekeeper involves a number of rules; the following ones apply to me:

—I must say hello in a clear, loud voice every time I enter or walk through the store of the café

—I must be the first to greet customers wherever I meet them

—I must not repeat the things I know about them, I must not speak ill of them or other storekeepers

—I must never divulge the takings of the day

—I must never give myself airs or show off

Lists stream through this body of work, and this one comes from Shame (1997). Their effects can be conflicting. A list may carry the weight of fact (simply tabulating items retrieved from a stable past) or it may capture memory’s fancy (the sudden flash of a phrase or face). In either case, mere realism is evaporated by the real: the staccato of experience, the ruthless social code, the delimited milieu these works both issue from and frame. The zap of parataxis keeps “literariness” in check. Ernaux has claimed that reading Pierre Bourdieu gave her “permission” to write her first novel, Cleaned Out (1974), so Shame is not unique for devising an impromptu sociology. She snaps a portrait of the Norman poor: customs, sayings, hates, laws.

Or, to use Bourdieu’s word, habitus. Days are chained to tasks: slaughtering rabbits and chickens, scrubbing your face and cleaning your teeth without finishing off the water. “We are approaching the palace,” her mother likes to trill “out of pride as much as derision,” spotting the grocery from the road. Annie sleeps in her parents’ bedroom in the loft above the store. Homework is done under the light bulb screwed in at the top of the stairs. Lives advance in changeless stages: birth, childhood, marriage, children; work until you can’t. Drumming beneath the terseness is young Annie’s constant fear that this ingrown rural world is fully hideous and depraved—and that it will stain her life forever. She knows there’s another France. It gleams from a rich girl’s shoes; it croons from the family radio. By the time Ernaux wrote Shame, her readers already knew this. But something dragged her back, an event excluded from the earlier volumes, one whose buried power forced a fresh draft of her past. “My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon,” reads the first line. “I had been to Mass at a quarter to twelve as usual.”

Flat writing. Flat like a wall, or a blade. The scene is just two pages—quarrel, scythe, scream, retreat—and neither mother nor father speak of it to their daughter ever again. But it slices through eleven-year-old Annie. To her, it is 1952. Her recollections and interpretations are linked irreversibly to this episode, as her town, house, school, and street are lit up by a flash of fear. This would supply the template for two later books, in which a single vicious memory is at once forbidding and revealing—an event as lock and key. Happening (2000) is about her abortion in 1963. A Girl’s Story (2016) is about a sexual degradation she experienced the summer she first left home. Psychology swoops down valiantly to proffer a story (in an alien language), but she longs for a form of writing gripped by memories themselves—sparking from their friction, expressed in their spastic grammar.

“Above all I shall endeavor to revisit every single image,” Ernaux writes in Happening, “until I feel that I have physically bonded with it, until a few words spring forth, of which I can say, ‘yes, that’s it.’ ” What space is left for meaning in this fantasy of spontaneity? And how close does it come to truth? The abortion takes place when Ernaux is at university in Rouen, eleven years before the procedure was legalized in France. The action hurtles forward, propelled by disgrace and the threat of the law, as she lies to her classmates, gets sneered at by doctors, and after false leads and frantic stratagems finds herself on a train to Paris, where a woman inserts a long metal instrument and tells her to stop screaming. From this excruciating immediacy comes a glimpse of the social whole: “I am convinced that the walls still resonate with the memory of the girls and women who went there to have a probe thrust up their belly.” Near the volume’s end, a doctor is called to her dormitory as she hemorrhages on the bed. She’s too weak to get up and pay him, “so he opened the drawer of my desk and helped himself from my wallet.” The scene conforms to the fractal pattern fanning out across the text: the fact of domination, the feeling of being ruled.

Abstractions shoot through Ernaux’s literalism. Something is happening beneath the flatness. You could even say that l’écriture plate, despite its recoil from high culture, is marked by the vanguards and philosophical patricides that have driven French art and thought—the constraint-based works of Oulipo, Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist feminism, the ravishing self-incisions of the Surrealist generation (Happening’s epigraph is from Michel Leiris). And one would be justified in hearing “flat” writing as a reply to midcentury “white” writing, a phrase first used by Sartre and later taken up by Roland Barthes. This steely modern prose—the styleless style of a Camus—disdained the frills of bourgeois writing but achieved the bourgeoisie’s real dream: to snap the link between history and literature.

