I’VE BEEN READING Proust. Full disclosure: I am nowhere near finished. I completed the first volume and I am nearing the end of the second. This accomplishment has taken almost a year. To be sure, I experience surprising flashes of recognition, and I often pause to admire beautifully crafted winding sentences, ones that require full attention lest I risk completely losing my way. But my reading of Proust is mostly a chore, something I feel I should do. It’s nothing like the breathless thrill of devouring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet or the repeated pleasures and new discoveries I find in Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography. I return to Beauvoir like an old friend as the decades encroach. Each time I read her there are new delights, even as she seems less transparent, more mysterious, even sometimes deceptive.
Reading Annie Ernaux recalls the intoxicating company of Ferrante and Beauvoir. I am welcomed by these writers, invited into their worlds by the retrieval of long-ago buried memories and sensations that are deeply and quickly, often painfully, rekindled and brought back to life, sometimes violently, by words on the page. I struggle with the blush of shame, am filled with sudden joy, feel the erotic pull of the tender kiss or whispered caress, fight anxiety, peer over the abyss and totter precariously as the possibility of freedom beckons. I feel seen by these women writers in a way that the admittedly gorgeous prose of Marcel Proust cannot touch. Is there a difference that sexual difference makes in the (touching, feeling, haptic) shared space that writers and readers inhabit?
In Reading Boyishly, Carol Mavor groups Proust (along with Roland Barthes and others) with “boyish” writers and readers who “covet the mother’s body as a home both lost and never lost, to desire her as only a son can, as only a body that longs for her, but will never become Mother, can.” Mavor understands that sexual difference makes a difference, here a queer difference, as she turns her attention to boys with a swish in their step. And the girls? Girls fear we will become Mother, but unthinkably, terribly, voluntarily move toward that destiny too, as it gobbles up our other desires with abandon.
A Girl’s Story, French writer Annie Ernaux’s most recently published memoir, was, as she admits in the text, maybe the hardest to compose of her many volumes. Ernaux is known and celebrated for her uncanny ability to link the personal and the political, the private and the public, in books that chronicle French history as experienced by one exemplary individual.
They also, and remarkably so, chronicle the life of one woman, Ernaux herself, resisting the mandate to become “Woman,” as Beauvoir puts it in The Second Sex, published in 1949, and translated to English in 1951.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” says Beauvoir in her most famous line of the almost 800-page tome. In the first volume, Beauvoir studies what men say about women — historians, psychoanalysts, philosophers, biologists, theologians, historical materialists, novelists, poets — all of whom agree (unsurprisingly, yet ever so creatively) on the mandate that women must be “Woman,” a flexible, contradictory, yet remarkably enduring myth of how sexual difference manifests as hierarchy. In the second volume, Beauvoir gathers evidence from the lives of women. Her sources are many: her own experience, conversations with friends, characters in books and films, memoirs of famous and obscure women, and accounts of women’s lives from history and foreign cultures. These women resist becoming “Woman” in multiple and varied ways, but some, indeed far too many, succumb. Some women are enticed by the comforts of evading the responsibilities of freedom; others lose themselves by thinking they have found freedom in the worship of Gods, the myths of romance, the promise of happiness, the prize of having children to call their own; all are situated by the various constraints of class, race, history, culture, age.
Isolating a difficult summer in her late adolescence, Ernaux chronicles her own struggle with becoming “Woman.” At the age of 17, Ernaux dreams of more than the straightened world her mother occupies, but doesn’t quite know how to get there. The “grocery woman’s girl,” as the young Annie Duchesne was called in her neighborhood, has what she thinks are multiple, expanding, transformative desires that she hopes to fulfill in the summer of 1958: “[T]o leave Yvetot, escape the watchful gaze of her mother, the school, the town, and do what she wants: read all night, dress in black like Juliette Gréco, hang about the student cafés, and dance at La Cahotte.” But what is the path? Most of all, as the older Annie notes, young Annie hopes to lose her virginity and to fall “passionately in love.”
