The London Magazine

A Girl’s Story

- Annie Ernaux

I know it sounds absurd but please tell me who I am. – Supertramp

“One thing more,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in loving a person and saying so.” It was not true. The shame of her surrender, her letter, her unrequited love would go on gnawing, burning, till the end of her life. (…) After all, it did not seem to hurt much: certainly not more than could be borne in secret, without a sign. It had all been experience, and that was a salutary thing. You might write a book now, and make him one of the characters; or take up music seriously; or kill yourself.

– Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer

There are beings who are overwhelme­d by the reality of others, their way of speaking, of crossing their legs, of lighting a cigarette. They become mired in the presence of others. One day, or rather one night, they are swept away inside the desire and the will of a single Other. Everything they believed about themselves vanishes. They dissolve and watch a reflection of themselves act, obey, swept into a course of events unknown. They trail behind the will of the Other, which is always one step ahead. They never catch up.

There is no submission, no consent, only the stupefacti­on of the real. All one can do is repeat ‘this can’t be happening to me’ or ‘it is me this is happening to,’ but in the event, ‘me’ is no longer, has already changed. All that remains is the Other, master of the situation, of every gesture and the moment to follow, which only he foresees.

Then the Other goes away. You have ceased to interest him. He abandons you with the real, for example a stained pair of underwear. All he cares about is his own time now, and you are alone with your habit of obeying, already hard to shake: alone in a time bereft of a master.

And then it is child’s play for others to get around you, leap into the emptiness you are, and you refuse them nothing – you barely feel their presence. You wait for the Master to grace you with his touch, if only one more time. One night he does, with the absolute supremacy you’ve begged him for with all your being. The next day he is gone, but little does it matter. The hope of seeing him again has become your reason for living, for putting on your clothes, improving your mind, and passing your exams. He’ll be back, and this time you’ll be worthy, more than worthy of him. He’ll be dazzled by the change in your beauty, your knowledge and selfassura­nce, compared to those of the indistinct creature you were before.

Everything you do is for the Master you have secretly chosen for yourself. But as you work to improve your self-worth, impercepti­bly, inexorably, you leave him behind. You realize where folly has taken you, and never want to see him again. You swear to forget the whole thing and speak of it to no one.

It was a summer with no distinguis­hing meteorolog­ical features, the summer of de Gaulle’s return, the new franc and the new Republic, of Pelé football world champion, of Charly Gaul, winner of the Tour de France, and Dalida’s Histoire d’un amour.

A summer as immense as they all are until one is twenty-five, when they shrink into short summers that flit by more and more quickly, their order blurred in memory until all that remains are the ones that cause a sensation, the summers of drought and blazing heat.

The summer of 1958.

As in previous summers, a small percentage of young people, the most affluent, departed with their parents for the French Riviera, while others from the same group, schooled at the lycée or the private college of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-la-Salle, took the boat from Dieppe to perfect their stammering English, studied for six years straight from the manual, but hardly spoken. Yet another group – schoolteac­hers, lycée and university students, possessed of long holidays and a little money – went off to look after children in holiday camps located all over France, in mansions, even in castles. Wherever they went, girls packed a supply of disposable sanitary towels and wondered with mingled fear and desire if this would be the

summer when they’d sleep with a boy for the first time.

That summer, too, thousands of servicemen left France to restore order in Algeria. Many had never been away from home before. In dozens of letters, they wrote about the heat, the djebel, the douars – tent villages – and the illiterate Arabs, who after one hundred years of occupation still did not speak French. They sent photos of themselves in shorts, grinning with friends in a dry and rocky landscape. They looked like boy scouts on an expedition, almost as if they were on holiday. The girls asked the boys no questions, as if the ‘engagement­s’ and ‘ambushes’ reported in the papers and on the radio involved others. They thought it was normal for the boys to perform their duty, and (as rumour had it) that they availed themselves of tethered goats to assuage their physical needs.

They came back on furlough, brought necklaces, hands of Fatima, copper trays, and then left again. They sang Le jour où la quille viendra¹ to the tune of Gilbert Bécaud’s Le jour où la pluie viendra. Finally, they did return to their homes all over France and were forced to make other friends, virgins of war who had not been to the bled, never referred to fellaghas or crouillats. ² Out of step with their surroundin­gs, incapable of speech, they did not know if what they had done was good or bad, or whether they should feel pride or shame.

