Happening by Annie Ernaux, Fitzcaraldo, 77pp £8.99 ISBN: 9781910695838
Perhaps the most striking thing about Annie Ernaux’s autofictional account of finding herself pregnant in Rouen in 1963, desperately wanting an illegal abortion but having no idea of how to go about it, is its cool and removed tone. Ernaux sees what happened to her as “an extreme human experience”, but her sparse and controlled prose is not what we are accustomed to or what we might expect in an account of profound personal suffering.
The writer’s ego is downplayed; there is no excavating of sensibility, it is more an exercise in the excavation of personal history, undertaken for the author’s own purposes. Her approach is investigative, almost academic, with the reader an accidental presence. The result for the reader is a feeling of intimate emotional, intellectual and sociological knowledge of the author’s pregnancy and abortion. The writing is sublime and unforgettable. Happening is one of the most remarkable books you will ever read.
The action commences in the present, thirty-six years after the illegal abortion. Now a mature woman, Ernaux is attending a clinic to find out if she is HIV positive as a result of a recent relatively casual sexual encounter. Meeting her we discover a personality at a remove from her recent experience but unflinchingly acknowledging it.
“I felt as if 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”. She had enjoyed the sex but was not pushed one way or the other about her partner. As we read, we discover that this personality was not something which developed as the author progressed through life. Ernaux was quite similar aged twenty-three, interested in sex but largely indifferent to people. In the present it turns out she doesn’t have aids but the experience of the medical environment in the clinic brings back the earlier experience of her calamitous pregnancy.
She decides to investigate the earlier experience and writes of a wish to learn what can be found there. The writing has a clinical tone but there is more to it than that. She is setting out to do something overdue, to engage with an unresolved trauma in her earlier life, one which she has never forgotten. “For years these events have occupied my mind. Reading about an abortion in a novel immediately plunges me into a state of shock.” It was “an unforgettable event”.
Her determination to write the story of the abortion has a firmness similar in kind to her determination to have an abortion when she was twenty-three. She wants to be “immersed in that part of my life again and learn what can be found there”. “Today abortion is no longer outlawed and this is precisely why I can afford to steer clear of the social views and inevitably stark formulas of the rebel seventies – ‘abuse against women etc’ – and face the reality of this unforgettable experience”. Politics and sociology are left to one side, but in the end they are seen to have played a role.
At times Happening reads more like a journal and is in fact partly based on diary entries made by the author in 1963 and to which Ernaux returns as a source to guide her elucidation of earlier events. Her diary entries at the time were raw and blunt. “If only I didn’t have this REALITY inside me”. “I am pregnant. What a nightmare.” It is a sparse and unemotional style which the older woman also finds natural in her retrospective account. “One week later Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. By then I had lost interest in that sort of thing”.
The imaginative power of Happening lies in the tension between the unemotional style and the overwhelming scale of the personal trauma which Ernaux relates with exactitude and without the slightest hint of self-pity. She has no interest in winning the reader’s approval and would be contemptuous of such an approach. She is aesthetically self-contained and this was also very much the case for the young student in 1963. She was remote from her peers, “There were other girls with their empty bellies and there was me”. The reader might wonder where this strange detachment comes from.
She socializes with her peers but does not seek deeper friendships. This emotional remove affects sexual relations and her view of her own body. Considering the encounter which led to her pregnancy, she says it was a risky period but somehow she didn’t think it would “catch on” inside her. “I felt my body was basically no different from that of a man.” The young Ernaux appears to be affected by a generalized alienation as she prepares to undertake her college dissertation on the role of women in surrealist writing.
The sparse style of Happening mirrors this condition of isolation (not loneliness), a condition which does not trouble the young woman but which the reader may feel has shaped her experience. Ernaux’s narrative suggests a link between her self-isolation and her sociological status.
Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work.
She does not feel she has escaped the legacy of the working class which, for her, is the possibility of a collapse into poverty. She sees her pregnancy as falling back towards the fate of the poor “I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.” That danger becoming her reality is something she will avoid at all costs.
She is utterly and completely clear that she cannot give birth to a child. Her possibilities would be ended and she will not allow that. The world she came from was one of shop-keeping and factories. She is clever and has, with her scholarship, jumped the class barrier and made it to university. She is one of a tiny percentage to have made the transition but in her improved condition she is deeply isolated without meaningful social supports. Her friends are not real or substantial friends, they are little more than acquaintances. This makes her dilemma all the more acute. She has no network to assist her in finding a back-street abortionist. By the time she does find one – having failed to induce a miscarriage with the use of knitting needles – she is relatively advanced.
The force and determining social power of class becomes crystalised in her dealings with the medical profession, which remains a near universal barometer of social inequality. The doctor she visits to confirm her condition is not much use. Girls like her with no money and no connections “were a waste of time for doctors”.
If she was bourgeois she would have had connections and a support network; her search for an abortionist would have been easier. The same is probably true had she gone to work in a factory. By going to university she had entered a no woman’s land.
It seems as if her consistent tone of detachment is all that is available to her for defence. Without supports she can hardly risk emotion. When she finally finds a back-street abortionist, we see the same disengagement: “This was the woman to whom I would surrender my insides, this was where it would all happen.”
Bleeding profusely after her miscarriage the duty doctor was called. Her reserve breaks down as she fears for her life. As she lay in terror begging him not to let her die, he upbraids her for having the abortion, “Why did you do it?” he demanded with glaring eyes. “Promise me you’ll never do it again!” He then requested payment for the consultation and as she was unable to move he opened the drawer in her desk and took payment from her purse.
Bleeding heavily, she has to be hospitalized and is once again in the hands of the medical world. The doctor treating her is abusive shouting “I’m no plumber”. He later discovers she is a student. He had assumed she was just some working girl. He is embarrassed to learn she is a bourgeois. Why didn’t she say, he asks.
The strange and unsettling isolation of this vulnerable and desperate girl is the overwhelming truth of this exceptional work. The adoption of a calm and emotional reserve was probably her only option in dealing with her situation, but a style of removal does not diminish the essential trauma. We cannot be surprised that four decades later Ernaux finds herself compelled to return to the events of the early 1960s in recognition of their force in her life.