Sociologist and novelist Christine Détrez, professor at the École normale supérieure de Lyon, said in a telephone interview that Ernaux’s work serves to “de-particular” the experiences of women. “You are afraid to recognize yourself, because then you will have to draw your own conclusions, but you do,” she said, adding that the impact of Ernaux on the lives of women in France could be compared to that de Beauvoir on previous generations. “It helps, because it means that what you are going through is the result of a shared condition,” added Professor Detrez.
This was clear from the reactions of the public during a public reading of “Une histoire de filles” at the venerable theater of the Comédie-Française in Paris in early March. As actress Dominique Blanc spoke, grateful whispers and giggles greeted details that recreated a long-lost era: the novelty of disposable sanitary napkins, a popular cookie of the era. For the women of the Ernaux generation, it was Proustian madeleines.
Ernaux was in the audience that day, but she generally prefers to stay away from the Parisian literary scene. Instead, she has been increasingly outspoken, in interviews and essays, on social and political issues. She put all her weight behind #MeToo, which has struggled to gain momentum in the French arts world, as well as the popular yellow vests protests that rocked the country last year. “I come from a line of people who could have been yellow vests,” Ernaux said.
His attention to the structures of social domination paved the way in France for writers like Édouard Louis, 27, who rose to prominence with “La fin du tourbillon”, a novel inspired by his own working-class education. “For me, it was like an explosion,” Louis said of his first encounter with Ernaux’s work in a telephone interview: “I felt represented. He added that Ernaux made him “realize how subversive autobiography can be.”
Yet when politics or personal trauma came on the phone with Ernaux, there was no hint of outrage in his voice. It is straightforward but impressively measured; even in “A Girl’s Story,” unraveling the damage done to her in 1958 leads to a sense of peace.
Ernaux’s only fear, it seems, is losing the ability to look within and rewind the years, after seeing his own mother’s memories fade away in the 1980s. “Frankly, I’d rather die now than lose everything I’ve seen and heard, ”she said. “Memory, for me, is inexhaustible.”