“Outside, the being that I am fades, records”

Have you ever been offered an exhibition placing one of your books in a context different from that of literature, and opening up a crossroads of disciplines?

Never. I don’t know how I could say “yes” to Lou Stoppard (laughs). His plan to leave Journal from outside and these snapshots of daily life interested me. Because, as I explain in the preface to the Folio edition (1995), I sought with this book to practice a photographic writing of reality, with the desire to provoke the same effect as the photographs taken by Paul Strand of inhabitants of an Italian village, Luzzara (A Paese, 1955).

In your books, you often refer to other works, to writers, to songs… but less to the visual arts. For what ?

Literature and songs are my culture of origin. I read very early. And the radio played constantly in my house from childhood. The first exhibition I saw was dedicated to Picasso, at the Tate Gallery in London, in 1960. I was twenty years old, and I was an au pair. When I subsequently traveled, I visited other museums but ultimately quite few, until my arrival in the Paris region, in 1975. I actually cite few works in my novels, much more in my diary, which I do not publish. For me to use a table in a book, it has to happen spontaneously, like Birthday (1942) by the American Dorothea Tanning, whom I discovered in 1964 at the Charpentier gallery where an exhibition on surrealism was being held: the one I cite in Years (2008). We can say that it was André Breton who opened me to painting… I was preparing a university thesis on “woman and love in surrealism”, I lived in Rouen, so it was an important personal investment in go to Paris to visit this gallery. Tanning’s painting – a bare-chested woman with, behind her, a series of half-open doors and, at her feet, a sort of small winged dog like a bird of prey – fascinated me. I discovered it three months after my abortion. Strangely, and for a long time, I saw in the half-open doors my years to come. I made the past the future. This painting has constantly followed me. I had bought the catalogue, where it was reproduced in black and white, and I looked at it from time to time. The summer I was 26, in Annecy, where I lived with my husband and my son, Birthday made me write in my diary that I had to be interested in women, in what it is to be a woman. In 2019, I saw the painting again in London, at the Tate Modern, in an exhibition dedicated to Dorothea Tanning.

In The Years, you also mention The Red Staircase in Cagnesby Chaïm Soutine…

I discovered this painting while leafing through Reading for everyone, a magazine where there were reproduced works. I cut out the image and hung it in my student room in the university campus. On this big red staircase, I saw my life, my future, and the struggle it was. There are also these paintings by Egon Schiele, which I discovered in Vienna, in 1991, at the Belvedere Museum: Family (1918) and Mother with her two children (around 1916), which had a profound impact on me. It was in November, I was alone in the room, and I noted afterwards, in my diary, that I now knew why I had come to Vienna… The state in which these paintings put me is very mysterious. I then need to give it a written form.

Janine Niépce (1921-2007), HLM in Vitry. A mother and her child1965, silver gelatin print, MEP collection.

© Janine Niepce / Roger Viollet

How did photography come into your life?

There is an initial disturbance that I recount in The other girl : a photograph of a baby, which I am told is me, but which intrigues me by its difference with another photo, where I appear plump, sulky, so different from this petite, long baby. They actually tried to hide from me the existence of a sister, who died before I was born… There is also what my father kept telling me: when I was little, I had torn up all the photographs of him in the regiment. I don’t know why I was given these photos to play with, and I was left with this idea that I’m a photo tearer…

Did you continue to tear it up?

No… only the ones where I felt really ugly! Often, the portraits seem to me to show a more or less pretty face of myself. The one I prefer was taken by an Italian photographer, Francesco Gattoni; it seems to me to express well what I am. It’s the portrait of a rather badly-coiffed, mocking woman, who reminds me of the activists of the French Revolution (laughs).

In Journal from outsideyou write : “I realize that I am always looking for the signs of literature in reality. » In art, what are you looking for?

