I have this intuitive aversion to the personal essay form that is hard to explain. So worried am I of falling into that trap that I sometimes shock all the “I”s in my pieces into “we”s, trying to lasso the reader into my perception of the world, hoping they will be okay with my placing a hand on their shoulder, pulling them closer. Here, see the world as I see it.
This intuitive aversion might be because most writers are terribly banal. The law of averages takes a beating when the pool is so dense, mushrooming with blogs full of unclipped voices, and discerning editors fleeing the newsroom. (No one to tell you, “stop whining”.) These are essays that never allow us to feel disgust at the narrator—or even pity, for that matter—so carefully curated are they to create a (false) sense of intimacy.
Perhaps the other, less caustic, reason for what essayist Merve Emre calls the “demand [for] public recognition through the projection of a private interiority” is that writing in the first person gives the impression—the false impression—of being intimate, singular, cohesive, and true. The “I” of the personal essay is a concocted fictional being. We do not live our lives the way we narrate it. The personal essay then becomes a project of audacity, of exploiting a life—even if it is your own life—and performing it as though it were seamlessly reaching out towards the profound, meaningful, and coherent. This is what the theorist Adorno calls the “slick superficiality” of the essay form. We cannot escape it, merely endure its allure, exercising it every now and then, or in the case of French writer Annie Ernaux, who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, make a seething, sensational, celebrated, and just as censorious career out of it.
Her books in translation, often no thicker than a thimble, are narrations of time, to “put the world in order”, “to salvage part of our lives, to understand but first, to salvage”—with language, with memory, and with a looming ghost of doubt over that very language, those very memories. They scald you as you burn through them over a night. Moments of raw wounding. Have you ever loved someone, and knowing they do not love you the same way, continued loving them, continued the lunacy, the indignity, the longing, because it seemed easier than to not? Then, pour over this line from Simple Passion, which thrums with Ernaux’s love for a married man that was returned only with erratic lust: “It was all infinite emptiness, except when we were together making love. And even then I dreaded the moments to come, when he would be gone. I experienced pleasure like a future pain.”
To read her is to feel solid ground while being stuck in the eye of a maelstrom. To immerse your heated self in the cool waters of her turbulent life—this includes the death of her parents, caretaking for an increasingly demented mother, losing her virginity in a summer camp, a back-alley abortion, a teetering marriage, the above-mentioned affair that allowed for more longing than love, and a physical and emotional displacement from her working-class upbringing by her bourgeois pursuits of love and career.
These are extended personal essays wrenched elegantly from the trenches of her life. I Remain in Darkness bunches together journal entries she kept while visiting her mother, who was descending into Alzheimer-hastened death at a care home whose floors were often sticky with urine. This way we get closest to her lapping and galloping mind at that time, even if often what we read is incoherent and irrelevant, the lines like leaps between ideas that do not seem to belong together. Happening describes, in rich, riling detail, the feelings and fumbles of getting an abortion in a country and time that rendered it illegal; the failed attempts at needling the vagina, the abject shock of the moment when she felt the foetus “burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door… a baby doll dangling from [her] loins at the end of a reddish cord”. Ernaux does not describe what she felt. She describes, instead, the weight of the foetus between her thighs—“strangely heavy”—as she walks to her room to get help, to sever it from her body.
In the moment
Any feeling is evoked not in the writing but through the writing. The words I used before, “abject shock”, were mine to feel, not hers to narrate. She has, as you can see, a deep distrust for feelings she felt long ago, refusing to put retrospective emotions into her past body while bringing it to life through her writings. This is a seduction few writers of the personal essay can resist—ventriloquising and shoving present maturity in and through past selves.
“Literary truth” is a phrase often thrown around, for something that can be felt but never described, like walking into a room, staring at a stranger and thinking, “I do not like you” or “I think we belong together”. The moment we try to define what this “literary truth” is, we create boundaries around the idea, walls that create an inside and an outside. But the fact of the matter is, literary truth is a vibe. You get it. Or you do not. If you do not, if the words you read feel sticky and grossly disingenuous, pretentious and needlessly performative—even these words, my words—then that is that. Literary truth is an intuitive lunging of the body towards a text. Ernaux, often but not always, made my body coil towards her words, her wounds. What is it about the way she remembers and the way she writes what she remembers?
“I am not trying to remember,” she writes, “I am trying to be inside... To be there at that very instant, without spilling over into the before or after. To be in the pure immanence of a moment.” When we are going through a moment, we never experience it literarily. We do not go through a sad moment in life thinking, “This is a sad moment.” It is only to make sense of it, to articulate it that we then narrativise the flux of feelings. To be in the “pure immanence of a moment” is to relinquish your need to explain it. She makes this gin clear in Simple Passion: “I do not wish to explain my passion—that would imply that it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify—I just want to describe it.” To read Ernaux, then, is not just to read about her life but to read about her writing about her life, theorising the personal essay while indulging in it.
Writing about our lives, we lurk between our loose days with the same grotesque desperation with which we pursue sex. Ernaux says this, not me—this relationship between sheets crumpled on the floor and on the bed comes up in multiple books. Like orgasming, writing has this impatient tendency to “get to the heat of things”. But finally putting into words an idea or moment which has laboured and luxuriated in your head is like a “sexual fantasy [that] fades as soon as we have climaxed”. Even so, writing, much like sex, must be filled with “a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment”. We pursue both as a means to something that flickers in our head as necessary—not morally but erotically, emotionally. It just needs to be done. No questions asked.
