“The young man”: love, how many attempts?

Six years ago, Annie Ernaux had made us sad publishing the story of a first time that resembled an attack, in the 1950s, with girl memory (Gallimard, 2016). She returns with a magnificent book, the title of which seems built in echo, The young man (Gallimard, 2022). In this short story, but with rare accuracy, Ernaux unravels the engines of a passion that could easily be described as forbidden: his relationship with a (young) man, thirty years younger, in the mid-1990s. , in the passive but sharp language. it is his trademark, where sensitivity does not bother decoration, a meditation on the passage of time. Alexandre Lacroix read it to us.

It’s a little short The young man : the new story published by the novelist Annie Ernaux has only about forty pages. And yet it is a gem. It is also an astonishing literary document, of an ambiguous nature, comparable to the short masterpiece of James Joyce, Giacomo Joycewhich also has about forty pages. Giacomo Joyceit is a rediscovered notebook in which the author told in poetic fragments, as if to himself in a sublime language it seems to be a love story with a young Italian woman in Trieste. The young man seems to have been written by Ernaux in the same spirit: not in a coordinated way as Years (Gallimard, 2008) or girl memorynot for the purpose of romanticizing life, but rather to fix some dizziness, to see more clearly in oneself during the unleashing of passion, then its dissolution.

The passage of time plays a significant role in this story. At the bottom of the last page, Annie Ernaux’s text is dated “1998-2000 / 2022”. Which means that these are fragments from twenty years ago that the novelist reread and put in order to give us a read today. Moreover, The young man starts like this: “Five years ago, I spent an awkward night with a student who had been writing to me for a year and wanted to meet me. » This student is thirty years younger than her, we’re told a few lines later. Annie Ernaux was born in 1940. As a result, the reader is invited from the first pages to do a little mental arithmetic and understand that Annie Ernaux tells him a love story that happened in the mid-1990s between her. , who was about 55, and a 25-year-old man. The scope of this love story is universal in at least three ways.

First, in this text there is a social and political provocation, very conscious of itself. Without making it a militant claim, Annie Ernaux lets us at small touches glimpse that she has undermined and reversed the norms of traditional male dominance, as has been described by Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist whose influence the author claims. Annie Ernaux is actually not happy about being older than her lover, she also has total financial dominance over him (for a while she maintains him), social (he comes from a modest background, she is a class defector but gentrified, and she sees him with pity cutting his salad or stirring the sugar in his coffee), cultural (he seems almost ignorant and conversational in front of her). The result ? This unusual and outrageous couple attracts reproachful glances at cafes, restaurants. “One Sunday we went to Fécamp, on the pier near the sea, and held hands. From end to end we were followed by all the eyes of the people sitting on the concrete edge along the beach. A. made me aware that we were more unacceptable than a gay couple. “

But this reversal of the classical pattern, of the fifties to go with a beautiful young girl, so widely accepted, is not the only problem in this short text. Annie Ernaux actually indulges in a gripping meditation on the passage of time and aging. She rejects the received idea that a person in his fifties would fall in love with a person in his twenties for lying to himself about his age or for living another youth by proxy. It’s more subtle: Annie Ernaux says of her lover that he in no way maintains an illusion of youth, but that he has transformed his life nonetheless. “in a strange and continuous palimpsest”. Thus, every embrace, every declaration of love, every episode of their life as a couple does not happen as a novelty for her, which holds the charm of the first time, but superimposed on the past. “At home, he wore the hooded bathrobe that had enveloped other men. When he wore it, I never saw any of them again. Before the light gray terry, I only felt the sweetness of my own duration and the identity of my desire. » There is a kind of duality in this: A. and Annie do not live the present with the same depth of time, and for her the beauty of the relationship lies in the fact that it has a small future and that every circumstance in the present seems to be a victory over the escape from the past , without projecting anything forward.

Finally, Annie Ernaux excels at showing as before in one of his finest books, easy passion (Gallimard, 1992) that there is a kind of boredom, emptiness or even death zone in the heart of amorous and sexual tumult. This becomes clear during his first meetings with A., which take place in Rouen. Annie Ernaux says: “His apartment had a view of the Hôtel-Dieu, which had been closed for a year and under construction to make it the seat of the prefecture. […] I looked at the black roofs, the dome of a church appeared in the background. Apart from the guards, there was no one left. It is at this place, this hospital, that I, a student, had been transported one night in January due to a hemorrhage due to a secret abortion. » Just as when one experiences a war, one is not constantly in action, since there are also many hours of inactivity and waiting, of suspended time, in the same way, when one experiences a passionate connection, we do not feel an eternal intoxication. or pleasure, but we are quite surprised to discover, in the center of the hurricane, a zone of calm and introspection, which secretly connects us with our despair and our deepest sorrow.

The young manit is a short book, but it says a lot about imperfection and fragility in our attempt to love.

The young man, by Annie Ernaux, has just been released on Éditions Gallimard. 48 p., 8 €, available here.

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