Friday, August 23, 2019

Annie Ernaux / At the age of 78 one of France’s great writers is finally wowing the English-speaking world

Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux: at the age of 78 one of France’s great writers is finally wowing the English-speaking world

Beth Daley
APRIL 9, 2019

It was 1974 when the French writer Annie Ernaux published her first book, Les Armoires Vides (Cleaned Out). It is a fictionalised account of her illegal abortion ten years earlier, as a student gradually moving away from a working-class upbringing in Normandy. The book came out 25 years after Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist text The Second Sex, yet French society remained judgemental – and often hypocritical – about women’s reproductive rights. Cleaned Out acknowledged the many working-class women who had to resort to clandestine, often life-threatening procedures before the laws were changed in 1975.
From the beginning, Ernaux’s stark prose helped establish her as an uncompromisingly honest writer. In the 1980s and 1990s, she would rise to greater prominence through autobiographical works such as La Place (A Man’s Place), an account of her father’s life, which won her the Renaudot Prize in 1984. She is now seen as one of France’s major writers and her texts are widely taught in schools and universities.
But, until very recently, she was unknown to most of the English-speaking world. That is changing thanks to two recent translations. Les Années (The Years, 2008) is a “collective autobiography” spanning six decades of personal and collective history, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. In L'Événement (Happening, 2000), Ernaux returns to the subject of illegal abortion, but this time tells her own non-fictionalised story.

Two memoirs

The Years gained almost unanimous recognition when it was published. It sits at the junction between autobiography, sociology and collective memoir, highlighting the profound socio-cultural changes that Ernaux witnessed from her childhood in the 1940s to the end of the century. The book was praised for its original narrative form, using “she” or “we” instead of “I” to tell Ernaux’s story.

The Years, 2008.

To trace the inescapable passing of time, The Years draws in everything from popular phrases to songs to advertisements, from iconic objects to historical events to personal anecdotes. Along the way, the book tells the evolution of women’s place in French society and their fights for sexual freedom and independence.
When Happening was published in 2000, the French media reacted much more cautiously. It is likely that some critics were not comfortable with the subject matter and the raw style of writing. Here’s an extract, for example, about the woman carrying out the abortion:
Only now can I visualise the room. It defies analysis. All I can do is sink into it. I feel that the woman who is busying herself between my legs, inserting the speculum, is giving birth to me. At that point I killed my own mother inside me.
Ernaux has said that part of her intention with the book was to lift the lid on what the French abortion laws had meant in practice:
Although abortion was mentioned in many novels, no details were given about what actually took place. There was a sort of void between the moment the girl learns she is pregnant and the moment it’s all over.

Happening, 2000. Wikimedia

With precision, but without pathos, Happening details the prevailing atmosphere of moral judgement of 1960s France – and Ernaux’s isolation and despair at a time when the word abortion “had no place in language”. She describes the gruesome conditions in which she nearly died: after finally finding a back-street abortionist, Ernaux had a probe inserted and was told it would cause her to miscarry in a few days. This then happened at her student residence and she was taken to hospital with a haemorrhage.
Happening is not only an account of this intrinsically physical, traumatic and personal experience. It is also about society’s attitudes to women at the time – particularly working-class women – explored through the reactions of various men to her predicament. The father of the unborn child, a middle-class student at the Sciences Po university in Bordeaux, leaves her to her own devices. Doctors show her little sympathy for fear of the laws of the time.

Ernaux in the 1960s. Inventoire

Male students that she talks to are fascinated by her “condition”, and one even tries to take advantage in the knowledge that there’s no danger of getting her pregnant. Having been admitted to hospital, Ernaux is humiliated by a junior doctor, who on seeing her bleeding shouts that he’s “no plumber”. When he discovers that she is a university student, he becomes much more sympathetic.
Nearly 20 years after it was originally published, Happening has come to be seen as a landmark piece of writing about abortion. The text is now often mentioned during debates on the subject. Last year, for instance, on the day of the Irish abortion referendum, the radio station France Culture devoted a feature to Ernaux.

Distasteful truths

Ernaux acknowledges in Happening that “this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful”. The same could be said of much of her other work. Ernaux has written from the same direct perspective about numerous issues not deemed “literary”, including sex, stains, illness, the ageing body, dementia and drunkenness.
Writing is for Ernaux a matter of making lived experience visible, especially that of women – and not taking their rights for granted. As she writes in Happening:
If I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.
Giving a voice to those being silenced lies at the heart of Ernaux’s writings. She spoke of her support for the #MeToo movement in a recent interview, but has also expressed affinity with the gilets jaunes, which she sees as a manifestation of deep social injustice and the elite’s contempt towards the working class and unemployed. This makes her “arrival” in the English-speaking world particularly timely at the age of 78.
When French politician Simone Veil died in 2017, many “merci Simone” tags were left on walls, not least for the crucial role she played in shaping the country’s modern abortion laws. Many readers have written to Ernaux to say “merci Annie” in acknowledgement of her feminist writings. She deserves to be recognised in the international canon of great French writers, and hopefully we are now finally seeing this starting to take place.

