TRANSLATED LIVES: Louise Bourgeois and Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux, The Years, trans. Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo, 2018; first published as Les Années, 2008)

Jean Frémon, Now, Now, Louison, trans. Cole Swenson (London: Les Fugitives, 2018)

By Becky Varley-Winter

In Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon (translated by Cole Swenson) reimagines the life of Louise Bourgeois. He addresses her throughout, most often as “you” (I wondered whether he opted for vous or tu in the original French), but at various points he also uses “I”, recreating Bourgeois’ voice. The text is deliberately ambiguous about its sources; it’s not clear if these are direct quotations, or composites from Frémon’s memory, as Bourgeois reflects on her obsessive making:

Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? […] how can you hope to interest anyone in your obsessive carving and polishing if it doesn’t tell a story that’s your own?[1]

This might be an ironic gesture, as Bourgeois is not telling her own story in Now, Now, Louison. It also suggests that Bourgeois’ sculpting became both a narrative medium and a form of life-writing; that her artwork is, effectively, her autobiography.

             So what life-stories do Bourgeois’ sculptures tell? If a sculpture does tell a story, it must condense it into a single object, offering a narrative closer to Symbolism, or the intensified encounters of dreams. My first sight of Bourgeois’ work was an enormous black steel sculpture of a spider, installed in the Tate Modern turbine hall, which I assumed was a monster. My mother told me that it was called Maman. I looked up at this enormous creature, with egg sacs tucked under her legs. She seemed intimidating, and the expected “story” here might be that motherhood is frighteningly all-encompassing. Yet Bourgeois insisted that she found spiders inspiring, resourceful creatures; their recurrence in her work offers a private symbolism, compelling partly through its resistance to outside exposition. In Now, Now Louison, Bourgeois often comments on the disparity between viewers’ responses to her work and her own intentions (a suspended, arched figure, that many viewers found sinister, she found ecstatic). Our deepest selves might be irreducible, the images drawn from them more totem than self-exposure. Frémon argues that we never truly control our own narratives, associating this mystery of selfhood with the motherly spider’s weaving: “We’re all stories, layers of stories, the interwoven stories of others, of parents, of elders.”[2]

             Frémon’s Now, Now, Louison and Annie Ernaux’s The Years both present “layers of stories”. They play with life-writing, biography, autobiography and history, but approach their subjects slant. The first sentence of Now, Now, Louison is “You’ve thrown open all the windows and doors, hoping to get a breath of air.”[3] It’s disorientating: I don’t know who is speaking, whether this is Bourgeois or Frémon, as he tries to ventriloquise her inner world. Although he knew Bourgeois well, I chafe against his use of “you” in this context, which feels both intimate and uncomfortable, even invasive at times, presuming complete access to Bourgeois’ inner thoughts and memories. A more straightforward acknowledgement of the space between himself and Bourgeois seems necessary. I look at images of her artworks: twisted, fleshy nude sculptures, like tender pebbles; a pregnant woman suspended by her navel, as if held by a second umbilical cord. In life-writing, the self is always vulnerable to projection and reinvention, and maybe personal knowledge allows Frémon to write about Bourgeois so closely with some degree of accuracy, but I would have liked more context on how the book was composed. Some of the most engaging parts of the book describe Bourgeois’ personal preoccupations, recording her interest in “hysteria”, and its most vivid passages switch from “you” to “I”:

With a few old rags and ends of tapestries left over from Choisy, I fashioned a life-sized screaming head. I stuck it on a pole and put it in a cage made of a metal trellis. The mouth is bright red. The eyes are blue, staring, terrified. […] How far do I have to go to make sure that the signals I send out to people like me are actually heard? […] And so there they are, my gaping holes, my surging volumes; they are figures, traps, devices designed to entice you, like those carnivorous flowers that give off dizzying scents that seduce the bees and then close up on them.[4]

In this way Bourgeois’ work becomes both death-trap and love-trap, likened to a predatory life-form that threatens and attracts. She reflects on the ingenuity of spiders:

Some species of the Cyclose and Uloborus adorn their webs with a fake spider or two whipped up from their silk and the remains of their prey […] From this, they make doubles of themselves, […] and then they place them on the web where they can easily be seen so that predators will attack this bait instead of them. Ah, that’s my favorite, the spider-sculptor… making its own decoys. Strategies of self-defense as old as the world.[5]

Now, Now, Louison explores Bourgeois’ thoughts and creative processes with genuine warmth, yet I still don’t feel that she has been completely caught. Bourgeois’ art might offer decoys like those of the spider, a way of putting forth a double of the self, both expressing and protecting, so that she can escape to a different part of the web. If her art was easy to translate, it would just blow away, like the desiccated body of a spider. It wouldn’t need to exist.

             Annie Ernaux’s The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer, is evasive in a different way. It relates the history of Ernaux’s lifetime, but rather than writing autobiographically, using “I” or je, Ernaux opts for “we” or nous. She makes The Years emblematic of a generation who went to university, unlike their parents and grandparents, and evocatively describes the lives of her working-class ancestors in the first section of the book, particularly the language that shaped her childhood:

                           Like any language, this one created hierarchies, stigmatized slackers, unruly women, ‘satyrs’ and ‘wastes of space’, ‘hopeless’ children, praised ‘capable’ people and industrious girls, recognized bigwigs and higher-ups, admonished, life will cut you down to size!

