Annie Ernaux returns to the themes of passion, memory, and writing in Le jeune homme, which translates to “The Young Man” in English. In under 40 pages, Ernaux recounts her relationship with a young man 30 years her junior. She takes a frank look at this relationship, interweaving a personal story with an impersonal writing style. The man to whom the title of the book refers is a university student studying in Rouen, living across from the Hotel Dieu which Ernaux had frequented following her illegal abortion in the sixties. She tells how they return to her college-day haunts together, how she feels young again with him. But she also talks about a disgusted, even disdaining eye that is cast upon them when they are in public. If the roles were reversed, Ernaux writes, these looks would be different. If it is acceptable for an older man to have a relationship with a woman younger than him, this is not the case for the inverse. Indeed, as the back cover explains, the relationship turns her back into the “scandalous girl” that she was in her youth—paradoxically through the fact of her older age.
“He tore me from my generation, but I didn’t belong to his,” writes Ernaux. The relationship seems to create a space in which she is neither her partner’s age nor her own. But while this man’s youth brings out her seniority, he is also a mirror in which Ernaux sees a reflection of herself in her younger days. With him she is able to traverse all the ages of life, her lover as the “bearer of the memory” of her “first world.” Through their relationship, she travels across time, reliving the memories of a youth that has already run out.
Thus Ernaux sets up a game of mirrors between author, memory, and the young man himself. Is the youth that is embodied in her lover something that can be resuscitated or re-activated? Or is the relationship simply a means for the author to imagine herself young again, not a revival but an exhuming of memories that ought to be left in their time? Whatever one reads the answer to be, Ernaux represents a struggle we all must come to face: that one must admit to oneself that one does not want to grow old.
Emerging with clarity from the text, then, is the issue of writing, and our tendency to try to capture with it youth or of time itself. “If I don’t write them down, things don’t go all the way, they have only been lived,” she announces in the epigraph of the text. In the first pages again, she touches on this problem of writing, recounting the violent wait for sexual climax as a confirmation that in fact the most superior climax is that of writing a book. Maybe it was this desire for literary climax, she considers, which made her partake in the relationship in the first place. By the end of the short book, she confirms this notion. As incarnated in the book itself, writing is, for Ernaux, ultimately the most long-lasting—and perhaps the only enduring—pleasure.
And yet the exercise of writing appears futile before the impossibly ephemeral nature of her subject matter—memory. Between these mirrors each lover sees in the other is the protagonist of the story hiding in plain sight: that of memory, the memory Ernaux tries to chase down. A master of narrative, Ernaux must become the Pygmalion of both the love story and of her memory itself in order to recount these events.
Perhaps this might explain why the book is so short, from certain perspectives even scandalously so. I read it in a few hours and wondered if what I initially felt was a sense of incompleteness to the text, that something was missing. Ernaux is laconic, her pages sparse. But therein may lie the very truth of the text. The brevity of the text almost seems to mirror the ephemeral nature of memory itself. Her succinct prose does not seek to draw out time but to let it pass. Her recollection of the passion, candid with its suffering of the manipulations and lacunas of memory, is as brief and as dazzling as a sudden flash of light. Ernaux capitulates before the impossibility of preserving memory, writing a text that is beautiful in its honesty.