Pretty Girl with Bad Hair

I passed the theater and saw a sign for a new play, called Closed Today

Odette England, Without Me #22, from the series Photos of Me Without Me. 2011, original unique snapshot, 3.5" square, hand-cut. Courtesy of the artist (odetteengand.com) and Klompching Gallery, New York

The following is an excerpt from Annie Ernaux’s novel A Girl’s Story, out next week from Seven Stories Press.

There are no photos of her from the summer of 1958.

Not even one on her eighteenth birthday, which she celebrated at the camp, the youngest of all the group leaders. Because it was her day off, she’d had time to go into town for bottles of spar­kling wine, sponge fingers and Chamonix orange biscuits, but only a handful of people had stopped by her room for a drink and a snack, and quickly disappeared. Perhaps she was already considered unfit company or simply devoid of interest, having brought neither records nor a phonograph to camp.

Of all the people she saw each day at the camp at S, in the Orne, in the summer of ’58, do any remember that girl? Prob­ably not.

They forgot her as they forgot each other when they dis­banded at the end of September, returned to their lycées, teachers colleges, nursing and PE schools, or joined the squad in Algeria, most of them content to have spent their holidays in a manner both financially and morally rewarding by taking care of children. But she, no doubt, was forgotten more quickly, like an anomaly, a breach of common sense, a form of chaos or absurdity, which it made no sense to tax their memories with. She is absent from their memories of the summer of ’58, which today may be reduced to blurry silhouettes in a formless set­ting, or to the painting Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night, their favorite joke of the summer, along with Closed Today (“I passed the theater and saw a sign for a new play, called Closed Today”).

She has vanished from their consciousness, the intertwined perceptions of the others who were there that summer in the Orne. Vanished from the minds of those who assessed acts and behaviors, the seductive power of bodies, of her body, who judged and rejected her, shrugged their shoulders or rolled their eyes when someone said her name, itself the object of a pun invented by a boy who strutted about repeating, Annie, what does your body say, Annie, qu’est-ce que ton corps dit? (Annie Cordy the singer, ha ha!).

Permanently forgotten by the others, who have melted into French society (or society someplace else), married, divorced, or single, retired, grandparents with gray or tinted hair: beyond recognition.

I too wanted to forget that girl. Really forget her, that is, stop yearning to write about her. Stop thinking that I have to write about this girl and her desire and madness, her idiocy and pride, her hunger and her blood that ceased to flow. I have never managed to do so.

There were always references to her in my journal—“the girl of S,” “the girl of ’58.” For the last twenty years, I have jotted “’58” among my other book ideas. It is the perpetually missing piece, always postponed. The unquantifiable hole.

I have never gotten beyond a few pages, except for one year when the calendar precisely coincided with that of 1958. On Saturday, August 16, 2003, I began: “Saturday, August 16, 1958. I bought jeans for 5,000 francs from Marie-Claude, who paid 10,000 at Elda in Rouen, and a sleeveless jersey with blue and white horizontal stripes. It is the last time I will have my body.” I worked every day, writing quickly and trying to make the date of writing match the corresponding date in 1958, the details of which I recorded pell-mell, as they came to me. It was as if this uninterrupted, daily anniversary writing were the kind best suited to purging the interval of forty-five years, as if this “day-for-day” approach gave me access to that summer in a way as simple and direct as walking from one room to the next.

Very soon I fell behind in my recording of the facts. The stream of words and images ran riot, branching off in all direc­tions. I was unable to seal time from the summer of ’58 into my 2003 diary—it constantly burst the sluices. The further I advanced, the more I felt that I was not really writing. I could plainly see that these pages of inventory would have to change form, but how exactly I did not know. Nor did I try to find out. Deep down, I remained steeped in the pleasure of unwrapping memory after memory. I refused the pain of form. After fifty pages, I stopped.

Over ten years have passed, eleven summers that raise to fif­ty-five the number of years that have elapsed since the summer of ’58, with wars, revolutions, and explosions at nuclear power stations, all in the process of being forgotten.

