“But what is the point of writing . . .” (Annie Ernaux)


“But what is the point of writing if not to unearth things, or even just one thing that cannot be reduced to any kind of psychological or sociological explanation and is not the result of a preconceived idea or demonstration but a narrative: something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded and can help us understand — endure — events that occur and the things that we do?”

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer

This is, so far, the Ernaux that makes the most intense impression, though I will reread The Years again soon. Right before, I read A Man’s Place, affecting, but to a lesser degree perhaps.

Annie Ernaux’s Happening (Lost in Translation)

Reading Annie Ernaux’s Happening. I am suspicious of its translation into English.

Ernaux writes: “En regardent la silhouette frêle, en imperméable, du petit employé, ses humiliations, devant la désolation sans espoir du film, je savais que mes règles ne reviendraient pas.” This is translated as: “As I watched the frail figure of the boy in his cheap raincoat, the humiliations he suffered during his pathetic existence, somehow I knew the bleeding would not come back.” I consulted the original because “pathetic existence” didn’t ring true, seeming like poor writing. But it isn’t apparently what Ernaux intended, I assume, more a statement on the mood, “hopeless desolation” perhaps, of the film.

Earlier, Ernaux writes: “Comme la dernière fois, des hommes attendaient, groupés au pied métro aérien.” Again I looked up the original because it is translated as: “Like last time, men were idly waiting, clustered at the foot of the Métro overhead.” That “idly” jarred as another piece of sloppy writing. How do you wait “un-idly”? But the adverb isn’t present in the original.

Further on, Ernaux uses the phrase: “pensant sans arrêt que je n’avais pas mes règles,” which is translated as: “obsessed with the fact that I no longer had my period”. There is a gulf of difference between obsession and perhaps, “thinking all the time”. The psychoanalytic jargon is used a few pages on when, “Je résistais sans pouvoir m’empêcher d’y penser à net événement. M’y abandonner me semblait effrayant” is translated as “Despite my efforts to fight it, I became obsessed with the idea. Obeying this impulse seemed a terrifying prospect.” Both “obsessed” and “terrifying” seem to escalate and change the tone of Ernaux’s prose considerably.

Although this translation reads fluidly enough, it seems to distort the original more than necessary. Translator friends with French: am I nitpicking? For now I’m going back to Alison L. Strayer’s translation of The Years, which seems to my amateur eye a more reliable rendition that is a considerable literary achievement in its own right.

Forthcoming Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading

  1. Roberto Calasso, The Unnamable Present
  2. Laura Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul
  3. Jan Zwicky, The Experience of Meaning
  4. Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
  5. Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob
  6. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anarchy’s Brief Summer
  7. Simon Critchley. Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
  8. Dan Gretton, I You We Them
  9. Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
  10. Simone de Beauvoir, Diary of a Philosophy Student: Volume 2, 1928-29
  11. Annie Ernaux, Happening
  12. Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
  13. Claudio Magris, Snapshots
  14. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Sarah Richmond’s translation)
  15. Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project
  16. Christina Hesselholdt, Vivian
  17. Enrique Vila-Matas, Mac and His Problem
  18. Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature
  19. Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin

Forthcoming Books of Interest

There is nothing like refitting a library to make one appreciate how extensive a reading-backlog has somehow established itself as an almost living being. It makes me think fondly of the Joanna Walsh short story. Her story rests on the irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. (I recently contributed a personal selection of short stories, which included Walsh’s story, to Jonathan Gibbs’ terrific A Personal Anthology.)

I am trying to buy fewer books, but these are forthcoming over the next twelve months and will escape any such caution:

T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come
Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled
Maria Gabriela Llansol, Geography Rebels trilogy
Karl Ole Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Dan Gretton, I You We Them
Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Rachel Cusk, Coventry: Essays
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays
Marguerite Duras, The Garden Square
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
Daša Drndic, E. E. G. and Doppelgänger
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab

Sunday Preoccupations

It isn’t often I’ll decide to buy a book based on a cover, but my purchase of Anthony Rudolf’s European Hours was inspired by Paula Rego’s magnificent 1977 painting. Subsequently I learnt that Rudolf is Rego’s companion and her main male model. His autobiographical Silent Conversations looks also particularly desirable.

The other two I picked up on the basis of TLS reviews, intending to make time for both this summer.

Annie Ernaux’s The Years, though I’m not yet halfway through, seems truly brilliant. The publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions term it a collective autobiography of Ernaux’s generation. I’m not sure that captures her project fully. It seems more an act of memory, not as exercised through one individual, but an exploration of how memories are shared and transmitted within and by the interaction between multiple individuals of different generations. As Paul Ricoeur put it in his Memory, History, Forgetting (trans. Kathleen Blaney and David Pellauer), “no one ever remembers alone”. It is only through collective memory that we are able to remember individually. I will undoubtedly revise these early thoughts as I read slowly through this remarkable book.

Those serendipitous connections that lead me from book to book: the Ernaux is translated by Alison Strayer, a childhood friend and reading companion of an old favourite photographer and writer Moyra Davey.