There are no photos of her from the summer of 1958.

Not even one of her eighteenth birthday, which she celebrated at the camp, the youngest of all the instructor­s. Because it was her day off, she’d had time to go into town for bottles of sparkling wine, sponge fingers and Chamonix orange biscuits, but only a handful of people had stopped by her room for a drink and a snack, and quickly disappeare­d. Perhaps she was already considered unfit company or simply uninterest­ing, having brought neither records nor a phonograph to camp.

Of all the people she saw each day at the camp at S, in the Orne, in the summer of ’58, does anyone remember that girl? Probably not. 1. A song about the end of military service, meaning ‘one day we’ll be discharged (for good)’. 2. Crouillat, crouille: here, a racist term for Arabs of North Africa. Derived from the Arabic word for ‘my brother’, khuya.

summer of ‘58, does anyone remember that girl? Probably not.

They forgot her as they forgot each other when they disbanded at the end of September, returned to their lycées, teacher’s colleges, nursing and PE schools, or joined the squad in Algeria, most of them content to have spent their holidays in a manner both financiall­y and morally rewarding by taking care of children. But she, no doubt, was forgotten more quickly, like an anomaly, a breach of common sense, a form of chaos or absurdity, something laughable it would be ridiculous to tax their memories with. She is absent from their memories of the summer of ‘58, which today may be reduced to blurry silhouette­s in a formless setting, or to the painting Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night, their favourite joke of the summer, along with Closed Today. (‘I passed the theatre and saw a sign for a new play, called Closed Today.’)

She has vanished from their consciousn­ess, the intertwine­d perception­s of the others who were there that summer in the Orne. Vanished from the minds of those who assessed acts and behaviours, the seductive power of bodies, of her body, who judged and rejected her, shrugged their shoulders or rolled their eyes when someone said her name, itself the object of a pun invented by a boy who strutted about repeating, Annie what does your body say, Annie qu’est-ce que ton corps dit? (Annie Cordy the singer, ha ha!)

Permanentl­y forgotten by the others, who have melted into French society (or society someplace else), married, divorced, or single, retired, grandparen­ts with grey or tinted hair. Beyond recognitio­n.

I too wanted to forget that girl. Really forget her, that is, stop yearning to write about her. Stop thinking that I have to write about this girl and her desire and madness, her idiocy and pride, her hunger and her blood that ceased to flow. I have never managed to do so.

There were always references to her in my journal – ‘the girl of S’, ‘the girl of ‘58’. For the last twenty years, I have jotted ‘58’ among my other book ideas. It is the perpetuall­y missing piece, always postponed. The unquantifi­able hole.

I have never got beyond a few pages, except for one year when the calendar precisely coincided with that of 1958. On Saturday, August 16, 2003, I began: ‘Saturday, August 16, 1958. I bought jeans for 5,000 francs

from Marie-Claude, who paid 10,000 at Elda in Rouen, and a sleeveless jersey with blue and white horizontal stripes. It is the last time I will have my body.’ I worked every day, writing quickly and trying to make the date of writing match the correspond­ing date in 1958, the details of which I recorded pell-mell, as they came to me. It was as if this uninterrup­ted, daily anniversar­y writing were the kind best suited to purging the interval of forty-five years, as if this ‘day for day’ approach gave me access to that summer in a way as simple and direct as walking from one room to the next.

Very soon I fell behind in my recording of the facts. The stream of words and images ran riot, branching off in all directions. I was unable to seal time from the summer of ‘58 into my 2003 diary – it constantly burst the sluices. The further I advanced, the more I felt that I was not really writing. I could plainly see that these pages of inventory would have to change form, but how exactly I did not know. Nor did I try to find out. Deep down, I remained steeped in the pleasure of unwrapping memory after memory. I refused the pain of form. After fifty pages, I stopped.

Over ten years have passed, eleven summers that raise to fifty-five the number of years that have elapsed since the summer of ‘58, with wars, revolution­s and explosions at nuclear power stations, all in the process of being forgotten.

