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The Art of writing

The Art of writing : Woolf, Breton, Perec or the formative years

The art of writing. I wondered why this expression was perplexing. Somewhat chilling even. If I think of Madame Bovary, I see places, the agricultural shows, Homais’ pharmacy, scenes, Emma making her belt whistle as she undresses in a hotel room, drawing up handfuls of arsenic, smearing herself. If I say Nausea, I see the café, the public garden, a kind of yellow colour, which is perhaps the light of the month of February when I read the book for the first time. The Social Contract is inseparable from the gong of the the opening sentence as it spreads across the surface of the earth: Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains. Sometimes I feel the exhilarating sensation of a truth, sometimes a magnification of myself and of the world.

Even though I know that all this is an “effect of art”, which can be analysed – I did so professionally for a long time – what counts is the suddenly discovered unknown landscape, the desires, and the thoughts that arise. This is the “form” that some texts have given to my relationship to time, to others, to politics. To my life. To my own desire to write. Therefore it seemed to me that I could interpret “the art of writing” as an invitation to evoke the writers whose work, in particular, triggered this desire.

Between the ages of 20 and 25 – in the 1960s, then – Virginia Woolf’s work exerted a total hold on this desire to write. At about the same time, surrealism with Breton’s Manifesto offered a complete project of life and writing. Soon thereafter, there was the revelation of Georges Perec’s Things. Today, I realize, it is less an art of writing that I sought in them, that I received from them, but new paths, in tune with forms of sensitivity to the world that were similar to mine or to which I aspired. I wish I could find, and share, the fervour, the dazzled amazement that were mine in the discovery of Mrs Dalloway, The Waves, Nadja, Things. It’s doubtful: if I have a regret to express about the reality of writing myself for a long time, it is that of having lost the ability, not to admire, which remains intact, but rather to be completely taken over by a text, a writer, as Breton says that he was by Rimbaud in Nantes in 1915.

In a letter to Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf writes: “I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross; that one can draw it to oneself: it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless sigh.”[1] I chose this sentence, because it is not possible to better signify what writing is for Virginia Woolf, pain certainly, but above all a quest for an unspeakable reality which she will need to shape into literary form. Because it also means precisely that this form is not pre-existing. That it is not a story to unfold, with characters, in a space-time setting, as the novel was generally imagined at the time she wrote. In fact, the word itself came to seem inadequate to her: “I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel’.”[2]

Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, To the Lighthouse, are all different texts hoisted over the gulf, but all of which have this in common, this vertiginous quality: the chasm itself – in other words, time and death – which are their subject and structure. Virginia Woolf’s books all try to offer the opportunity to feel, if not to see, “the thing that exists when we aren’t there”[3] as she describes this desire in her diary. She does so with admirable, poignant structures, which make material the gulf of time, this thing that exists when we aren’t there and in which human existence appears only as a series of moments. Mrs Dalloway: a single day in the life of Clarissa and Septimus, that gets its rhythm from Big Ben’s ringing to separate the chapters. The Waves, another day, but this time, the racing of the sun along a seascape, from dawn to dusk corresponds to the unfolding of six existences, in six inner monologues, from childhood to more mature years, so that human life appears equal to that of the silver moth in the eyes of Nature. It is perhaps To the Lighthouse that offers the most daring and tragic literary solution. Between the first part, “The Window” – focused on the dinner and evening around Mr and Mrs Ramsay in the summer house by the sea – and the third, “The Lighthouse” – where the promise of the walk planned ten years earlier is fulfilled – comes the terrible, brief middle section, “Time passes”. All that occurs is the deterioration of objects in the empty house, left to the power of the elements, in a universal movement of destruction and transformation of which an old housekeeper is the groaning rhapsody. Human events are relegated to parentheses, recorded in three lines, marriages, the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children, the war. Unfailingly, in Virginia Woolf’s novels, deaths look like sudden erasures, Jacob’s (Jacob’s Room), Perceval’s (The Waves), they are covered over by everyday life yet indellible.

In this inhuman flow of time that constitutes the deep structure of Virginia Woolf’s texts, beings are streams of consciousness, that unroll memories, thoughts, desires, sensations. They exist in bodies, but bodies seized by consciousness. In The Waves there is a repeated expression of a relationship to the body that varies according to the individual, age and sex:

“What, then, can I touch? What brick, what stone? and so draw myself across the enormous gulf into my body safely?”[4] says Rhoda, who feels separated from it and “faceless.”

“I can imagine nothing beyond the circle cast by my body,”[5] says Jinny, on the other hand dazzled by her dazzling body.

“My body has been used daily,”[6] says Susan, the Earth mother.

