No Place in Language
Mia Spence reviews Annie Ernaux’s Happening (trans. Tanya Leslie)
This time last year, I remember, there was a feeling that things could go either way. Ireland was heading towards a referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution, which made abortion a criminal offence. I knew a handful of people who were knocking on doors to campaign in favour of repeal. Their worry was that an entrenched cultural conservatism might just leave the ban on abortion in place. Or, as one of my acquaintances told me, maybe the problem wasn’t conservatism so much as simple inertia. No shortage of people on the doorstep were open to persuasion, she said, but persuasion takes time, and lots of it. When she met voters who looked at repeal from a more or less neutral position — indifferent, uninvested — she found them sympathetic to her cause, after she’d shared with them stories that put human faces to the consequences of the eighth. That’s why she feared that her campaign might just lose. Opponents of repeal could easily whip up passions; they already had a reservoir of propaganda that provoked visceral reactions in onlookers, gruesome pictures of bloodied foetuses that turned people’s hearts against abortion without uttering a word. To get voters to think again, to reconsider, the repeal campaign had to rely on words, a multitude of them, to render individual experiences in compassionate terms: from the pity of abortion, to its capacity for providing relief.
Annie Ernaux’s Happening (trans. Tanya Leslie) tells the story of such an experience in a way that would not have helped the cause for repeal. To be sure, Ernaux’s story is reminiscent of many others told by pro-choice women. In 1963, at age twenty-three, the author found herself unexpectedly pregnant. Because abortion was then illegal in her native France, she went in search of help on the black market — at her peril — and she did so while also struggling with shame in a culture of secrecy. Hers is a story as brave as any of the hundreds of thousands already made public in pursuit of abortion rights, or in defence of them, around the world. But her manner of telling it seems calculated to not persuade readers to take up her cause, to not seek converts: in short, to not please. This gives Happening a tone of tight-lipped equipoise, sometimes only reticent, sometimes taciturn, which is at odds with the self-revealing nature of the memoir. The result is both mesmerising and strangely unengaging, often at the same time. Happening seems to cast its spell by coaxing readers into wondering just how long Ernaux can continue to speak of her most private self, to confess the details of her trauma, with little regard for those who might be listening, without appealing to our sympathies or preparing us or anticipating our responses.
Although most of the events of Happening take place in the early 1960s, the chronology of the early pages is far from straightforward. The book opens sometime nearer to the present day as Ernaux makes her way through the streets of Paris and experiences a doubling-up of the present with the past: “I got off at Barbès”, she says, and “[l]ike last time, men were idly waiting, clustered at the foot of the Métro overhead”. What happened last time? And when was it, exactly? Ernaux doesn’t tell us, but continues on her way, bound for an appointment at a hospital. Once inside the building, as she walks down a corridor to a waiting room, a potential future overlays her intermingled present and past: “I wondered how I would be seeing all this on the way back”, she says. What news is she expecting to receive here? How does she imagine it might change her perspective on her place in the world? We follow her into the waiting room, where she finds “no magazines on the table” but rather “only a few leaflets on the nutritional value of dairy produce and ‘How to come to terms with AIDS’”. The other people in the room are in various states of distress or receiving comfort from loved ones. As Ernaux waits to be seen by a doctor, she marks the student essays she has brought with her. Then, after she finishes her work, she reveals herself:
I kept picturing the same blurred scene — one Saturday and Sunday in July, the motions of lovemaking, the ejaculation. … I likened the embracing and writhing of naked bodies to a dance of death. I felt that the man whom I had half-heartedly agreed to see again had come all the way from Italy with the sole purpose of giving me AIDS. Yet I couldn’t associate the two [timeframes]: lovemaking, warm skin and sperm, and [now] my presence in the waiting room.
Ernaux learns quickly that she doesn’t have AIDS, but even so, another form of damage has been done to her. Something dormant in her has been reawakened. “I realized”, she writes, “that I had lived through these events at Lariboisière Hospital in the same way I had awaited Dr N’s verdict in 1963, swept by the same feelings of horror and disbelief”. “In October 1963, in Rouen”, she explains, “I waited for my period for over a week. … I began writing in my journal every evening — the word NOTHING in big, underlined capital letters”. Yet even as she reveals all, time slips again: “The year before”, she says, “around the same time, I had started work on a novel; now this seemed faraway, something that was not to be pursued”. Her diary came to take the place of the novel, she recalls, and so it became an indispensable emotional outlet towards the end of October 1963, when, having “given up hope”, Ernaux made an appointment to see “a gynaecologist, Dr N, on 8 November”.
