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Issue 220

Annie Ernaux: ‘The Young Man of Venice’

A thirty-year-old memory, a one-night stand and an art exhibition featuring this newly translated piece by the prize-winning author

BY ​Annie Ernaux in Books , Features | 28 JUL 21

Since her first book, Les armoires vides (Cleaned Out), was published in 1974, Annie Ernaux has quietly redefined the memoir form. Focusing on different episodes in her life – from her working-class upbringing in Normandy and her college years through her career as a teacher and a writer to the death of her parents – Ernaux’s texts are a constant dialogue between the self of the past and the self of the present. As a memoirist, she seems at once deeply suspicious of the workings of memory and endlessly intrigued by the continuities between the people we were and the people we are. These ongoing re-encounters with the self are not solipsistic, however, but porous – her texts reverberate with the tremors of the age, from the declining powers of Catholicism in postwar France to the fading days of the Cold War, which form the backdrop to an obsessive affair in Passion simple (Simple Passion, 1991). 

The Young Man of Venice describes, with Ernaux’s typical lucidity, the way in which, in certain moments, through certain feelings, the distance between the present and the past collapses. In these brief interludes, we can feel ourselves touching – almost literally – what has happened before. Newly translated by Alison L. Strayer for frieze’s 30th anniversary issue, this piece is a beautiful evocation of how an interval of three decades can disappear with the touch of a hand.  Amy Sherlock

Giardini di San Giorgio Maggiore, 2021. Courtesy: © Giulia Di Lenarda


Just as I was boarding the vaporetto at San Marco, I noticed a young Italian in the white uniform of a naval officer, who was gazing at me intently. Despite my fatigue and my shoes that hurt, I remained standing, indecisive, next to the barrier the steward opens and closes at each stop. The Italian continued to stare at me. I lowered my eyes to the cover of the Venice guidebook I held in my hand. A few moments later, I heard a voice ask me in English if I was German. It was the officer. I answered in French. He spoke French too. Like me, he got off at the Accademia stop and, as we left the vaporetto, he invited me for coffee on the Zattere. His name was Lino.

I had walked all morning in the area of the Arsenale, visited the naval museum and spent several hours at the Aperto exhibition, devoted to the work of young artists. There was a painting from New York of the Pope surrounded by flyers violently attacking his opposition to the use of condoms, another titled La Cicciolina on Her Wedding Night and, most of all, an entire room sponsored by Benetton, covered from top to bottom by photos of penises and vaginas. I had planned to return to my hotel, near the Rio San Trovaso, to change my shoes. However, I agreed to have coffee on the Zattere with the Italian. I must have thought I had plenty of time to get rid of him.

Sagrato di San Giorgio Maggiore, 2021. Courtesy: © Giulia Di Lenarda

On the terrace of the Cucciolo cafe, he told me that he had completed a law degree and was doing his military service in Venice. In December, he would go back home to Rimini. I did not want to ask him his age for fear that he would ask me mine, and had seated myself against the light so the wrinkles on my forehead would be less visible. He said he was surprised that I was a teacher; he had taken me for a journalist, in Venice for the Film Festival, because of my long flat sandals made of leather pierced with holes, like the ones worn by little boys in the 1950s. After a moment’s hesitation, I told him that I also wrote books. I saw from his expression that he did not believe me. I let him accompany me to the bell tower of San Giorgio, where I had planned to go, but later in the afternoon, after a nap, and wearing other shoes.

At the top of the bell tower, in each of the narrow recesses from which you can see the entire lagoon, he was close on my heels. I didn’t know what I wanted. Once we were back down in the square, he suggested that we walk along the quays, behind the church. It is a deserted part of the island, where I had never been before. We walked side by side, without speaking. My mind was empty. He took my hand, and we continued to walk in this way, without speaking or looking at each other.

Gallerie dell’Accademia, 2021. Courtesy: © Giulia Di Lenarda

As soon as the young Italian seized my hand, I fell into a strange state I could not have foreseen a moment earlier – one of turmoil and delight, in which sexual desire had no part. I felt I really was the adolescent of 30 years earlier, panic-stricken, devoid of thought, when a red-faced boy met at the dentist’s office put his arm around my shoulders for the first time, on a deserted street that bordered the cemetery, and we walked for I-don’t-know-how-many metres before he pulled me close and kissed me. Unlike dreams, in which you are in a single period of time, and the past is the present again until the moment you wake up, I felt I was in two different times at once: that of age 17, in Yvetot, Normandy, and this moment, now, in Venice.

I was the same body, with the same sensations, at two times which had come together without merging. On top of the surprise I had felt in the past, just like today’s, of realizing it was me this was happening to, was superposed the surprise of reliving it. Everything that had taken place between these two points of time, my life history, seemed outside of me. That history – studies, travel, marriage, children, teaching, bereavement, the multitude of places travelled, of people met, loved, lost, of books read – had not been cancelled out, but the time, the years it had taken to elaborate, were erased. No doubt, as I thought later, it was that history, precisely, which gave value and pleasure to the moment when I had my fingers intertwined with those of the Italian.

Fondamenta delle Zattere, 2021. Courtesy: © Giulia Di Lenarda

We arrived at a garden. I let myself be pressed against a low wall where a big grey cat was sleeping. He kissed me and caressed my breasts. Suddenly, violently, my own desire was aroused. Then I was in one time only, the present of desire. We agreed to meet in the evening at his place, after his hours of duty in the barracks. 

The next day, at the airport, while waiting for the Nouvelles Frontières flight back to Paris, I replayed the images of the Italian’s naked body, the caresses of the night in his room near Cà Rezzonico, with pigeons cooing under the roof. Most of all, I returned to the moment when he had seized my hand and we walked in the garden of San Giorgio. I remembered, without feeling it again, the unknown and overwhelming sense of being in the present and the past at the same time. It was a discovery made through the body, owing to my passive consent to a standard pick-up manoeuvre, practised by a very ordinary ragazzo and directed at all women, regardless of their age. I felt no shame but, on the contrary, a sense of wonder. Because I always expect life to provide a solution to my writing problems, I felt that this meeting on the vaporetto had suddenly brought me closer to the book I wanted to write. That was 20 years ago. I ended up writing the book. I called it The Years.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 220 with the headline ‘The Young Man of Venice'.

Thumbnail: Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, 2021. All photographs courtesy: © Giulia Di Lenarda

Main image: Bacino San Marco, 2021. Courtesy: © Giulia Di Lenarda

This text appeared for the first time in French in Le Devoir on 16 November 2011.

Translated by Alison L. Strayer.

Annie Ernaux is the author of more than 20 books. Les années (The Years, 2008) won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008 and the Premio Strega in Italy in 2016; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. In 2017, Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work. Later this year, Alison L. Strayer’s translation of her book Se perdre (Getting Lost, 2001) will be published by Seven Stories (USA) and Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK).