Review of Happening by Annie Ernaux, published by Seven Stories Press
- Happening by Annie Ernaux, out now in a reissue in a terrific translation by Tanya Leslie for Seven Stories Press, was first published in English in 1999. It’s a striking and disconsolate paradox that this memoir of a 1963 abortion remains so vital in 2019.
In a 2001 review in the New York Times, Emily Eakin described Ernaux as writing, “spare autobiographical books that are quickly dispensed with and impossible to forget.” Ernaux pioneered a practice generally described as autofiction. An almost memoir, that deals more centrally in the process of remembering, and thinking, than describing a historical account of events. The events described in Happening, begin with Ernaux looking back on a trip to a clinic in 1983 to receive a negative HIV test. The euphoria of that result sutures in her memory with the despair of receiving a positive result on a pregnancy test as a student in 1963.
The memoir is cursory, but she is unflinching as she describes the desperation and violence that occurs as she seeks an abortion in a state that had formally outlawed the procedure. She writes, “The following morning I lay down on my bed and slowly inserted a knitting needle into my vagina. I groped around, vainly trying to locate the opening of the womb; I stopped as soon as I felt pain. I realized I wasn’t going to manage on my own. I was enraged by my own helplessness. I just wasn’t up to it. “No luck. Impossible, damn it. I can’t stop crying and I’ve just about had it.”
(I realize that this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful. I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by male supremacy.)”
- And even though there is a great deal more horror and violence than redemption as Ernaux searches in vain for a competent abortionist, the bravery of several women does stand out in stark relief to the bumbling violence of the state’s willful ignorance.
She quotes the statute that outlaws abortion, “(Leg. sp.)—The following persons shall be liable to both a fine and a term of imprisonment: 1) those responsible for performing abortive practices; 2) those physicians, midwives, pharmacists and other individuals guilty of suggesting or encouraging such practice; 3) those women who have aborted at their own hands or at the hands of others; 4) those guilty of instigating abortion and spreading propaganda advocating contraception. The guilty parties may also receive an injunction requesting that they leave the country. Moreover, those belonging to the second category will be deprived of the right to exercise their profession either temporarily or definitively.”
The result of this restrictive law is that as Ernaux visits physicians seeking a safe procedure, she receives only speeches, condemnation, and refusal to acknowledge her condition.
The difficulty in finding someone capable of performing this simple medical procedure drives her to desperation.
- She seeks out the advice of older classmates, and finds, a studied venality, and menace. Men treat her as if she’s newly available for sex or condemn her out right. So right beside the extreme danger of her situation, is an added level of shame. She writes, “Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of laborers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory work and commerce. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my B.A. in liberal arts had waived that inescapable fatality of the working class—the legacy of poverty—embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. My ass had caught up with me, and the thing growing inside me I saw as the stigma of social failure.”
As her desperation grows and she seeks out increasingly dangerous devices, the memoir does take on an almost Dickensian aspect. But this was her actual experience in a modern nation state. It’s fascinating to compare this account with Sartre’s first book in the Roads to Freedom Trilogy, The Age of Reason, as a unbound bourgeois professor struggles to raise enough cash for his mistress to buy an illegal abortion. The difference in the level of the stakes between the man and the woman, each experiencing the same “existential” crisis, practically screams the disconnect between restrictive laws and the lived experience of adults.
Ernaux is unflinching in her decision to tell this story, which she first addressed in the terrific novel, Cleaned Out. And she is unflinching in condemning the casual violence that would brutalize women excluded from any humane recourse. The United States in 2019 has entered a discourse around abortion that would seek to establish the kind of regime present in 1963 France.
When Ernaux finally finds an abortionist that can complete the procedure, it almost kills her. A probe is inserted into her uterus, which fails to initiate a quick miscarriage. Instead, she survives days with the probe in her body. She is torn up to the point of significant hemorrhaging, and rushed to a hospital. And this was the procedure completed by a competent and practiced hand.
On her eventual miscarriage: “I was seized with a violent urge to shit. I rush across the corridor into the bathroom and squatted by the porcelain bowl, facing the door. I could see the tiles between my thighs. I pushed with all my strength. It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord. I couldn’t imagine ever having had that inside me. I had to walk with it to my room. I took it in one hand– it was strangely heavy– and proceeded along the corridor, squeezing it between my thighs. I was a wild beast.”
This is not a humane option. And Ernaux rightly identifies the voices that would restrict abortion as the same voices that dehumanize bodies across our civil sphere, “As I am writing this, I learn that a bunch of Kosovar refugees are trying to enter Britain illegally via Calais. The smugglers are charging vast sums of money and some of them disappear before the crossing. Yet nothing will stop the Kosovars or any other poverty-stricken emigrants from fleeing their native country; it’s their sole means of survival. Today smugglers are vilified and pursued like abortionists were thirty years ago. No one questions the laws and world order that condone their existence. Yet surely, among those who trade in refugees, as among those who once traded in fetuses, there must be some sense of honor.”
