“When I was twenty-one,” wrote Zadie Smith at age twenty-five, “I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.” What is a writer’s voice? Surely, as in life, we all have many voices, different ones for different occasions.
For the young Zadie Smith, Kafka’s voice established a norm: this is what literature sounds like. Different genres—fiction, academic articles, general nonfiction—conjure certain expectations. I write differently in all of them. But over the last couple of years, I’ve started to feel the strain of singing so many styles on the page, and I’ve started to wonder: What does my own voice sound like, freed from the mold? Do I even have one?
As any classically trained singer or actor can tell you, trying to make your voice sound like someone else’s can do all manner of damage to it. Voicing relies on friction between the breath and the folds of the vocal cords, but the cords can wither or be damaged from being struck too harshly. This can spill out into the body as well, and tension can build in the jaw, neck, shoulders. “Good voice work,” writes Cicely Berry, former RSC voice director, “should always aim to use the voice that is there and stretch it and open up its possibilities.”
Yet there is no sound in a vacuum. Influence can be a question not of imitating someone else’s voice, but of hearing the right pitch. Influence is a “multifarious” force, Adrienne Rich once said. “You might be resisting a certain poetry intellectually and emotionally while absorbing it at some more intuitive level, taking what you can use.” For me, the right influence turns a text into a kind of tuning fork, which I can sound by “striking” the text with my eye (I take this from the French expression jeter un coup d’oeil au texte). If I read something by Virginia Woolf, it can center my work, make it more unified, poised, and fill it with color; something by Jeanette Winterson, and it’s more heart-loving; something by Annie Dillard, and it touches the earth and knows the names of weather patterns. This kind of influence ought to be audible only to the writer; if I’m writing well—if I’m writing like myself—there will be no hint that I’ve been reading Woolf, or Winterson, or Dillard. They’re just a melody I’ve been listening to.
Annie Ernaux is a writer I’ve returned to in this way since I first read her at the age of twenty. I was at university in Paris, and was making the difficult transition from studying French to actually speaking it. French was becoming a living, working language through song lyrics, films, and the books I chose to read rather than those I’d been assigned. Contemporary French fiction evoked the city I was beginning to know, and projected me into it, unlike the dead world described in the books on the syllabus.
I picked up Ernaux’s Passion Simple (1991) at the Fnac, partly because it was really thin (under a hundred pages), and partly because, well, that title. After a brief preface about watching porn on a fuzzy TV, it begins: “A partir du mois de septembre l’année dernière, je n’ai plus rien fait d’autre qu’attendre un homme.” (“Beginning in September of last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man.”) Everything she does, she writes, has something to do with this man. Everything she sees reminds her of him, of some moment they shared, some stray comment he made, some place he had visited or person he had spoken of. I, too, was doing not much besides thinking about, and waiting to hear from, a guy. It is an experience I have lived through several times since, and it is always the same. Present and past and future are suspended into one temporality: the expectant tense. (Tense as the vocal cords straining to sound.) To live sexual obsession is to, in Ernaux’s words, “experience pleasure like a future pain.” I had never seen anyone write about this kind of unabated tension, in which real life vanishes into the margins, and the world is mediated exclusively through memories of the lover. Ernaux’s book was the first time I’d read anything that took sexual obsession as a serious, intellectual topic, instead of as something to be ashamed of. She is simply, radically, writing about desire as though she is its agent, not as its object. Ernaux writes with straightforwardness and honesty; she doesn’t justify or explain herself. The text is so underwritten in places as to resemble, almost, a psychoanalyst’s case study, and Ernaux, with her even, detached tone, is more therapist than patient.
She writes about how the act of writing this extreme experience is incompatible with the experience itself: “The tense [or time] of writing has nothing to do with that of passion.” Passion Simple is about the failure of form and genre to capture the obsessive encounter—something always escapes. The problems of passion become problems of writing. This is also probably why I was drawn to the text: it demystifies both sex and writing.
Ernaux grew up working class in Yvetot, Normandy. After publishing three novels, she broke through to wider acclaim with two exquisitely sensitive works about the life and death of her parents: La place (1983) and Une femme (1988). Ernaux begins to set words to paper because writing is the only thing she can do in her mourning, because it now seems to her “that I write about my mother because it is now my turn to bring her into the world.” Ernaux’s voice is measured: flat, but not quite affectless. Following the shattering loss of her parents, Ernaux strives for balance between feeling and reporting, writing with almost sociological objectivity.
