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Towards a transpersonal ‘I’

Creating the history of my texts seems as risky to me as creating the history of my life. How can I explain an approach whose ins and outs are not clear to me, since each project is the expression of a desire, I can’t ignore? That being said, I suspect that there is another reason for this reluctance to go back: shining a light on the way in which my books were written is of no use to me for the one I am writing – in front of me, it is still as dark as ever. Can it be useful for others, or some sort of history of writing, this I don’t know.

When I started writing Cleaned Out, my project was not to uncover all or part of my past life, but just one dimension of it: the transition from a working-class world to a culturally dominant world, thanks to school. I remember that the question of enunciation, I or she, surfaced immediately. Undecided, I drew lots, and not for the first time. Chance decided it would be I, but the fact that I did not try a second time indicates that the dice matched my preference. There was, however, no doubt that the form would be a novel. I would write the story of twenty-year-old Denise Lesur, who, going through an abortion in her university residence, in the sixties, recalls her childhood and adolescence, up to this event. A very traditional structure. This is how I now analyze this spontaneous, unconscious choice:

  • Maintaining doubt about the identity of the I with me, the author (even if I was not at all sure of being published, I had to plan for everything). Fiction protects, it is an ambiguous but unassailable position. No one would be entitled to say, “Denise Lesur is you.” I would in fact discover that in an interview it is easier to declare “Denise holds her parents in contempt” than “I held my parents in contempt”.
  • Enjoying the greatest freedom in writing. The mask of fiction removed all kinds of inner censorship, allowed me to push all the boundaries and expose what remains unspoken about family, sex, or school, in a violent and derisive way[1].
  • “Making” literature. At that time, for me, literature was the novel. I needed my personal reality to become literature: only by becoming literature would it become “true” and something other than an individual experience. I spontaneously used the form which embodied literature in my eyes at that time.

I wrote three books in this belief. I do not question it in the third one, A Frozen Woman, since I accept that the word novel appears on the cover, but this time the I is anonymous, casting more than a shadow of doubt about it referring to the author. On the other hand, the narrative is constructed through memories, from childhood origins to an indeterminate (because ‘frozen’) present, which could belong to the author or to the narrator. In short, the uncertain status of this book, evident when I met readers who often attributed the narrator’s experience directly to me, and whom I gave up correcting: “not me, the heroine”.

Paradoxically, I turned away from the form of the novel with the project of writing about someone other than myself, the project of writing about my father. Not abruptly, in a process that took years (a dozen drafts of a novel, one which reached a hundred pages, attests both to my difficulty in abandoning the genre and my writing blocks), where I questioned writing in general, its role and its meaning as a practice[2]. I came to this conclusion: the only right way to evoke a seemingly insignificant life, my father’s, without betraying (the social class I came from and which I was going to take as my subject) was to constitute the reality of this particular life and this particular class through precise facts, words heard, the values of the time. The name I gave the project and the manuscript until its completion – the title A Man’s Place[3] was only set at the very end – clearly reflects my intention: “Elements towards a family ethnography.” I felt very strongly that the form of the novel was a kind of cheating. To make my father a character, his life a fictional destiny, seemed to me the continued betrayal of life in literature (even if it was no longer a concern of mine to situate myself inside or outside of the latter).

Naturally, if he referred to a real person, it had to be the same for I. Any ambiguity would have robbed the book of its purpose. I included myself in the text as a daughter who shared the same world as my father, a labourer turned shopkeeper, and as a narrator, a professor who had moved into the world of “legitimate” speech. An in-between space, a real distance that the text exposes, which it is impossible to conceal, because in a book like this narrator’s social, cultural, and position is essential.

Thus my transition from fictitious I to a real I is not due to a need to lift the mask but related to a new writing project that I define in A Woman’s Story[4] as “something between literature, sociology and history.” By this I mean that I seek to make concrete, by using rigorous means, “lived” experience, without abandoning what makes the specificity of literature, namely the requirement to write well, the absolute commitment of the subject in the text. It also means, of course, that I reject belonging to a specific genre, be it novel or even autobiography. Autofiction doesn’t suit me either. The I that I use seems to me an impersonal form, barely gendered, sometimes even a word belonging more to “the other” than to “me”: a transpersonal form, in short. It’s not a way of building an identity for myself, through a text, of autofictionalizing myself, but a way of grasping, within my experience, the signs of a family, social or passionate reality. I believe that the two approaches, really, are diametrically opposed. 


First published in RITM 6, ‘Autofictions & Cie’, University of Paris-X (1993), 219-22, reproduced here courtesy of the journal and Annie Ernaux.

Translated by Dawn M. Cornelio. Translation first published here on 20 March 2019.


[1] Although I wonder if the greatest freedom did not result from the uncertainty about whether or not there would be a publication. When I learned that my manuscript would be published, I was frightened, suddenly aware of what I had written.

[2] Private or public events, such as teaching a course on autobiography, played a role in this questioning. In fact, it was almost always life that forced me to revise my writing.

[3] NdT: This is the title of Tanya Leslie’s translation of the novel into English; the source text is simply La Place.

[4] NdT: This is the title of Leslie’s translation of the novel into English; the source text is simply Une Femme.