But Ernaux drops “below literature,” not sprung from history but sunk in it, each work a little swatch of sociocultural texture. This is a noble impulse, and it suggests yet another lineage: the (very French) study of everyday life. These were theories of modern experience and the rhythm of social routine—shopping and driving, leisure and cooking. Towering over the genre is Henri Lefebvre’s three-volume Critique of Everyday Life, the first of which was published in 1947. Later decades brought Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, and, most radical, Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations, translated into English as The Revolution of Everyday Life, and written after he’d joined a group called the Situationist International.

It was a mix of militant faction and avant-garde clique: architects, writers, communists, painters. In 1961, for a conference convened by Lefebvre himself, the S.I. submitted a tape recording—attending would have suggested a sniveling reverence for expertise. On the tape was the essay “Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life,” by their de facto leader, Guy Debord.

Ernaux is nothing like Debord. They may even be opposites. He the ratty lapsed bourgeois; she the self-confessed arriviste. He the Left Bank rebel, she the provincial teacher who would move to a Paris suburb, the glassy “new town” of Cergy-Pontoise (she’s still there). One can imagine his denunciations: of her embrace by the French public, of her anointment by Gallimard, of the tight limits of her project (he called his own memoir Panegyric), and of her dutiful proximity to the parliamentary left—first as a supporter of the Socialists, and now, vocally, of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. And if it weren’t for Debord’s suicide in 1994, he might have lived long enough to shit on her Nobel Prize. (When Sartre refused the honor, the Lettrist International, an S.I. precursor, pronounced it a failure to have been chosen in the first place.)

Opposites, then—but perhaps in the manner of mirror images. She was born only nine years after him, and her saga of class arrival takes stock of the changes in national life that would in part provoke Debord’s 1978 film: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (Latin for “we turn in the night, consumed by fire”). Ernaux’s childhood and adolescence align almost completely with the postliberation prosperity known today as the Trente Glorieuses. Her escape from Yvetot, her zealous ambition, her wish to live within a pop song and catapult herself to oblivious comfort were taking place alongside the embourgeoisement and urbanization of whole swathes of French society. (And she, too, feels this abundance as a kind of loss.) To Debord, this was a sample of a worldwide phenomenon he called the “spectacle”: “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” This epoch cleaved to a commodity logic so insidiously sophisticated that it flooded human experience—the deep recesses of psyche and the pattern of everyday life—with luminous, protean pictures. Those pictures ruled the world. They mandated mass passivity, as they produced a sense of wholeness in a system rooted in alienation: a thrumming, roaring unity kept alive by ceaseless splits.

Ernaux could call her oeuvre the Splitting of Everyday Life (though she winces at the word oeuvre). Each book is a brittle exercise in auto-vivisection. Shocking self-indulgence sits cheek by jowl with self-denial. Obliterating passion is viewed at a calm remove. She makes a harrowing display of cutting through layers of the ego—but the prose is a planar surface, such that even her jerks and stutters arrive at a curious fluency. Reeling from a girlhood stalked by the image of the bourgeois good life, she becomes a meta- or master-spectator, swiveling vigorously, compulsively, to get a look at her own looking—but she only catches flashes. This is a pointillist subjectivity, a psyche playing arpeggios. As she writes in A Girl’s Story, “She has no defined self, but ‘selves’ who pass from one book to another”—a sentence saved from po-mo dazzlement by the coolness of that “she.”

Snapping into third person is a kind of Ernaux tic. It signals not just severance from her past, but that said past isn’t fully hers. No sensation is lodged too deep to be pierced or dictated by someone else, which may explain why her first works of autobiography were devoted to her late parents—and why her many books about sex, though they relish the pleasures and thrilling conquests of her trysts as a grown woman, are nevertheless examinations of depletion and stinging grief. Before Shame, she published Simple Passion (1991), about her affair with a Soviet attaché in Paris. He’s married, thoughtless, brusque. She waits in agony for his phone calls—which come at tyrannically random intervals—so he can burst through her front door, stinking of drink and erotically ravenous, to inflict a bit of the rapture that both fills and saps her life.