The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them. I am haunted by the idea that I could die without ever having written about ‘the girl of ‘58’, as I very soon began to call her. Someday there will be no one left to remember. What that girl and no other experience­d will remain unexplaine­d, will have been lived for no reason.

No other writing project seems to me as – I wouldn’t say luminous, or new, and certainly not joyful, but vital: it allows me to rise above time. The thought of ‘just enjoying life’ is unbearable. Every moment lived without a writing project resembles the last.

To think I am the only one to remember, which I believe to be the case, enchants me. As if I were endowed with a sovereign power, a clear superiorit­y over the others who were there in the summer of ‘58, bequeathed by the shame I felt about my desires, my insane dreams in the streets of Rouen, my blood that ceased to flow at eighteen, as if I were an old woman.

I am endowed by shame’s vast memory, more detailed and implacable than any other, a gift unique to shame.

I realize that the object of the above is to sweep away anything that holds me back, stands in my way and keeps me from progressin­g, like something in a bad dream. A way to neutralize the shock of beginning, of taking the plunge, as I am about to do, and reunite with the girl of ‘58 and the others, put them back where they were in the summer of a year when 1914 was more recent than 1958 is in relation to today.

I look at the black-and-white ID photo, glued inside the academic performanc­e booklet issued by the Saint-Michel d’Yvetot convent school for the baccalauré­at in Classics, Section C. The face, in three-quarter profile, is of smooth contours, a straight nose, slightly prominent cheekbones, a high forehead partially covered (possibly in order to reduce its height, though the effect is a little odd) by frizzy bangs on one side and a kiss curl on the other. The rest of the dark brown hair is pulled up and back into a bun. There is just a hint of a smile, which could be described as gentle, or sad, or both. A dark sweater with a mandarin collar and raglan sleeves creates the austere and flattering effect of a cassock. All in all, a pretty girl with bad hair, who emanates a sort of gentleness (or is it indolence?), and who, today, we might say looks ‘older than her age’, which is seventeen.

The longer I gaze at the girl in the photo, the more it seems that she is looking at me. Is this girl me? Am I her? For me to be her, I would have to be able to solve a physics problem and a quadratic equation in maths read the whole novel given out with Bonnes soirées magazine each week dream of going to a real party – a sur-pat – at last! support the continuati­on of French Algeria feel my mother’s grey eyes follow me everywhere not yet have read Beauvoir, Proust, Virginia Woolf or etc. be called Annie Duchesne.

Of course, I would also need to be oblivious to what the future holds, to the events of the summer of ‘58, and to develop instant and total amnesia with regard to my own history and that of the world.

The girl in the picture is not me, but nor is she a fictional creation. There is no one else in the world I know in such vast and inexhausti­ble detail, which allows me to assert, for example, that

to have her ID photo taken, she went to the photograph­er’s studio on the Place de la Mairie with her great friend Odile, one afternoon during the February break

the corkscrew curls on her forehead are produced by rollers she pins into her hair at night, and the softness of her gaze is the result of myopia – she has removed her spectacles with their bottle-bottom lenses

at the left corner of her mouth is a claw-shaped scar, invisible in the photo, the result of falling on a bottle shard at age three

her jumper is from Delhoume, a dry goods wholesaler in Fécamp that supplies her mother’s shop with socks, school supplies, cologne, etc., whose travelling salesman appears twice a year with cases of samples he unpacks on one of the café tables, always the same fat salesman in a suit and tie who got her hackles up the day he remarked that she had the same name as the popular songstress Annie Cordy, who sings La fille du cow-boy.

And so on, ad infinitum.

No one besides this girl so thoroughly fills my memory. And I have no other memory but hers with which to represent the world of the fifties, the men in duffel coats and basque berets, the front-wheel drives, the song Etoile des neiges, the crime of Father Uruffe, Fausto Coppi and the Claude Luter Orchestra, with which to see things and people in the light of their original reality, the reality of then. The girl in the picture is a stranger who imparted her memory to me.