Nevertheless, almost ten pages in, Happening is still not yet the story of that phase in Ernaux’s life. It is not yet ready to be, because Ernaux is not ready to tell her story. Following the Kennedy assassination in November 1963, she recalls falling into “a radiant state of limbo”. “For years”, she says, “these events have occupied my mind. Reading about an abortion in a novel immediately plunges me into a state of shock that shatters thoughts and images, as if words had metamorphosed into a maelstrom of emotions”. But she has only recently been able to answer the urge to describe these events, because of the way in which time folds around her, muffles her voice, when she reflects on what happened to her:
I began this story one week ago, not knowing whether I would go through with it. I just wanted to make sure that the urge to write was still there — the same urge that would seize me as soon as I sat down to the book that I embarked upon two years ago. Despite my efforts to fight it, I became obsessed with the idea…
What compels her to focus on writing, to dedicate herself to this book, is a dream that disturbs her upon waking: “I was holding a book I had published about my abortion… [and o]n the bottom of the cover, in huge letters, were the words OUT OF PRINT”. But she says that she hasn’t been able to decide “whether the dream meant that I should write the book, or that there would be no point in doing so”, and she acknowledges that her indecisiveness in this regard has twisted the chronology of her account: “Through this story, time has been jerked into action and it is dragging me along with it.” Suffice it to say that had a story like this been taken onto the campaign trail in Ireland last year, it would have been met with impatience, even frustration. And in fact Ernaux’s story doesn’t really begin until one-third of the way into this slim volume, only seventy-seven pages long, when she describes her first foray into the margins of the law: “One afternoon I set off, determined to find a doctor who would consent to perform an abortion.” But readers who hope for a nakedly emotional account of illicit abortion would do better to listen to the testimonies of Ruth Bowie and Sarah Dunant, or read Sally Rooney’s polemic on pre-referendum Ireland with an eye towards her cool indignation. There is shame to be found Happening, and confusion, and anxiety, but none of the redemptive lyricism or self-revelation that allow stories like Ernaux’s to make a direct appeal to the emotions. Happening is harrowing in its own way, particularly as its narrator is brought into contact with all sorts of people who react in a variety of unpalatable ways to her vulnerability, but Ernaux allows herself no latitude to put her emotional frailty on display. Her frantic state is communicated more powerfully through the evasions in her mode of storytelling than through anything she expresses in a sentence.
About her “radiant state of limbo”, throughout November and December 1963, Ernaux has this to say:
I can see myself walking, wandering through the streets. Thinking back to this period, I am reminded of lines from literature such as ‘the voyage out’, ‘beyond good and evil’ or ‘journey to the end of the night’. I feel they are the perfect illustration of everything I lived through and experienced at the time — something indescribable and of great beauty.
This is a passage worth dwelling on. Beneath its simple surface are some complex mechanics. The experience of pursuing an illicit abortion is one that Ernaux categorises as an experience of marginalisation, of “clandestinity”, and yet she describes it simply as “indescribable” while also claiming that it possessed “great beauty”. But in attempting to describe it, without elaborating on its beauty, she feels that the most “perfect” words are those readymade phrases, practically clichés, she lifts from works of literature she doesn’t credit. Language of her own escapes her. Her capacity even to search for an original, authentic mode of self-expression atrophies. Tellingly, later on, after she begs Dr N for assistance with an abortion and neither of them even mention the word “abortion”, she concludes that “[t]his thing had no place in language”. That is true in an existential sense as well as in a medical one, as true of her entire ordeal as it is of the procedure.
As a consequence, Ernaux signals her failures of language by incorporating other types of language, conspicuously not her own, into her stuttered story. She makes space for citations from anti-abortion legislation, not quoted or contextualised but broken down and pasted into the gaps in her own narration, and includes cryptic references to research published in medical journals: “Per m 484, no 5, no 6, Norm. Mm 1065…” She also takes stock of the subliminal politics of language, both the language she evades and the language she uses, by “never resort[ing] to descriptive terms or expressions such as ‘I’m expecting’, ‘pregnant’ or ‘pregnancy’” but relying instead on cruder terms: “it” or “that thing”. Rather than giving voice to the complex emotions of her experience, Ernaux treats feelings as abstractions — not to be conveyed, but merely told of — and pegs the emotional beats of her narrative on circumlocutions and ellipses. Sometimes she says only how she would or should give shape to her text if she could exert more control over her method of composition: “I must resist the urge to rush through these days and weeks”, she says in one parenthetical passage,
and attempt to convey the unbearable sluggishness of that period as well as the feeling of numbness that characterizes dreams, resorting to all the means at my disposal — attention to detail, use of a descriptive past tense, analysis of events.