                           It expressed reasonable desires and expectations: clean work, an indoor workspace, enough to eat, dying in bed

limits: don’t ask for the moon or things that cost the earth, be happy with what you’ve got[6]

One of the central premises of The Years is that we are made collectively, and that our opinions are determined to a large extent by language, culture and circumstance. The most immediate effect of Ernaux’s use of “we” is that a sense of revelation and anticipation vanishes, or is re-absorbed in the passage of time: “the world is suffering from lack of faith in a transcendental truth,” she writes.[7] The Years expresses a cumulative atmosphere of ennui and doubt, exacerbated by its collective voice. Experienced en masse, there is no epiphany that lasts, or the epiphany itself becomes vulnerable to hypnosis and disappointment. The Paris protests of May 1968 create a rupturing sense of possibility that then dissipates, or falls short of its promise, at least in Ernaux’s account:

We […] saw ourselves in the students, only a few years younger, who threw cobblestones at the riot police. On our behalf, they threw years of censure and repression back at the State, the violent suppression of the demonstrations against the war in Algeria, the racist attacks, […] They avenged us for our fettered adolescence.[8]

While the collective voice from which she speaks is on the students’ side, Ernaux also shows unease about the confused legacy of the protests: “no matter the camp, the violence had been the same, and we forgave ourselves nothing.”[9] She watches the “ideals” of May ’68 transform into “objects and entertainment.”[10] An initial optimism and sense of achievement dissipates:

The Vietnam War ended. […] They were finally paying for the napalm, for the little girl on the poster that hung on our walls. We felt the joy and fatigue of things accomplished at last. But disillusion returned. The television showed clusters of humans clinging to boats to flee communist Vietnam. […] The Baader-Meinhof Gang kidnapped company presidents and statesmen, later found dead in the trunks of cars, like common mafiosi. It became shameful to hope for revolution.[11]

Women do make definite gains: “A feeling common to women was on its way out, that of natural inferiority.”[12] However, for Ernaux’s us, there is still a them. At various points, she notes racism and fear of the unfamiliar, but for all of their protests against conflict in Algeria and Vietnam, her speakers are suspicious of other cultures closer to home. “Banlieues youth were in a separate category from the young people, uncivilized and somehow frightening, barely French, even when they were born in France. […] There were a lot of them; we didn’t know them.”[13] This is not, I think, intended as an excuse, more as an exposure, of prevailing prejudices and divisions. This border is never crossed; Ernaux’s apparently plural voice is still, ultimately, particular to her own experience. She does not set out to idealise her generation; one of the epigraphs to The Years quotes Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett: “And it may be that our present life, which we accept so readily, will in time seem inconvenient, stupid, not clean enough, perhaps even sinful…”

             Lauren Elkin notes that Ernaux is often regarded as one of the architects of “autofiction”, which Serge Doubrovsky defines as “Fiction of strictly real events or facts”, although Ernaux refuses this label, because there is no fiction in her work: she is a historian. Elkin writes:

Ernaux is interested in the truth of experience, whatever form that might take, and this is what sets her work apart from autobiography or conventional memoir. […] Another practitioner of autofiction, Christine Angot, prefers to call it the roman en je—a novel in the key of I […] Angot distinguishes this roman en je from the autobiographical novel which does not ‘work from objectivity, isolating it like a chemical’; the autobiographical writer takes the I as a game, one that pretends that making form into plot brings the ‘real into existence.’ Autofiction, on the contrary, has the same goal—to ‘faire exister le réel’—but tries to break the story in order to do so.[14]

The Years could be described as a novel in the key of us rather than a novel in the key of I, and if there is a “story” that it tries to “break”, it might be that of linear progress. Ernaux presents history as a pattern of shifting advances and retreats, excitements, disappointments and conditional comforts. I found myself craving a more avowedly personal voice, that didn’t know how everything was going to turn out, partly because this would restore a sense of tension which Ernaux is careful to pierce. The Years is skeptical of climax, wary of Ernaux’s own anticipations. When she acknowledges herself as an individual, she does so in the third person:

                           In the old days, when she tried to write in her student room, she yearned to find an unknown language that would unveil mysterious things, in the way of a clairvoyant. She also imagined the finished book as a revelation to others of her innermost being, a superior achievement, a kind of glory. […] Later, […] those dreams deserted her. There was no ineffable world […] and she would never write except from inside her language, which is everyone’s language […] So the book to be written represented an instrument of struggle.[15]

Yet translation surely exposes the fact that one language is never “everyone’s language”; people do think differently. Persistent, engaged writing moves beyond ego, but maybe I want too much to believe in the mysteries of thought and language, an individual plurality (because each self is made up of others, affected by others). However, The Years does translate what it is like to live through events as they really pass, chaotically. Ernaux’s memories are seen from the dissociated perspective of the present, lost in time; her life is not completely her own, but belongs to a larger history. Though these books, about Bourgeois and Ernaux respectively, are very different, they both carry the self as an other.


[1] Now, Now, Louison, pp. 71–72.

[2] Ibid., p. 72.

[3] Ibid., p. 1.

[4] Ibid., pp. 107–108.

[5] Ibid., p. 82.

[6] Annie Ernaux, The Years, trans. Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo, 2018; first published as Les Années, 2008), p. 34.

[7] Ibid., p. 20.

[8] Ibid., p. 99.

[9] Ibid., p. 102.

[10] Ibid., p. 112.

[11] Ibid., p. 124.

[12] Ibid., pp. 106–107.

[13] Ibid., p. 141.

[14] Lauren Elkin, ‘Bad Genre: Annie Ernaux, Autofiction, and Finding a Voice’, The Paris Review (26 October 2018).

[15] The Years, pp. 225–226.