Annie Ernaux’s work is proof of how expertly autobiography can be done. Across more than 20 books, the Nobel prize winner seems to have subjected every sentence to the literary equivalent of a polygraph test. Is it true? Is it the simplest and most direct way to say what is meant? Is it persuasive? Among the admirable results of her method are memoirs that manage to be at once tender, loving, clear-eyed and unsparing, sentences that seem effortless even when we can easily imagine how painful they must have been to set down on the page.
Her best-known works fall into three broad categories. Some, most notably A Man’s Place, focus on her childhood in a small town in northern France, where the solidly working-class values of her parents, who ran a grocery-cafe, made it complicated for their daughter to move into a bourgeois milieu that involved writing and eventually celebrity. Other books recount her difficult coming of age: university, teaching, undergoing an illegal abortion, getting married, having children. Then there are those that focus on her love affairs: Simple Passion recounts an obsessive relationship with a married Russian diplomat, a fraught and highly charged episode that she revisits in Getting Lost.
Her new book, The Young Man, elegantly translated by Alison L Strayer, begins with a sentence that typifies Ernaux’s style and method: “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.” She is 54; he, identified only as A, is 30 years her junior. He breaks up with his girlfriend, and she begins spending weekends at his apartment in Rouen, where she went to university. As in so much of Ernaux’s work, an affair becomes a vehicle for considering more than just sex: social class, age, time, memory, power, life and death. But unlike the earlier books in which Ernaux effectively surrenders her autonomy and becomes obsessed with a man’s moods and whims, arrivals and departures, this time, she says, “I was in a dominant position.” She is put in touch with the person she once was – with the best and worst aspects of her own youth. When strangers look disapprovingly at her and A, she enjoys the advantages that, she feels, have long accrued to older men with younger girlfriends. “When A’s face was before me, mine was young too. Men have known this forever, and I saw no reason to deprive myself.”
The affair ends without the drama and grief that often follow breakups elsewhere in her oeuvre. Attentive readers will note that its demise is prefigured in the opening pages. “Often I have made love to force myself to write … Perhaps it was the desire to spark the writing of a book – a task I had hesitated to undertake because of its immensity – that prompted me to take A home after dinner at a restaurant.” Reconnected with her past through her romance with A, she begins a book about her backstreet abortion. The further into the writing she gets, the more convinced she is that she must leave him, until “the breakup coincided, give or take a few weeks, with the book’s completion”.
I’m not entirely sure that those new to Ernaux’s work will want to begin with this book. To be honest, The Young Man is, quite literally, a bit thin: the story of the writer’s romance with A occupies only 30 or so pages; it’s followed by a section of photographs of Ernaux as a young woman, posed with her parents and children, and a brief factual autobiography. I’d start with The Years, which provides a deeper and fuller immersion into her personal history and literary voice. But The Young Man does offer a taste of what’s so unique and astonishing about her honesty, her intelligence, the deceptive simplicity of her narratives. And for those who have been reading her for decades, it adds invaluable information to what we have already learned about the sources of her energy and courage, about the complex connections between her life and her work, her lived experience and the grace with which she transforms memory into art.
• The Young Man by Annie Ernaux is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£6.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.