Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve been meaning to try more of Annie Ernaux’s work for the past six months, ever since I read her hugely impressive memoir, The Years, published in France in 2008. It’s a fascinating, distinctive book, a kind of collective biography in which the cultural and social history of a generation – Ernaux’s generation – is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. So, with the imminent release of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Ernaux’s Happening (another memoir), I was galvanised into action. (The film picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and I’m very eager to see it.)

First published in French in 2000, and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was twenty-three, studying literature at Rouen University and living in the college halls of residence. Like most young women of her day, Ernaux uses the Ogino (or ‘rhythm’) method of birth control to minimise the chances of conceiving. (Other, more reliable forms of contraception were not legally sanctioned in France until 1967, four years down the line.)

Unfortunately for Ernaux, she falls pregnant, something she resists naming explicitly as this would feel like a validation of her status – for example, why use the word ‘expecting’ when she has no intention of giving birth? It’s a pregnancy that Ernaux is determined to terminate, partly due to the restrictions it would impose on her day-to-day life and partly for the associated stigma and sense of shame. (Ernaux’s desire to distance herself from her working-class background – her parents run a grocer’s shop – remains an important theme in her work.)

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure. (p. 23)

Abortion was illegal in France in the early ‘60s, and the penalties for any involvement in such a practice were widely known to be severe. Consequently, Ernaux must find someone who is willing to perform a backstreet termination – something she manages to do through a contact of a friend. The abortionist is a nurse, a plain-speaking woman in her sixties who will conduct the procedure at her home in Paris, a small flat in the 17th arrondissement. Interestingly, there is a quiet determination about this woman who simply focuses on the essentials at hand. She makes no judgments about Annie’s decision to abort; there are no awkward questions or feelings to be explored, just the practical details of what needs to happen and when.

In essence, Happening is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of the abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. While Ernaux wishes to convey a steady flow of unhappiness during this time in her life, she remains mindful of not clouding her experiences with any emotional outbursts – outpourings that would signal either anger or emotional pain.

What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. Ernaux spares us nothing about the messy details of the procedure itself and what happens in the aftermath. As such, readers need to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of some of the content in this book. Happening is a searingly honest account of a taboo subject, but it may cut too close to the bone for some readers depending on their own views and experiences.

Interspersed throughout the text are some of Ernaux’s reflections about writing the book, ruminations on what she is trying to achieve by exploring these events. There is a sense of her trying to immerse herself in a particular section of her life to learn what can be found there. It’s an experience that comes with its own challenges, forty years on. For instance, she talks about the process of accessing various memories, how certain objects such as a basin of water in the woman’s apartment remain vivid in her mind while specific emotions are much harder to recapture. Nevertheless, some general feelings remain accessible even if the finer details do not.

(To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.) (p. 51)

By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. Towards the end of Happening, she wonders whether the true purpose of her life is to channel various experiences – both physical and emotional – into her writing. There is a desire to create ‘something intelligent and universal’ from her existence, reflections that may prove useful to others – an aim I think she has achieved with this powerful, uncompromising book.

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks for the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

27 thoughts on “Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

  1. gertloveday

    I loved The Years too. I think Ernaux writes so well and so clearly about the experiences she has which are the same experiences many women have. I didn’t know this has been made into a film. Will look out for it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s that point about translating the personal into something universal – or certainly something with a broader relevance outside her own sphere. I think the way she strips out so much of the emotion around her experiences is very impressive, and yet her work still feels incredibly powerful to read. In a way, we (as readers) feel some of that pain without it being explicitly stated on the page, if that makes sense?

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I’ve only read one of her books, La Place, a thought provoking and informative introduction. Her oeuvre does appear to provide a snapshot and long gaze (The Years on my TBR) of an era, unique observations that encompass multiple facets of the prism of society, given her upbringing, her parent’s occupations and her own shift across the divide through education and marriage.

    I think she was certainly tapping into her purpose when she had that thought, about channeling her experiences into words, as the years pass, the importance of her work, of that voice in ‘herstory’ share something that has long been silenced. What courage to embark on such a feat. A thought provoking review Jacqui.

    L’Evénement (thefilm) looks intense and interesting in as much as, regardless of the choice she made, it highlights the dilemma of young women in that 1960’s age of increasing rebellion and ultimately revolution, the post-war generation that had lost respect for and was challenging authority everywhere; nowhere more challenging and difficult than for women like Ernaux.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think the comments she makes about the potential purpose of her life (at the end of Happening) are very telling, the sense of wanting to document her experiences, channelling them into works that will provide a record of her generation. It’s a very impressive endeavour, something she seems to be managing very well. I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think of The Years. I probably I admired it rather than loved it, but there’s no denying its ambition in capturing a kaleidoscopic view of her lifetime through a range of social, cultural and political observations. Happening is a little different from The Years in terms of style (more straightforward, I guess), and it’s definitely my favourite of the three I’ve read so far.

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        I feel more inclined to read the novellas about the individual aspects of her life, like that of her father, her mother, of this experience. The Years obviously covers a much greater period and seems like an alternate history, one I do look forward to reading, given I have lived in France for 17 years but not through much of the history she recollects.
        Watching the trailer of the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as crisis particular to women, the pregnancy out of wedlock and how different societies treated it at the time. The fact that the film feels intense, like a thriller, the ticking bomb inside her body and the dangerous route she took to liberate herself, is really thought provoking, given how women (and babies) were treated elsewhere, who were too afraid to do what she did. I’ll be interested to hear what you make of the film. I see there is an interview on France Culture (radio) I might have a listen. It is so great that the author and film maker can have that facilitated conversation 60 years later.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I think I’m going to prefer the style of her shorter works based on the three I’ve read so far (A Girl’s Story is also excellent, another very piercing read).

