Annie Ernaux | Judith Levine

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 860 words
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Judith Levine

SOURCE: "Theory of Relativity," in VLS, No. 30, September, 1992, p. 17.

Levine is an American journalist and nonfiction writer. In the following excerpt, she lauds Ernaux's focus on language, class, and familial relationships in A Man's Place.

The class mobility of a family's first educated child is a story of hope and betrayal, pride and uneasy rivalry, and often filial guilt. Annie Ernaux's A Man's Place tells this story in the spare and uninflected language that characterizes the writer's work—here felicitously translated from the French by Tanya Leslie. Ernaux's narrative-splintering self-interrogations admit to the memoirist's intrinsic unreliability; they solidify, rather than undermine, the reader's trust, making A Man's Place a work of ruthless authenticity.

A Man's Place (La Place, 1983) is the second half of Ernaux's memoir of her parents, the maternal side of which was published in English as A Woman's Story last year. Like the previous memoir, this deceptively cool narrative, of her father, eschews nostalgia and "art." "If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something 'moving' or 'gripping.' I shall collate … the external evidence of his existence," she writes—and creates a portrait that is, in spite of itself, moving and gripping. Ernaux's father is the son of farmhands. He hires on as a factory worker, marries another factory worker, and eventually manages to buy his own poor grocery cum café in a small Norman town, becoming the first in his family to own property.

But the petit bourgeois maintains his peasant's ways. He sleeps in his shirt and vest, spits vigorously in the courtyard, eats with his knife and wipes it clean on his overalls. He drinks moderately and keeps a tidy garden, and judges others' morality on sobriety and cleanliness. Ernaux describes him in his old age, home from the health clinic, happily arranging his pensioner's stickers on a sheet of paper. These "words, tastes, and mannerisms" she catalogues with almost wincing precision.

At his funeral, the priest eulogizes him as "a man who had never done any harm." Yet the adolescent Annie did feel harmed by her father and, as an adult, understands she has harmed him. A Man's Place seeks, if not to heal, to measure "the distance which had come between us during my adolescence," a distance of class, Ernaux says, but also of something "different, indefinable. Like fractured love."

Throughout his life, the father simultaneously defends and is ashamed of his class ("My husband never looked working-class," his wife says). He knows "his place," his expectations having been straitened since childhood. From her parents, Annie receives the promise of a better future spiked with punitive fatalism. When she mentions that a school chum has visited the chateaux of the Loire, the parents scold: "You can go later on in life. Be happy with what you've got." The child's enthusiasm is not dwarfed, however; she is left with "[a] continual wanting, never satisfied."

Although her father does not consider studying to be real work (to him labor is manual), "every time I did well in composition, and later in my exams, he saw it as an achievement and the hope that one day I might be better than him." Whose hope? Ernaux says "this dream came to replace his own dream … to run a smart café in town." But his anxiety for her success is tinged with ambivalence. "He constantly feared—or maybe hoped—that I would never make it."

A Man's Place, which avoids employing language to manipulate emotion, is also about the power of language to reward and wound, to define and marginalize. The world of her childhood was "a world in which language was the very expression of reality," Ernaux reflects. Speech, even more than language, was a signifier of social position, and "anything to do with language was a source of resentment and distress, far more than the subject of money." Annie the teenage scholar brutally chastises her father for the "incorrectness" of his French, a language he is proud to speak because it's not dialect. She learns English; when she converses with a hitchhiker, her father is baffled that she could have acquired a foreign language without leaving the country. As an adult visiting home, Ernaux recognizes the loudness and Norman pronunciation in her parents' voices—echoes of her younger self. "I felt torn between two identities."

A college degree and a middle-class professional husband move Ernaux farther from her family. At her wedding, her father puts on cuff links for the first time in his life. But it is by seizing language, becoming a writer, that Ernaux makes the irrevocable break. "Maybe I am writing," she wonders, "because we no longer had anything to say to each other."

Ernaux, who begins A Man's Place with contrition—a quote from Genet that "writing is the ultimate recourse for those who have betrayed"—appears to regret not the education she has acquired but the costs accrued in its getting: incomprehension and estrangement between parent and child, class alienation, and the shame of a daughter who has humiliated the man who once said proudly, "I have never given you cause for shame."

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This section contains 860 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Judith Levine
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