Annie Ernaux, Happening (French, 2000)

I’ve finished the book more than a month now, but I haven’t gone round to posting about it. It’s quite a book, you guys. I knew I’d made a mistake by starting Ernaux with a weak non-fiction book adapted from a talk she held. But now this one, it’s like a punch in the gut. In case you don’t know, the “event” “happening” is the abortion that Ernaux had as a young woman in 1963 at age 23. At the time, abortion was illegal in France, and Ernaux barely survived the consequences of her illegal procedure.

Now, abortion is legal in France but it is now seriously limited in many parts of the US, and in the rest of the world too, so it is quite a timely subject. What interested me in the book is that the even makes a profound impact on Ernaux, but noticeably, it’s not the feelings of shame and guilt (that I would have expected from an American point of view). Ernaux doesn’t regret it, but some places, musics, words still trigger images and memories from that dark period of her life. The book is also middle-aged Ernaux reminiscing her young self in that period, claiming the right to tell her story as she remembers it, with that distance and reflection on the unreliability of memory that reminds me of another Nobel Prize winner I love to read, Patrick Modiano.

The book is quite blunt and some images might be shocking to sensitive readers. Ernaux is quite open when she describes the illegal abortion performed by a woman in her small Paris apartment, a woman who is not warm but not the clichéd greedy, dirty backstreet doctor. She’s a nurse assistant and Ernaux says performing abortion is also a social revenge against the male, wealthy, educated doctors of the hospital who barely look at her. Ernaux also takes a social (and political) approach to make the social bias, the class discrimination explicit, as well as the weight of the patriarchy (A pregnant young woman at the office of an older male doctor is a distasteful embarrassment, and the doctor at the hospital changes the way he treats her when he learns that she’s a college student).

Ernaux’ writing is sparse (under 200 pages) and devoid of emotion as much as she can. That might put some readers off but I personally found that it gave more impact to the reading experience. There are so many things to unpack from this short book. I’m now really enthusiastic about reading her other books!

3 thoughts on “Annie Ernaux, Happening (French, 2000)

  1. Sounds very powerful. I can’t believe the backsliding America is doing now – going back in time to the 1950’s is not a good idea! Yet a sizeable portion of our country seems to want to do that. It’s beyond disturbing.

  2. Pingback: Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story (2016) | Smithereens

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