Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019
In this short, stark book, Annie Ernaux reconstructs her experience of a clandestine abortion in 1963, supplementing her memory of events with fragments of a journal she kept at the time. Ernaux makes frequent reference to both the act of writing and her sense of responsibility in sharing her story; specifically, she insists on the importance of articulating the reality of clandestine abortions, and the need to resist the complacency of remaining silent about past discriminations simply because they no longer happen. Ernaux demolishes such barriers of silencing and secrecy, putting into words her “extreme human experience” as both a chronicle of a brief period of her life in 1963 and a series of observations in parentheses which represent Ernaux’s reflections on living with the memory of the abortion that almost killed her, the process of writing about it, and how the narrative becomes a force of its own.
This is the second book of Ernaux’s to be published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and though it might not have the immediate universal appeal of The Years, I believe it to be a necessary book. Happening is different from The Years in many ways, but a sense of collectivity connects the two: The Years is described as a “collective autobiography”, and while Happening details Ernaux’s intimate experience, it is written from a desire to dismantle a taboo that is both social and historical. Ernaux connects her story to a wider community, whether by elaborating on “an invisible chain of artists, women writers, literary heroines and figures from my childhood”, or by situating the timing of her own lived experience within one of the most universally recognisable collective griefs of the 20th century (“One week later Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas”). She acknowledges the women she cannot mention by name (LB, who helped her to get an abortion, and Madame P-R, the clandestine abortionist), as well as the doctor so terrified of the repercussions if he were to help her that he leaves her adrift, like so many women were, desperate enough to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, this is the most significant community that Ernaux evokes in her writing: that of the thousands of solitary, silenced women who knocked on the doors of strangers and “surrendered their insides” to them.
Tanya Leslie has translated many of Ernaux’s works into English, and conveys well the linguistic purity Ernaux is known for. I was unsure about the title: the omission of a definite article (the original title is L’événement, or “the event”) seems to lessen both its impact and its universality, and though it would be verging on impossible to convey all the French political implications of the term “événement” from the 1960s, the English title seems rather more sanitized. I couldn’t help but wonder what other possibilities were mooted and rejected; this reservation aside, I appreciated the starkness of the translation, and its unflinching representation of the more brutal sections. Take, for example, Ernaux’s decision to take the issue of the unwanted pregnancy into her own hands: “One Monday I came back from [my parents’] place with a pair of knitting needles which I had bought one summer with the intention of making myself a cardigan. Two long, shiny blue needles.”
It’s not all in the implication: the next paragraph details exactly how the needles were put to use, and soon after the failed home abortion we join Annie on a table in the midwife’s apartment. This section is the most challenging and the most necessary of the book, and I confess I read it with one hand over my mouth to stop me from crying out (I was reading this part in a public place): I thought I knew what a “back-street abortion” meant, but I was wrong. And not just about the event itself, but also its aftermath: in no scenario of my own imagination did a 3-month-old foetus burst forth in the shared bathroom of a university hall of residence and get carried along a corridor between clenched legs with the umbilical cord dangling uselessly from the woman’s ravaged body. I needed this challenge, I needed to know the reality of what women went through in a time when their bodies were controlled by law. The pain and mutilation, but also the judgement and the shame: no sooner has the foetus been unceremoniously flushed down the toilet than Ernaux begins to haemorrhage, and “sheer experience of life and death gave way to exposure and judgement.”
While such intimate accounts of personal experience may be dismissed by some as introspective or self-indulgent, I believe that Ernaux displays immense generosity and compassion in sharing her story. She herself recognises that she may be criticised for this, in the following parenthetical statement:
“(I realize this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful. I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.)”
Through the public articulation of her experience, Ernaux is fulfilling a sense of moral responsibility to challenge the patriarchy and to speak her “truth”, which is not lesser for being controversial. Indeed, she is convinced that “of one thing I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing”, and this is where the universality of Happening lies: to take this trauma and to offer it up so that anonymous women are given a voice and a vindication through her experience results in a book that is truly exceptional. It’s not an easy read, but nor should it be. In this time of desensitization and indifference we need books like Happening, and while it is not one to “enjoy” as such, it is one that should be experienced.
Review copy provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions.