An Evolving Narrative

Annie Ernaux, trans. Tanya Leslie, Happening

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 80pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781910695838

reviewed by Xenobe Purvis

In April 1971, the weekly Parisian news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published a letter submitted by 343 women. In a few brief paragraphs, the letter declared that the undersigned women – including, among many others, the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Sagan, and Agnès Varda – had all undergone illegal abortions. The letter attempted to remove the shroud of secrecy surrounding abortion and champion its legalisation; it undoubtedly contributed to the eventual reform in French abortion laws in 1975.

But how was the letter received at the time? Charlie Hebdo – in its infancy in 1971 – bore on the cover of its 12th April issue the question ‘Qui a engrossé les 343 salopes du manifeste sur l’avortement?’ (‘Who knocked up the 343 sluts of the abortion manifesto?’) To which a weary-looking cartoon of the former Prime Minister Michel Debré responds, ‘C’etait pour la France!’ (‘It was for France!’) Thereafter, the letter was widely referred to as the ‘Manifesto des 343 Salopes’ or the ‘Manifesto of the 343 Sluts’.

Others didn’t treat the letter with such levity. The French writer Annie Ernaux describes the significance of the manifesto in her memoir The Years:

‘We would not remember the day or the month, only that it was spring and one had read from first to last, in Le Nouvel Observateur, the names of 343 women who stated they’d had illegal abortions—so many, yet we’d been so alone with the probe and the spurting blood. Even if to do so would be frowned upon, we knew, we added our voice to the others that called for free access to medical abortion and the abolishment of the law of 1920 […] We raised our eyes to the cloudless sky of the Dauphiné and told ourselves it was up to us to stop, for the very first time, thousands of years of blood-soaked deaths of women.’

Ernaux’s own abortion – referred to only fleetingly in this passage, cloaked in the anonymising third person in which the book is written – was the subject of her earlier memoir Happening (L’événement, 2000), recently published for the first time in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions in a translation by Tanya Leslie. In this book, ‘the probe and the spurting blood’ are examined with eye-watering attention to detail. So too is the ‘alone’-ness endured by a 23-year-old Ernaux on discovering that she is pregnant.

This state of aloneness is thrown into sharp relief by the many interactions Ernaux has over the course of the book. With P, the political science student with whom Ernaux had sex, who was ‘greatly relieved on learning that [she] planned to abort’. With Dr N, the gynaecologist, bound by law to turn her away when she admits she’s seeking an abortion. With Jean T, the married friend to whom she goes for help, who tries to seduce her (‘In his mind, I had moved on from the type of girl who might say no to the type who had undoubtedly said yes.’). With her parents, whom she visits every weekend, hoping that her mother doesn’t notice her perennially bloodless knickers in the laundry. And with Madame P-R, the backstreet abortionist – one of the so-called ‘faiseuses d’anges’ or ‘angel makers’ – who inserts first one probe and then another into Ernaux’s womb, inducing a miscarriage which begins during a screening of Battleship Potemkin.

Ernaux, writing several decades later, describes these events with steely focus. (This is unsurprising: it takes steel to attempt a makeshift abortion with a knitting needle, as Ernaux does, to wander the streets of Rouen alone in search of an illegal ‘angel maker’, to recover from a life-threatening haemorrhage and return to the library soon after to resume research on a thesis.) Readers should steel themselves too; this memoir is distressingly – and necessarily – graphic.

In plain prose, deftly translated by Leslie, Ernaux leads her readers through those events of 1963. Her unsparing gaze omits nothing: she recalls it all – from the song she was humming on her way to the abortionist and the snobbery of the doctor she later meets in hospital, to the shape and size of the foetus she gives birth to and the empty melba toast wrapper in which she conceals it. This startling combination of the big and the small, the crude texture of history, means that the book administers a punch beyond its slim size (the Fitzcarraldo edition runs to only 77 pages). It is unflinching and honest, a frank patchwork of past and present experiences.

For Happening operates on two time frames: Ernaux’s impressions, recorded in her journal at the time, are interwoven with later comments and reflections. Memories are held up to the light, scrutinised by the older writer in parentheses. At one point, Ernaux acknowledges the text’s continuing evolution – even beyond publication – in a poststructuralist side-note. Describing the miscarriage and the near-fatal haemorrhage, she writes that she had ‘lost all control’, comparing this to the situation she foresees after Happening is published:

‘My determination, my efforts, all this secret, and even clandestine work – no one has been apprised of the project – all this will vanish overnight. I shall have no more power over my text, exposed to the public just like my body was exposed at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital.’

In relinquishing authorial control, Ernaux permits her work to live on in the minds of the public. This idea of an evolving narrative is everywhere in Happening – it’s clear in each of Ernaux’s retrospective interjections. It even informs the book’s title, taken from the journal of the surrealist writer Michel Leiris, from which Ernaux also borrows her epigraph: ‘I wish for two things: that happening turn to writing. And that writing be happening.’ The title suits the subject: illegal abortion isn’t confined to history, suspended in aspic, a thing to be examined in the past tense. It is still hotly contested, demanding the present participle of Ernaux’s title.

The title’s impression of ongoingness, together with the fragmentary nature of the narrative, are also symptomatic of a personal experience of trauma. Only towards Happening’s conclusion does Ernaux suggest that she is beginning to heal. Reflecting on her past, she realises that those haunting months in 1963 are both the cause of her writing and its effect. She explores this idea in the final pages:

‘. . . these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.’

Like the 343 ‘salopes’ who wrote to Le Nouvel Observateur in 1971, Ernaux finds meaning in testimony. ‘[I]f I failed to go through with this undertaking,’ she writes, ‘I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.’ This book – which, she admits, she didn’t know whether she would finish – has a double agenda, therefore: it is both the reason for Ernaux’s experience and her tool for healing, an essential document of trauma which deserves to be widely read.
Xenobe Purvis is a freelance writer and researcher. She is currently assisting in the preparation of a volume of Christopher Isherwood’s selected letters.