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Issue 208

Annie Ernaux Revisits Simone de Beauvoir’s Old Age

Q. What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do? A. Raising goats

BY ​Annie Ernaux in Interviews , Questionnaires | 09 DEC 19

Hans Baldung Grien, Death and the Maiden, 1517. Courtesy: © Wikimedia Commons 

What images keep you company in the space where you work?

In the office where I work, on the shelves, there are photos of my family, from my grandmother to my grandchildren, and a portrait of Albert Camus. Also, postcards of various paintings, which change over time. Right now, there is Hans Baldung Grien’s Death and the Maiden (1517) and Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday (1942).

What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

It’s very difficult to answer that question. I had never seen an exhibition, never visited a museum, until I was 20. As a child, I looked at reproductions in the dictionary, I remember being fascinated by Auguste Rodin’s sculptures The Thinker (1880) and The Kiss (1882). At 19, I began to buy art books, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh.

If you could live with only one piece of art what would it be?

Perhaps The Newborn Child (1645–48) by Georges de La Tour, which depicts the Virgin holding baby Jesus while Saint Anne illuminates him with a candle. But the painting is less religious than it is universal: it represents every birth and the light is supernaturally beautiful.

What do you wish you knew?

How to play a musical instrument. It seems to me that I would find a sense of peace in that, an expansiveness of being, which I don’t get from writing.

What is your favourite title of an artwork?

The Nostalgia of the Infinite (c.1913) by Giorgio de Chirico. 

What should stay the same?

Beautiful landscapes and everything that brings happiness, such as art. Change everything else, the capitalism that is destroying the planet, the consumerism it creates, social injustice, etc.

What music are you listening to?

I am listening to lots of early music (from before the end of the 18th century) such as André Campra, Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly Saint Matthew Passion (1727). I always enjoy listening to Leonard Cohen, The Beatles. I spend less time with songs than I used to.

What are you reading?

The Wall (1963) by Marlen Haushofer, the story of a woman who lives in a mountain valley with only animals for company. It’s an anti-Robinson Crusoe (1719). I am re-reading Simone de Beauvoir’s Old Age, which I first read when it came out in 1970. Now my understanding of it is very different.

What do you like the look of?

A face. A tree 

Translated by Amy Sherlock

This article first appeared in frieze issue 208

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).