Book Review

Happening by Annie Ernaux

feeling sad so read a sad book on abortion

This is a stunning book and one I that deserves to be read and read and read.

I recently read a non-fiction book about Catholicism, and so that Christian sect’s ludicrous, un-nuanced attitude towards abortion and contraception was on my mind as I started this 2000 non-fiction piece, Happening (L’Événement) by Annie Ernaux. This 2019 Fitzcarraldo edition contains the same translation (by Tanya Leslie) as the book’s first English language publication in 2001 did, which was initially released by New York indie, Seven Stories Press.

Happening is a powerful work, written in 1999. It is non-fiction, memoir, and opens with the middle-aged narrator/writer visiting an AIDS clinic for the results of a test after the brief rekindling of a bad-idea romance: thankfully, the results are negative, but the situation – nervousness, fear, shame, regret and isolation in a medical space – remind her of an experience she had way back in 1963, when she was an undergraduate and had a back street abortion that didn’t go to plan.


Christ, it’s now two weeks later.

I read this gorgeous fucking book in one fucking sitting as I travelled across the city to go to a museum that turned out to be geared predominantly to children, which chimed quite weightily with my (childless) reading.

I spent 90 minutes or so gloomily taking public transport around a far less exciting city than the one I was reading about: I sat on a bus breathing in Annie Ernaux’s Paris of the 1960s and the fears and dangers of life as a young, pregnant, woman at the time.

Abortion was illegal in France then, and Ernaux had no option (when accidentally pregnant as an undergraduate) but to try and find illegal help.

It’s terrifying how recently this was normal, and how normal it still is in many parts of the world. There are even people – men, usually, dickhead men – who want to return this practice to the mainstream in countries where it (thankfully no longer) isn’t. An unwanted child is more tragic than an abortion, a child whose very existence stops a person from having – or at least trying to have – the life they want (whatever the life they want happens to be) is not a child who will grow into a happy adult.

Abortions will happen: the changes that right-wing dickhead nut-jobs are pushing for won’t result in there being no abortions where once there were abortions, instead safe abortions will become dangerous ones.

I saw a supposedly “neutral” newspaper article earlier today that used the phrase “pro-life” in its headline and I realised how fucking disgraceful it is that the language of the people who are pro-backstreet-abortions is allowed to be used in the mainstream.

Opposing safe, sterile, abortions is not “saving lives”, it is putting people with wombs – poor people and people who are the victims of sexual abuse, not (as these dickheads would have you imagine) people who have abortions every month because they’re more fashionable than condoms – at risk of death, infection, accidental sterilisation, serious injury and potentially owing money to organised criminals. The phrase “pro-life” is a lie, and Happening is an indication and a dramatisation of that fact.

Ernaux writes about the gentle contempt she receives from the doctor who treats her after the complications of the back-street abortion leave her in hospital, and how he later apologises for his rudeness, but not because he was rude, but because he was rude to an undergraduate, someone of his social class.

This doctor didn’t care about treating a young woman poorly, but he did care about holding a middle class intellectual and peer in contempt. In reality, the forces at fault are/were the governments that a) prohibited safe, legal abortions and b) failed to provide adequate sex education in schools to make sure that fewer unwanted pregnancies occur. Thankfully, in many places (though not the North of Ireland and not several parts of the USA), this has changed.


This post is short too (as they all have been recently) because I’m depressed and bored and thinking about this beautiful, but very sad, book is making me feel sad and think about the world too much.

Happening is a beautiful text, the translation is gorgeous and the tone and sense of place and personhood that it evokes is striking. Blending memoir with very clear polemic about the serious need for safe abortions, it is both personal and universal: it is dark and terrifying, but hopeful. Happening is a very short book, less than an hour’s read, but it’s a fucking rollercoaster and, honestly, I feel privileged to have read it. I think I have another Annie Ernaux somewhere in my chest of unread books (yes, I have a chest of unread books (as well as several shelves)) and I think that will sneak its way higher and higher, closer to my readerly gaze.

A very impressive, very important read and I’m sorry that I’m not [currently] in a fit state to write about it more effusively or critically (as in writing about it like a literary critic, I don’t mean I should be slagging it off).

Highly recommended, but what am I reading that I’m not recommending this Summer? Am I getting too generous with my literary praise, again? I think it’s something that happens the more unhappy I am, the more I need to enjoy the books that I read and thus the more I do. I’m not without hope for myself, even if the world is mid-catastrophe.

Bye bye bye bye bye.

ORDER HAPPENING BY ANNIE ERNAUX (TRANS. TANYA LESLIE) DIRECT FROM FITZCARRALDO VIA THIS LINK RIGHT HERE is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

1 comment on “Happening by Annie Ernaux

  1. Pingback: The Years by Annie Ernaux – Triumph Of The Now

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