Above all, to be upset. I look for emotion first, not aesthetics. These are the emotions I talk about in my journal. Many images of motherhood touch me. They are often a little sad. I remember a Virgin, in Toulouse, who holds the Child while looking elsewhere. It remained a disturbing memory, because it questions the reasons why we have children. In photography or painting, what appeals to me is the charge of mystery, of beauty too. The photographs of Paul Strand, or the paintings of Egon Schiele and Dorothea Tanning are triggers – I don’t know what – for the moment. Writing allows you to analyze and make connections. It is an efflorescence, contrary to the fixity of the image.

And photography, in particular?

It has different functions. It is a subject of fascination, with the facial features, clothing, and social signs it contains. It represents a state of civilization, but also a social state. It is also an activator of memory, memories and interpretations. If photography is just a simple description of reality, it doesn’t interest me. There must be something of the intimate order, of mystery, of secret to be excavated. I didn’t know the photographers selected for the exhibition, except William Klein, Janine Niépce, and Dolorès Marat who had photographed me a long time ago.

Dolorès Marat, The Woman with Gloves, 1987, four-color Fresson print, MEP collection.  © Dolores Marat

Dolores Marat, The woman with gloves1987, four-color Fresson print, MEP collection.

© Dolores Marat

Lou Stoppard’s selection is very much about street photography. Do these images touch you?

Of course. As soon as I’m outside, I’m captivated by what I see, what I hear. The being that I am fades away, records. I’m always amazed that most people don’t pay attention to what’s around them. My eye is my camera; then my memory, my writing. I made an attempt, in Venice, in 2015, with my film camera: I was at a café terrace on Campo San Barnaba, where there was an advertising board with a bench underneath. Couples and families sat down and left. I took around fifteen photos. It was a kind of Journal from outside photographed, but I didn’t do anything with it.

Who are the other writers who include photography in their books and who interest you?

First of all André Breton, who exerts a spell on me with Nadja. He is the first, I believe, to integrate photos into an otherwise unclassifiable literary text. There is a play between the visible and the readable, between the banality of reality and what strange things happen during the writer’s walks with Nadja. There is also Hervé Guibert. And above all, WG Sebald, whose work focuses on memory, who searches for traces of history in the places he travels. The photograph of a landscape, of an object is intrinsically part of the text, of the quest for missing beings and things, of an intimate journey into the layers of a collective past. I discovered Sebald’s work only ten years ago. She never ceases to surprise me, to “offer” me something.


Birth in Lillebonne (76)


Associate of modern literature, high school teacher.


Publishes his first book, “Les Armoires vides.” »


Moves to Cergy (95). Teaches at CNED.


Obtains the Renaudot prize with “La Place. »


Publishes “Journal du exterior,” in which she transcribes street scenes in Cergy.



write life,

collection of his works in the Quarto collection (Gallimard)


Marguerite-Yourcenar Prize for all of her work


First French woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The exhibition: words and images

Photography plays a role in several books by Annie Ernaux. In (1993), street scenes or snatches of conversations heard in the RER, stores, or in the streets of Cergy are captured as if through the viewfinder of a camera. The writing process is similar to the photographic process. In 2019, Lou Stoppard, English writer and curator, had the idea of ​​treating the texts in this book as images, and exhibiting them alongside photographs. During a month-long residency at the European House of Photography (MEP) in Paris, she selected 200 prints from the collections and submitted them to the novelist. Taken in different countries during the second half of the 20th century, these photos are signed by Claude Dityvon, Harry Callahan, Jean-Christophe Béchet, Mohamed Bourouissa, Hiro, Luigi Ghirri, Janine Niépce, Issei Suda, Garry Winogrand, Bernard Pierre Wolff, Dolorès Marat, Daido Moriyama and Johan van der Keuken.

“Exteriors. Annie Ernaux and photography”,

MEP-European House of Photography, 5-7 rue de Fourcy, Paris-4e, www.mep-fr.org, from February 28 to May 26.

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