Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Dominic Di Bernardi

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 898 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Dominic Di Bernardi

SOURCE: A review of La Place and Une Femme, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 163-64.

In the review below, Di Bernardi offers a laudatory assessment of A Woman's Story and A Man's Place, praising Ernaux's focus on class, guilt, identity, and personal history in these works.

Annie Ernaux, a novelist concentrating on autobiographical themes, offers in La Place and Une Femme an account of the lives of her father and mother, respectively. The story of her father centers on his social ambition—"the place" he wished to make for himself and that he was fiercely conscious of keeping when faced with his social superiors, among whom is his university-educated daughter. On the other hand, her mother is examined as the affective link with the world the writer left, whose very physical presence, "words, hands, gestures, her way of walking and laughing are what united the woman I am to the child I was." Small shopkeepers who had risen from the peasantry in the social upheavals following World War I, they retained a sense of their own inferiority even as they allowed their daughter to pursue her upward path into the teaching establishment. Yet this success is tormented for the daughter; what works upon her is a sense of betrayal, perhaps one that marks most intellectuals who have progressed beyond their parents' level of education. Annie Ernaux unflinchingly examines the peculiar network of guilt that marks her even as a successful writer, seeing this success as a function of the very ambitions of members of a class whose narrowness she learned—quite literally—to despise. This heavy self-consciousness pervades language itself: she remembers her father's obsession with not using the wrong words, or her own fear about using words that were above her parents. Perhaps the most poignant episode on this theme is the single visit she and her father paid to the city library, which ended in embarrassment for both since they had no titles in mind to request from the librarian (French stacks being closed). These concerns also explain her style: bare, unadorned, a series of short passages, almost as if she continued to perceive her own parents as the ultimate readers, who, she tells us, would have seen any stylistic efforts in the letters she sent home to them from university as "an attempt to keep them at a distance."

The author notes that she was reading Les Mandarins while watching over her father in his final hours, and that her mother died "eight days after Simone de Beauvoir." Indeed, her two works inevitably recall Simone de Beauvoir's Une Mort Tres Douce (the merciless depiction of her mother's death agony), not only in apparent subject but also in that we are given a "real life" document to counteract, amend, expand, a pre-existing oeuvre, especially Ernaux's first novel, the ferocious, bilious Les Armoires Vides.

Ernaux, however, is not interested in a phenomenological description of the last hours but rather in the shape of the lives that have shaped hers: "This way of writing … strikes me as moving in the direction of truth, helps me out of the loneliness and obscurity of individual memory, through the discovery of a more general meaning." Yet she finds herself constantly struggling against this goal since there is "something" within her that seeks to preserve "purely emotional images" of the woman she is depicting. Her "desire to remain, in a certain way, on the underside of literature" is a rather peculiar goal: after all, it is the emotional intensity she brings to her task, as well as her sharply observed portraits of her parents from youth to old age, and in death, that distinguish these texts. Perhaps we should see her undertaking not so much as anti-autobiography as anti-Proust. In La Place, she tells us that she could not count on "reminiscence"—"the tinkling of the bell of an old store, the smell of an over-ripe melon"—for such would merely lead her to herself. Rather "it is in the way people sit and are bored in waiting rooms, call out to their children, say good-bye on train platforms that I sought the figure of my father." Indeed, within the space of these two texts we observe a rapidly changing France: in 1967 her father is shown dying in his own bed to which a priest had been summoned, and his body is left there the three days until his burial; in 1986 her mother dies in an old-age home, from Alzheimer's disease, and her funeral mass is held in a church across from a supermarket, with organ music provided by a cassette the priest pops into a player.

On the last page of Une Femme Annie Ernaux states: "This is not a biography, nor a novel naturally, perhaps a cross between literature, sociology and history. It was necessary that my mother become history, born as she was in a dominated milieu, one she wanted to leave, so that I would feel less alone and factitious in the dominant world of words and ideas to which, according to her desire, I acceded." As provocative as the texts themselves is their implicit challenge—namely, that we all recount the "history" made up by our parents' lives, in the same way that the next generation will only be able to grasp our own lives as stories they tell themselves about us.

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This section contains 898 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Dominic Di Bernardi
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