A little past the midpoint of Annie Ernaux’s “impersonal autobiography,” The Years (2008), Jean-Paul Sartre dies: “The deaths of intellectuals and singers added to the bleakness of the times. Barthes’s came too soon. Sartre’s we’d already thought about and then it happened, majestic. One million walked behind the coffin, and Simone de Beauvoir’s turban slipped to the side during the burial.”
There is a poignancy to that skew turban: de Beauvoir, an icon both of independence and fidelity, an uncompromising survivor—she, too, is buffeted by time and decay; she, too, is knocked off plumb by events. The slipping of the turban might symbolize de Beauvoir’s intensity of sadness; or it might just be the wind. The detail is poignant, I think, because it’s between the two explanations; it’s neither and both. There is a feeling—grief, perhaps, or exhaustion—and there is an event—a death, a jostling, a gust of wind—but the skew turban opens to view a domain between feeling and event, internal and external. Maybe we could call it, taking a cue from Ernaux, a “lived impersonality.”
The Years is a kind of chronicle, a genre committed to profusion of detail, careful marking of befores and afters, and an impersonality of both voice and address. Profusion is a persistent concern of the book, something Ernaux wants both to salvage and to evade: “the idea has come to her to write a kind of ‘woman’s destiny,’ set between 1940 and 1985.” (In fact, it goes to 2006). This proposed work—what we are reading—would
convey the passage of time inside and outside of herself, in History, a “total novel” that would end with her dispossession of people and things: parents and husband, children who leave home, furniture that is sold. She is afraid of losing herself in the profusion of objects that are part of reality and must be grasped. And how would she organize the accumulated memory of events, and news items, and the thousands of days that have conveyed her to the present?
“Profusion” is a generic or formal problem—“how would she organize” the “profusion of objects” that “must be grasped”? It is also a biographical one—how has so much gone away? How might I be “dispossessed” of even more, since I am “losing myself” in the welter? And it is a historical index as well, for The Years is, among many other things, a catalogue of commodities, a litany of the goods we have steadily accumulated in the wealthy West—from the marvel of canned goods and home appliances just after the war to the multitude of electronic devices we worry about keeping charged today.
“The profusion of objects…must be grasped”: but so, too, must the events retailed in the media, the political ups and downs, the changes in style, the celebrities honored and despised, the morphing of mores. In short, banality itself “must be grasped,” organized. One of the ambiguous pleasures of The Years are the truisms and bigotries that serve as a kind of humus from which sprout opinions and passions: “Religion was making a comeback but it wasn’t our religion, the one which we no longer believed and hadn’t wanted to impart, though it basically remained the only legitimate faith—the best, if one had to give it a rank.” Does Ernaux think this? Did she once? Possibly; more likely, we are being given the tacit biases of her “milieu.” What it is not, however, is satire or ideology critique. Ernaux’s form of the “we” forbids that distancing interpretation.
The presiding figure for the work as a whole is immersion. You must be in the flow of things, feel the current of time, by turns fierce and torpid, but you must not drown there, must not “lose yourself” altogether: “her book’s form can only emerge from her complete immersion in the images from her memory to identify, with relative certainty, the specific signs of the time.” And again: “Her main concern is the choice between “I” and “she.” There is something too permanent about “I,” something shrunken and stifling, whereas “she” is too exterior and remote. The image she has of her book in its nonexistent form is… light and shadow streaming over faces.”
If you are an “I” you might shrink, be stifled, drown; if you are always “she” you might be too far away to catch the “light and shadow streaming.” You must be a kind of virtual “we.”
Ernaux speaks of the sensation…that engulfs her when, starting from a frozen memory-image of herself…she seems to melt into an indistinct whole … a kind of vast collective sensation that takes her consciousness, her entire being, into itself.” The Years is, in fact, punctuated by descriptions of photographs of the author, frozen moments that are made to give way to the force of the current: her book, Ernaux writes,
will be a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting present tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes…An outpouring, but suspended at regular intervals by photos and scenes from films that capture the successive body shapes and social positions of her being…To this “incessantly not-she” of photos will correspond, in mirror image, the “she” of writing. There is no “I” in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography.
Consider now another text that has recourse to an “unremitting present tense,” the magisterial work by the woman in the skew turban. The Second Sex (1949) clocks in at 750 pages, but it often moves in rapid bursts of description:
In any case, she has a long, empty afternoon in front of her. She takes her youngest children to the public park and knots or sews while keeping an eye on them; or, sitting at the window at home, she does her mending; her hands work, but her mind is not occupied; she ruminates over her worries; she makes plans; she daydreams, she is bored; none of her occupations suffices in itself; her thoughts are directed toward her husband and her children, who will wear these shirts, who will eat the meal she is preparing; she lives for them alone, and are they at all grateful to her? Little by little, her boredom changes into impatience; she begins to wait for their return anxiously. The children come back from school, she kisses them, questions them; but they have homework to do, they want to have fun together, they escape, they are not distraction. And then they have bad grades, they have lost a scarf, they are noisy, messy, they fight with each other: she almost always has to scold them.
As with Ernaux, one feels here the imperative to chronicle (“And then…”) the banal, grasp the profusion of details. And as with Ernaux, it takes the form of a flow, now rapid, now slower: de Beauvoir is masterful with her use of semicolons that almost force us to take very short breaths as the prose streams down the page. We must be in it but must not drown. And as with Ernaux, this is a kind of narrative hologram. It is full of events—“they have lost a scarf”—that are neither subjective nor objective. The descriptions of internal states and external conditions project a shared experience that no one woman occupies utterly, but that every woman occupies in part.
De Beauvoir had been urged on numerous occasions, by Sartre and by others, to write a memoir. She did not do so; she wrote The Second Sex instead–like The Years an “impersonal autobiography.” “The idea has come to her to write a kind of ‘woman’s destiny’”: this is Ernaux, but could be de Beauvoir. While de Beauvoir famously asserts that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” she is profoundly occupied with what she calls “woman’s traditional destiny.” But we need to understand what she means by destiny.
Destiny is not a fate, it is not a program, it is not a prison. It is not immutable: “there is no question of expressing eternal truths here, but of describing the common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems.” The metaphor is terrestrial here, a question of rooting, and stemming, from a “common ground.” But the writing is fluvial. To be destined is to be a body in an ever-changing but irresistible flow. De Beauvoir recurs again and again in her masterpiece to the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence. It is given to men, apparently, to be able to order their lives in the direction of transcendence (able to: the vast majority do not). But the lot of women is immanence, a kind of immersion that restricts to the point of rendering impossible a life fully given over to the project of transcendence.
We must be in the river but must not drown. Many do drown, perhaps most. But there are ways of both living one’s immanence, and observing it; of being neither drowned nor too far away in a land of abstraction that one can no longer observe “light and shadow streaming over faces.” One of these ways, perhaps the best, is writing, the writing of immanence: “To the ‘incessantly not-she’ of photographs will correspond, in mirror image, the ‘she’ of writing.” A mirror: one woman, different and same. Between the body and its reflection, however, opens the impersonal world of immanence, both lived and transcended in a writing project that dares to give up the I for the we.