Men are important to Ernaux. Not just as objects of the desire about which she’s so admirably frank, but as stripes through her experience, forming zones of heat and risk. (On her mother in A Woman’s Story: “She is the only woman who really meant something to me.”) The very presence of a man jacks up the stakes of daily routine. As she writes near the start of a later work, in the aftermath of another affair:

The first thing I did after waking up was grab his cock—stiff with sleep—and hold still, as if hanging onto a branch. . . .

Now he’s in the bed of another woman. Maybe she makes the same gesture, stretching out her hand and grabbing his cock. For months, I have had a vision of this hand and have felt that it was mine.

The book is called The Possession (2002). Consumed by jealousy of this new lover, Ernaux throws herself into a quest to find out who it is. She scours websites, gropes at clues, even pumps the ex for details (exploiting their delicate cordiality), the eventual effect of which is a rabid psychedelia. That Ernaux herself had ended things is somehow beside the point. So, in a way, is the man. Though he signifies nothing less than her rootedness to the world, we’re told nothing about him, so her exorbitant exaltation is also a tacit slight: he’s just a prick, awaiting her grip.

What hurts is the winking symmetry between her hand and the other woman’s. Ernaux has been succeeded, and therefore voided: in these books, the paramount masculine threat. The fear of effacement or falling apart runs through all of Ernaux’s writing, and gets both thicker and more explicit when confronted with the fact of sex. Her desire is to be desired. But this amplifies the problem staged afresh with every book, that of self-making, self-display: sculpting the self into a glittering object for the Other to cherish or stomp to shards. It’s not lost on her that shattering can be a part, or the point, of sex. But she takes the rapacity of infatuation, how orgasm blots out the world, and deposits it, impossibly, in an era and a scene, as if to prove the place of oblivion in the rhythm of everyday life. And it matters that she’s lived through shifts in sexual protocols and mores; the century comes rushing in. As she begins Simple Passion: “This summer, for the first time, I watched an X-rated film on Canal Plus.” In Happening, she recalls her abortion while getting an HIV test: “So it would appear my life is confined to the period separating the Ogino method [of birth control] from the age of cheap condom dispensers.” She’s a liberated woman, which means new ecstasies, new ambivalences. Each affair is an inner apocalypse and the unfolding of a social process, each fling or tryst or heartbreak the private face of a crashing change. So the sexual revolution has all the glories and ironies of a genuine revolution—she’s the Isaac Babel of getting fucked. This is how she starts The Young Man, which was published in France last year:

Five years ago, I spent an awkward night with a student who had been writing to me for a year and wanted to meet me.

Often I have made love to force myself to write. I hoped to find in the fatigue, the dereliction that comes after, reasons not to expect anything more from life. I hoped that orgasm, the most violent end to waiting that can be, would make me feel certain that there is no greater pleasure than writing a book.

He lives with a girlfriend his age: both too young, Ernaux believes, to have ever “imagined that making love could be anything other than a more or less slow-motion satisfaction of desire.” The affair will set him straight. This time Ernaux is the erotic master, treating the man, with stilted gallantry, to the violence of genuine passion. But he’s useful for her too. He arrived at the university from the world of the working class. His gruffness, slang, and gestures pitch her back to her grasping origins and assert, with succulent melancholy, how far she is from home. “I felt as if I had been lying on a bed since age eighteen,” she writes, recalling his mattress on the floor, “and never risen from it—the same bed but in different places, with different men, indistinguishable from one another.” And he happens to live in Rouen: his apartment looks out on the hospital she was rushed to with a hemorrhage in 1963.