It is a mistake to speak of a writing of interiority in Virginia Woolf’s work, except to say that it is an interiority constantly crossed by others – family, friends or strangers – by their gaze, their presence. The six “voices” of The Waves constantly interact with each other: “There is always somebody […], whose identity therefore one wishes to make crouch beneath one’s own,”[7] says Neville. In To the Lighthouse, everyone, but especially Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, think, “feel” the others, their words and their gestures, their silences.

Unstable knots of relationships, beings are also consciousnesses “caught”  in the most material, most tangible world, almost dissolved in it. “I think sometimes […] I’m not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground,”[8] says Susan. Caught in the most ordinary circumstances of life, Mrs Ramsay’s meal and her beef stew, Mrs. Dalloway’s purchase of flowers. Nothing small in Virginia Woolf, but an interweaving of prosaic details and essential questions, the various layered planes of consciousness, which enable the co-existence in the same sentence of Mrs. Ramsay’s care in measuring the stocking she’s knitting, her attention drawn in by the tattered chairs, her thought for the Swiss maid whose father is dying and the order to her little boy, “keep still!”

What I feel is at the heart of Virginia Woolf’s writing is a movement of fusion with and distance from the world, which she attributes to Clarissa Dalloway, “She sliced like a knife through everything; and at the same time she was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone.”[9] And also to Bernard, the writer of The Waves: one feels “invisible and things seen through.”[10]

I doubt that I had, at the age of twenty-two, in my spontaneous adherence to Virginia Woolf’s vision, anything other than a blurred perception of her art of writing. On the other hand, long before I read, much later, A Room of One’s Own, it seems certain to me that Virginia Woolf was in my eyes the woman writer whose engagement had gone furthest beyond appearances, and that she was the example, the way to follow. Even if, I thought, it was at the cost of madness.

For I had read and made my own this sentence from The Surrealist Manifesto: “It is not the fear of madness which will oblige us to leave the flag of imagination behind.”[11] In fact, it is all of surrealism as a form of existence, including but going well beyond literature, to which I had given myself, devoted myself, when I discovered the Manifestos written by André Breton that had just been made accessible, in the Idées collection, in 1963. It is therefore through André Breton’s writing that I received the imprint of the ideas, refusals and positions that defined the undoubtedly most decisive movement of the 20th century in relation to art and structures of subjectivity. André Breton, more than others, with the exception of Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Le libertinage.[12] First by the Manifestos, then Nadja, Mad Love, Communicating Vessels, Arcane 17. Unclassifiable texts, simultaneously theoretical and poetic, neither novels – violently condemned – nor autobiographies, but quests for an individual truth, perhaps a salvation, that anyone can undertake in turn. Winding, broken texts left “swinging like doors” that are more or less always manifestos of an attitude towards the world, of instructions for life. For André Breton’s sentence – the fundamental structure, the primary unit of his writing – is always, whether brief, or long and intricate, “moral”. Not moral in terms of right or wrong, but in terms of behaviour and lifestyle. By its power, its imperious syntax, somewhere it “compels”, it is unendingly – though so haughty and dismissive of the one who reads it – a call to follow.

I will mention only a few of these phrases – lines of poetry, sometimes – that continue to rise up within me unexpectedly, like the elements of a very old programme of life and writing:

Perhaps life needs to be deciphered like a cryptogram[13]

When one ceases to feel, I am of the opinion one should keep quiet[14]

Rather life with its waiting rooms

When one knows one will never be admitted[15]In its broad outlines, despair does not matter[16]

What I have loved, whether I have kept it or not, I shall love forever[17]

Transform the world says Marx; change life, says Rimbaud; these two watchwords are but one for us[18]

I persist in holding love’s operations as the most serious[19]

A phrase whose resonance within me remains mysterious to me:

The loves of men are great peasant mirrors edged in red velvet or, more rarely, in blue velvet.[20]

Last year, in the North, in Bailleul, in the context of a celebration of Marguerite Yourcenar – with whom I feel no affinity – I was approached by a young writer, Amina Danton. Like an unexpected messenger, she offered to take me to the municipal cemetery to Nadja’s grave, which she had found on her way to the Town Hall and where she had just been. I had read that Nadja had died in an asylum, I didn’t know that it was in Bailleul, the very city where Bruno Dumont shot his first, dark, films. In front of the tomb – just a square of earth with a cement border and the inscription “Leona Delcourt 1902-1941” – I thought of her words: “André André? You’ll write a novel about me. […] Something must remain of us…”[21] It struck me that we were standing in this cemetery under a blazing sun due to the power of a book, literature’s active grace.

For anyone wishing to write, proximity in time with beloved and admired writers plays a role. Hugo says “to be Chateaubriand or nothing.” Chateaubriand became his contemporary. Proust does the same with Bergotte and the narrator of In Search of Lost Time. On the one hand there is the literary tradition with admired, beloved writers – Rousseau, Flaubert – and literature perceived as being created, and whose actors are engaged in the world, here, now. As such, the discovery of Georges Perec with the reading of Things, right in the middle of the sixties, constituted a major turning point in my understanding of writing. More precisely, the possibilities of the field of writing. This novel was even less a novel than Virginia Woolf’s texts, but it was also not an authentic, poetic quest like Nadja. It was a new textual object which, in the first pages of an endless description, seemed be kin to the “new novel” – or even to the recent film Last Year at Marienbad with its camera lingering no less endlessly on architectural details – and, in fact, very quickly, turned its back on it. It was indeed, as the subtitle “A Story of the Sixties” indicated, the capture of the path and aspirations of the current generation of middle-class youth, represented by the couple Jérôme and Sylvie, beings without psychological contours, defined by the tastes and desires common to a generation. It was a narrative of collective value – and effect – , the extreme generalization of an individual experience, in which the era was mirrored. Things operated a kind of reversal, not stating the general through the particular – as it is accepted that literature does – but the particular through the general. Validating, albeit belatedly, Breton’s sentence in Nadja: “Happily the days of psychological literature, with all its fictitious plots, are numbered.”[22]

In 1965, it was still too early to perceive that behind this accumulation of things that filled – while revealing – the emptiness of the protagonists’ existences, loomed the form of an undertaking of which the subsequent texts gradually reveal the motivation, which is tragic in nature. When he wrote A Void in 1969, an entire novel without the letter e, it was the exploit that one noticed, but the central figure of Perec’s work is there, displayed, made readable: absence, emptiness, a hole. A few years later, W or the Memory of Childhood, gives the key to this figure: the absence of childhood memories, a mother, without a grave, who disappeared in Auschwitz. Bits torn from a memory filled with holes alternate with the imaginary construction of a concentration camp-like athletic universe, W, and it is in the intersection of the efforts to create a case history and the reconstruction of the fantasy, their reciprocal reflections, that, perhaps something of the unspeakable, genocide, can be grasped: “the unsayable is not buried inside the writing, it is what prompted it in the first place,”[23] he writes. Opposed to this certainty: “The idea of writing the story of my past arose at almost the same time as the idea of writing”[24] is another, namely that it is impossible for him to write this story, that he will find only “the final refraction of a voice that is absent from writing”[25]. It’s impossible to write about nothing, about emptiness. But yet write nonetheless, because – these are the most moving phrases I have read about writing – “we lived together, because I was one amongst them, shadow amongst their shadows, a body close to their bodies; I write because they left in me their indelible mark and the trace is writing. Their memory is dead in writing; writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life.”[26]  Writing will therefore consist of filling the void and the unspeakable by the fullness of things, by the tireless inventory of reality in all its forms. To fill the initial hole of childhood with the avalanche of 480 personal and collective memories of inessential, meaningless facts, the litany of “I remember”, open to all memories. To count and classify the insignificant, “the infra-ordinary”, to make lists of objects, recipe cards, dreams, postcards, to identify figures of style and the dwellings on one street. What seemed, for a long time to be a purely formal, Oulipian game is, on the contrary, a serious concern which, perhaps, is also that of the 21st century: responding to amnesia and the gaping loss of meaning by trying to exhaust reality in its totality, including language, and organizing it, classifying it endlessly without ever being able to discover in it, give to it, a meaning other than that it’s there. At the same time, this writing of construction/deconstruction, the multiplying of forms, is for Perec the way, the only way, to tell his own story, to tear his existence and those of his loved ones from nothingness. And in this way he inaugurated another way of telling one’s story, expanding, like no one before him, the field of autobiography.

Finally, to conclude, another of André Breton’s sentences, a guideline which, back when I was teaching, I always shared during the first class: “Love first. There will always be time, later, to question what we love until nothing more can be ignored.”[27] It was the birth of this love that I wanted to endeavor to outline here, this magnet pull that Woolf, Breton, Perec exercised each in turn. As for the reasons for loving that I found in the questioning and company of their works, I have pointed out only some, those which, it will be rightly suspected, are not foreign to my own writing concerns.


[1] The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 3, Harcourt, Brace Javanovich, 1975 p. 529.

[2] The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol 3, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Penguin, 1982, p. 34. In her text, Ernaux quotes Woolf translated this way, “J’ai l’idée qu’il faudra un mot nouveau dans mes livres pour remplacer le mot roman”. The idea that Woolf would invent the word herself in her writing is not present.

[3] The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol 3, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Penguin, 1982, p. 114.

[4] The Waves, Alma Classics, 2018, p. 112. In her text, Ernaux quotes Woolf translated this way, “Comment retraverser ce gouffre immense, comment rejoindre mon corps”.

[5] The Waves, Alma Classics, 2018, p. 90.

[6] The Waves, Alma Classics, 2018, p. 154.

[7] The Waves, Alma Classics, 2018, p. 153. In her text, Ernaux quotes Woolf translated this way, “Quand nous nous réunissons, il y a toujours quelqu’un dont nous souhaitons écraser l’identité sous le poids du nôtre”.

[8] The Waves, Alma Classics, 2018, p. 68.

[9] Mrs. Dalloway, ed. Jo-Ann Wallace. Broadview Editions, 2013, p. 50.

[10] The Waves, Alma Classics, 2018, p. 190.

[11] Manifestoes of Surrealism, tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, p. 6. Source text: « Ce n’est pas la crainte de la folie qui nous fera laisser en berne le drapeau de l’imagination ». Manifeste du surréalisme, éditions du sagittaire, 1924, p. 11.

[12] No known translation in English.

[13] Nadja, tr. Richard Howard, p. 112. Source text: « Il se peut que la vie demande à être déchiffrée comme un cryptogramme ». Nadja, éditions Gallimard, 1964, p. 113.

[14] Manifestoes of Surrealism, tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, p. 8. Source text: « Je veux qu’on se taise, quand on cesse de ressentir ». Manifeste du surréalisme, éditions du Sagittaire, 1924, p. 14.

[15] Source text: « Plutôt la vie avec ses salons d’attente / Quand on sait qu’on ne sera jamais introduit », « Plutôt la vie » dans Clair de Terre. Poésie/Gallimard n° 11, 1966, p. 72.

[16] Source text: « Dans ses grandes lignes le désespoir n’a pas d’importance », « Le verbe être » dans Le revolver à cheveux blancs. Éditions Gallimard, 1966, p. 120.

[17] Mad Love, tr. Mary Ann Caws, p. 114. Source text: « Ce que j’ai aimé, que je l’aie gardé ou non, je l’aimerai toujours. », L’amour fou, éditions Gallimard, 1937, p. 171.

[18] Source text: « Transformer le monde a dit Marx ; changer la vie, a dit Rimbaud ; ces deux mots d’ordre pour nous n’en font qu’un », « Position politique du surréalisme » dans son Discours au Congrès des écrivains, 1935.

[19] Source text: « Je persiste à tenir les opérations de l’amour pour les plus graves » Les Vases communicants,  Gallimard, Coll. Folio/Essais, 1996, p. 82.

[20] Soluble Fish, tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, p. 93. Source texte: « Les amours des hommes sont de grandes glaces paysannes bordées de velours rouge ou, plus rarement, de velours bleu. » Poisson Soluble, éditions du Sagittaire, 1924, p. 159. In her text, Ernaux quotes Breton this way, “Les amours des hommes m’ont suivi à la trace, ce sont de grandes glaces bordées de velours rouge, plus rarement de velours bleu.”

[21] Nadja, tr. Richard Howard, p. 100. Source text: « André ? André ? Tu écriras un roman sur moi. De nous il faut que quelque chose reste… », Nadja, éditions Gallimard, 1964, p. 100.

[22] Nadja, tr. Richard Howard, p. 18. Source text: « Fort heureusement les jours de la littérature psychologique à affabulation romanesque sont comptés. », Nadja, éditions Gallimard, 1964, p. 18.

[23] W or the Memory of Childhood, tr. David Bellos, p. 42. Source text: « l’indicible n’est pas tapi dans l’écriture, il est ce qui l’a bien avant déclenché ». W ou le souvenir d’enfance, éditions Denoël, 1975, p. 59.

[24] W or the Memory of Childhood, tr. David Bellos, p. 26. Source text « Le projet d’écrire mon histoire s’est formé presque en même temps que mon projet d’écrire ». W ou le souvenir d’enfance, éditions Denoël, 1975, p. 41.

[25] W or the Memory of Childhood, tr. David Bellos, p. 42. Source text: Source text: « l’ultime reflet d’une parole absente à l’écriture », W ou le souvenir d’enfance, éditions Denoël, 1975, p. 59.

[26] W or the Memory of Childhood, tr. David Bellos, p. 42. Source text: « nous avons vécu ensemble, parce que j’ai été un parmi eux, ombre au milieu de leurs ombres, corps près de leur corps ; j’écris parce qu’ils ont laissé en moi leur marque indélébile et que la trace en est l’écriture : leur souvenir est mort à l’écriture ; l’écriture est le souvenir de leur mort et l’affirmation de ma vie », W ou le souvenir d’enfance, éditions Denoël, 1975, p. 58.

[27] Our translation. Source text : « Aimer d’abord. Il sera toujours temps, ensuite, de s’interroger sur ce qu’on aime jusqu’à n’en plus vouloir rien ignorer ». Un art à l’état brut. La Guilde du livre, 1962.


Original text, published for the first time here with Annie Ernaux’s kind permission, translated by Dawn Cornelio. First published here on 20 March 2019.