As the farce turns to horror, Ernaux’s clear-eyed writing becomes even more essential. I don’t believe in the political expediency of art, but this kind of enduring expediency will certainly outlast this crisis of venality, and remain strong, hard, and true.
The copy of last week’s New Yorker has a couple sitting on a bed, on either side of them books run up the walls in long precarious towers. For years now, I’ve felt the presence of certain authors, embodied by this kind of tower. Ernaux, is chief among them. The towers rock, the books fall on the bed, suddenly we’re living together.
In a foreword for Things Seen, Brian Evenson tackles the pared down brilliance of Annie Ernaux, “Her first novel, Cleaned Out (1974), tells the story of a young woman who has just had an abortion and who begins painfully to reexamine her life– a subject Ernaux returns to (in a less fictionalized form) in Happening (2000). In A Man’s Place(1984) and a Woman’s Story (1987) she explores the lives of the conservative parents she has distanced herself from. I Remain in Darkness (1997) explores hes mother’s descent into dementia. Simple Passion (1991) chronicles a woman’s love affair with a man only identified as “A.”
“Focused on the transient nature of life and our perception of it, Exteriors and Things Seen both shiver on the edge of significance. They read like journals or diaries but are slightly more shaped, more focused, without seeming any less natural.”
So much of Things Seen has an ethic of explicit enunciation. Ernaux writes about the homeless that shout, walking through subway cars. She writes about Bosnia, and the possibility of looking at atrocity. Doing this forces her to see, to acknowledge. And in doing so, she transforms the work into a body of witness.
“November 16. In Le Monde, the following headline: “The International War Crimes Tribunal not Backed by Read Political Will.” Forty thousand documents exist on the acts of violence committed in Bosnia. “Four hundred concentration and detention camps, ninety-eight common graves containing almost three thousand bodies, and three thousand victims of rape have already been counted. But, according to Mr. Bassioni, the risk of losing evidence increases with time. Loss of evidence is one of our main concerns.”
I wrote that, and eveything I write here, as evidence.”
- And farther along. “Early May. “The concourse of the train station leads underground to where the buses stop. Set back a little, a harshly lit snack bar sells sandwiches and drinks. At the foot of an escalator that is almost always out of order, Africans are offering posters for sale. Cans of beer on the ground. Imperceptibly, Cerggy-Prefecture station has begun to resemble, on a small scale, all the stations of the world where there are a lot of people: Marseilles, Vienna, Bratislava. Where a girl sits at the far end of a snack bar in the afternoon.
On a wall of the train station parking lot, the graffiti in English. If your children are happy they are communists, etc. is beginning to fade. Elsa I love you has disappeared. There is still Algeria I love you, splattered with blood.
- Abortions performed outside of the historically legal realm are not singularly dangerous, as described in Ernaux’s writing. Especially today, resources readily available online, and through organizations like Planned Parenthood, make it apparent that abortions are extremely safe in 2019. And that mythologizing the fear and violence of historical practices do not reflect the safety of any iteration of the modern procedure. Contemporary providers often push back against the imagery of probes.
To get more context on this history, I read a Mother Jones article from 2018 that described the way safe abortions, and painless abortions, came through networks of non-professional women, paying attention to women’s bodies. In the 1960s, a group from the National Organization of Women, began meeting in California, sharing out best practices in pelvic exams as well as working on less painful suction techniques for menstrual extraction abortions. Contemporaneously, a group in Chicago called Jane provided abortions, and shared out their work in the years before Roe v. Wade, ultimately leading to the publication of Our Bodies Ourselves.
All of this is just to say, that the face of medicine in the 1960s and 1970s did not center women’s experiences through this procedure, and that groups of people self-advocating led to the innovation and safety we enjoy today.
- Besides the documentarian or poet as witness approach to her writing. Ernaux also uses understatement to shock and exaggerate the paradoxes of contemporary life. Noticing the paradoxes, the small stuff. Taking off the blasé tunnel vision, is not soley a rapproach of the necessary coping mechanisms, but also an experiment in seeing. Ernaux’s work describes the basic proposition of a woman living and aging in a body she can call her own.
Early on in Happening, she describes the joy she first experienced coming into a sexuality
“In early October, on several occasions I had made love with P, a political science student whom I had met during the summer vacation and whom I had been to see in Bordeaux. According to the Ogino method for birth control, I was in a risky period but somehow I couldn’t imagine that it would “catch on” inside my loins. When I made love and climaxed, I felt that my body was basically no different that from that of a man.”
Ernaux is brutalized by an order that would seek to forbid her this kind of ownership.
