Annie Ernaux | Critical Essay by Carol Sanders

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 1,104 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Carol Sanders

Critical Essay by Carol Sanders

SOURCE: An afterword to Cleaned Out by Annie Ernaux, translated by Carol Sanders, Dalkey Archive Press, 1990, pp. 124-27.

In the following excerpt, which was taken from the translator's afterword to the English-language version of Les armoires vides, Sanders provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Cleaned Out, briefly examining Ernaux's aims and discussing the volume's themes, style, and place within the context of her other works.

"The plan to write Les Armoires vides matured in me for five years," Annie Ernaux recently wrote me concerning Cleaned Out, "until I became certain of one thing: the book would be a quest, as well as an explanation of the social and cultural divide that I had experienced. Born of working-class parents who became small shopkeepers, I had gradually changed in my tastes, my habits, my interests, and my whole outlook on the world, as a result of an education which took me away from my original background. For a long time I refused to admit this divide; no one spoke about it, said what it was like, or how it came about. I had no intention of writing a theoretical treatise; rather I wanted to re-create the way in which the divide worked by describing a life in all its aspects, including the affective and sensual, the taste of food, the smell of summer Sundays—for I remain convinced that being is first and foremost sensation. In other words, I wanted to challenge the notion of high culture as representing the supreme Good and Truth, while in reality it is inseparable from people's economic status and the work they do. But I wanted to do this through the medium of a novel and its main character, Denise Lesur, who, though she is very close to one of my former egos, is nevertheless a fictitious character. It is Denise's voice, her interior monologue, that is the vehicle for everything in the novel: feelings, the evocation of working-class life, and the social comment.

"From the very first line—this is something that I can see more clearly now—there is in Les Armoires vides a desire to transgress all boundaries. In its content: saying the unsayable, feeling ashamed of one's parents, humiliated, wanting to be like everyone else; speaking about the female body, menstruation, erotic pleasure, abortion. Above all, I wanted to use not the refined style that I use as a teacher of literature, but an idiom that, by being brutally direct, working-class and sometimes obscene, would take issue with the French tradition of the polished sentence, of 'good taste' in literature.

"Later on, just before writing La Place, I realized that such verbal violence probably seemed 'exotic' to intellectuals and middle-class readers. My provocative language perhaps did no more than reconfirm the existence of an established and entrenched social and cultural order. But in Les Armoires vides, I felt that the only voice available to me was one in which I denounced that order in terms both coarse and violent, and with the mockery that is the natural weapon of the aggrieved and underprivileged who want to assert themselves.

"When I look through Les Armoires vides again, I know full well that the novel represents an act, undertaken rashly and without heed for the consequences for myself, but one which meant that henceforth for me writing would be a deciphering of real life, something which is far removed from the lyrical, ahistorical and asocial literature which I had thought I wanted to engage in when I was twenty years old."

If in her later novels, Ernaux's style will appear more controlled, her sentences more "polished," this, her first novel, presents the outpourings, the exploratory delights and the pent-up anger of a young woman split between two worlds. On the one hand, there is the world of home, dominated by the "café-alimentation," bar and grocery store, run in a poor part of town by Denise's parents and frequented by workmen and old people who live on credit and pepper their speech with obscenities and the patois of Normandy. On the other, the middle-class world of a private Catholic school, with its confident and cultured children, with modes of comportment that are at first quite alien to Denise. In France of the 1950s it was unusual for someone of a working-class background to pass the "baccalauréat" (the final secondary school exam needed for university entrance and any professional career), and even rarer for her to aim for the "agrégation" (the highly competitive exam which still represents a pinnacle of achievement in the French university system). In showing how the two languages used at home and school—far from being two ways of saying "the same thing"—encapsulate two different value systems and worldviews, Ernaux is telling us in novel form what would be said in a more theoretical fashion a few years later by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

This consciousness of the difference between her childhood background and the circles into which she moves as a young woman remains a recurring motif in all her novels. Indeed, Cleaned Out contains in germ the central themes of her subsequent writing: the passage from adolescence to womanhood in Ce qu'ils disent ou rien (1977), the frustrations of the housewife-mother in La Femme gelée (1981), the death of her father in La Place (1983), for which she won the Prix Renaudot, her relationship with her mother and her death in Une Femme (1987).

In the same year as Ernaux's first novel, there appeared an impassioned plea by another woman novelist (Annie Leclerc in Parole de femme, 1974) for women to have a voice, to have their own language free from male domination and male definitions of logic and linearity. Ernaux is trying to give women a new voice, both in what she speaks about and in the form of her novel. It is not surprising that woman writers, who are describing "private" things whose public expression has until recently been suppressed, frequently choose to use an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical form. A process of honest questioning leads Ernaux in her later novels to describe her writing as part fiction, part autobiography, and part social history.

If Cleaned Out contains a powerful evocation of working-class life in France in the 1950s, this is less due to documentary interest than because it represents an essential part of the rigorous self-analysis undertaken by a young woman determined to work out what has led her to her present situation and what has made her who she is. Her sifting through the past in the light of the present is thus both an exorcising, a cleaning out, and an attempt to come to terms with that past.

(read more)

This section contains 1,104 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Carol Sanders
Follow Us on Facebook