ROME – Since publication of what’s widely regarded as her masterpiece, 2008’s The Years, French writer Annie Ernaux has been considered a favorite to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Through her works, Ernaux has almost single-handedly created a new literary genre, the collective autobiography, which delivers deep and original reflections on the construction of memory.
Thus, when Ernaux was announced as this year’s winner Thursday, it came as no great surprise to most literary experts.
Right now, however, amid the debates over abortion rights unleashed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, bestowing the prize on Ernaux inevitably casts the spotlight most directly on another of her works – The Happening, a short book in which she recounts her experience of having an illegal abortion in 1963.
The book was made into a movie last year that won the Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival, and is likely to gain a boost from Thursday’s Nobel announcement. Many critics have praised the film as a harrowing window onto the realities that might once again face desperate women in a post-Roe world.
In that light, it’s worth taking a close look at Ernaux’s 2000 memoir of her abortion – including, perhaps, a few of the questions it leaves unanswered.
To begin with, it must be said that no matter what side one takes on today’s abortion debates, The Happening is a valuable contribution simply as a description of one woman’s experience. The problem with many political arguments in the age of virtual reality is that they’re detached from the concreteness of life, with flesh-and-blood people turned into caricatures and complex issues transformed into slogans.
Just as no one should pronounce on, say, the clerical abuse scandals in the Catholic Church without first listening to survivors, anyone who wishes to discuss abortion intelligently probably should first absorb the testimony of women who’ve actually had one – and, in that sense, The Happening deserves a spot on the reading list.
Without giving too much away, Ernaux describes becoming unexpectedly pregnant as a young university student in the fall of 1963, and then her increasingly desperate quest to rid herself of the pregnancy. Eventually she ends up in the hands of an underground abortionist in Paris whom she pays 400 Francs, the equivalent of about $1,200 in today’s money.
Although the procedure succeeds in inducing a miscarriage, complications land Ernaux in the hospital. In time she recovers and goes on with her life, eventually having two children, sons named Eric and David.
Let’s dismiss from the outset the idea that The Happening somehow depicts what’s in store in the United States in 2022 in the wake of overturning Roe v. Wade.
First of all, in Ernaux’s account no one among her tight circle of friends and confidantes ever suggested having the child and giving it up for adoption, presumably because the social stigma and shame regarding pregnancy due to sex outside marriage in 1960s-era France meant there were precious few resources available for women in such a situation.
Today, of course, the landscape is entirely different. Should a 22-year-old college student become pregnant today and feel incapable of supporting the child, pro-life individuals and organizations would line up around the block to help, and for the most part no judgment would be attached.
Second, had abortion been legal in 1963 in neighboring Belgium, or Switzerland, or Luxembourg, Ernaux certainly would have had the resources and wherewithal to cross the border and have the procedure in conditions of relative safety. That wasn’t the case, but today, even if abortion is illegal in one state, it’s available in another.
Hence, The Happening ought to be appreciated on its own, as a memoir of an experience rooted in a specific place and time that are now in the past, however much memories of those moments may carry implications for the present.
Should the opportunity ever present itself, there are three questions about The Happening it would be fascinating to discuss with Ernaux.
First, here’s a line from the book quoting her personal notes from the period of her abortion: “There was no point naming something I was planning to get rid of,” she writes. “In my diary I would ‘it’ or ‘that thing,’ only once ‘pregnant.’”
Ernaux is a bright, insightful thinker, and surely she recognizes the psychological dynamics of dehumanization and depersonalization involved in the use of that sort of language. It would be interesting to hear her mature reflections on what it suggests about the act of abortion that she felt compelled to employ such terminology.
Second, in describing her encounters with the underground abortionist, Ernaux recalls that their conversations were entirely practical: When was her last period, how much would the procedure cost, what the technique involved.
Ernaux then writes: “By experience, Madame P-R knew that a conversation confined to basics avoided the tears and emotional outbursts that might lead the girls to procrastinate or even change their minds.”
Again, one would like to ask, what does it say about abortion that a practitioner would learn to avoid discussing its emotional impact?
Finally, as a sort of footnote, Ernaux, who grew up in a solidly Catholic home, describes going to a priest for confession after the abortion was over, only to feel that he treated her as a criminal. As a result, she writes, “I realized that I was through with religion.”
Again, one would love to have the chance to ask her: “In your university studies, did you ever meet an arrogant professor? If so, did you give up on French literature?” Or, “Did you ever encounter a bully of a cop? Did you therefore abandon the idea of the rule of law?”
In other words, surely one flawed representative doesn’t invalidate the church writ large, or the idea of religious faith.
These are the sorts of questions that reading The Happening beckon, and one has the sense that the astute and searingly honest observer Ernaux would be an interesting interlocutor with whom to discuss them.
Whether such a conversation is even theoretically possible in today’s atmosphere is, however, an entirely different problem, and one that not even a Nobel laureate may be able to unravel.