The Young Man
Annie Ernaux, the 2022 Nobel Prize-winning writer, was a single woman in her fifties when she began an affair with a university student 30 years her junior who had written asking to meet her. She hoped the affair would serve as a catalyst for a book she wished to write but had long postponed. She wrote the book during the affair, and when it was completed she ended the relationship. Subsequently she wrote The Young Man.
Her brief account (around 7,000 words) is reflective rather than descriptive. We learn nothing about the physical appearance of her lover, and very little about his behavior, nor does she provide a picture of him. (There are, however, several pictures of her.) We learn that he is from a working class background similar to her own, and that he is fiercely possessive of her, a dependency she both enjoys and exploits. She cherishes their affair because it temporarily removes her from the flow of time, allowing her to live her life as a kind of fiction divorced from the social reality around them.
She dwells on scenes that capture their isolation from the herd—stares from other beachgoers as they lie together on the sand, disapproving looks from fellow café patrons, knowing smiles from other intergenerational couples. Ernaux enters her lover’s world, meeting his friends, watching football with him on TV, sleeping with him on a mattress in his shabby apartment. But their relationship proceeds on her terms. She initiated it, she subsidized it so they could travel, and she chose the time to end it.
Reading this brief memoir—their relationship lasted two years—one is reminded of the diaries of Anaïs Nin, another woman who defied sexual norms (to the point of incest with her father) as a way to generate material for her writing. It’s not clear from Ernaux’s account that she loved A. It appears likely that she used him for a life experiment she could enjoy in the present and write about in the future. This may explain both the impulsiveness with which she began their relationship and the abruptness with which she ended it. He had served her purpose.
Ernaux admits as much when she writes, “with A., I felt as if I were reenacting scenes and actions already past—from the play of my youth. Or indeed as if I were writing/living a novel whose episodes I was constructing with care.”
We learn nothing about A’s fate after their relationship ended, other than that he moved from Rouen to Paris. The affair and the memoir it produced are entirely centered on the writer. This may strike some readers as cruel and selfish. Others may admire her independence, her skill with language, her defiance of gender stereotypes, and her candor.
The Young Man raises provocative questions about the relationship between life and art, as well as about a writer’s obligations to her human subject. Art, whatever form it takes, is always grounded in life and seeks to illuminate it. Does art transgress life if it merely appropriates it for use as a sacrifice? For surely Ernaux sacrificed A’s fascination with her on the altar of her art.
What are we to make of an artist who looks upon another human being—a youthful subordinate at that—as raw material for a personal project or as a stimulus to her creativity? This question has been raised before, notably about Truman Capote’s use of Perry Smith’s life for his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood.
Ernaux seems aware of the shaky moral ground on which her slender memoir rests. She writes, “Our relationship could have been considered from the perspective of mutual gain. He gave me pleasure and made me relive things I would never have imagined experiencing. That I treated him to trips and saved him from looking for a job that would have made him less available to me seemed a fair arrangement, a good deal, especially since it was I who set the rules.”
Here we have love, not as “the marriage of true minds,” but as a transaction, “a good deal.” It would be interesting to know A’s perspective on their arrangement. Maybe he can write a memoir, too.