          It’s interesting to hear you say that about the trailer as I’ve been wondering if the film might dial up this aspect of the book, i.e. the sense of pressure imposed by time constraints and the risky nature of the procedure. There’s a certain element of this in the book, precipitated by Annie’s need to find someone willing to do the termination (not an easy matter by any means), but it’s not heavy-handed or overdone. I’m hoping the film strikes the right tone there. It’s an independent/arthouse style film with a female director at the helm, so hopefully it’ll be fine, but I can understand how that element might come across, particularly in a trailer designed to generate interest!

          Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I had no idea that French women were left reliant on such risky birth control until 1967. We seem to have taken a more pragmatic approach to reproductive rights in the UK, not that it isn’t a difficult issue for some.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I guess condoms were around at that time, but not the contraceptive pill. (IIRC, the pill was made available over here in the early ’60s, but only for married women – until 1967, when its usage was broadened.)

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    As someone who grew up in a state where abortion and contraception was illegal, and where I’ve seen the tragic consequences of that, I think this is a book that would resonate with me. Alas, I keep wanting to read Annie Ernaux in the original and I have to realise that it may take a long time until I am next in France to buy or borrow any of her books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely something that would resonate with you given your upbringing. I couldn’t help but think of Cristian Mungiu’s film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (another award winner) as I was reading this. You may have seen it as it’s set in the final years of the Ceausescu era – but if not, the film also deals with this topic in a measured but very powerful way.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, certainly not for everyone, particularly given the potentially triggering content…but, as you say, all credit to Ernaux for being so open and honest about her experiences. It’s a very impressive account of an issue that still feels relevant today.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review, Jacqui, and although I’ve read and loved several Ernaux books I have steered clear of this (most likely because of being a bit squeamish). I am very much a supporter of a woman’s right to choose, but it’s quite shocking to hear how late France was in legalising contraception. Mind you, they had a law against women wearing trousers until very recently… Anyway, I do think Ernaux is a really good author, probably because of her ability to look so clearly at events and relate them to all women’s experiences – as you say, maybe that’s how she perceives her writing and her talent.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen, and I completely understand your decision not to read this one. It’s such a painful subject, and probably not for the squeamish, partly because Ernaux goes into some of the details of her experience with the procedure. It’s a powerful book, and I’m glad she’s written it as the risks involved in backstreet abortions are horrific — and they need to be voiced, even today. I guess the main danger comes when societies ban abortions, thereby driving the practice underground and exposing women to greater risks. It’s shocking to see this debate bubbling up again in certain parts of the world…

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    1967 – sometimes it’s too easy to forget how different things were not so long ago, especially when they seem to be backsliding yet again. To be so honest on the page, what courage Annie Ernaux has here! A writer I have to read and I’ve taken note of which books you and Claire have mentioned. Thank you for such an insightful and thoughtful review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Jule. I would definitely recommend you try her. Lots of readers have adored The Years, and while I didn’t love the style as much as some, there’s no denying the book’s literary merits and ambition. And yes, it’s very courageous of her to document these personal experiences so openly and honestly – it’s inspiring to see how much of herself she shares on the page without it feeling clouded with emotion. The clarity she brings is so impressive.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    I remember some excellent reviews of The Years, but hadn’t heard about this one till now. It definitely sounds incredibly honest, and painful. We often imagine women began to enjoy greater choice and more freedom in the 1960s, but that wasn’t really the case. I think I would find this book absolutely fascinating. It’s important we remember stories like this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree, and even though the setting is the early 1960s, it still feels very relevant today (e.g. the recent ban on abortions in Texas after week 6 of pregnancy, which seems extremely harsh). It’s a really difficult subject to read about, but somehow Ernaux brings a candour to it that pulls the reader in.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. Max Cairnduff

    Not a lot of men commenting on this review for some reason…

    I thought this excellent. Honest and unsparing. Definitely agree on the continued relevance. One thing I thought it brought out well, among many, was how initially it seems like accessing an illegal abortion will be easy – everyone seems to know of someone – but when she tries it turns out in fact to be a maze of rumour and people who won’t help either due to disapproval or fear of punishment. Finally when she does find someone then offers come through. When you need help it’s not there, when you don’t it is, it captured something of the experience of having to operate outside the law on something so vital.

    Like you I’m finding these short ones more effective than The Years, strong as that is.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fair point about the men…it’s also had considerably fewer hits than most of my other posts. Not that stats are important, but they’re an indication of interest levels nonetheless!

      That’s a really good point about the challenges in actually finding someone willing to carry out an abortion, and it’s only by chance that the contact finally comes through for her. As you say, its so dependent on having the right contacts, whether various parties will be prepared to take the risk or not, and having access to the necessary funds, of course. I think she was lucky to find an experienced woman willing to do it, otherwise who knows what might have happened. I couldn’t help but think of the film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which shows a more degrading experience at the hands of a male abortionist. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s powerful stuff.

      Reply

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