Le jeune homme by Annie Ernaux – Memory-images Outside of Time

In her time-transcending account of an affair with a man 30 years her junior, Annie Ernaux revisits the memory of her first world.

In his 1896 book Matter and Memory, the French philosopher Henri Bergson defines two types of memory. The first, habit memory, is of automatic and utilitarian nature – it repeats the already-learned past actions to achieve present means. Recollective memory, however, is of spiritual nature. It’s the memory par excellence that helps us orient in the present by recalling “personal memory-images which picture all past events with their outline, their color, and their place in time.” It is the second type of memory that Annie Ernaux employs as a departure point and lightning source to her auto-sociobiographical novels.

le jeune homme annie ernaux

The dual perspective, flickering between present and past, is inherent in Ernaux’s latest novel, Le jeune homme – a mnemonic excavation of an affair she had in the 1990s. Back then, Ernaux was in her fifties. She was seeing a man 30 years her junior.

The brief, essay-length novel, published in France in May 2022, coincides with the sortie of a Cahier de L’Herne dedicated to Ernaux – a celebratory monograph that includes some previously unpublished writings, notably her diary entries.

The laudable monograph does not come as a surprise. In France, Ernaux is a long-acclaimed representative of the contemporary literary canon. Her memoir-driven novels addressing several inciting sociopolitical topics have also made her an emblematic figure of feminist and sociological thought.

Most anglophone readers became acquainted with Ernaux in 2019 when The Years (Les années, 2008) – an auto-sociobiographical chronicle of post-war France trudging through the second half of the 20th century – was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Since, her U.K. publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions has put forth six other translations. The next release, Getting Lost (Se perdre, 2001), is scheduled for September 2022.

The Years, narrated through a unique lens of personal memory, cultural habits, daily observations, books, songs, technology, news headlines, and other telling details, is a mélange of autofiction and socio-political fieldwork. The resulting style has the Rohmeresque effect of exposing the intimate everyday scenes, dialogues, and happenings in a stranger’s life. Meanwhile, as the narrative zooms in on select details and observations, the plot is enmeshed in an intricate macro-level web of social commentary and street-scale optical archival.

Ernaux’s method of turning her memory-images into historicist material is apparent already in her first novel. Cleaned Out, an account of the back-alley abortion she underwent, was published in 1974, shortly after abortion was legalized in France. To this day, she keeps returning to her souvenirs as an indefatigable source, a crossroads from which to expand in multifarious directions. 

Ernaux’s sixth novel, Simple Passion (Une passion simple, 1992), marked a rupture from her previous subjects, entering the provocative territory of sexual desire. The story of a midlife affair she had with a married Russian diplomat was criticized as “indecent” or “shameless” and earned her the epithet of “Madame Ovary” in a French magazine. Nonetheless, the book sold more than 200,000 copies in one year and earned her unprecedented attention. By describing her subjective sensibilities of insatiable passion and harrowing longing, she had pinched society’s communal nerve.

Memory, passion, and social boundaries are also the leitmotifs in Le jeune homme. The recounted affair, at the close of the 20th century, brings Ernaux back to Rouen, into a student apartment with its window opening at a hôtel-Dieu, the hospital where she had an abortion 20 years prior. The couple makes love on a floor mattress and watches “Nulle part ailleurs” on Canal+, a token from a bygone era. An attentive reader is welcome to pick up other suchlike crumbles spilled from the 90s throughout the book. By revisiting her exacting memory-images, Ernaux is looking for memories both individual and communal, metaphysical and tangible.

Eric Rohmer film stills

The immature, innocent, simple gestures of A. – we only learn her lover’s initial – like stirring sugar in the cup so it dissolves faster – carry the narrator back to her own youth. For Ernaux, he isn’t a man 30 years her junior but an “ouvreur du temps,” an opener of time that enables her to revisit vivid memory images from the past. “Il était le porteur de la mémoire de mon premier monde,” she writes. “He was the carrier of my first world’s memory.” Being with him makes her feel ageless, places her outside of time.

Mon corps n’avait plus d’age. Il fallait le regard lourdement réprobateur de clients à côte de nous dans un restaurant pour me le signifier. Regard qui, bien loin de me donner de la hone, renforçait me détermination à ne pas cacher ma liaison avec un homme “qui aurait pu être mon fils” quand n’importe quel type de cinquante ans pouvait s’afficher avec celle qui n’était visiblement pas sa fulle sans susciter aucune réprobation.

“My body had no age anymore. It took the heavily condemning look of the customers next to us in a restaurant to show it to me. A look that, far from bringing me shame, reinforced my determination to not hide my affair with a man “who could have been my son” when any fifty-year-old guy could display himself with a woman who clearly wasn’t his daughter without  arousing any reprobation.”

But time, the mischievous accomplice, doesn’t always act in her favor. In Capri, drinking Campari and watching young tanned girls gleaming on the piazzetta, she asks her lover: Does the youth tempt you? He’s surprised at first, then bursts to laugh. She immediately understands her mistake. Her question isn’t meant to confirm his passion for her – she has well enough proof of that. No, it only underlines that she herself is old.