Links between books aren’t always obvious. But the Ernaux reader on the hunt for unity might note that each work takes place on at least three levels—three terraced conceptual planes. First, the sociological: These books are “about” class, and “about” sex and femininity. The themes are interlocking. She fears that having a child as an unmarried student will drag her back to the proletariat; in later works like The Young Man, it makes a difference that she’s the bourge. The second level is durational, the plane of writing, and of time. She craves immediate, smashing presence—but she’s not falling through time so much as handling it, subjecting it to desperate operations. It always overpowers her. Time is the pitiless, streaming substance that makes and melts her every second, such that writing, if it can’t flout time, can maybe surf its brutal flow. Perhaps writing can work like sex, as at the end of Simple Passion: “I measured time differently, with all my body.” But on the same page: “I haven’t written a book about him, neither have I written a book about myself.” Erasure, displacement, emptying: these are her uppermost—most intimate—themes. Ransacked by sexual passion and held hostage by passing time, she writes to act out her passivity, inspect her own spectatorship, traverse the vast, blank territory where an “I” is meant to be.

Hence her many published diaries: without synthesis or revision, writing forfeits its fabulous poise and lapses into trace or reflex—a book as the sound of a struck drum. Exteriors is a collection of notes, prompted by her commute to and from Cergy-Pontoise; Look at the Lights, My Love catalogues observations from the aisles of a local supermarket. Existence slit into serialized moments becomes a kind of living list. And then there are those diaries that attempt to strip her own books bare. Getting Lost is a log of her affair with the married Soviet, so this is obsession as it’s really lived, with the self-replenishing present as a slaughterhouse of subjectivity; Simple Passion is the steak tartare. She wants a more dramatic surrender, to plummet further “below literature,” so she ratchets up the tension between immediacy and dislocation by relinquishing one more layer of authorial control—itself a bold authorial choice. “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,” she writes in a kind of coda to A Woman’s Story called “I Remain in Darkness.” It’s a record of her mother’s dementia and final days, and the most affecting of her diaries. She refers to the pages themselves as “vestiges of pain.”

And last year saw the release of The Super 8 Years, a short film made with her son David Ernaux-Briot. It takes the form of a video essay, in which she reads over home videos from the Seventies and Eighties shot by her then-husband Philippe. Shifting before his camera, she achieves a flickering passivity—and a new form of flatness. “Film truly captured life and people,” she says in voice-over, “even if the films were silent.”

“All the images will disappear.” Then a nine-page suite of memories: jokes, strangers, faces, films, vivid sensory shrapnel slashing through the mind—like the filthy Lillebonne lavatory jutting out over the river, “the feces mixed with paper gently borne away by the water that laps around them.” The list that opens Ernaux’s magnum opus, The Years, recalls her earlier work, but at the same time makes a break. This book will hold it all.

How to write an entire life after decades of shredding the “I”? Ernaux can’t undo the fracturing. But perhaps she can exacerbate it, advance it to a fearless extreme: the text is dotted by third-person descriptions of pictures of her, each face a vanished self. And the rest of the book will be spoken not by an I, but by a we:

We slipped into a downy present, unable to say whether it was because of our move to a place without a past, or the infinite horizon of an “advanced liberal society,” or a fortuitous conjunction of the two.

The life narrated is Ernaux’s. But the nous and on in the French text seem to billow in a sudden wind that seems sometimes like France, sometimes like her generation, sometimes like French women (“We, who had undergone kitchen-table abortions”), and sometimes like the poor (“From a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns”). The singularity of this self-portrait lies in the stacking of generalities, all the pressures and satisfactions of a life thrust into disparate arenas and unfurling at different scales. The book can’t salvage every memory, but it can gather every kind of memory: Yvetot memories and divorce memories, memories of political flash points and of the taunts of little boys confect a shimmering textual membrane, an almost mystic surface in which the discrepant planes of existence are collapsed by the plural voice. There are no grand episodes here, only blazing, fading phenomena, ferried along by sentences that are no longer stark or stabbing, but recursive, elaborate, cruising. And the book’s first part rings with memories that aren’t properly her own: stories retold by elders about life during the war.

Which is to say that the concerns that plow through Ernaux’s earlier books—dispossession, dislocation, being slotted into a series or dunked in the boiling mass—aren’t overcome in The Years but fabulously rephrased: offering herself up to the plural or impersonal pronoun is the most bracing assertion of her essential violability. But this we is vulnerable, too: “Whether under the bedclothes or in the lavatory, we masturbated before the eyes of all society.” This is a watching we, and a watched we; Debord (whom she names in passing) might call it a spectacular we. Proper names go flitting through nearly every paragraph—movies, singers, scandals, presidents, technologies, fads, disasters, brands. All the images will disappear—in part because each image assassinates and can be exchanged for every other, in a rhythm of crumbling and assembling that belongs not to time itself but, vitally, to the commodity. Life as rippling catalogue, one ultimate, absolute list.

