Only after we are certain that we have finished a piece of writing can we know precisely what we have failed to say. Among other things, this failure points us to where we must begin writing again.
This idea emerges with progressive clarity from Annie Ernaux’s latest book, The Young Man, published in France in May 2022 and in September from Seven Stories Press in Alison Strayer’s translation, Ernaux’s first English-language release since she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an epigraph of her own invention, she says: “If I don’t write things down, they haven’t been carried to completion, they have only been lived.”
A question arises from Ernaux’s body of work and from its attempt to exhaust inexhaustible memory. How does a writer “carry to completion” something lived if writing that thing down—as with the observer effect in quantum mechanics—changes and even adds to the original experience? As Ernaux said in her Nobel lecture: “I conceived of writing as nothing less than the possibility of transfiguring reality.” Imagine Sisyphus finding an additional boulder each time he returned to the bottom of the hill. The question is in sharp relief in The Young Man; it is like an echo laughing back from the epigraph.
Another writer recently posed this question, too—poet, novelist, and essayist Hilary Plum, in Hole Studies, released in October 2022 from Fonograf Editions. The collection of essays surveys topics as varied as the Swet Shop Boys; the rhetoric of the War on Terror; the comforts, discomforts, and ethical dilemmas of labor in academia; and “off-script” utterances by figures including Courtney Love, Kanye West, Natalie Maines, Sinéad O’Connor, and Plum herself. “You say something you think you believe in a form that’s at hand,” Plum writes. “You find out if this is what you mean by saying it and seeing what happens. You trust the form you have because it’s the form you have.”
But then what? Plum’s book begins here, suggesting the “hole” as both an invitation to speech and an aperture on the present moment. At the right angle, it might frame The Young Man.
At a very basic level, Ernaux’s latest book is an attempt to carry to completion the experience of a relationship with a man thirty years’ the writer’s junior. “Often I have made love to force myself to write,” Ernaux relates on the book’s first page—one of the book’s hundreds of disarmingly direct observations and admissions. “I hoped to find in the fatigue, the dereliction that comes after, reasons not to expect anything more from life … I hoped that orgasm, the most violent end to waiting that can be, would make me feel certain that there is no greater pleasure than writing a book.”
In a book about sex, desire, memory, and writing, “carried through to completion” is more than a pun. It points to a basic kinship between writing and sex. The latter has been the subject of exhaustive study spanning the entire spectrum of human endeavor—from idol worship to advertising. Writing, as a less profitable function, has received measurably less attention. This is perhaps why the insights in The Young Man, which ought to apply equally to these subjects twinned from the beginning, are most interesting as reflections of the writing mind—which is to say the mind that begins writing and stops writing, procrastinates, flirts with a subject, surges forward, identifies fully, transcends the possible and knowable, collapses again into miserable lassitude. In this aspect, more than a discrete installment in Ernaux’s autobiographical project, The Young Man is a skeleton key to hidden passageways connecting five decades of a written life.
As a memoirist—which here means one who must carry life to completion, one who cannot bear to only live—Ernaux’s writing is most often contextualized among the other heavyweights of the contemporary European nonfiction or autofiction novel—most frequently Karl Ove Knausgaard. While it is as rigorously vulnerable, even abased, as Knausgaard’s six-part My Struggle, Ernaux’s body of work is a very different kind of project. Her “‘total novel’ of life,” as Jamie Hood observes in an insightful essay on the publication of Ernaux’s journals, “imparts on her reader a sense that memory, like any other knowledge system, is an infinitely changeable field, one given astonishing density by, but not reducible to, the individual experience.” She does this by revisiting the same events—her visit to a back alley faiseuse d’anges, the moment she saw her father raise a sickle above her mother as if to kill her—over and over, in a manner that changes the very nature of the memory.