Public shame is a subject that Ernaux keeps returning to. At the end of Simple Passion, she gathers that to continue working on the novel is also to delay the anxiety of giving it to others to read. Writing autobiographical literature is “difficult” and “dangerous” and yet she also feels it to be a burning necessity, a calling to turn her personal memories into something universal, something helpful to others.

By writing about events that happened tens of years prior, Ernaux establishes a certain barrier between her present and past selves that allows her to remain blunt, honest, and shameless in her recollections. In Le jeune homme, she reminisces about A.’s friends asking him how he can be together with a woman past her menopause. The words must have been as piercing to hear as they are to read. But the shame transmitting from the text doesn’t belong to me – the reader – nor is it Ernaux’s – the author’s. It’s a discomfort shared between thousands of readers. Shame and taboo have been demystified, they’ve lost their power to silence.

In the affair recounted in Simple Passion, Ernaux’s role is that of a pliant subject, she is molding her life (and time) around that of her lover. Agonizing over the constant state of anticipation, l’angoisse, she lives for the sole purpose of perfecting the next long-awaited meeting. (“I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment.”) In her relationship with A. the student, the tables (and time) have turned. Now, she is the one dictating the rules, taking care of the bills. Is this a role of an emancipated woman, a mother figure, or both? With two people in love, is this supposed to matter? In the case of Ernaux, what matters is how love makes her feel, think, and remember. 

 “De plus en plus, il me semblait que je pourrais entasser des images, des expériences, des années, sans plus rien ressentir d’autre que la répétition elle-même.

“Increasingly, it seemed to me that I could pile up images, experiences, years, without feeling anymore anything but the repetition itself.”

Today, an affair between a woman and man with a big age difference can be written about and discussed freely and from myriad angles, without the loud shadow of social denunciation occupying discourse. Ernaux began writing about her personal (female) experiences in the 1970s – at a time when, as Roland Barthes put it, “Us Too – the magazine – is more obscene than Sade,” while the Western society was still haunted by its patriarchal and religious ghosts.

Ernaux has put her memories, her words, and herself on the line countless times, being a trailblazer in abolishing persistent taboos and encouraging the second sex to speak up. In Happening (L’Événement, 2003), an unsettling narration of her illegal abortion in the 1960s, she denotes her duty towards other women: “If I failed to go through with this undertaking [writing the book], I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.” She realized there was no candid, first-hand, practical information available to the thousands of women with unwanted pregnancies.

“Although abortion was mentioned in many novels, no details were given about what actually took place. There was a sort of void between the moment the girl learns she is pregnant and the moment it’s all over,” she writes in The Happening.

By de-particularizing universal female experiences such as abortion or rape – rarely discussed and verging on taboo – Ernaux gave her gender a voice, as well as a confirmation that there were other women, too – grappling with this shared condition. Her stylistic choice of using a transpersonal “I,” apparent in many of her works, brings the author closer to her reader by enabling the latter to identify with both the protagonist and the writer. The “I” becomes a “we” and the communal memory makes them part of one body.

The human mind continues to be a mystery. Speaking of dual memory, Bergson remarks that habit “follows the direction of nature” while recollective memory “left to itself, would rather go the contrary way.” How much of our memory-images are truthful and how to tell imagination from recollection?

Ernaux has been critical of writers who have made fiction out of their lived experience. “Il y a pas mal de récits autobiographiques qui donnent une insupportable impression de manquer la vérité,” she notes in L’écrituce comme un couteau. (“There are quite a number of autobiographical accounts which give an unbearable impression of lacking truth.”) Ernaux never takes her reader’s trust – nor the infallibility of her memory – for granted. An admirer of Rousseau’s infinitely transparent writing, she goes to great pains to convince the audience that her account is true, non-fictional as far as the fallibility of personal memory allows. 

Like Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway who “sliced like a knife through everything; and at the same time she was outside, looking on,” Ernaux anatomizes her own writing practice with the sharp exactitude of a distant observer. Her characteristic stylistic designs include footnotes, meta-commentary on her writing- and thought processes, and explaining to the reader why some characters’ have been reduced to initials. “I am only the archivist,”  she writes in A Woman’s Story.

The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed that the objective perspective of science is only made possible by a first-person human experience. We only achieve a third-person perspective via a collection of first-person human experiences. The mind, to resurface memory-images of the past, necessitates a present need. In Le jeune homme as well as in other Ernaux novels, the leading narrative, itself a remembrance, serves to recall others, achieving something akin to a domino effect in a quarry of memories. One memory leads to another, re-envisaging a newspaper headline recalls the fellow passenger sitting next to us on the RER train, calls to mind the place we were traveling to that day. 

Places, loves, ideas. Colors, sounds, scents. Our attic-like minds are filled with paraphernalia put away in the attic. Until one day, a memory will surprise us by reappearing like a prodigal son, asking to be allowed back into our life. “What I have loved, whether I have kept it or not, I shall love forever,” André Breton wrote in Mad Love. What we have loved, shall keep returning to us forever, Ernaux might add.