Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Caryn James

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 1,172 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Caryn James

Critical Review by Caryn James

SOURCE: "Who Can Explain It? Who Can Tell You Why?" in The New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1993, p. 9.

James reviews films for The New York Times. In the following, she praises Ernaux's examination of obsession and emotion in Simple Passion, but laments her use of and focus on self-conscious language.

Perhaps only in France—the country that made cultural icons of Roland Barthes and Jerry Lewis, Simone de Beauvoir and Coco Chanel—could the slender autobiographical fictions of Annie Ernaux have become best sellers. Simple Passion, a memoir of a writer's obsessive affair with a shadowy married man, is part semiotic treatise and part Harlequin romance, and all the better for the combination of high and low. One of the hottest books in France last year, it embraces the crazed adolescent behavior that can crop up at any age, yet is intelligent enough to wrap those details in a taut literary shape and defiantly unemotional language.

The unnamed narrator is, like Ms. Ernaux, a middle-aged writer and teacher who lives in a Paris suburb, who is divorced and has two almost-grown sons. The novel describes her two-year affair with a man she calls A, a businessman from Eastern Europe who looks vaguely like the actor Alain Delon. It hardly matters that he is not described beyond that, for he is almost beside the point. The obsession itself, not the object of the obsession, is what compels the character and intrigues Ms. Ernaux.

An Excerpt from Simple Passion

He left France and went back to his own country six months ago. I shall probably never see him again. At first, when I woke up at two o' clock in the morning, I didn't care whether I lived or died. My whole body ached. I would have liked to tear out the pain but it was everywhere. I longed for a burglar to come into my bedroom and kill me. During the day I tried desperately to find things to do, so as not to remain idle, otherwise I felt I would be lost (the meaning of the word was vague: to have a nervous breakdown, to start drinking, and so on). For the same reason, I made efforts to dress and make up properly, and to wear my contact lenses instead of my spectacles, although this required considerable courage. I couldn't watch television or leaf through magazines; all the advertisements, whether they are for perfume or microwaves, show the same thing: a woman waiting for a man. I averted my gaze when I walked past shops selling lingerie.

When I was feeling really bad, I had a strong urge to consult a fortune-teller; it seemed the only decisive thing I could do. One day I looked up the names of clairvoyants in the electronic directory. The list was long. One of them mentioned that she had predicted the earthquake in San Francisco and the death of the singer Dalida. While I was jotting down their names and phone numbers, I felt the same excitement as the month before, when I was trying on a new dress for A, as if I were still doing something for him. I didn't call any of the fortunetellers; I was afraid they would predict he would never return. I thought to myself with surprise, 'I've come round to this too.' After all, there was no reason why I shouldn't have.

One night the thought of getting myself screened for AIDS occurred to me: 'At least he would have left me that.'

I wanted to remember his body with all my being—from his hair down to the tips of his toes. I could conjure up, vividly, his green eyes, the lock of hair falling over his forehead, the curve of his shoulders. I could feel his teeth, the inside of his mouth, the shape of his thighs, the texture of his skin. I reflected that there was very little difference between this reconstruction and an hallucination, between memory and madness.

Annie Ernaux, in her Simple Passion, translated by Tanya Leslie, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.

"From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man," the narrator recalls, and it is not much of an exaggeration. She walks through her everyday life in a fog formed by constant thoughts of her lover. During an ordinary conversation she perks up at a casual reference, not to him, but to a nightclub in a country he once visited. In the Metro she gives money to beggars and as she drops coins into their cups makes a wish that he will call that night. "I promised to send 200 francs to Unicef if he came to see me before a particular date," she writes. Waiting for his phone call seems as tantalizingly pleasurable as making love, and even when he is with her, she can't help counting the hours until the waiting will begin again. This tale of compulsion is irresistibly readable, as the narrator moves beyond desire and, she occasionally recognizes, nearly beyond sanity.

But Ms. Ernaux wants to do more than re-create the common, embarrassing details of obsession. She uses words to turn emotions and memories into an object made of language, an object the narrator describes but refuses to analyze. "I am merely listing the signs of a passion," she writes in one of many self-conscious asides, "as if this inventory could allow me to grasp the reality of my passion." To explain her behavior would be to judge it, she says. Instead, she presents her reconstructed affair to the reader as if it were a post-modern sculpture, a hybrid of knowingly self-indulgent sentiment and a wary glance at the act of creation itself.

Simple Passion, smoothly translated by Tanya Leslie, owes much to Marguerite Duras's pared-down, enigmatic tales of destructive love. It also extends the descriptive style Ms. Ernaux used in her stirring, elegiac memoirs of her father and mother. A Man's Place (1983) and A Woman's Story (1988), both of which became wildly popular in France and minor literary successes in the United States.

The triumph of Ms. Ernaux's approach in all these works is to cherish commonplace emotions while elevating the banal expression of them. In A Woman's Story, soon after her mother's death she thinks: "This is the first spring she will never see. (Now I can feel the power of ordinary sentences, or even clichés.)" She relishes the ordinary in Simple Passion too. "Sentimental songs," she writes, "moved me deeply," accepting both their power and their silliness.

Yet in the end, too much self-conscious attention to writing and language diminishes the impact of Simple Passion. As the narrator moves out of her obsession, she briefly announces its "true meaning" (the very meaninglessness of this "violent and unaccountable reality" is what she treasures). She also suggests it has brought her closer to shared human experience. Such bland observations prove she was wise not to analyze her emotions in the first place. This shrewdly wrought tale can stand on its own, a monument to passions that defy simple explanations.

(read more)

This section contains 1,172 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Caryn James
Follow Us on Facebook