The Years by Annie Ernaux review / A masterpiece memoir of French life

The Years by Annie Ernaux review – a masterpiece memoir of French life

A ‘slippery narrative’ that blends personal and public life by one of France’s most lauded writers receives its English translation
Lauren Elkin
Friday 22 June 2018

Annie Ernaux is long overdue to be recognised in Britain as one of the most important writers in contemporary France, and this edition of The Years ought to do the trick. Originally published there in 2008, it was immediately heralded as Ernaux’s masterpiece, her brief Remembrance of Things Past. It has been expertly rendered into English by Alison Strayer, who captures all the shadings of Ernaux’s prose, all its stops and starts, its changes in pace and in tone, its chatterings, its silences.

Annie Ernaux

She shows it is possible to write personally and collectively, situating her own story in the story of her generation
The book spans the timeframe from the author’s birth in 1940 up to 2006, and moves from her working-class upbringing in Normandy to her years teaching French literature in a lycée, living in the Parisian suburb of Cergy, raising two sons and eventually divorcing. But it is not a straightforward autobiography; rather it is told in a choral “we”, which sometimes shifts into the third person, so the author appears as “she”. This is as close in as it gets. In so doing, Ernaux puts paid (hopefully once and for all) to the idea that memoirs by women are about the small-scale, the domestic. She shows it is possible to write both personally and collectively, situating her own story within the story of her generation, without ever confusing the two. She reflects on the book she is writing even as she writes it, resolving: “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if now it were her time to tell the story of the time-before.”“It will be a slippery narrative,” she writes, “composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes.” It is comprised of her own memories, of historical events, of scraps of popular culture, slang, notes on the subtle transformations of the culture. We encounter the war in Algeria, Sartre and De Beauvoir, Edith Piaf’s “Les Amants d’un Jour” (which “gave us goosebumps”), fondue bourguignonne, Agnès Varda’s Le BonheurMay 1968, the pro-abortion rights manifesto of the 343 salopes, nuclear threat, the explosion of consumerism, unemployment, immigration, the advance of technology. Ernaux captures the ineffable passage of time, which she layers like “palimpsests”, in order to express the “lived dimension of history” and, perhaps more crucially, to “give form to her future absence”.
 The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

My favourite Hitchcock film / Psycho by Joe Dunthorne

My favourite Hitchcock film: Psycho by Joe Dunthorne

The horror film that breaks many of the conventions of the genre still retains the power to shock

Joe Dunthorne
Sunday 17 June 2012 00.03 BST

y mother was inflating an airbed in the next room. The foot pump's high-pitched wheezing sounded exactly like the violin stabs in the shower scene from Psycho. Even though I understood that real murders did not generally have soundtracks, my first instinct was there's a killer in the house.

Even before I had seen Psycho, I felt like I'd seen it. But when I first watched it, I was surprised by how much was unfamiliar. There are all these scenes that aren't the shower scene. Almost all of the film, in fact. It's also strange it should be considered one of the archetypal horror films because, in a genre obsessed with fulfilling conventions, Psycho doesn't. Hitchcock kills off Marion, the protagonist, before the halfway mark. When we meet the villain, he's bumbling and likable.
Hitchcock stunned audiences of the day by killing off Janet Leigh's character, Marion, halfway through Psycho.

Much of the film's genius lies in the ambiguous feelings we have towards the main characters. Even when we've seen Norman kill two people – even when he is doing the creepy half-smile and his face is fading into a skull – he's still sympathetic. We are never allowed totally to side with or totally despise anyone. Hitchcock blurs the boundaries between the warped love triangle: Marion is Mother is Norman. Even the sounds of their names overlap.
I once went to hear Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian psychoanalyst, analyse Psycho. He gave a live commentary over the film and, at one point, said: "Marion is a manipulative bitch. I am totally on Norman's side in this interaction." In Zizek's interpretation, the storeys of the Bates motel represent Norman's id (basement), ego (ground floor) and his superego (first floor), where his mother lives. The big moment, then, comes when he carries his mother's body from the superego down to the id.
It's a film that attracts reinterpretation. There was Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993), an installation that slowed the film to two frames per second, which, in turn, inspired Don DeLillo's novel Point Omega. For my contribution to the universe of Psycho spin-offs, I took part in a poetic reinterpretation: Psycho Poetica. I was one of 12 writers each given nine minutes of the film and asked to write a poem to represent that sequence. We didn't get to pick which scene we worked on but we all hoped to cover a murder. I lucked out and got Arbogast's last few moments.

