Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Honi Haber

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 870 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Honi Haber

SOURCE: A review of Cleaned Out, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, January-February, 1993, pp. 4, 18.

Haber is a teacher of philosophy and women's studies. In the following review, she discusses Cleaned Out as a book about the "culturally disenfranchised."

Annie Ernaux's novel Cleaned Out is more than a powerful evocation of the class system in France in the 1950s and of one woman's struggle to move up in the class hierarchy and forget her past. It is also a novel that serves as a haunting contribution, both in subject matter and literary form, to the project of the culturally disenfranchised speaking in their own voice.

The novel is an extended interior monologue in which 20-year-old Denise Lesur looks back at her childhood hoping to exorcise her demons and to gain some insight into the woman she has become, a woman who, despite her extraordinary academic achievements, has still not learned to love or even respect herself. Despite the fact that this daughter of a small-town grocer and café owner has succeeded in fighting the odds that face a woman member of the working class in gaining the ranks of France's academic elite, her successes are not enough to assuage the ever-present doubt she feels about her self-worth. However much she achieves, it remains the case that:

Everything still needs to be done. How can I ever get through enough exams to make up for the skeletons in the family closet, for the crazy laughter of the drunks, for the vulgar manners and language of the oaf who used to be me? All the education and exams in the world won't be enough to cover up the Lesur girl of five years, six months ago. I'll always despise her.

Achieving the obliteration of her class heritage proves a Sisyphean task.

Her desire to understand and make peace with herself is given urgency by the fact that she is not sure she will survive the back-street abortion she has just endured. This uncertainty provides a powerful frame for the reflections on her past that make up the bulk of the novel. It also provides a fitting backdrop for its more general philosophical concern: The lives of those who allow their values to be determined for them are just as uncertain as Denise Lesur's.

As a young child Lesur believes herself to lead a privileged existence. Being the only child of a grocer/cafe proprietor gives her unlimited access to cream cakes and succulent herrings. Everything seems edible to the girl. Even her charity visits with her mother to the poor and sick are seen through a devouring (and deliciously humorous) eye: "So I felt pleased … pleased with the leg with the gaping hole, like a toffee peeping out of its wrapper." "Rajol's aged mother has lost her thumb … a chewed stump of a thumb, green like a copper cooking pot, unbelievable." Her first teacher, too, is seen through the familiar frame of food and is identified as "the teacher with lips like a drooping croissant." The novel is peppered with images like these that stay with the reader long after the book has been read.

Education opens up Lesur's future to unlimited possibilities at the same time as it damns her to her past. When Lesur is sent to a private school, she is ridiculed for her working-class upbringing; she is taught humiliation. From that time on she becomes a "rotten girl," and her world, indeed her self, is divided in two. Her education, which marks her success in the outside world and, ironically, also makes her people so proud, takes her away from the world of her parents and shows her "just how awful that world is." Like Eve, the taste of knowledge leads to her downfall.

What Ernaux describes in Cleaned Out is the brutal process of a socialization where one is made to choose between the authority of the dominant culture, whose values ridicule the tastes, values, and habits of her people, and the self that is loved. Lesur learns to live in horror at the prospect of looking in the mirror and seeing her mother, her village, looking back. In learning to hate her past she also learns to hate her former self, a self she must always carry with her. She will never be able to escape her history, and she will never break the cycle of what Sartre called "bad faith" until she is able to choose her past. She lives out the existentialist's condemnation of the life not chosen: In fatally accepting the upper class' deprecation of her birthright, in accepting society's story of who she is, she loses her self. The adult Lesur's hope is that her self will be regained and empowered by the telling of her own story.

Ernaux's complex narrative speaks brilliantly to the need of the disenfranchised (whether oppressed because of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, health, or class or economic status) to find their own voice, and also to the difficulties those engaging in the project of self-creation face in their attempt to break free from the values of the dominant culture. Her book speaks to everyone who has been afraid of what they might find in the mirror.

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This section contains 870 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Honi Haber
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