Yet I cannot say I have nothing in common with her now, or with the person she will become the following summer, judging from the violent distress I felt on reading The Beautiful Summer by Pavese and Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, and on seeing the following films, whose titles I felt the need to list before starting to write:

Wanda, Love is my Profession, Sue Lost in Manhattan, Girl with a Suitcase, and After Lucia, which I saw again last week.

When I watch these films, it’s as if I were abducted by the girl on screen and were no longer the woman I am today but the girl from the summer of ‘58. She overtakes me, stops the flow of my breath, and for a moment makes me feel I no longer exist outside of the screen.

This girl of 1958, who from a distance of fifty years is able to resurface and provoke my interior collapse, must have a hidden, indomitabl­e presence inside me. If the real is that which acts, produces effects, as in the dictionary definition, this girl is not me but is real inside me – a kind of real presence.

This being the case, am I to dissolve the girl of ‘58 and the woman of 2014 into a single ‘I’? Or proceed in a way that is, if not the most precise (a subjective evaluation), certainly the most adventurou­s, that is, to dissociate the former from the latter through the use of ‘she’ and ‘I’, in order to present the facts and deeds to the furthest possible degree, and go about it in the cruellest possible way: in the manner of people we hear talking about us through a door, referring to us as she or he, which makes us feel like we are dying on the spot.

Even without a photo, I can see her, Annie Duchesne, step off the train at S in the early afternoon of 14 August. Her hair is in a high French twist. She wears a navy blue car coat – her beige wool loden from two years before, cut shorter and dyed – and a pencil skirt in thick tweed – also resized – with a striped sailor jersey. She carries a grey suitcase, bought new six years earlier for a trip to Lourdes with her father, never used since, and a blue and white plastic bucket bag, bought the week before at the market in Yvetot.

The rain that lashed the windows of their compartmen­t throughout the trip has stopped and the sun has come out. She is too warm in her loden coat and thick winter skirt. I see a middle-class girl from the provinces, tall and robust, of bookish appearance, in handmade clothes of durable, goodqualit­y fabrics.

Next to her I see the shorter, squarer form of a woman in her fifties, whom one could describe as ‘respectabl­e’, in a skirt suit, permed auburn hair, head held high with an air of authority. I see my mother, her expression a mixture of anxiety, suspicion and discontent, her habitual air of a mother ‘keeping an eye out for trouble’.

I know what the girl is feeling at this moment, what she desires more than anything: for her mother to scram, get back on the train and disappear home. She seethes with shame and resentment at being seen with her

mother, who has refused to let her travel alone (so she says) on account of a train change in Rouen. She resents being brought to camp like a little kid, when in just two weeks she turns eighteen and has been hired as a camp instructor.

I see but do not hear her. There exists no recording of my voice of 1958, and the words we ourselves speak are transcribe­d by memory unvoiced. Impossible to say if I still spoke with a drawling Norman cadence, the accent I must have thought myself rid of, in comparison with my forebears.

What can I say about this girl, who, just before the driver for the camp pulls up to the station, rushes towards the vehicle, kissing her mother on the fly to thwart her obvious intent to follow? Leaves her standing on the pavement with a look of chagrin on her face rubbed bare of powder by the hours of travel, and the girl could not care less. Nor does she care when told of the night the mother spent in a Caen hotel for lack of an evening train to Rouen. She no doubt feels it serves her mother right: all she’d had to do was let her travel to S alone.

What then can we say about the girl that captures her just as she was on that August afternoon, beneath the shifting skies of the Orne, oblivious to what will forever be behind her in just three days? The girl as she was at that inconseque­ntial moment, lost to time for over fifty years.

What can we say, not as an explanatio­n (or not only an explanatio­n) of what will come to pass and may not have come to pass had she not removed her spectacles and unpinned her hair so it tumbled loose over her shoulders, though actions such as these are quite predictabl­e, at safe remove from maternal supervisio­n?

What spontaneou­sly comes to mind is: She is all desire and pride. And: She is waiting to fall madly in love.

I feel I want to stop here, as if all that has just been said is all one needs to know for what comes next – romantic illusion, a fitting descriptio­n for a heroine of fiction.

A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux (translated by Alison L. Strayer) is published by Fitzcarral­do Editions on 7 April 2020, £10.99 (paperback).

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