There is, for example, an entire short book, Shame, dedicated to that moment with the sickle in which Ernaux positions the memory as the source of her impulse (in life and writing) to flee from the private. This moment and so many others reappear in The Years, published in France in 2008, Ernaux’s longest work, her attempt “to capture the lived dimension of history” by relating it exclusively in the third person and the first-person plural and over a span of decades. But this time the incident of the sickle, her abortion, her mother’s death, and other events that occupied whole books appear without the significance her close readers may have anticipated; some are passing mentions; a flicker at the edge of a gaze moving in another direction. But the recursiveness of Ernaux’s oeuvre goes beyond the collective retelling of The Years.1 Her autobiographical novel, Simple Passion, and Getting Lost, an installment of her translated journals, relate the same story of an affair with a young, married Russian man, in starkly different styles. Other journal installments follow a similar pattern: Things Seen revisits Exteriors and I Remain in Darkness revisits A Woman’s Story. The “major hauntings” of her life and writing, Hood argues, are “things to be re-seen, reordered, and reupholstered to reveal additional truths and textures”—potentially endlessly.
We write to fill the emptiness at the heart of all experience. But the experience of the attempt is a hole at the bottom of a bucket. We keep living. We keep writing toward the unachievable whole.
On an episode of the Ode & Psyche podcast, poet Bianca Stone, in conversation with Hilary Plum, makes a similar claim about relationships within Plum’s body of work, comprising fiction, memoir, poetry, and criticism. Stone posited that Hole Studies is “a study of holes in our writing trajectory … reflecting back on elements of our own past writing—the content but also the conception process.”
Plum agrees. “There’s something in the process of writing the book that the book didn’t bear witness to—so I need to go bear witness to that in the next thing.”
Hole Studies bears witness to holes in all kinds of speech, public and private: the anticipated but unarriving answer; the question hidden in a joke; the high-profile utterance of common but tacit knowledge, filling a hole that wasn’t really a hole; the shape of a silence that invites new ways of speaking, knowing, being.
At the level of the paragraph, the four long essays that comprise the collection move with a leaping looseness. Compared to Ernaux’s tendency to flatten this personal into the collective and the collective into the personal, Plum’s gaze swings back and forth between the two—an effect that may disorient at first but ultimately strikes a pleasing contrast with the minced precision of her sentences. It is as if the prose is skating on the ice-edge of each void—occasionally launching across.
In her hands, the hole is an omnitool of a metaphor. Paradoxically, Plum’s studies of the silence and lacunae in her own reading and writing builds a delicate network of bridges across her bibliography—Hole Studies would be required reading in a Plum Studies course, connecting the novels They Dragged Them Through the Streets and Strawberry Fields, her long essay Watchfires, and her poems in Excisions. “In the novel I was writing then I wrote the sentence: When your husband is dying you get a job that pays better,” she explains in the collection’s first essay, “Work, or The Swet Shop Boys,” an inquiry into forms of labor, precarity, attention, and caring. “We thought then that my husband was dying. I’d dropped out of a PhD program I was lukewarm about to get a job that paid better, that job.” This detail isn’t of merely biographical interest—the book is not a card catalog to the Plum library. In the same essay, Plum recalls how, when working at an academic press, she could listen to hip-hop in English even when editing.
The beat keeps the language I’m hearing from blending with the language I’m paid to read. Different modes of editing require different levels of attention; sometimes you want your reading mind to be lightly distracted, so that instead of following narrative or argument you are attuned to pure error, moving through minute units of language and watching as they assemble, again and again, into machines that mean. You want to see if any part fails to slide into place. To see this you don’t attend to what the whole is gradually doing.
Here—swapping the absence of a hole for the absence of a whole—Plum implicitly connects her observation on the attention of the editing mind to the kind of attention one practices, or doesn’t practice, in the ordinary labor of survival. Deciding on a career for reasons related to health care, counting the number of stitches after a surgery, debating treatment coverage with insurance agents, discerning the size of a metastatic tumor, tracking the names of pain medications—all things Plum describes in this essay—are like the smallest units of one of the books she is paid to edit. The surviving mind focuses on the details. Meanwhile, the hole in the writing mind allows the whole to slip through, permeating the novel she pursued in the interstices of a harried and precarious life.