The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them. I am haunted by the idea that I could die without ever having written about “the girl of ’58,” as I very soon began to call her. Someday there will be no one left to remember. What that girl and no other experienced will remain unexplained, will have been lived for no reason.

No other writing project seems to me as—I wouldn’t say luminous, or new, and certainly not joyful, but vital: it allows me to rise above time. The thought of “just enjoying life” is unbearable. Every moment lived without a writing project resembles the last.

To think I am the only one to remember, which I believe to be the case, enchants me. As if I were endowed with a sovereign power, a clear superiority over the others who were there in the summer of ’58, bequeathed by the shame I felt about my desires, my insane dreams in the streets of Rouen, my blood that ceased to flow at eighteen, as if I were an old woman. I am endowed by shame’s vast memory, more detailed and impla­cable than any other, a gift unique to shame.

I realize that the object of the above is to sweep away any­thing that holds me back, stands in my way, and keeps me from progressing, like something in a bad dream. A way to neutralize the shock of beginning, of taking the plunge, as I am about to do, and reunite with the girl of ’58 and the others, put them back where they were in the summer of a year when 1914 was more recent than 1958 is in relation to today.

I look at the black-and-white ID photo, glued inside the academic performance booklet issued by the Saint-Michel d’Yvetot convent school for the baccalauréat in classics, Section C. The face, in three-quarter profile, is of smooth contours, a straight nose, slightly prominent cheekbones, a high forehead partially covered (possibly in order to reduce its height, though the effect is a little odd) by frizzy bangs on one side and a kiss curl on the other. The rest of the dark brown hair is pulled up and back into a bun. There is just a hint of a smile, which could be described as gentle, or sad, or both. A dark sweater with a mandarin collar and raglan sleeves creates the austere and flattering effect of a cassock. All in all, a pretty girl with bad hair, who emanates a sort of gentleness (or is it indolence?), and who, today, we might say looks “older than her age,” which is seventeen.

The longer I gaze at the girl in the photo, the more it seems that she is looking at me. Is this girl me? Am I her? For me to be her, I would have to

  • be able to solve a physics problem and a quadratic equation in math
  • read the whole novel inserted in Bonnes Soirées magazine each week
  • dream of going to a real party—a sur-pat—at last!
  • support the continuation of French Algeria
  • feel my mother’s gray eyes follow me everywhere
  • not yet have read Beauvoir, Proust, Virginia Woolf, et cetera.
  • be called Annie Duchesne.

Of course, I would also need to be oblivious to what the future holds, to the events of the summer of ’58, and to develop instant and total amnesia with regard to my own history and that of the world.

The girl in the picture is not me, but nor is she a fictional cre­ation. There is no one else in the world I know in such vast and inexhaustible detail, which allows me to assert, for example, that

  • to have her ID photo taken, she went to the photographer’s studio on the Place de la Mairie with her great friend Odile, one afternoon during the February break
  • the corkscrew curls on her forehead are produced by rollers she pins into her hair at night, and the softness of her gaze is the result of myopia—she has removed her spectacles with their Coke-bottle lenses
  • at the left corner of her mouth is a claw-shaped scar, invisible in the photo, the result of falling on a bottle shard at age three
  • her sweater is from Delhoume, a dry goods wholesaler in Fécamp that supplies her mother’s shop with socks, school supplies, cologne, et cetera, whose traveling salesman appears twice a year with cases of samples he unpacks on one of the café tables, always the same fat salesman in a suit and tie who got her hackles up the day he remarked that she had the same name as the popular songstress Annie Cordy, who sings “La fille du cow-boy.”

And so on, ad infinitum.

No one besides this girl so thoroughly fills my memory. And I have no other memory but hers with which to represent the world of the fifties, the men in duffel coats and Basque berets, the front-wheel drives, the song “Étoile des neiges,” the crime of Father Uruffe, Fausto Coppi and the Claude Luter Orchestra, with which to see things and people in the light of their original reality, the reality of then. The girl in the picture is a stranger who imparted her memory to me.