The term that sometimes gets applied to Ernaux’s work is autofiction, though she refuses it. There is no fiction in works like La place, Une femme, or Passion Simple. Autofiction is a hybrid of fiction and autobiography that was codified by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977: “Fiction of strictly real events or facts; the autofiction, if you like, of having entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside the wisdom of the novel, be it traditional or new.” Doubrovsky’s sense of autofiction produces the self within language, rather than within an approved genre; it brings form out of voice. Ernaux is interested in the truth of experience, whatever form that might take, and this is what sets her work apart from autobiography or conventional memoir. She is more aligned with writers like Catherine Cusset, who argues that “the only fiction in autofiction is the work on language. The facts are real, and the project is to reach a certain truth.” Another practitioner of autofiction, Christine Angot, prefers to call it the roman en je—a novel in the key of I, you might say, or, in a French play on words, a novel in the key of play [jeu]. Angot distinguishes this roman en je from the autobiographical novel which does not “work from objectivity, isolating it like a chemical”; the autobiographical writer takes the I as a game, one that pretends that making form into plot brings the “real into existence.” Autofiction, on the contrary, has the same goal—to “faire exister le réel”—but tries to break the story in order to do so.
Passion Simple was the first time I’d encountered autofiction (if that’s what it is). It was so liberating: you could, as a writer, be straightforward, write like you speak, leave the question of genre open and ambiguous. But autofiction isn’t without its detractors, and neither is Ernaux. Passion Simple inspired at least two male critics to write their own books in response, Philippe Vilain’s L’Etreinte (1997), and Alain Gérard’s Madame, c’est à vous que j’écris (1995). Siobhan McIlvanney, in her study of Ernaux’s work, argues that Gérard’s work “can be interpreted as an endeavor to undermine the female narrator’ s narrative dominance.” Gérard assumes the role of Ernaux’s absent lover, and castigates her for her transgression of writing about their affair: “we’d promised each other to never reveal our secret.” As Elizabeth Richardson Vitti points out, this is a direct refutation of Ernaux’s formal decision to use “reportage to describe impersonally the impact of their relationship on her.” Gérard “passionately targets his former lover who to his mind has misrepresented their relationship.” Gérard no doubt saw himself as playfully entering the game of the roman en jeu. But, as we well know, the critical stakes are not the same for men as they are for women when it comes to writing the self. Where he creates a lucid, inventive world, she is told she cannot see beyond her own navel.
There is the question, still, of Ernaux’s own disavowal of the term, as if admitting to any fiction at all in her work would dilute its power. Is autofiction, then, as the critic Marie-Josée Roy asks, a “bad genre?” The term mauvais genre, in French, has all kinds disreputable connotations, from the low genres of fantasy, science fiction, or the detective novel to the taint of doing something tacky, or trashy, something not comme il faut. And of course, genre in French can translate to gender as well. The notion that to write autofiction might be to write “bad genre” carries all kinds of implications for voice-based, female-oriented autofiction. For a woman, to write the mauvais genre is to open yourself up to being seen as the wrong kind of woman, and the wrong kind of writer.
If so, so be it; there is great pleasure, and great tonality, in doing genre and gender the “wrong” way. Good voice work doesn’t ask you to sing in some approved style; it invites you to sing as only you can. In print, there is no objective test of pitch or key, the only truth is in how it strikes the reader.
My encounter with Ernaux marks the beginning of my life as a writer. I work across genres, often in the same text; I write across languages, moving from French to English and back again. It’s thanks to Ernaux that I have the courage to write in my second language, that I write the world from my body outward, that I attempt to make language from the adventure of my experience. I tune myself to Ernaux every time I write, sometimes without realizing it. I keep Passion Simple nearby; I don’t touch it too often. But sometimes it’s enough just to look at a page. My eye strikes it, and the circles of tone it releases set my own writing into key; they help me find the gaps between my own words, and let them stay there. The brain is a sex organ like any other, Ernaux reminds us in Passion Simple. But it is also a musical instrument. We train ourselves to our obsessions, and they vibrate within us.
This essay is adapted from the forthcoming anthology Under the Influence (Gorse Editions), edited by Joanna Walsh
Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. She lives in Paris.