Happening, by Annie Ernaux

Happening by Annie Ernaux

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“(Perhaps this description seems irritating or repulsive, or it may be perceived as distasteful. Having experienced something, whatever it is, gives one the inalienable right to write about it. There is no inferior truth. If I don’t recount that experience in detail, I contribute to obscuring the reality of women’s lives and make myself complicit in male domination of the world).”

Annie Ernaux, a 23-year-old student at the time, became unintentionally pregnant in 1963 in what was then arch-conservative, Catholic France and was de facto abandoned by the father of the unborn child. None of the doctors she consulted helped her in any significant way and so she has no choice but to place herself in the hands of a so-called “angel maker”.

“In writing, I sometimes have to resist the urge to lapse into angry or pain-filled lyricism. I don’t want to do in this text what I haven’t done in real life, or only very rarely, scream and cry.”

Ernaux succeeds brilliantly: matter-of-factly and soberly, without dramatising, embellishing or “keeping things under wraps”, she tells of the terrible gauntlet she had to run in order to have an abortion performed on her – illegal at the time – in France.

She is so unsparingly frank that I do not want to quote her here. But it is precisely this openness – for example, the initials of the most important people are used – that makes the text seem completely honest and touched me deeply in places.

“With the appearance of the doctor on call, the second part of the night begins. In place of a pure experience of life and death, there is display and condemnation. He sat on the bed and grabbed my chin: ‘Why did you do that? How did you do that? Answer!””

It is utterly presumptuous, disgusting and downright perverse to put people in such distress by criminalising or stigmatising abortion. Then as now.

Because to this day, abortion is punishable in Germany according to §§ 218 ff. of the Criminal Code and both pregnant women and doctors are threatened with imprisonment or fines. This is a scandal that we have to “thank” the churches and the conservative old men who still in the 21st century think that even education on abortion should be punished as “advertising” for it.

Written in 1999 and published in German only this year (2021), the horror described so unemotionally in this book still reverberates almost 60 (!) years later and arouses, at least for me, all the stronger emotions. That we still have to discuss abortion, that it is still punishable in our country, is actually unbearable.

“I have now finished putting into words what seems to me to be an all-encompassing human experience, an experience of life and death, of time, of morality and taboo, of law, an entirely physical experience.”

Five stars out of five (a verdict that seems almost presumptuous to me) and an urgent reading recommendation (it’s a very short book) for all. Especially for men, especially for politicians….

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