In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann asks, ‘Can one … narrate time, time itself? … A story which read “Time passed, it ran on, the time flowed onward” and so forth – no one in his senses could consider that a narrative.’ Yet we are time-bound, as are fictional characters, and Mann decides that he must therefore narrate time, even though this is nonsensical because time is an invisible wrecker of worlds and the past only exists as unreliable memory and vaporous thought. The whole thing is an absurdity, yet Mann struggles on anyway, as do Proust, and Larkin (‘Where can we live but days?), and Woolf and Joyce with their novels of life in a single day and Thomas Bernhard with his novel of life in a single – really stressful – dinner party (Woodcutters). Every writer struggles with this in one way or another. Meanwhile, the answer to Mann’s opening question ends up sounding like cod-Beckett: It can’t be done. It must be done anyway.
This challenge is fundamental to the work of Annie Ernaux. Born in 1940, Ernaux is well known in France for her ‘auto-socio-biographies’, works that combine memoir and social history. Her previous books include La place (1983), Une femme (1987) and La honte (1997), which centres on an incident in which