Hole Studies documents a mind’s turns and returns. Its central insight about the inevitable holes in any writing, which appears at first hard, bright, and certain as a marble, becomes another kind of hole—a wormhole, opening into other, surprising, otherwise unrelated texts. It dropped me, for example, into the middle of Ernaux’s oeuvre.
Annie Ernaux has spoken of holes in her own writing. In A Girl’s Story, published in France in 2016 and in an English translation in 2020, Ernaux recounted a “missing” year in what was at that point her exhaustively reconstituted history: 1958, when she had her first—traumatic—sexual experience. “I too wanted to forget that girl,” Ernaux writes. “To forget her truly, meaning to have no desire to write about her. Never again to think that I ought to write about her, her desire, her folly, her idiocy and her pride.” Over decades of a literary career, she reclaimed and brought into ever-sharper relief nearly every other episode of her life. But not this one. “[Yet] there were always phrases in my journal, allusions to ‘the girl of S,’ ‘the girl of 58,’” she writes. “For 20 years I have listed ‘58’ among my book projects. It is always the missing text. Always delayed. The unquantifiable hole.” A Girl’s Story, then, is a kind of hole study.
Most of Ernaux’s books document their own creation, or at minimum identify the impulse or necessary question where each began—the hole from which they arose, or are attempting to fill. The effect over the course of her career is different from Plum’s approach in Hole Studies—a single, stand-alone work returning to various sites of past creation. Most of Ernaux’s books incorporate this self-documentary endeavor, while simultaneously (as if she can’t help it) excavating around the edges of past works. The Young Man, for example, examines Ernaux’s process of creating Happening, published in 2000, a process tied to and even dependent upon the plot-level experiences that are The Young Man’s ostensible premise.
Essentially, Ernaux, already an established literary eminence, pursues an imbalanced sexual and romantic relationship with a much younger man as a means of distancing herself from her own age and drawing closer to previous versions of herself, the versions of herself that, in the time line of the text, she wants to write about. “What I felt in this relationship was something inexpressible, in which sex, time, and memory were intertwined,” Ernaux writes.
He embodied the memory of my first world. Shaking sugar into his coffee so that it melted more quickly, chopping up his spaghetti, slicing an apple into little pieces and spearing them with the point of his knife, were all gestures I had forgotten and found again in him, disturbingly. I was ten or fifteen years old again, sitting at the table with my family, my cousins whose white skin A. shared, and the red cheeks of the Normans. He incorporated my past. With him I traveled through all the ages of life, my life.
Relations with A. become a kind of memory-play that swiftly moves toward the page: “with A., I felt as if I were reenacting scenes and actions already past—from the play of my youth,” she writes, “Or indeed as if I were writing/living a novel whose episode I was constructing with care.”
The move onto the page spells the end of the relationship:
I started work on the story of the backstreet abortion that I had hesitated for so long to write. The further I progressed in writing about this event that had taken place before A. was even born, the more strongly—irrepressibly—I felt that I must leave him, as if wanting to tear him away from myself and expel him as I’d done with the embryo, more than thirty years earlier.
I worked steadily on my story and, through a resolute strategy of distancing, on ending the relationship. The breakup coincided, give or take a few weeks, with the book’s completion.
The march-tempo narration here invites the reader to supply (as if filling a hole) what it refuses to provide: ethical commentary, explanation, or just generous hedging. In Hole Studies, Plum methodically applies an ethical lens to every aspect of her own experience, which contributes to the book’s intellectual intimacy. It’s tempting to label this an effect of our digital environment, which has become a kind of reverse panopticon, an illusion of the self at the center of a prison made of uncountable eyes. As familiar as such a condition may feel to contemporary readers, Ernaux is uninterested in it. It is one of the thrilling things about her writing. In The Young Man, she relates with brisk indifference how she courted the student, immeasurably her lesser in economic as well as intellectual terms, used him extractively as a kind of memory aid to facilitate writing, and discarded him—not a breakup, but an abortion. In Simple Passion and Getting Lost, she relates an opposite aspect of her experience: abject and unequal dependence on a sexual other (“partner” does not at all describe this relationship), to the point of destabilizing and nearly subsuming Ernaux’s (or the narrator’s) separate ego.
