by Annie Ernaux, trans. Tanya Leslie (Seven Stories Press, 95 pp.,
word "abort" isn't actually used until p. 18 of this 95-page
memoir; "abortion" debuts three pages later. Which is
well in keeping with the genre: From The Choices We Made
to NARAL, abortion advocates hammer eagerly and endlessly on the
silence that was women's lot, in the Bad Old Days before Roe
and Stenberg. Ernaux herself was 23 when, in 1963, her period
stopped during a tepid affair in Bordeaux. "This thing had
no place in language," she writes; in her diary of the time,
she used the word "pregnant" only once.
changed, of course. Ernaux can tell her story freely now, though
she acknowledges that it "may [
] be branded as distasteful."
actually not. In fact, Happening is convincingly written,
with moments of real immediacy. (In this book, wryly: "My ass
had caught up with me." In the diary, writing of the father,
an indignationless: "He's leaving me to cope on my own.")
The three months from conception to termination are rendered in
a flat, stark prose anchored in time by references to JFK, "If
I Had a Hammer," The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Ernaux
conveys especially well the surreality and shame of her position
— that of a first-generation intellectual foolhardy enough to have
succumbed to the distinctly low-class affliction of getting knocked
literature and sociology classes, I ate in the university canteen,
I drank coffee twice a day at La Faluche, the students' hangout.
Yet I was living in a different world. There were the other girls,
with their empty bellies, and there was me.
We follow her
through a failed attempt with a knitting needle, and visits to two
doctors: "Love children are the most beautiful of all,"
says one brightly; the other cannily prescribes shots that turn
out to be for preventing miscarriage. A (married) acquaintance,
to whom she goes for help, tries to seduce her.
The rest of
the story is familiar. She finds an illegal abortionist, expels
the fetus "like a grenade," flushes. She's hospitalized
but recovers, and visiting a church, recalls, "I felt bathed
in a halo of light and for [the priest] I was a criminal. [
I was through with religion." For years, Ernaux would celebrate
the anniversary of her abortion.
So far, so
good. The strangeness only comes when she explains why she is writing
this book, or at least writing it this way. Her title, Évènement,
is from Michel Leiris — "I wish for two things: / that happening
turn to writing. / And that writing be happening." — and that
desire suffuses the book:
happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose
of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become
writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal,
causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other
And while most
people of course don't abort with the thought that, 40 years later,
they may be able to turn it into a book — that, surely, is a French
prerogative — Ernaux does draw a disturbing, because overt, parallel
between the book she carried to term, and the child she didn't.
It is her stated goal to validate her experience by making from
it a thing that will last forever (or at least stay in print). Of
course, artists have laid claim to godlike powers at least since
Arachne; and not irrationally so, since every creative act echoes
the primordial one. But it's one thing to say artistic creation
feels like childbirth — quite another to say it surpasses it.
has written that "if we miraculously padlocked all the abortion
clinics tomorrow [
] all we'd have is women banging on the
locked doors and crying." The society of Happening —
which is luridly fascinated by crisis pregnancies, but offers only
stigma, not help — cannot stand. But do we truly want the Ernaux
alternative, the one we're living today? By its teachings, abortion
is "the mechanism that wipes out disaster," and the result
of a pregnancy test analogous to the result of an AIDS test (p.
10). By its teachings, we are to "liberate" women so that
they may say, with Ernaux, "When I made love and climaxed,
I felt that my body was basically no different from that of a man."
By its teachings, we are expected to be sufficiently mature, sufficiently
intellectual, to hold a literary life to be more sanctified than
a human one.
hardly be said to romanticize abortion — but surely she deromanticizes
birth. Happening shows, albeit unwittingly, that as a culture
we cannot celebrate both.