As she looks back, through the years of seeing, through paying attention, and remembering, Ernaux has built her own body in response to state violence. Happening is adroit and harrowing, and her memories are our future. of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by male supremacy.
As an aside, I’m reminded of the last scene of City Lights, “You can see now?” “Yes, I can see now.”
Deciding to see obviously provokes an obvious paradox in moral terms.
And one more paradox comes in the blatant humor of experience.
Wretchedness is funny and heartbreaking, and its steeped in all our experiences.
Happening is a natural companion to Agnes Varda’s 1977 feminist musical, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.
Varda was always a wiley and exacting filmmaker. According to the New York Times, she joked about the film on its initial release, “that she had been attacked by French feminists for “being too nuanced, not anti-men enough.”
The film follows the friendship between a young student (Pauline, later renamed Pomme) and the older Suzanne, as they navigate the emergent freedoms of the era.
Richard Brody called the film a “personal film of epochal scope.” The action begins when the reunited women are faced with the challenge of finding Suzanne an abortion in 1962 France.
He writes, “Pauline provides money and advice, thus sealing their friendship, but circumstances soon separate them. Then Suzanne, struggling to make a living in the South of France, leaves a job as a medical secretary and opens a family-planning center. Meanwhile, Pauline, who calls herself Pomme (meaning Apple), indignant at her own trouble getting an abortion, is inspired to write feminist songs and forms an all-female group, Orchidée (Orchid).”
The film captures the spirit and colors of the 1968 generation. It has a terrific palette of dark greys, reds, blues, and tans. You can see the influence on contemporary films like Something in the Air(2012) by Oliver Assayas.
And in One Sings, the little details and flourishes are striking: When seeking an guidance towards an abortion provider, the women ask for, “an address,” in quotations.
They use the euphemism, “Go to Switzerland,” where abortions are safe and legal, before Suzanne literally travels to Switzerland.
Its a funny and vibrant film; with rural France sometimes resembling a pioneer wilderness, and the beginnings of Feminist rock-and-roll exaggerated in a spirit of carnival matching the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In one especially tragicomedic scene, Pomme floats along a canal in the Netherlands after visiting a clinic singing of a “cruise for the abortion-ees.”
The fight for abortion rights described in the film is rightly moving. The crowds of women shouting, “We’ve all had abortions, put us on trial,” besides the expressionist languor of the sad cafe besides the clinic is instantly cinematic and unforgettable.
By 1977, Varda was reaching the peak of her practice. This film, scandalous upon release, enduring through the years, centers the experience of women, in a language that is explicitly womanly. She made freedom and revolt indelible.
I’ve heard that the limited access to abortions in rural Minnesota today has created a euphemism, “Go to Fargo,” a city in North Dakota, meaning, “travel to get an abortion.”
In 1970 Serge Gainsbourg mumbled and snarled his way through the impossibly cool Cannabis.
A perfect new wave crime story, from Paris to NYC. Gainsbourg smuggles drugs decked out in an oversized fur coat, and woos Jane Birkin.
As an artifact, it captures essentially the shift from swinging London, and Left Bank Paris to the new American cinema of the Los Angeles New Wave.
The exagerrated coolness of Birkin and Gainsbourg, whose essential J’taime became something beyond canonical only stresses how vital and silly this strange movie remains.
It has noir tropes, but evokes more closely the Downtown moment of the French Connection, or Fingers,
Birkin is the surprising catalyst to the film
Contemporary to films like Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, Cannabis has the character of a blaxploitation film,, Chansonploitaxion
It’s silly, even though it has a few beautifully cinematic touches including gun fights at a drag show, an industial farm with thousands of flying hens, and along the rooftops of Paris.
By the time Cannabis was made, Birkin had starred in several essential London New Wave films, including Blow Up and Wonderwall.
But she rarely played far beyond type as the go-go model.
Cannabis doesn’t ask for much, but a scene where Birkin is chased through the neon night of Paris provides one of the most suspenseful moments of the film.
She’s has been described in superlatives since her career began. But this film, especially in her acting, in French, gave her a challenge.
It’s a fascinating peek at the dynamism that would follow.
She inspired the art and fascination of an entire generation. Partnering with giants like Agnes Varda and Jacques Rivette.
In the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote about Birkin and Varda.
“In 1985, Varda filmed a documentary portrait of Jane Birkin, “Jane B. pour Agnès V.,” which is simultaneously a vision of a friendship, a family, an artist’s range of talents and styles, a view of Varda herself collaborating with the actress from inside the frame, and a painterly portrait of Birkin’s face and body. (Two years later, she filmed Birkin along with her own teen-age son, Mathieu Demy, in “Kung- Fu Master,” a graceful yet grimly clear-eyed drama about an adult woman who begins a romantic relationship with a fourteen-year-old boy.)”
