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Retrieving the Girl of ‘58 - A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux

By Mariam Pari

“The memory of what I have written is already fading. I do not know what this piece of writing is. Even the thing I was pursuing by writing this book has dissolved. Among my papers I found a sort of note of intent: Explore the gulf between the stupefying reality of things that happen, at the moment they happen, and, years later, the strange unreality in which the things that happened are enveloped.”

An explorative revisitation, A Girl’s Story is both a memoir and re-evaluation by Annie Ernaux of the summer of 1958. First published in 2016 and later translated by Alison L. Strayer in 2020, Ernaux narrates the novel with a mix of first and third person as she attempts to retrace the feelings of shame and humiliation that permeated this period of her life.

Ernaux spent the summer of 1958 working in a holiday camp in Normandy. Teetering on the shaky borders between youth and adulthood, Ernaux recounts her experiences of desire, pride, and betrayal. Recounting her first night spent with a man, and the violent feelings of rejection that followed, Ernaux looks back to try and revise these feelings of humiliation with a more objective approach.

Her first time away from home, Ernaux felt her social inadequacies were innumerable. All she knew about the world was from books and women’s magazines, describing her personality as a mixture of ‘selves’ which are taken from one book to another rather than solidly defined. The naivety that Ernaux reflects on is woven through the text and acts in contrast to the position from which she is writing. ‘She’ being the innocent and inexperienced, ‘I’ being Ernaux in the present, looking back in retrospect. Although writing in hindsight, Eranux writes with a degree of apathy that does not evoke pity or sympathy but a refreshing consideration of past events.

Attempting to redeem the girl of ‘58 from her perceived shortcomings, Ernaux goes back in time, unbiased, and tries bridging this 60-year gap. She resurrects her into the present day and unveils her buried turmoil.

There is strength and resilience in how Ernaux can recount such painful times in her girlhood and the reverberations these had on her experience of womanhood. To diminish the girl of ‘58 would be to diminish her pain and deny her endurance. Ernaux does not try to wish away these times of turmoil but instead faces them directly. She occasionally expresses her desire to leave the story where it is but always continues writing despite the tangible discomfort it brings her.

Writing about this vital and violent period allows Ernaux to take back the narrative of her life and give shape to the experiences that shaped her on her own terms. She shares her frustrations towards the unfamiliarity of this period catalysed by the passing of time and the emotional and practical difficulties in breaching this temporal gulf.

A Girl’s Story beautifully detangles a complicated web of memories. Instead of trying to rewrite these recollections or transcend them, Ernaux accepts and solidifies this period as an important part of her life. Deeply personal and powerful, A Girl’s Story narrates a universally collective female experience of the shame that is experienced with the shift from girlhood to womanhood in a patriarchal society. Her internal dialogue frankly and bravely speaks about what it means to be a young woman in all its vulnerability; how it is navigated and how we later come to terms with the reality of our experiences.

Meandering backward and forward and the shifting between ‘She’ and ‘I’, Ernaux attempts to access the memories and motives of her younger self. The shame that permeated through the summer of ‘58 and the hopelessness forced Ernaux to constantly reinforce her forgetting and led her to want to obliterate the past. Describing her younger self as a ‘nothing girl’, Ernaux walled up these memories and created a severance between who she was and who she is. A fragmentation of the self through time and history, Ernaux’s memory is at times faulty and even unreliable as the vast gap she had created becomes more unclear. Ernaux tries evaluating the events that unfolded, deconstructing the girl she was and the story of what had happened.

In her attempts to evade a fictitious account and try to be as objective as possible, she renders the old story she had constructed in her head in a new light. Contained within two temporal boundaries, Ernaux wishes to come as close as possible to the reality of it all. In her reconsideration of it, she feels shame that she viewed the summer camp as an emancipation despite its leading to unpleasant and complex repercussions.

Ernaux’s painful reconsideration is her attempt at securing a unification of different periods of time, unlocking gaps and answers to questions she had forgotten. Referring to her past self as ‘the girl’ and describing her as ‘all desire and pride’, she acknowledges her faults and is then able to look back with less embarrassment and more understanding.

The feelings of unreality Ernaux experiences in her recollections are tempered by the merging of her two selves. Ernaux feels satisfaction in realising in retrospect that there was no real horror in the events that happened but simply the facts. She had an unwilling naivety to which her current wisdom had been earned through as she states, “What counts is not the things that happen, but what we do with them.”

In A Girl’s Story, Ernaux’s observation of the past comes as a product of her awareness of her own mortality: “The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them. I am haunted by the idea that I could die without ever having written about ‘the girl of ‘58’, as I very soon began to call her.” For Ernaux, this writing project is extremely important and allows her to ‘rise above time’. To solidify her experiences in history and document what has happened lest they disappear into obscurity.

As Ernaux ceases running away from the girl of ‘58 and the pain she experienced, Ernaux instead begins to run towards herself. Things do not die unless we acknowledge them and in Ernaux’s reopening of the metaphorical tomb in which she tried to bury the girl of ‘58, she is able to understand her suffering in the context of which it happened and in doing so, let her suffering lie.

It is an empowering narrative that allows for a reconsideration of the past and retrieval of the self. A Girl’s Story serves as a reminder that there is self-sabotaging violence in the destruction of our past selves. In recognising our web of experiences no matter how painful, and refusing to numb ourselves to the past, we can let things lie peacefully beside us, rather than heavy on our backs.

Louise Bourgeoise, 10am is When You Come to Me (detail), 2006, etchings with watercolour, pencil and gouache on paper, 380 × 910 mm, Artist Rooms Tate and National Galleries of Scotland.


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