A Girl’s Story
By Annie Ernaux
143 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions. £11.
Maybe I should have read something else by Annie Ernaux before delving into this. Maybe I would have appreciated more if I was already a fan of hers. But, at the same time, one should assess this book for what it is, which is essentially a look back at four years in Ernaux’s life, starting with the summer of 1958 when, as a teenager, Ernaux had her first sexual experience with the lead instructor at a summer camp.
The quintessentially French laissez-faire attitude towards sexuality pervades here, as the defining experience in Ernaux’s life, an otherwise throwaway sexual experience with an older man, would make for a very different book in post-MeToo America.
Does the man, known only as H, take advantage of his position as an authority figure to seduce a young girl in his care? Unquestionably. Could their rather loveless and seemingly degrading encounter be considered a fireable or, even, a criminal offense? Certainly. But this is France, in 1958 to boot, so c’est la vie.
Ernaux, for her part, doesn’t seem to fault the man at all. On the contrary, she’s flattered by the attention he pays her, and the only discomfort on her part would seem to come after their first meeting, when his interest shifts to another girl.
As a result, I was perhaps most drawn to “A Girl’s Story” for what I viewed as an interesting cultural look at French society and its attitudes towards sexuality. It’s especially timely in light of the Tara Reade accusation against the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and the way in which many who once touted hashtags like #BelieveWomen and wore the mantra “Believe All Women” now no longer seem so sure when its their guy on the other end.
For my part, I’ve always thought it best to assess these things on a case-by-case basis, after a thorough investigation is conducted first, but it’s only fitting that many who rushed to judgement on previous occasions but are now hesitant to believe the woman’s claim now come up with egg on their face.
For Ernaux, though, “A Girl’s Story” is largely a pleasant trip down memory lane, and the obligatory allusions to Proust and the passing of time are made. I enjoyed it too, if only for its simplicity and the way it told of a place and time when things were seemingly just as complex, and yet somehow easier as well, just another entry in the book of life.
No, it’s not Proust, not Sebald, not Knausgaard nor Ferrante, but its 143 pages keep your interest and, once again, remind you of the value of making the most out of every moment you have.