The French writer Annie Ernaux just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so we’re re-upping this recommendation of her novel, A Girl’s Story, from September 2021
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I just finished a strange little book of autofiction, Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story. The author, now in her 70s, returns to the summer of 1958, when she was 18—her first summer spent away from her parents as a counselor at a camp in Normandy. Intoxicated by her newfound freedom, she fools around with the boys at the camp, one after another. The sex acts she describes are awful—she does not know yet how to experience pleasure or how to ask for it, and it’s just as well, because her “partners” are not the least bit interested. The others at the camp, men and women alike, treat her with derision and scorn. But she is unfazed. She is instead deliriously happy, “edified by the pride of experience, the possession of new knowledge.” Later, she reads Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; with greater consciousness paradoxically comes a delayed feeling of shame at how she had been treated (“a girl’s shame”).
I connected to the subject matter (as I imagine many women, especially those who went to sleepaway camp, would). But it’s almost tangential to what’s at the heart of the book: the question of our relationship to our many selves through time. The author asks herself again and again why she is writing this book, this collection of scraps (sometimes there are only lists of evocative films or remembered song lyrics on the page, or a close reading of a single photograph). Sometimes “the girl of ’58,” as she calls her, is “she,” sometimes it is “I.” She is not grafting meaning onto events so much as undertaking an experiment of re-living, seeing if she can manage to exist in a past moment. It is a book that perhaps might not have been published by a less accomplished writer (Ernaux has published some 20 books of fiction and memoir); it is resolutely unsure of itself. I’m glad about that. The experiment, in this case, is more profound than a tidier work would have been.
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): Early next year, a new magazine of Black radical thought called Hammer and Hope will be making its debut. Excited for its arrival, a few of us decided to read the book that inspired the magazine’s name: Hammer and Hoe, historian Robin D.G. Kelley’s classic account of the Black workers in Alabama who organized with the American Communist Party during the Great Depression. The narratives of CP organizing that I’ve absorbed over the years, from Richard Wright’s Black Boy to Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism to Dorothy Healy’s California Red, have been centered in the big cities of the North and West. I knew in an abstract way that the party was, improbably, present in the South as well, and that its organizing there helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement—but had little idea of what this looked like. Reading Hammer and Hoe, I learned that the party itself was initially dubious about heading south, but ultimately chose to do so in the late 1920s—with alternately inspiring and terrifying results.
Just before the Depression, Communist Party leaders—who had initially seen the region too backward to organize in—began to take seriously the idea of organizing in the South after adopting the position that Black Southerners constituted an oppressed nation and a potentially revolutionary class. When organizers went to Birmingham, a city selected for its high level of industrialization, the party made few inroads with white workers, who with few exceptions hated and feared the prospect of interracial struggle. But Black factory workers and farmers alike eagerly got on board. Indeed, the party’s “outside agitator” status—its alien character as an internationalist organization rooted in the urban North and taking direction from the USSR—was not frightening to but welcomed by Black workers with little attachment to the state, and already practiced at clandestine organizing (union locals sometimes disguised their meetings as Bible study groups, for instance).
At the same time, the level of violence Black organizers encountered was staggering: The Klan, other militias, and state authorities tortured and murdered workers and their families for going anywhere near the union campaigns sponsored by the CP. Organizers were thwarted in a different way by Black middle-class organizations like the NAACP, which cherished their position as mediators between Black workers and white authorities. Kelley’s meticulously researched book makes clear that, given these circumstances, the improbability of organizing a Black workers’ movement in the South was in fact a near impossibility, and the fact that communist organizing took hold there at all—in the process, improving labor conditions for thousands of miners, steelworkers, and sharecroppers, and creating links between local Black radical traditions and an international workers’ movement—is the kind of 20th-century marvel we can only hope to see more of in the 21st.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): The weather has begun to get colder on the East Coast, and I find myself turning to “comfort” media: things that I’ve consumed and loved in the past. In my case, this means cartoons that I watch and rewatch, and comics that I read and reread. A few years ago, discovering that it was no longer online, I purchased the volume of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell. I then lent it to a date (I should know better than to do that) and never got it back, but reordered it recently in anticipation of seeking coziness during the darker, shorter days ahead.
DCIGTH takes place in a version of New York City in which humans and mythical creatures live all together, navigating their joys, mistakes, crushes, losses, and aspirations. Darwin’s pet is a talkative manticore, his landlord is a minotaur, and a trio of stoner angels crash rent-free on his couch. Through a series of events in their younger lives that were largely outside of their control, Darwin’s best friend Ella has terrific karma—which, in this world, is acutely measurable—while his is abysmal. The characters’ choices and friendships are the heart of the story, and the art is gorgeous. The book has adult themes (drinking, sex, career blues) so it’s not for kids, but I feel a special kind of nostalgia when I curl up on the couch with a compelling comic book.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): This has been a big year for the story of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese officer in World War II who, having been given an order to hold his position on an island in the Philippines until relief arrived, did so until 1974, 29 years after the war’s end. Earlier this year, Werner Herzog’s short, spare novel about Onoda, The Twilight World, was published in the US, and I recommended it highly here. We now have Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Forest, by the French actor-turned-filmmaker Arthur Harari, opening today. It is anything but short or spare, clocking in at nearly three hours. Some of the details in the film don’t appear in the novel, and vice versa. Onoda, we learn in the film, was not an ordinary soldier, but part of an elite unit: His dedication to the order to never surrender was that of someone specially trained for this purpose—which does little to change the maniacal nature of his commitment.
Onoda was not alone in his holdout. While Herzog’s book speaks of the comrades who stayed with him for varying periods before they were killed, the focus is on Onoda’s own mind and activities. But in Harari’s film the pointlessness of this last stand is multiplied by the filmmaker’s more thorough treatment of the small cadre of first three, then two, then one, then zero fellow soldiers. When, just a few years after the war’s end, a Japanese delegation (including Onoda’s father) goes to the island to track him down and convince him that the war is over, Onoda and his sole remaining followers become a perfect example, in miniature, of mass delusion, interpreting the straightforward message to give up as a coded command to continue their resistance.
Nature, Herzog’s great bugaboo in his films and in his Onoda novel, is in Harari’s film less an enemy than a supplier, its lushness not a disguise for hell, but a provider of shelter and tools. There is likewise no madness in Harari’s Onoda. With the exception of his demented breaking of the coded message that isn’t one, he remains a well-trained officer throughout the film. Even when a tourist brings him his superior officer, long-since retired from the military, who finally convinces him that the war is over, his reaction is an emotionless one: stoic acceptance.
The film, along with its grim realism, contains moments of deadpan comedy. Years into their wanderings around the island, Onoda’s last remaining comrade tells him he couldn’t have had a better commander—to which Onoda responds that he couldn’t have had a better second-in-command. All is well in their army of two.
Before you go:
Don’t forget to mark your calendars for our upcoming event, “Reporting from Occupied Territory: A Conversation with Palestinian Freelance Journalists.”
On Tuesday, October 18th, at 12 pm Eastern, join journalists Lara Aburamadan and Dalia Hatuqa for a discussion about autonomy, precarity, storytelling, and politics,
moderated by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Rozina Ali. This event is co-sponsored by Jewish Currents and the Freelance Solidarity Project.