‘Annie’ refers director Eline Arbo with pleasure to the French Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux. “That’s what Annie means.” Or: ‘This is how Annie writes’. Arbo (36) has never met Ernaux (82), but even knows her. She knows her parentage, her loves, her shame; relationship with her body over the years – all that Ernaux has written so candidly and wisely for decades. In ‘Annie’, Arbo recognizes herself as a person and a woman. The stage director is working on a theater version of Ernaux’s magnum opus the years, in cinemas from next week.
Ready for Annie
Before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on 6 October, ‘Annie’ was already singing around in small circles. The woman who has been a writer for half a century was suddenly picked up in the last few years. It started with the English translation of the years (2008), which was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. The Dutch translation was published two years ago, which is in both NRC whose de Volkskrant got five stars. The Flemish newspaper The standard commanded: ‘Meet Annie Ernaux’. In the spring, the film won L’arrangement by Audrey Diwan (42) The Golden Lion in Venice. The film is based on Ernaux’s book of the same name. After a difficult few decades, Ernaux had been praised and rewarded in his own country, but wider recognition and enthusiasm has only existed for about four years. Eline Arbo: ‘It’s as if the world is only now ready for Annie’.
Arbo got the book himself the years Christmas present last year. ‘I was immediately in love, but also in shock. Who is this woman? Why don’t I know this?’ IN the years Ernaux shows half a century of European history through products and clothes, photos, films and news, songs, advertisements and her own memories. the years is about being a woman, sexuality and liberation, but also about class differences and individual opportunities. Ernaux carefully records how time affects a woman’s life, herself and, at the same time, all of us. By following one life, the reader sees the world change. The book is autobiographical and sociological at the same time, private and universal, feminist and humanistic. A French woman’s hyperpersonal story thus becomes a universal biography of post-war Western Europe.
And that is precisely what makes Ernaux’s work for Eline Arbo unique and Ernaux’s breakthrough that is so badly needed. ‘Annie has often been criticized by critics for making ‘women’s books’. Because she talks about the small, human, everyday things, but also because she writes about the female body: about menstruation, pregnancy, abortion, menopause. But books and plays written by men, with a male perspective, have always been taught to be “universal”. Why shouldn’t it apply to the female perspective? I want to show my audience that specific ‘female’ stories and experiences are also universal.’
Incredibly open and fearless
The actress Hannah Hoekstra (35), who plays in the performance the years: ‘Ernaux says: see, I am a man, and so are you. We are very different, our experiences are hyper-personal and yet you probably understand what I mean. She takes an individual’s perspective and extends it across all of humanity, like a membrane that connects us all.’
take Girl remembersthe book that Arbo was reading the years, and what she actually likes even more. In it, Ernaux describes in clinical detail her 1958 defloration and its aftermath. Annie is then 17 years old, very naive and sexually curious, resulting in disillusionment, embarrassment and trauma.
Arbo: ‘On the surface, I think this is very recognizable to many women, at least to me: the shame and uncertainty that comes with puberty and sexual awakening. The discomfort of knowing what your body wants and what is expected of you. Is it okay what I feel, do I owe that man something, can I ask for something in return? At this stage, young women often think they have to perform. Sexual pleasure is then far from self-evident. It’s incredible how openly and fearlessly Annie writes about something so painful and intimate.’
But as personal and specific as it is, beneath the surface this story is about relatable human experiences and emotions, according to Arbo. ‘Discomfort and uncertainty with your first sexual experiences, everyone knows that. As well as feelings of shame, humiliation and desire, and the fear of rejection and exclusion.’
Hannah Hoekstra, sober: ‘I know men who don’t like her work. But I also know women who don’t like it.’
Huge steps in the right direction
In any case, Arbo derives from Ernaux material that was often barely visible in art. She publishes this quote (the performance) the years as an example: ‘We who had abortions in kitchens, who were married and divorced, no longer knew if the women’s revolution had happened. We still saw blood after we turned 50. We were reassured by the regular cadence of time that we could maintain until our death. Compared to our mothers, who were locked in sweat during their menopause, we felt that time was running out.’
Arbo: ‘I’ve never read this anywhere. Never.’ How explicitly Annie writes about blood, about menstruation and menopause. It is still taboo, while they are completely natural phenomena in a woman’s life, and also relevant for the man.’
Hoekstra: ‘The shame we are taught about this! There is still so much embarrassment about what the female body wants and does, please let’s stop it; let’s hear it. I long for a new language to talk about life and the body, and Ernaux takes a giant step in the right direction.’
The performance also features other confrontational scenes drawn from Ernaux’s life and work, such as a plastic and rather dramatic abortion and the sensual sex scene of an older woman with a young lover. It is incredible that Ernaux has been writing about such subjects for half a century, says Hoekstra, and has been vilified or ignored for it. ‘It’s like it’s finally coming together with the times. We are now ready to break these taboos. Our achievements would also like to be an exercise in this.’
Arbo: “These stories were already there. But they are only now being recognized as important literature, as an art subject.”
The zeitgeist inevitably plays a role in this. On the one hand, there is the #MeToo movement and the revival of feminism. On the other hand, the progressive conservatism in, for example, the USA and Hungary, the tightening of abortion legislation, the fight for women’s rights in Iran. The position of women is high on the political agenda.
That makes a book that the years so visionary and still (or again) relevant fourteen years after its appearance, says Arbo. ‘In her book, Annie shows how social developments affect a woman’s life. The invention of the pill e.g. This would have prevented the horrific, life-threatening miscarriage she underwent at the age of 23.’
In the spirit of Annie Ernaux, Arbo investigates the position of women over time in the performance. What achievements are there? Is it getting worse or are we making progress?’ Arbo: ‘By examining where we come from, we can fantasize about where we are going.’
Year of the National Theatre, premiere 3/11, Theater aan het Spui, The Hague, then tour.