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Book of the week: Happening by Annie Ernaux

"In Happening, Ernaux marches her army toward memory, the memory of an abortion she had in 1963." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The LA Times 

"Ernaux’s work is important. Not just because of her subject matter, but because of the way she hands it over: the subtle contradictions; her dispassionate stoicism, mixed with savagery; her detailed telling, mixed with spare, fragmented text." - Niamh Donnelly, Irish Times 

With Happening, Annie Ernaux presents the reader with another fragment from her past, one she had already evoked in her earlier novel, Cleaned Out: the abortion she had age 23, when she got pregnant in a country where abortion was still illegal. From the moment she realises that she's expecting, it becomes apparent to her that she cannot possibly keep the child for fear of becoming a social pariah and ruining her family's reputation. As she couldn't allow herself to connect with the baby, "It became a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs", because otherwise it would destroy her life.  Helpless and clueless as to where to turn for support or advice, she first tries to self-administer the abortion with a knitting needle. After failing, she finally locates an abortionist, but she ends up in a hospital emergency ward and nearly dies from the consequences of the procedure. 

Interestingly enough, and in spite of the difficulties inherent to addressing the topic she has chosen, ("This thing had no place in language"), Ernaux feels compelled to write as part of her mission and responsibility towards other women: "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". The novel is at once deeply personal and intimate, and more philosophical, or subtly political. Throughout the novel, traditional figures of authority remain useless: she cannot turn to her family for support and must hide her pregnancy from them, she cannot count on the man who got her pregnant either. In many ways, the abortion constitutes a rite of passage into adulthood, as the protagonist must face her trial alone. And while the prose is always elegant, some strong passages remind the reader of the true hardships that women had to face at the time, risking their lives because of societal pressure and legislation. 

"As subject matter goes, little could be more inherently provocative. Ernaux's take is all the more so for being unabashedly philosophical rather than moral." - Emily Eakins, The New York Times Book Review 

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and it was translated by Tanya Leslie.


Annie Ernaux was born in Normandy in 1940. She studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. The Years won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008 and the Premio Strega in Italy in 2016. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work.

Tanya Leslie was the first translator of Annie Ernaux into English and translated a number of her works, including A Woman’s Story (1991), A Man’s Place (1992), Simple Passion (1993), Shame (1998), I Remain in Darkness (1999), and Happening (2001), all for Seven Stories Press in the US. 

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