But she doesn’t do this, she can’t, as she confesses in a later interjection which follows an experience of pain that she again describes as “indescribable”: “I’m sure I could be more thorough in my analysis of things but I seem to be held back by something from my distant past…” In fact, failed by her efforts at literary reconstruction, Ernaux is at her most direct when she reproduces verbatim passages from the journal she kept during late 1963 and early 1964. Outside of these passages, however, with abortion having been excluded from the sphere of cultural acceptability and civilised discourse, Ernaux’s language is doomed to be a language of exclusion, of vacancies of meaning. At times it even amounts to a language that excises meaning from its own structures of meaning-making, exploding its own capacity for recording and transmitting meaning through words.
This is a moral and legal problem for Ernaux, as much as it is an artistic one. Even when she does succeed on her own artistic terms and “conjure[s] up the faces and names” of her fellow students in Rouen, she feels a pressure to make their presence on the page evasive. “I have no right to mention their names”, she concludes, “because I am not dealing with fictional characters but real people”. “I realize this account may exasperate or repel some readers”, she adds later, “[and] it may also be branded as distasteful”, but she feels that if she were to quail at her duty to assemble it, she would feed the very situation that gave her such distress. “The law was everywhere”, she writes of the early 1960s, identifying her primary antagonist, and “[a]s was often the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.” So, it seems, in explicitly writing against the law that made her a criminal, but taking heed of the laws that protect the privacy of people complicit in her crime — and in explicitly attempting to again “become immersed in that part of my life”, but finding that her own record of “euphemisms and understatements” prohibits her full immersion — and in explicitly “endeavour[ing] to revisit every single image” until she feels she has “physically bonded with it”, but watching her bonds with the past decay as her own particular language escapes her — in doing all this, Ernaux produces a testimony that is at once electric with urgent artistic, moral, and legal ambitions, and fractured by the impossibility of answering their competing demands.
In truth, however, I struggled to appreciate Happening, even as I valued Ernaux’s difficult stance towards her medium. My feeling is that my response owes something to the context in which Happening has arrived and something to the context in which I received it. In the interests of disclosure, I have had an abortion. I didn’t keep it secret from the people in my life and I don’t feel shame in speaking about it. It was legal, safe, and free of charge. It required an appointment that was easy to make, a day off work and a little time to recover. But it wasn’t an experience I’d care to repeat. It was psychologically and physically invasive, and emotionally turbulent, and it made me feel vulnerable in a way I have never felt before. The conception was neither planned nor unplanned, and the decision to terminate was one I arrived at in consultation with my partner. So, then, even to the extent that I broadly share an experience with Ernaux, I can’t really relate to her version of that experience. I didn’t, after all, use knitting needles to self-administer an abortion, and while Ernaux presents Happening as a detailed description of her trials, she doesn’t carve out much of an opening for readers to understand how she lived them, in the moment.
In addition, the passage of time is a problem. As Ernaux admits, it inhibits her faithful reconstruction of events decades after the fact, but it has also wrought unwilled changes on the text of Happening. Ernaux originally wrote about the events of 1963 and 1964 in 1999, and published her account in France the following year. Then, in 2001, L’événement was translated into English and published by Seven Stories Press: meaning that this reissue, from Fitzcarraldo Editions, now appears almost twenty years after the visit to the hospital that triggered memories from forty years prior. But in the time since the appearance of the original edition of Happening, so many other women have told their stories of illicit abortion — not least in Ireland, on both sides of the border — and because so many of those stories are more fraught and more distressing than Ernaux’s, their telling has pulled Happening into a new context of reception. Now, today, alongside all those stories, the unruliness of Ernaux’s language comes across as more of an affectation than it might have done twenty years ago, before the boom in bold, fearless life writing. I can’t help but feel torn, then. I do want to know more about Ernaux’s experiences — experiences from which many women of my generation have thankfully been spared. At the same time, though, I feel more inclined to read the testimonies of other women who share their experience by acknowledging the difficulty of finding words to express it, without then shrinking in the face of the challenge.
Am I being unfair to Ernaux? I’m ambivalent towards Happening, I admit, but I’d like to think that has less to do with the text than with its mode of storytelling being out of tune with our times. There is something to be said for a personal testimony of abortion that doesn’t follow an easy arc, doesn’t resolve things, doesn’t take its narrator from a state of confusion to a state of self-certainty. Ernaux’s experience was indeed, as she says, an “extreme” one, “bearing on life and death, time, law, ethics and taboo”, and it is all the more unnerving for being recounted in a voice drained of its passion, the voice of a woman who sees herself now as “a puppet re-enacting a scene without the slightest hint of emotion”. But if she was a puppet at the time of “the happening”, at the mercy of forces greater than herself, then her bravery, her decisions, her agency made her something more than a puppet. I wish she’d searched for a style that allowed her to recognise this aspect of her experience as well, this reclamation of authority over herself, so that, today, she might reckon with the unspeakable but no longer see herself as being at its mercy.