This girl’s story, Ernaux’s own, is especially difficult for her to tell, partly because the method she embraces in other books, relying on photos to spark memory, is not available to her here. She has few photographs of herself as summer camp counselor, while French troops were leaving home to “restore order” in Algeria and French audiences grappled with the sexual audacity of Brigitte Bardot.
There is, however, one photo of herself that Ernaux describes, the one on the cover of Alison L. Strayer’s English translation of A Girl’s Story. It was taken just before the summer whose events she chronicles: a black-and-white ID photo captured of Annie at age 17 by her convent school’s photographer. Ernaux asks, “Is this girl me? Am I her? […] The girl in the picture is not me, but neither is she a fictional creation.” We have heard this story before. Ferrante’s Elena Greco (the Neapolitan Quartet) and the young Simone de Beauvoir (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) each probe the clues left by a disappeared girl as motivation for their writing. For Ferrante’s Elena (Lenù), it is her brilliant and beautiful friend Lila who has intentionally disappeared from the neighborhood, from her family, and from Lenù’s life. In Beauvoir’s case, it is her best friend Zaza: “The doctors called it meningitis, encephalitis; no one was quite sure. Had it been a contagious disease, or an accident? Or had Zaza succumbed to exhaustion and anxiety? […] We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.” For Lenù and the young Simone, Lila and Zaza are a part of themselves, the elusive but very real other who threatens to erase the boundaries they are attempting to shore up. They tell the stories of girls who fail to avoid the trap of “becoming Woman,” losing themselves in the process.
Unable to rely on images, but hoping still to accurately share her story, Ernaux remembers how her body felt; she describes “shame’s vast memory, more detailed and implacable than any other, a gift unique to shame.” Ernaux’s first full description of Annie Duchesne in the summer of 1958 is of her feelings. “Even without a photo, I can see her,” Ernaux writes. “[W]hat she desires more than anything is for her mother,” with her face a mix of “anxiety, suspicion, and discontent,” to “make herself scarce, get back on the train, and disappear home.” Her mother’s very presence — the way she holds herself, her clothing, her posture — threatens to expose the indignities that Annie feels so powerfully: being in a female body, being lower class, not knowing the right thing to say, not having the right friends, held back by provincial and Catholic tastes, decidedly not cosmopolitan.
Like Beauvoir’s Zaza, a “revolting fate” lies in store for Annie, and she hurtles toward it. It is the night of August 16, 1958. The very thing she had longed for, the thing that will transform her into a “woman” happens! But it is so emotionally painful to tell that Ernaux slips into third person. That night, beckoned by a not very attractive boy she meets at a dance (“H”), Annie finds herself naked on a bed.
She would like to be anywhere but there, but she does not leave. She feels cold. She could get up, turn the lights back on, tell him to get dressed and leave. Or get dressed herself and leave him in the lurch, return to the party. She could have. But I know the idea never crossed her mind. […] He has her slide down to his lower belly, her mouth on his cock. A thick jet of sperm explodes in her face, gushing all the way into her nostrils.
Ernaux remarks that she has come as close as possible to recounting the reality of the moment, that it was “neither horror nor shame, only an obedience to what was happening.”
Further and maybe even deeper disappointment ensues when young Annie reaches out to an admired girl at camp named Monique, but is swiftly rejected: “My viewing and reviewing of the scene leaves intact and incomprehensible another girl’s loathing for me.” Sexual initiation, her submission to the desire of H, does not gain Annie the peers she desperately longs for: “I see her want to be like them so badly that she resorts to imitation. She copies their verbal tics and expressions.” But it doesn’t work.