And running ribbon-like through the formalism is a familiar story: that of a girl, born to poor parents in a Norman town. She studies, leaves home, marries; she has two children and many affairs. Transfixed by de Beauvoir and invigorated by Bourdieu, she finds a way, at last, to write. In the flashing succession of pictures beamed from a point of spectacular impersonality and impossible suspension, we glimpse a father attacking a mother, a harrowing abortion, an affair with a married Soviet, and—though these books were published after The Years—the humiliation of A Girl’s Story and the mattress of The Young Man, lying on the floor. These aren’t climaxes or catastrophes, but moments: released from the clutch of extremity by the writing’s steady motion, and delivered from specific passions by her dispersal into a we.

In a third-person section, Ernaux recalls asking herself what effect she hopes for in the finished work, something like Proust, or Vasily Grossman. Some pages later she has a name for it: the “palimpsest sensation.” A palimpsest is a plane, a passive flatness—scrawled on, penetrated, scraped. But it also resists the process that lays down meaning from above. The palimpsest is swollen with meanings, and exerts pressure over new meanings, such that penetrability is a kind of memory—and memory a form of force.

1968 is the year of The Years, just as Shame is Ernaux’s book about 1952 and Happening about 1963. A hundred pages in, the May uprising splits The Years in half, and, occupying eight pages, forms the book’s most fully fleshed episode, and its only properly established narrative scene. Ernaux is a teacher and a twenty-seven-year-old mother when the student revolt in Paris reaches her by radio. But the words soon mean more:

On our behalf, they hurled years of censure and repression back at the State, the violent suppression of the demonstrations against the war in Algeria, the racist attacks, the banning of The Nun, and the unmarked black Citroën DS’s of the police. They avenged us for our fettered adolescence, the respectful hush of lecture halls, the shame we felt at sneaking boys into our residence rooms.

This is May, seen from the provinces. Which means that Ernaux doesn’t give us insolent graffiti or the occupation of the Sorbonne or Godard roaring insults at Cannes, but the thing that dealt the most effective blow that spring: the general strike. So the we is most plausible and literal when it embraces the nearly ten million wildcat workers who (in an Ernaudian displacement) brought the state to the brink of catastrophe with a blast of their own absence:

We stopped working, for no specific reason and with no demands to make, but simply because we’d caught the bug, and when the unexpected suddenly occurs, there is nothing to do but wait.

The strike is a reclamation, an act of memory, and a rebuke for the exploited years; those who live “below literature,” in search of lost time. And by suspending the time of the rulers—at once vaulting her outside herself while plunging her deep in her own memories—the revolt gives birth to the plural voice: “1968 was the first year of the world.”

How to write after the rupture? In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, the title of Debord’s film, chosen a decade after the failure of the May protests, is a palindrome. “Nothing expresses this restless and exitless present,” he declares with acid brilliance, so well as a phrase that reads the same way backward—total, spectacular closure. There are times in The Years when the betrayal and effacement of May compels Ernaux to say something similar. But the final pages supply an alternative:

There was no ineffable world that leapt out from inspired words, as if by magic, and she would never write except from inside her language, which is everyone’s language, the only tool she’s ever intended on using to act upon the things that outraged her. So the book to be written represented an instrument of struggle.

Inside her language, which is everyone’s language. Not a palindrome, but a kind of anagram, a practice of slashing and unraveling, dynamism and strategy, ripping live meanings from the crushed ones and new truths from the dead. Which is perhaps why at the start of the strikes against Macron this year, when workers and students once more exploded against the police, the eighty-two-year-old Ernaux appeared at the head of a march: the somewhat dissonant image of the writer, fresh from her Nobel win, who remembers where she came from and still knows whose side she is on. As she told the audience in Stockholm: given her experience as a woman and as a child of the working class, she writes to get revenge.

 has written about art, literature, and politics in n+1, Artforum, and elsewhere.

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