Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Patricia Laurence

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 1,039 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Patricia Laurence

SOURCE: A review of A Man's Place, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 228-29.

In the following laudatory review, Laurence discusses stylistic aspects of A Man's Place.

Reading Annie Ernaux's spare biography/autobiography A Man's Place, one gets the feeling as in her earlier work, A Woman's Story (1991), that writing is a "luxury." Torn between two identities, Ernaux takes possession of the harsh working-class life and language of her parents and the distance that comes between her and her father as the "legacy" of an educated woman writer in a bourgeois world. "Although," she says, "it had something to do with class, it was different, indefinable. Like fractured love." She opens with the fracture of two moments in her life: "that windy April in Lyon when I stood waiting at the Vroix-Rousse bus stop" after passing the CAPES examination to take her place as a secondary school teacher in the lycée, and "that stifling month in June," the month of her father's death at the age of sixty-seven in a quiet area of Seine-Maritime.

What makes this intentionally "neutral" description of the growing distance between the bright, achieving daughter and the rough-hewn working father so intriguing is that it is both a story of her father and the story of the daughter's struggle for language as a writer writing. As she drifts into middle-class circles, her attempt to come to terms with the life of "necessity" of her parents causes pain, guilt, and alienation: "As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a life-style generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it." What is new is Ernaux's self-conscious marking of the two languages that are her legacy, and her effort to find one that will honestly tell the story of a life governed by "necessity." Rejecting the genre of the novel she asserts: "I have no right to adopt an artistic approach … I shall collate my father's words, tastes and mannerisms, as well as the main events of his life…. No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally. It was the same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news." Developing this style of "necessity"—stripped to the bone of fact—almost a ritual of language to honor her father, she delivers direct, brief, social observations: "The land my father worked belonged to others." Such sentences are like gray stones between the flowering language and vision of her subjective terror in looking at him in death: "He was no longer my father. His sunken features seemed to have developed into one large nose. In his dark blue suit, which hung loosely around his body, he looked like a bird lying on its back." Here language is somehow flattened with compressed emotion, and the emotional spaces between the sentences as between the characters yawn wide as the distances between people in a Balthus painting.

An Excerpt from a Man's Place

He was always afraid of being ashamed or out of place. One day he got into a first-class compartment by mistake. The inspector made him pay the difference. Another embarrassing memory, a visit to the solicitor: he had to write 'read and approved' but wasn't sure of the spelling. In the end he settled for 'read and a proved'. On the way back he suffered the pangs of humiliation, obsessed by his mistake. He had come close to disgracing himself.

Many of the comedies made around that time portrayed naïve country lads who didn't know how to behave in the city or in polite society (Bourvil-type roles). We would shriek with laughter at the things they said and the terrible gaffes they committed, the very ones we ourselves were afraid of making. I once read that when Bécassine was serving her apprenticeship she was told to embroider a bird on the first bib and ditto on all the others. She spent the whole afternoon sewing ditto in satin-stitch. I wasn't sure that I wouldn't have done the same thing.

In front of people whom he considered to be important, his manner was shy and gauche and he never asked any questions. In short, he behaved intelligently. He realized we were inferior and refused to accept this, while at the same time doing everything he could to conceal the fact. We spent a whole evening wondering what on earth the headmistress had meant when she had said: 'To play the part, your little girl will be dressed in town clothes.' We were ashamed at not knowing what we would have known instinctively, had we not been what we were, in other words, inferior.

His obsession: 'What are people going to say?' (the neighbours, the customers, the world at large).

His maxim, never to lay oneself open to criticism, was achieved by being polite, remaining neutral and keeping a tight rein on one's temper, so as not to do or say anything one might regret later. If one of the neighbours was digging up the garden vegetables, he never looked in his direction unless he was encouraged to do so by a smile, a nod or a friendly remark. He never visited anyone without being invited, not even somebody in hospital. He never asked questions which might betray envy or curiosity, so as not to give people a hold over us. The question 'How much did you pay for it?' was taboo.

Now I often say 'we' because I shared his way of thinking for a long time and I can't remember when I stopped doing so.

Annie Ernaux, in her A Man's Place, translated by Tanya Leslie, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1992.

Ernaux's seeming dilemma between two languages, two realities in this novel becomes the source of her style and strength as a writer. The strength emerges from a conscious stance of self-division. Her ability to simply limn and balance a stark, neutral language, "legacy" of her parents, with her own nuanced subjectivity grows from her emotional negotiation of the worlds of the working class and the middle class, and, most importantly, from having learned not to mix what goes on inside with what goes on outside.

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This section contains 1,039 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Patricia Laurence
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