Rejected by girls, Annie seeks out several sexual encounters and is deemed a whore. Young Annie tries to see herself as a “pioneer of sexual freedom, avatar of Bardot in And God Created Woman, which I had not yet seen.” She also tries to escape into fantasy imagining H as “her lover, truly and for all eternity.” After these sexual encounters, young Annie stops bleeding for two long years. She also starts to eat voraciously until the overeating, which morphs into bulimia, stops, and she strictly rations her food; then, encouraged by a new acquaintance, she starts shoplifting.
These misguided, and yet so typical, attempts Annie makes to fit in, to find community, to be accepted, desperate to be seen and loved, would come as no surprise to the author of The Second Sex. One of Beauvoir’s most powerful points, as I have argued in previous work, is that women fail to find freedom when we too willingly, too hopefully, or are forced, to rush forward to take up our place in patriarchy’s roles for “Woman”: daughter, wife, mother. Sometimes, too, when these roles are unavailable or refused, other dead-end possibilities are pursued, ones that are the mirror opposite of respectability: “Woman” as whore, witch, thief, mad, sick.
Reading Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in April 1959 (a decade after its publication) saved Ernaux. Maybe I say this too dramatically or too confidently, without appropriate evidence. Indeed, she is careful to deny any “cause and effect” connections or “before and after” revelations. “To have received the key to understanding shame does not give the power to erase it,” Ernaux rightly notes. But she also says this: after reading The Second Sex, Annie became newly aware of the power of men and the alienation of women. “She received the answer to her question, the one asked by most girls of her time: How am I supposed to conduct myself? With freedom.”
What could “with freedom” mean for young Annie, for the writer Annie Ernaux, for Beauvoir, for us? There is no rule book for, nor straight line to, conducting oneself with freedom. For Annie, there are more misguided, failed attempts. She flails around. Taking a summer job as camp counselor again for the following summer, she tries on a new persona as “Kali.” Ernaux examines a photo of herself from this summer taken on a nearly empty beach, wearing a “dark green dress with a pattern of big lime-tree flowers.” “Kali” projects a big personality to the world but is dead inside. She covets the food she denies herself, gobbling sweets after not eating for days, constantly on the verge of tears. The next fall she starts teacher training, but slowly and painfully realizes she made a mistake choosing her profession. She subsequently enrolls in university to become a student “of literature (or philosophy — I was undecided, because of Simone de Beauvoir).”
Ernaux describes her struggle to write about these events, these eventful years in the life of the girl she once was, this way:
[T]he relentless determination to find, among thousands of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, those that will provide the certainty (the illusion) of having attained the greatest possible measure of reality […] what compels [Ernaux, the author] is the hope of discovering even a drop of likeness between this girl, Annie Duchesne, and any other being.
Yes, Annie, there is a likeness! I return to Proust once more to note that as much as I appreciate his story, and especially the way he tells it, when we spend time with Proust, we occupy the thoughts of a boy, one who becomes a man, even if remaining “boyish.” He can only ever speculate, and mostly badly, on the lives, experiences, and aspirations of girls and women. And so, I admit that I prefer the company of girls! With them, I begin to see a path to freedom. A girl can make company with other girls, can create space for encounters that might help us reject the too well-worn paths to “Woman.” We can become instead “unbecoming” women, one of many, in a community.
Ernaux feels the excitement and pull of this community too. Reading about events in the lives of Billie Holiday, Violette Leduc, and Simone de Beauvoir, all that took place around the same time as Annie was losing her virginity to H, Ernaux reflects on what she wishes she knew then as she laments that “imagination arrives to soothe the pain of memory.” While there can never be any single “moral” to a story such as Ernaux’s, it does indeed have a politics.
Ernaux’s book arrives as a gift of imagination that, for some of us, might come just in time to chart a different path, shattering prospectively “the singularity and solitude of an experience that is more or less shared by others at about the same time.” Adding her voice to the second volume of The Second Sex, Ernaux’s story of the girl she once was might strengthen feminist resolve to create and collect the stories and struggles of girls, of women, all those who resist becoming “Woman.” These are stories of unbecoming women who only together can become and inspire more.