Hitchcock packs a lot in. There's something of a dancer's hips in the way Arbogast climbs the stairs. A knife of light slides across the carpet as the bedroom door creaks open. Then, as though powered by the audience's collective intake of breath, the camera floats up to the ceiling in time to see Mother-Norman dash from the bedroom, the blade glinting. Arbogast floats slowly back down the stairs with the camera contra-zooming, before the knife descends and the cellos let us know it's game over.
When we performed the poems, we dressed in monochrome and were accompanied by Bleeding Heart Narrative, a string quartet, to create a faithful distortion of the original film. It was fascinating to hear snippets of original dialogue happily integrate themselves into new poems. "It's not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes." It felt appropriate to hear the words of Norman Bates, master ventriloquist, in someone else's mouth.
Joe Dunthorne's novel Wild Abandon is published by Penguin

Alfred Hitchcock / Psycho / The Shower

Janet Leight
The Shower 
Psycho (1960) 
by Alfred Hitchcock

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rupert Everett / 'I'd have done anything to be a Hollywood star'

‘I feel thrilled not to be young’ … Rupert Everett at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

Rupert Everett: 'I'd have done anything to be a Hollywood star'

Arifa Akbar
Tuesday 30 July 2019

He lit up the screen in the 80s – but things did not go as planned. As he takes on Chekhov, Everett speaks about stardom, midlife crises and penis padding

upert Everett is directing his first play and a few unfortunate incidents have occurred before opening night. It is David Hare’s new version of Uncle Vanya, in which Everett also stars, and all did not go as planned in its first preview. “In a fight scene I elbowed the leading actor, John Light [who plays Dr Astrov],” says Everett. “He really hurt his eye and had to go to hospital. He came back and then, leaning around the stage with his one eye, he fell off it and really hurt his leg.”

The play’s opening has been pushed back a week, until Light is back on his feet, but if this production returns Chekhov’s 1898 play to the farce that Everett says it was written to be, and not a straightforwardly bleak tale of midlife ennui and angst, then the mishap has an edge of black humour, too.

Rupert Everett' Interview / 'Sex is over. I'm not motivated by it any more'

Rupert Everett

Rupert Everett: 'Sex is over. I'm not motivated by it any more'

Rupert Everett has long been a martyr to his passions, but lately he's had something else on his mind. Victoria Coren, a lifelong fan, joins him for dinner to talk about his excoriating memoirs, his portrayal of Oscar Wilde and his urge to be a serious man

Victoria Coren
Sunday 21 April 2013

Rupert Everett

When Rupert Everett dies, he won't have a funeral. He has given this serious thought.
"I'll go on the bonfire," he says. "That's what I'd like."
At the risk of spoiling his cheerful plan, I feel obliged to point out that it's against the law to put corpses on bonfires.

Rupert Everett / The queen of mean

Rupert Everett: the queen of mean

Rupert Everett's new memoir has landed him in hot water. Again. But he thinks we just need to lighten up

Decca Aitkenhead
Friday 28 September 2012

oor old Rupert Everett thought he'd taken every care to say nothing in his first memoir that could upset his friend Madonna. Then the book came out, she threw a strop and stopped talking to him. His new memoir is less scandalously gossipy, so further fallings-out had looked unlikely – but before its release this week, he was already in hot water again. Everett can't understand it. "What's happened to humour? We're becoming American. Everyone gets so angry over everything."

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Women we love / Natalie Wood

Women we love

Natalie Wood death / Robert Wagner named 'person of interest'

Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood death: Robert Wagner named 'person of interest'

Six years after the reopening of the investigation into the actor’s mysterious death, CBS has learned her husband is a potential suspect

Jake Nevins
Fri 2 Feb 2018 08.19 GMT

Nearly 40 years after Natalie Wood died mysteriously on a boat trip to Santa Catalina Island, investigators have named the actor’s husband Robert Wagner as a person of interest.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators told 48 Hours, the CBS news magazine series, that they intend to speak to Wagner, 87, regarding the circumstances of Wood’s death in 1981.

Natalie Wood / Reinvestigating the mysterious death of a movie star

Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood: reinvestigating the mysterious death of a movie star

Wood drowned in 1981 and almost 40 years later, her husband is a ‘person of interest’ – will we ever know what really happened?

