Book Review: Happening by Annie Ernaux
In Happening, Annie Ernaux looks back at her life in the winter of 1963, while she was a student in Rouen. At a time when abortion in France is illegal, she finds out she is pregnant and is alone in dealing with this situation. The second book by Ernaux to be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, Happening was originally published in the original French in 2000 and translated into English by Tanya Leslie. It’s a novella-length memoir from one of the great writers of the genre, and masterfully captures the social climate of the 60s through the intimate lens of Ernaux’s memories of her youth.
The book opens with her visit to the doctor when Ernaux learns she is pregnant, and becomes a quest to find a way to abort in an environment where it is taboo to event utter the word. Doctors face severe punishment if found to have performed abortion, or even if they fail to prevent it if possible, so even the most sympathetic ones would refrain from helping her. She starts looking for someone who might point her in the right direction, and someone she can trust at the same time. This evolves into a series of people in whom she confides her secret, and while it starts as a means to find a solution, she realises that the act of telling people that she is pregnant and is looking to abort is just as important to her: “I had to reveal my condition, regardless of people’s beliefs or possible disapproval. Because I was so powerless, the act of telling them was crucial, its consequences immaterial: I simply needed to confront these people with the stark vision of reality.” The morality of abortion as such is not the focus of the narrative – the facts are laid out from the onset: 23-year-old Annie Ernaux is pregnant and wants to terminate, and French law prohibits abortion. At no point does she try to convince someone else of the freedom of choice, and in retrospect she admits that at the time she could not fathom a world where women had complete legal freedom to have an abortion. The judgment she would face from most people were they to know of her intentions is a given for her at this point. So she starts looking for anyone who might help her on a personal level, and not based on the moral compass imposed on them by social and legal structures.
A stand-out aspect of Happening is the metanarrative. In parentheses interspersed throughout the book, Ernaux provides notes on the process of writing about this experience decades later – how and why she decided to write about it, reflections on the nature of memory and how it shapes the story she is telling, her decision to not disclose the name of anyone mentioned in the book. These reflections are usually ingrained into the fabric of the narrative in a memoir, as it is a genre usually explicitly framed as an exercise in memory, but in Happening they form almost a separate narrative, almost like a director’s commentary in a film’s DVD extras. It is not only important to know the story, but also why she needs to tell it and how she struggled at times with various aspects of it.
While it is a very personal story, its subject matter gives it an inherent universal significance. As Ernaux contemplates the rights of women and the changes that have happened in the decades between her experience with abortion and her writing about it, she understands the importance of her being vocal about her story. Even though Happening was written almost two decades ago, the Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland was successful less than a year ago, and countless other countries have restrictive legislation on abortion. Ernaux feels an obligation to women who are now in the position she was in in 1963, and aims to be for them the person she was looking for when she was in that position.
Anyone who picked up The Years last year does not need to be convinced that Happening is a memoir of the highest calibre by an author who writes with such honesty and precision about the most personal of stories. Annie Ernaux offers a glimpse into a difficult and lonely period of her life as “something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”
Annie Ernaux’s Happening, translated by Tanya Leslie, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and released on 13 February.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.