Ernaux’s texts have stirred controversy, anguish, and bad takes, particularly upon their original publication in France. But this kind of literalist discourse misses the point—which Ernaux has been kind enough to spell out in characteristically direct language.
“This summer, for the first time, I watched a pornographic film,” she writes at the opening of Simple Passion.
The story was incomprehensible; it was impossible to predict any of the actions or movements. The man walked up to the woman. There was a close-up of the woman’s genitals, clearly visible among the shimmerings of the screen, then of the man’s penis, fully erect, sliding into the woman’s vagina. For a long time this coming and going of the two sex organs was shown from several angles. … No doubt one gets used to such a sight; the first time is shattering. Centuries and centuries, hundreds of generations have gone by and it is only now that one can see this—a man’s penis and a woman’s vagina coming together—something one could barely take in without dying has become as easy to watch as a handshake.
Porn as a cultural form, mainstreamed, rapidly advanced, and finally democratized this century, provides Ernaux with language to describe the aim and achievement of her prose: “It occurred to me that writing should also aim for that—the impression conveyed by sexual intercourse, a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.”
Ernaux’s writing is pornographic in this sense—except instead of a pornography of fantasy, it is a pornography of memory. Criticism of the literary style deflects either into a feckless lament at the world that orchestrates and encodes such memories or a censorious demand that one not write about them. (Criticism of this kind of directness always seems to miss the point, while the language itself sometimes misses its first audience. When Ernaux first appeared with Les armoires vides, her work “required new listening”—a phrase that Plum uses in her collection’s final and eponymous essay to describe a collective failure to comprehend direct, unexpected utterances in the vein of Sinéad O’Connor tearing up an image of the pope on Saturday Night Live, an act as “pornographic,” as a matter of style, as any of Ernaux’s sentences.)
For Ernaux, memoir, like pornography, invites endless recombination of the same essential elements. The most pornographic passage in The Young Man—as a matter of prose style—may be the epilogue.
“I was born in 1940 in Lillebonne, a small working-class town twenty-five kilometers from Le Havre,” it begins.
I married Philippe Ernaux in 1964, and our first child, Eric, was born on December 25th of the same year. …
The next morning, my father had a heart attack and he died three days later. I was aware of this being the most violent and unspeakable separation I would ever know in my life. …
I had little time to write because of my teaching work, the children and domestic chores. This situation, common among women, of assuming the material burden of family life along with the demands of a profession, inspired the book “La femme gelée” (A Frozen Woman), published in 1981. …
Since 1977, I have lived and written in the same house on the heights of Cergy-Pontoise.
Called, simply, “Biography” (an interesting choice, as the text is in the first person), the section relates, in nine pages and five images, Ernaux’s life story. This is the same life story she has chronicled precisely and repeatedly in twenty-three books now—even in this same book that the epilogue serves.
“Memory, to me, is inexhaustible,” she wrote in A Girl’s Story.
In The Young Man and across her entire body of work, she reveals both the irreducibility and infinitude of memory by demonstrating its limits, its lack, its absences—when in service to her instrument, the writing mind. The limits of one attempt to map memory only represent another place to begin.
In her Nobel lecture, Ernaux asked, “How can one reflect on life without also reflecting on writing? Without wondering whether writing reinforces or disrupts the accepted, interiorized representations of beings and things?”
If one reflects by writing, then the act of writing will at times reinforce and at times disrupt past representations—past writing. The dissonance across the whole of written life demands further reflection, further disruption.
What Ernaux and Plum together suggest is this: We write to fill the emptiness at the heart of all experience. But the experience of the attempt is a hole at the bottom of a bucket. We keep living. We keep writing toward the unachievable whole.
- And it was in Shame, published in 1999, that Ernaux first described her life in small-town France as a “sort of collective novel, with each of us making our contribution”—foretelling the book that would cement her place in international letters nearly 10 years later and set her on the path to the Nobel Prize another decade after that. ↩