What, then, of the futility of this relentless endeavour? “I shudder at the thought of a book about [my mother]. Literature is so powerless,” she writes in I Remain in Darkness. And yet, she continues her stride, even if it is doused with doubt. Not because of a delusion that she can give literature the armoury to battle and win and power and tower over circumstances; that she will make literature powerful. But merely because, sometimes, we only know one thing to do, and we just have to do that. It is a strange relinquishing of power. As she says in The Years: “To exist is to drink oneself without thirst.” That though there is no need for it, no desire either, yet it is all we end up doing, pursuing “[t]he inalienable right to be chronicled”. It is this lacking ambition, this destiny, this inevitability, this sex-like desperation, I think, that produces the “literary truth” I harped on about earlier. That unschooled vibe.
Memory, a liar
Ernaux’s most famous book, The Years, shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International, begins with a list of opinions, memories, movies, impressions. Something ether-like is supposed to emerge from this—what exactly? No one knows. It could even be a droning sense of boredom. It could be affection for the plumbing simplicity of her language. It could be the smudged outline of a being. Smudged but an outline, nonetheless. When the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who passed away recently, wrote “The Art of Dying”, his personal essay after being diagnosed with lung cancer’s creeping, almost-certain stamp of death, he confessed: “Memory is a liar. It is a heap of dog-eared... incessantly revised fictions.” His piece, like Ernaux’s stretched essays, is a collection of these lying memories, of images, impressions, ideas, including regarding criticism, that he is still stained by. There is no cumulative story emerging, only bursts of life. If you want to plot the essay to see its skeleton, you would be looking at an amoebic throbbing mass. It is, after all, a piece-by-piece putting together of a puzzle that was never meant to be or feel complete. It is a gesture that makes clear the limitations of the personal essay as a format. It refuses to tell a story.
Similarly, Ernaux’s fixation on the practical details of life and living—“No feelings, no morals”—lends it a kind of stuttering appeal. When writing of her father’s death in A Man’s Place—according to me, her finest, most raw—she notes how the flesh on her father’s face deflated when breath left him, heaping all the attention of the spectator on his nose or “the stench of flowers left to rot in a vase of stagnant water”.
This discomfort with emotions, this “tearing [of the self] from the subjective point of view”, sometimes has an ethical edge. Wondering how to write about her father’s life, one coloured and limited by working-class ethics, Ernaux decides: “If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach. Or attempt to produce something moving or gripping. I shall collate my father’s words, tastes, and mannerisms as well as the main events of his life…. No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony.” There is an immense sensitivity here. It asks for neither your sympathy nor attention. She describes this form of writing as “neutral”—often criticised as écriture plate, or flat writing—the kind she adopted when writing letters to her parents, who had a basic grasp of the written language. She wants to write about her dead father in the kind of French he would have been able to read.
This “neutral” writing concentrates the cones of floodlight on the text; our attention is never allowed to slip from the moment. This neutrality, this anti-style which itself is becoming a style, is the closest thing to feeling we see—her abdication of anything glittering in her prose. An honesty creeps in. Unable to think of her adolescent self, she calls her “the girl of ’58”, renouncing the first person. When she sees oval-shaped sepia photos of her childhood self, she feels a distance; she believes she was this child because she was told she was this child, not because she remembers it, “Other people’s memories gave us a place in this world.” How to tell the story of your life when so much of it feels alienated from who you are today? The third person singular helps.
Thinking about oneself, then writing about it using “I”, the single letter that demands the privileged attention of capitalisation mid-sentence, comes from a vast tradition of centring the self—from Catholic and Buddhist confessionals to the rise of capitalism that allowed the private as a bourgeois space to ponder the implications of the self outside of labour, to colleges in America beginning to ask for “personal essays” from the 1920s, and colleges in India imprinting a liberal arts education in their shadow; from the growth of subaltern studies through the 1980s that required you to push your identity forward with righteous dignity to digital publications milking this moral imperative, producing what Laura Bennett called the “first-person industrial complex”.
While writers like Karl Ove Knausgard, Joan Didion, Tove Ditlevsen, Manto, Farah Bashir, and Chloé Cooper Jones have pursued something vastly original within this genre, a stink keeps rearing its head. The allure of the personal story has multiplied since the algorithmic joys of social media required us, pleaded with us to centre our point of view, our irony, our charm, our beauty. To reach within, first, and perform without, after. A trust in the self as true and consummate. This deluge, this glut of the personal essay, with writers cooing out for our attention by selling their wounds in the marketplace of ideas, does it not cause a snoozing, a tiredness, a yawn?
To cut through this blistering ennui, this distrust of the self, like Ernaux does, and to be recognised for it by the most celebrated literary award, is testament to both author and award. That the personal essay, despite its worn-out glamour, is literary chic. And that Ernaux’s personal essays, that reach back to the 1970s, whose journey has been fraught with frigid fears and warm embraces, which short-circuit any criticism by theorising the form and creating the tenets of criticism itself, are unlike any other.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com
- French writer Annie Ernaux, who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, make a seething, sensational, celebrated, and just as censorious career out of the personal essay
- Hers are extended personal essays wrenched elegantly from the trenches of her life
- What is remarkable is her abdication of anything glittering in her prose
- She makes the personal essay, despite its worn-out glamour, chic again