Rory Carroll
Fri 2 Feb 2018

In the TV series Hart to Hart, Robert Wagner played an amateur sleuth who with his wife, played by Stefanie Powers, investigated murder and intrigue among Los Angeles jet-setters.
Poisoning, kidnapping, blackmail, espionage, the golden couple cracked case after case in the ABC series which ran from 1979 to 1984.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Gugu Mbatha-Raw Isn’t Trying to Be Like Anyone Else

Photo: Andre Wagner

Gugu Mbatha-Raw Isn’t Trying to Be Like Anyone Else

By Lindsay Peoples
June 20, 2016

If you look at Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s acting career, it takes a while for a pattern to emerge. She first gained attention at 22 as Juliet opposite Andrew Garfield’s Romeo at the renowned Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. In the criminally overlooked romantic drama Beyond the Lights, by Gina Prince-Bythewood (who made the infamous Love & Basketball over a decade ago), Mbatha-Raw played a struggling pop star. Her “sleeper hit” Belle tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate biracial woman brought up as an orphaned member of her father’s aristocratic family. And in her upcoming Oscar bid, Free State of Jones, she stars alongside Matthew McConaughey as a slave fighting for her freedom.

What all these parts have in common: They’re nuanced and ambitious, roles for someone who’s not content to just be the girlfriend or the wife. She talked with the Cut about forging her own path, making it in Hollywood, and what she’s most grateful for.

Photo: Andre Wagner
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Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s love for the craft of acting comes across immediately in conversation. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was a little girl,” she says. “Coming from dance and theater and what was accessible to me in my hometown, it was all I did after school and on the weekends. The idea of making my hobby into my job was the ultimate quest.” She tells me that, growing up as an only child, her drama buddies were her best friends, adding, “I never wanted to be like anyone growing up. It’s always been about the enjoyment and I’ve just never wanted to imitate anyone.”
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had her mentors: “Watching and learning from the great Josette Bushell-Mingo, who was playing Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra at the time, and then to return to the same stage six months later playing a lead role, was incredible — I fell in love with the poetry and the breadth of the language so much that I didn’t want it to end.” To date, Gugu has done four Shakespeare plays, two of which have led her to Best Actress nominations in the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards.

Photo: Andre Wagner
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Whether she’s doing Shakespeare or Hollywood, Gugu has always held out for compelling parts regardless of the press or budget — or lack thereof. She knew about Belle’s development for eight years and, although she still was acting in other things, held onto her closeness with the character in the faith that she would one day play her.
“I would walk on the weekends to Kenwood House and I had no idea that this biracial aristocrat lived there, so I started to spend a lot of time here. I got the postcard of her portrait and held onto the idea of it becoming a film one day.”

Photo: Andre Wagner
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Gugu says she’s learned surprising practical things from each role — like dancing and choreography for Beyond the Lights, or learning to ride a scooter in Tom Hanks’s Larry Crowne — but she’s also taken emotional life lessons from each experience. “You’ve got to find a way to relate to people. I just did an improvised episode for Joe Swanberg’s new Netflix show, Easy, and it was a huge learning curve for me, and taught me so much about fear and courage. But when you’re present in the moment, the audience, it’s incomparable.”

Photo: Andre Wagner
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And how much does race play into the stories she chooses to tell? Gugu answers unequivocally: “In being a biracial woman, I think that some roles like Belle were written for that, but there’s so many levels of humanity that I can explore. I will always be a biracial woman every day that I get up in the morning, that’s who I am — but that won’t ever prevent me from exploring other people and cultures in my work.”
Her next projects — a space thriller titled God Particle by Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Roxane Gay’s psychologically striking novel, An Untamed State — offer more unlikely ways for Gugu to showcase her range and talent. But before then, there’s her new film, Free State of Joneswhich hits theaters June 24.
Free State of Jones, which also stars Matthew McConaughey, tells the story of an armed rebellion against the Confederacy in Mississippi during the Civil War. Gugu’s character, Rachel Knight, leads a double life — working as a house slave on the plantation by day and traveling by night to the rebel camps in the swamps to bring them information and supplies. It’s incredibly refreshing to see her actively participate in the rebellion instead of waiting on the sidelines.

Photo: Andre Wagner
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Mbatha-Raw says that growing up in the U.K., she had never heard the story of Rachel Knight, and it inspired her to read more about how these poor white farmers and escaped slaves created their own mixed-race community in the South in the 1860s. “It was fascinating for me to discover the agency that these slaves had at the time. Too often are we more familiar with seeing how downtrodden slaves were because of the horrible regime, and instead I saw this woman that was trying to better herself by learning to read, despite it being illegal, and arming herself physically to be part of the rebellion. Just imagining the bravery and their struggle made me feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude.”

Photos by Andre Wagner, makeup by Nick Barose, hair by Lacy Redway, styling by Lindsay Peoples.