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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir


Annie Ernaux

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To purchase Happening

Title: Happening
Author: Annie Ernaux
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 95 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Happening - US
Happening - UK
Happening - Canada
L'Evénement - Canada
L'Evénement - France
El acontecimiento - España
  • French title: L'Evénement
  • First published 2000
  • Translated by Tanya Leslie

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Our Assessment:

B+ : stark, well-presented personal story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A+ 8/2/2019 Catherine Taylor
Irish Times . 16/2/2019 Niamh Donnelly
Libération A 23/3/2000 .
The LA Times A 30/9/2001 S.S. Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. A 28/10/2001 Emily Eakins
The Observer . 17/3/2019 Arifa Akbar
TLS . 26/7/2019 Kate Webb
The Village Voice A 13/11/2001 Joy Press

  From the Reviews:
  • "Exquisitely brief, there is nothing rushed about this book. Ernaux is working through the most personal of painful realisations: the undesired metamorphosis of her own body and what she is permitted to do with it. (...) Universal, primeval and courageous, Happening is a fiercely dislocating, profoundly relevant work -- as much of art as of human experience. It should be compulsory reading." - Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

  • "Ernaux’s work is important. Not just because of her subject matter, but because of the way she hands it over: the subtle contradictions; her dispassionate stoicism, mixed with savagery; her detailed telling, mixed with spare, fragmented text." - Niamh Donnelly, Irish Times

  • "Sa propre histoire, recréée à travers la prose, est offerte en partage, comme un document qui transcenderait l'individualité à force d'intimes précisions. (...) Parce qu'attention, il faut savoir que l'Evénement contient quelque chose d'absolument extraordinaire, qui ne peut se produire qu'avec la méthode d'Annie Ernaux." - Libération

  • "In Happening, Ernaux marches her army toward memory, the memory of an abortion she had in 1963." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The LA Times

  • "As subject matter goes, little could be more inherently provocative. Ernaux's take is all the more so for being unabashedly philosophical rather than moral." - Emily Eakins, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ernaux (...) writes with clear, controlled precision that is as vivid as it is devastating to read, and which connects the pain and indignity of her experience to class, power and patriarchy." - Arifa Akbar, The Observer

  • "This is a more conventional autobiography, being a personal story about an abortion the author had as a young woman. But it foreshadows The Years in several ways, not least in its final epiphany that an experience which was once confined to the margins -- regarded as private and shameful -- might become, through writing, legible and even liberating." - Kate Webb, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ernaux connects her experience to the wider world of class and religion and law, resulting in a startling, unusual portrait of how a vagina really lives in the world." - Joy Press, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Happening is yet another retelling of a piece of Annie Ernaux's past -- a not entirely unfamiliar one at that, as she describes her abortion when she was a student (the subject of her earlier novel, Cleaned Out (see our review)) It goes beyond merely introspective fiction, but it is not a straightforward memoir either: Ernaux has made an art of the remembering and picking apart of her life. Happening is also a specifically literary examination of this episode from her life.
       The book begins with a contemporary scene, with Ernaux again seeking out medical attention regarding an issue arising from engaging in sex: she is worried that she may have been infected with the AIDS-virus. From there she turns back to 1963-4, when she was a university student in Rouen and got pregnant. At that time in France abortion was still illegal and arranging one a complicated and dangerous undertaking. Ernaux describes the entire episode -- from discovering she is pregnant to the time after the abortion -- calmly recounting the facts and details, as well her own state of mind throughout (and the lingering emotional toll of the episode).
       From the beginning there is no question for Ernaux about keeping the child. She writes about the foetus: "It became a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs." Getting rid of it isn't easy in the France of that time, and Ernaux has little idea of how to go about it. She tries to enlist help and solicit advice, but few people are able to be particularly helpful. Eventually she is successful, and she describes the disconcerting procedure and the aftereffects.
       It is a difficult, emotional subject. It is difficult to write about: "This thing had no place in language", she admits. It is also something she feels compelled to record, even so long (nearly four decades) after the fact, going so far as to state about writing this account:

(...) 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 male supremacy.
       (Note that most of the book is, however, not so overly programmatic.)
       Happening is also a text about remembering -- and about writing. Throughout the book Ernaux strews parenthetical asides, questioning her own words, wondering about memory (and the gaps in her own memory), explaining how and why she approaches her subject as she does.
       The purely literary is also always present. Throughout the book she wonders about the presentation of the material, of how one deals in writing with such a happening, of how one recalls and reshapes it. Happening is itself like an abortion, she realizes, and when she releases it it will become public, completely beyond her control. "I shall have no more power over my text", she realizes.
       Happening is also a coming of age novel. More than having sex, having the abortion was clearly an initiation into adulthood for Ernaux. She can't turn to her parents for help (indeed, she goes on at some length about how she keeps the information from her), but must solve this problem for herself. The man who got her pregnant is also of no help: Ernaux isn't entirely alone, but she must turn elsewhere. She is determined, and even though it is a difficult step she is able to take it.

       Abortion remains a terribly touchy subject. Happening is in many ways a neutral novel about it (Ernaux trying to preserve a neutrality to her tone, though not always succeeding). There are some unpleasant descriptions here (a few very graphic details), but overall the presentation is very good (as almost always with Ernaux). A very brief book, Happening is certainly a worthwhile little text. It does stand on its own, but it is also a piece that gains from being seen in relation to Ernaux's entire oeuvre, another facet of her large life-tapestry.

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Happening: Reviews: Annie Ernaux: Other books by Annie Ernaux under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Annie Ernaux was born in Normandy in 1940. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2022.

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