Yet I cannot say I have nothing in common with her now, or with the person she will become the following summer, judging from the violent distress I felt on reading The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese and Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, and on seeing the following films, whose titles I felt the need to list before starting to write:

  • Wanda, Love Is My Profession, Sue Lost in Manhattan, Girl with a Suitcase, and After Lucia,

which I just saw last week.

When I watch these films, it’s as if I were abducted by the girl onscreen and were no longer the woman I am today but the girl from the summer of ’58. She overtakes me, stops the flow of my breath, and for a moment makes me feel I no longer exist outside of the screen.

This girl of 1958, who from a distance of fifty years is able to resurface and provoke my interior collapse, must have a hidden, indomitable presence inside me. If the real is that which acts, produces effects, as in the dictionary definition, this girl is not me but is real inside me—a kind of real presence.

This being the case, am I to dissolve the girl of ’58 and the woman of 2014 into a single “I”? Or proceed in a way that is, if not the most precise (a subjective evaluation), certainly the most adventurous, that is, to dissociate the former from the latter through the use of “she” and “I,” in order to present the facts and deeds to the furthest possible degree, and go about it in the cruelest possible way: in the manner of people we hear talking about us through a door, referring to us as she or he, which makes us feel we are dying on the spot.

Even without a photo, I can see her, Annie Duchesne, step off the train at S in the early afternoon of August 14. Her hair is in a high French twist. She wears a navy blue car coat—her beige wool loden from two years before, cut shorter and dyed—and a pencil skirt in thick tweed—also resized—with a striped sailor jersey. She carries a gray suitcase, bought new six years earlier for a trip to Lourdes with her father, never used since, and a blue-and-white plastic bucket bag, bought the week before at the market in Yvetot.

The rain that lashed the windows of their compartment throughout the trip has stopped and the sun has come out. She is too warm in her loden coat and thick winter skirt. I see a middle-class girl from the provinces, tall and robust, of bookish appearance, in handmade clothes of durable, good-quality fab­rics.

Next to her I see the shorter, squarer form of a woman in her fifties, whom one could describe as “respectable-looking,” in a skirt suit, permed auburn hair, head held high with an air of authority. I see my mother, her expression a mixture of anxiety, suspicion, and discontent, her habitual air of a mother “keeping an eye out for trouble.”

I know what the girl is feeling at this moment, what she desires more than anything: for her mother to make herself scarce, get back on the train, and disappear home. She seethes with shame and resentment at being seen with her mother, who has refused to let her travel alone (so she says) on account of a train change in Rouen. She resents being brought to camp like a little kid, when in just two weeks she turns eighteen and has been hired as a camp instructor.

I see but do not hear her. There exists no recording of my voice of 1958, and the words we ourselves speak are transcribed by memory unvoiced. Impossible to say if I still spoke with a drawling Norman cadence, the accent I must have thought myself rid of, in comparison with my forebears.

What can I say about this girl, who, just before the driver for the camp pulls up to the station, rushes toward the vehicle, kissing her mother on the fly to thwart her obvious intent to follow? Leaves her standing on the pavement with a look of chagrin on her face rubbed bare of powder by the hours of travel, and the girl could not care less. Nor does she care when told of the night the mother spent in a Caen hotel for lack of an evening train to Rouen. She no doubt feels it serves her mother right: all she’d had to do was let her travel to S alone.

What, then, can we say about the girl that captures her just as she was on that August afternoon, beneath the shifting skies  of the Orne, oblivious to what will forever be behind her in just three days? The girl as she was at that inconsequential moment, lost to time for over fifty years.

What can we say, not as an explanation (or not only an expla­nation) of what will come to pass and may not have come to pass had she not removed her spectacles and unpinned her hair so it tumbled loose over her shoulders, though actions such as these are quite predictable, at a safe remove from maternal supervision?

What immediately comes to mind is: She is all desire and pride. And:

  • She is waiting to fall madly in love.

—Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer

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