“The resulting erotic entanglement has the dreamy pace of instant reminiscence, yet the dangers of incautious love emerge in Varda’s quasi-documentary evocation of the early years of AIDS awareness. The edge of menace is sharpened by the film’s implicit real-life family dramas.”
Part of what makes Kung Fu Master! so interesting, is that Birkin plays the part as vulnerable.
She’s an aging woman, timid of her desires, and indirect in her advances. Varda catches some of the way that desire does not really describe coherent ends.
So that even as Birkin seeks to consumate her appetite, its a kind of half motherly fun, that really defines the relationship
In Ebert’s 1989 review of the film, he said the film was about the look in an eye, comparing it to Malle’s 1971 Murmur of the Heart.
It’s a seductive and enduring paradox. Playing up Birkin’s innocence seems almost tongue in cheek. Its this sense of humor that makes the film feel so important. Like One Sings, Kung Fu Master centers a feminist humor. And smart women cracking jokes is more than refreshing, it’s a cinematic revolution.
In 1970 Liliana Cavani directed I Cannibali, one of the most compelling disavowals of the modernist tradition of seeing in cinema.
Based on the Greek tragedy, Antigone decides to see the bodies that are strewn about her city. And to bury her brother, removing his body from the pavement.
Through deciding to see the bodies that lie on the pavement she exposes the paradox of contemporary life.
The modernist city walker sought to find beauty in the chaos. And this has become an ideal of urbanism, Jane Jacobs and her urban village. But our cities are not beautiful. And good urbanism has no answer to the question of aberrant bodies, the chronically homeless, people strung out, or just sleeping, occupy the benches and bus shelters across America. People that cannot participate in the urban village.
So while the contemporary city would seek to describe an ethic, a cosmopolitan answer to the sins of suburban flight, or exurban solipsism, it necessarily excludes. And the engines of the build up, mulitnational corporations are shifting real estate and retail into a zone virtually outside the reach of democratic sovereignty.
I Cannibali, like Things Seen, takes on explicitly the paradox of looking and not looking in contemporary life.
And this seemingly inocuous question is important today. Because Americans do shop at Target. And our lives do not resemble Instagram feeds. But we pretend they do.
And it is exceedingly difficult to describe this kind of violence, that resides in the narrowing of experience, alongside bodies that cannot be tolerated.
Ernaux writes, “Auchan, nine o’clock at night, in line at the cash. A guy, face flushed, continuously muttering about people who pay by check or by plastic, “can’t have any money on them!” He is getting restless, “if they’d gotten up like me at four in the morning!” On the conveyor belt, he has placed a 1.5 liter plastic bottle of wine. This scene is out of place in the increasingly prim and proper Trois-Fontaines Shopping Center. … Always this feeling of cheating when I used a specialized word for the first time, today, item.”
One of the foremost organizing principles for modernist aesthetics comes in the project of using a drift, a narrative, or a mystery to create continuity from a discontinuous experience.
This is epitomized in the tradition of the modernist detective novel that suggests,” down these mean streets a man must walk, who is not himself mean.”
The situationist drift, the project of lunch poems, or poems to be read on a streetcar. All of this foregrounds the notion of creating continuity through taking in diverse and inconcruous urban experiences.
This is the famous notion of the flaneur, or flaneuse, so celebrated by Baudelaire and Benjamin. Famous in cinema in Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7.
But Things Seen does not seek to describe the hurley burley of an overwhelming urban crowd.
Instead, Ernaux hones in on the sensations of sameness. Its a chronicle of noticing bodies, and the narrowing of environments. “On a median dividing the road, a man is lying on the ground, huddled up. Cars pass. An old woman crosses a lane, passes close to the sleeping man and glances at him but doesn’t stop. So he isn’t dead.”
Ernaux writes: “The subway car is full. A woman’s voice is raised, powerful. “Act a little human!” Absolute silence. A terrible voice, that tells of her misfortune…No one looks at her or responds to her anger, because she is telling the truth.”
And later on: “We let men and women die in the street, perhaps precisely beacuase they are our fellow men, with the same desires and needs as us. It is too difficult to put up with this part of ourselves, dirty, stupefied by the lack of everything. The Germans living near the concentration camps did not believe that the Jews in flea-ridden rags were people.”
I Cannibali captures this paradox perfectly. Set in the “Lead Years,” of hope and conflict in Italy. This film imagines Antigone seeking to bury her brother, a casualty of military rule.
Just like Ernaux’s decision to look at the crumpled bodies of the homeless, lying face down on the pavement, I Cannibali features characters walking over and around bodies in each scene.
And recognizing these bodies, is not necessarily an ethical act, as she defies the code of the land. Our social contracts are tenuous, and in most situations there is no ethical response.
Joseph Houlihan lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.