The great French writer Annie Ernaux – who was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory” – is visiting India this month. Even if one got the chance to attend a single session, like I did, in which she shared her thoughts and spoke about her books, one can easily tell that her world is a rather complex series of emotions and occurrences connected by a solitary labyrinthine string.
This recommendation is unlike any before because this isn’t about a particular book, but two of her works – Happening and Simple Passion. It’s a great place to start if one were to be introduced to Ernaux’s vast body of work, most of which can be termed as autobiographical. Written a decade apart, Happening is set in 1963 when the author is in her early twenties and trying to get an abortion when it’s still illegal in France. While Simple Passion is a first-person account of a passionate, all-consuming affair with a married diplomat long after Ernaux’s own marriage had ended.
The author may not have written these slim volumes as companion pieces, in fact Happening which is about a much earlier phase of her life was written ten years after Simple Passion. But they remain unique pieces of the same insoluble puzzle. And because they intersect in a shattering manner when Ernaux revisits the scene of her abortion which takes place in Happening in Simple Passion. The writing is unshakably sublime, but it’s this one scene, the meeting point of two tributaries originating from the same life that sets the reading experience so apart from anything else one might have read. I read Happening first followed by Simple Passion. But I believe the order can be altered for some readers too. Because when has memory ever been shackled by chronology or order?