Annie Ernaux | Miranda Seymour

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
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Miranda Seymour

SOURCE: "Leaving Father Behind," in The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1992, pp. 5-6.

Seymour is an English novelist, biographer, editor, and journalist. In the following, she favorably reviews A Man's Place, lauding it as an "exorcism of remembrance" devoid of artifice.

A rewarding experiment for a writer is to take powerfully felt events and try to describe them in way that mixes genres. The results can be seen at their best in the autobiographical novels of Annie Ernaux, a teacher who grew up in postwar Normandy and now lives near Paris.

In Une Femme, which was published in the United States last year as A Woman's Story, Ms. Ernaux wrote of her mother in an almost painfully spare fashion that turned personal loss into extraordinarily evocative literature. But if the book's success had much to do with a triumph of style over sentiment, it owed as much to Ms. Ernaux's skill at discovering the universal in the particular. The mother she portrayed in her novel stood for a generation of undemanding, hard-working women who saw their daughters "better" themselves and, through that process, become estranged, members of a different cultural class.

La Place, which won the Prix Renaudot in 1984, faultlessly completes the diptych. Appearing in English as A Man's Place, it comes to us, as did the first volume, in a very capable translation by Tanya Leslie. Again the memoir begins with a death, observing the body of Ms. Ernaux's father with the neutral eye of a camera before the exorcism of remembrance begins. Guilt, the author tells us, is her spur. Quoting Jean Genet, she offers the explanation that "writing is the ultimate recourse for those who have betrayed." The act of contrition is to allow herself no stylistic indulgence, no chance to sensationalize the facts—"No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony."

Writing cannot, of course, entirely escape artifice, but the rigid control that Ms. Ernaux exercises gives her portrait of an ordinary, unassuming man an air of truth—the same air of truth that makes us trust, for example, the lovely English landscape shown in Constable's Wivenhoe Park. Painted in 1816, it is a work that art historians often use to demonstrate the line between truth and verisimilitude. (It looks effortless and representative, but the preliminary sketches show that it was a masterpiece of scientific calculation.) Ms. Ernaux's portrait of her father is in the same deceptive category. Truth can only be represented: the medium, be it of paint and canvas or ink and paper, dictates what we shall see. Memory too must play its part. I say this not to diminish a remarkable book but to honor something that seems so direct; we need to remind ourselves how difficult it is for art to attain such simplicity.

Ms. Ernaux's father is shown as a decent, hardworking man, his status carefully defined by the fact that his sisters, who are housemaids, look down on him for having married a factory worker. Brought up in the early years of the century in a Norman farming village where religion and hygiene are the twin emblems of dignity, he brings these priorities to his life as a small-town grocer. Later, in another town, where he has opened a shop that doubles as a cafe, he has himself photographed alongside the lavatory in the backyard; he aspires to send his daughter to school with just as complete a wardrobe as the chemist's daughter has. His social carefulness is precisely recorded: the habit of eating a meal so thoroughly that the plate can go straight back in the cupboard, the fear of using the wrong word that is so strong it sometimes drives him into silence. So too is the slow process of alienation as his schoolgirl daughter starts to see him as the character the adult writer now portrays, "a humble man, a simple man." Her learning threatens him and cuts him off. Work, for the father, will always be a manual process; study is an indulgence.

There is a noticeable increase in tension in the last part of the book. The narrator has gone to a university, married a middle-class intellectual and now lives far from her parents. The emotional rift is absolute, the incomprehension total. The father admires his son-in-law for his nice manners; the son-in-law will have nothing to do with his new relatives. Away from her father, the daughter mythologizes, turning him into a heroic peasant, the salt of the earth; in his presence, she is conscious only of the social divisions that separate them. Coolly noting how much he seems to be enjoying his retirement, she puts it down to his pleasure in sticking his pension stamps on a sheet of paper. Just as we flinch at this evidence of patronizing indifference, she exposes her own pretensions, the pride she feels in her red plush armchairs and reproduction Louis-Philippe writing desk.

The victim, as in A Woman's Story, turns out to be the author herself, viewed with a hard, unsparing eye as she fails to bridge the gap between two worlds. It is this bleak honesty, this refusal to let herself off the hook of guilt, that gives Ms. Ernaux's two books their uncommon strength. Some critics have compared her to Simone de Beauvoir, but the reasonable, balanced voice I hear echoing behind her is that of Albert Camus.

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This section contains 889 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Miranda Seymour
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