Barbs of truth, from a woman

Rob Moyer reviews a brief but powerful book by Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux,.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE YOUNG MAN. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories Press. 64 pages. $13.95.

In 2022, Annie Ernaux became the first French woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. She earned it by writing books in French about subjects that no one wrote books about in any language — rape, abortion, Alzheimer’s, women forced to work full time and manage a household, the patriarchy, sexual obsession, to name a few. In comments relating to the award, she stated she wrote from the place she inhabited, the place of a woman. She wrote for revenge.

This very brief book is a riposte of revenge for an earlier, brilliant book, A Simple Passion. In that book, she detailed a years-long affair in which she was dominated by her obsession with the man. In this latest book, she records how at the age of 54, she had an affair with a man 30 years her junior. As she says, “I was in a dominant position, and I used the weapons of that dominance, whose fragility in a romantic relationship, I nonetheless recognized.”

She co-habited with him in Rouen, where she herself had attended school: “I felt as if I had been lying on a bed since age eighteen, and never risen from it — the same bed but in different places, with different men, indistinguishable from one another.” She helped him financially, she walked hand in hand with him, under disapproving glances, she snapped at him, but — “With him I traveled through all the ages of life, my life.”  She experienced firsthand that when his face was before her, “…mine was young too. Men have known this forever, and I saw no reason to deprive myself.”  And, yet, she admits “He was devoted to me with a fervor which, at fifty-four, I had never experienced with any other lover.”

Yet she knew it had ended before it began. She often made love to force herself to write, and she posits that was the inception of her affair. When she does start a new book, she works at ending the relationship: “The breakup coincided … with the book’s completion.”

However short this book is, Ernaux’s carefully honed sentences strike the reader like barbs of truth. The book is enhanced with pictures of Ernaux through the years, and a brief biography. The carefully selected pictures highlight the passing of years, her singular presence, and a nod to her lover. The bio juxtaposes the life of a bourgeois schoolmarm with her status as France’s most accomplished writer. The sum of all this is much greater than the parts.


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