Author Q&A: Annie Ernaux

Happening (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £8.99)

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For acclaimed French memoirist Ernaux life is divided into before and after what she calls a happening – her illegal abortion at age 23 in 1963. This slim text draws on diaries from the time to describe in detail that monumental life event, providing not only personal insight but an important document for women’s collective history. The book was published in French in 2001, and is now translated into English by Tanya Leslie. 

You state that although some might find Happening distasteful you believe the story has a right to be told and if you didn’t tell it you would be “guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by patriarchy”. Was writing the book more obligation than ambition? And did you receive any backlash following publication in 2001?
It was out of a profound personal need to immerse myself again, step by step, so to speak, in the experience of this clandestine abortion, but also – because that’s what writing is, for me – to attest to what was happening to women, the challenges they faced. To relate this, even at the cost of offending the readers’ sensibilities, is to keep the history of women alive. I had to be specific in order to touch upon, and only touch upon, what it meant to be forced to rely on a back street abortionist, and, yes, there were hostile reactions but, most of all, a form of boycott by the media.

Before you became pregnant you write you felt your body was basically no different from that of a man. Now that contraception is readily available and abortion is legal, is that the case?
Just to clarify: I meant that my body was no different to a man’s in terms of desire and sex. What needs to be understood is that before contraception and the legalisation of abortion, to “fall” pregnant was an earth-shaking event and a brutal revelation that there was a female condition, one might even say a fate, that hinged on something blind in the body. One was brought down to earth with a great shock while the male body seemed to enjoy total freedom, even impunity… There was a gulf between the sexes at that time, and women were consigned to an essential solitude. From my own experience as a woman later released by contraception, and for whom having children has been a choice, that initial sensation of sameness is probably more present in sexual relations.

Why was it better to write the book four decades after the event of the book rather than soon after abortion was legalised?
I never thought of writing about my abortion in the years following legalisation, or even during the preceding years of struggle in which I had actively participated. It seems to me that I was too closely involved with the collective battle to produce a personal text that was not simply a testimony. To write 40 years later is to purge the writing of affect. It means one desires more than anything to unwrap, expose what has been experienced. It is also a book on memory and writing about a “happening” – that is, about something that divided my life into a “before” and “after”.

You saw your pregnancy as a stigma of social failure – what you call“ the legacy of poverty”. Did accessing an abortion help you shake the idea that your working-class background was also an inescapable future? 
At the end of the book, I allude to a sort of pride I felt at having ventured – through this abortion in appalling conditions – to a place where most people would not imagine going. But it was also a shameful secret – unspeakable until the seventies! – and that increased my feeling of social disgrace. It is quite possible to feel shame and pride at the same time.

Madame P-R is not the cliché of either the kindly matriarch who wants to help women or the disgraced doctor/back street male abortionist. What do you think motivated her to do such a dangerous job?
I do not know anything about Madame P-R’s life except for the most important thing: that she did her job properly, for example by boiling her instruments before the procedure, the speculum and the probe she “borrowed” from the clinic where she worked as a paramedic. Certainly she was motivated by money, but what she put it toward is impossible to say; she lived in a small, comfortless two-room flat. Beyond the fact that today it seems insane to entrust one’s body to a stranger for a dangerous operation, it must be considered that this woman agreed to do something prohibited by law, a law the medical profession did not challenge. Let’s not forget that in France, it is women who took action against this law.

You describe the abortion and subsequent birth a week later in minute detail that is missing from most depictions of abortion. Why do we still shy away from the truth of women’s bodies and was it hard not to shy away from it yourself?
I described, from my perspective of that time, what I call “the stupefaction of the real” – that is, a situation in which there are no words, nor even thought, but only what we see and what is said. The real here, from start to finish, is that of the female body. The fully assumed, desired focus of the book was to show what happened to this body.

Tell us about the relationship between writer and translator. Is it a leap of faith to allow a translator to take on your work?
I am always very happy when my texts are translated and I trust the translator without trying to intervene in his or her work, even when I am able to read the language, as in the case of English, or know it a little, as with Italian. But if he or she wants to ask me questions about a word, an expression, a historical detail, I willingly answer. Both attitudes – of consulting me or not – seem legitimate to me. It is certainly an act of faith, though not blind faith, knowing that the editor chooses someone he knows is capable.

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