Annie Ernaux | Ruth Caldwell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 775 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Ruth Caldwell

SOURCE: "A Life Cut Short," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 6, March, 1991, p. 14.

In the following favorable assessment, Caldwell offers a thematic discussion of Cleaned Out, noting Ernaux's emphasis on loss and alienation.

In the loneliness of her dorm room, a university student waits to expel the results of a back-alley abortion and simultaneously passes her life in review. This unconventional voice, speaking the unspeakable, comes from the first novel of Annie Ernaux, who is best known in France for a book written about her father (La Place, published … in 1984), which won the Prix Renaudot. She has also written a bestseller about her mother [Une Femme, 1988]. If Cleaned Out (originally published … in 1974 as Les Armoires vides) is the first of Ernaux's books to be published in English in the United States, it may be less for chronological reasons than because there is something in the narrator's experience that Americans can make their own.

Denise Lesur frames her story with the image of a ruined woman and all its associations of shame, filth, degradation and failure. The only child of two shopkeepers struggling to rise from a blue-collar background, Denise has been an adored daughter and luminary hope for a better future. Sifting through her childhood memories, in between contractions, Denise acknowledges her parents' sacrifices, their amazement at her natural academic talent, and her mother's admonitions to beware the worst of all fates to befall a woman: pregnancy outside of marriage. She remembers scandals whispered by customers in her mother's grocery, and the day Denise's mother exploded at her and hit her because a neighbor reported seeing her walk with a boy along a country lane. This powerful mother counts on education as her daughter's ticket to a better existence.

The image of education as salvation also dominates the American psyche; but there are few novels by women that concentrate on the way in which education inevitably means loss. Denise is sent to private school, partly because of her parents' desire for social betterment, partly because the school is close by, which makes it easier for them, as two working parents, to adjust. But at school, Denise enters a world that devalues her family's manners and language. She learns that certain of her expressions are "vulgar," that her parents, aunts and uncles are very far from the elegance that is such a major French cultural value. Denise distances herself from her parents, partly out of typical adolescent rebellion and partly by her academic success, which enables her to learn the language of the dominant culture and to view her milieu through its perspective. In her school-book English, she writes in her diary the judgment her snoopy mother will not be able to understand: "My mother is dirty, mad, they are pigs!"

In the end, the dominant culture which alienates her from her background is inaccessible to Denise as well. No matter how well she succeeds at school, she is an outsider, unaware of the social codes that control sexuality, uncomfortable when she meets her well-to-do boyfriend's mother, who "has no need of degrees or anything to boost her confidence." She feels tongue-tied and incompetent, and lets her pre-law student lover explain to her the reasons for her self-induced oppression. "Undressed layer by layer by the force of his words," she falls in love with her educator and possible white knight—only to be left to pay for her own abortion out of her scholarship money. The real loss here is not so much the child in the womb as the child that Denise no longer can be.

The language that has liberated her from her milieu is of no help to her now. Her assigned literary texts become mute: they have nothing to say about her situation, unknowable and unspeakable. Like immigrants or colonized peoples everywhere, Denise, a foreigner in her own culture, must face the problem of expressing herself in the language of her conqueror. In her most recent books, Emaux has abandoned story, since she sees this cultural form as inadequate for the rendering of her class experience. But in Cleaned Out, Ernaux has Denise tell her story in her mind, searching to comprehend it.

Carol Sanders' translation is faithful to the original, maintaining the flow of the speaker's stream of consciousness as well as the levels of language that reflect her conflicting worlds. For the reader in English, Sanders is also successful in making many specific cultural references come alive. This last point is essential, for Annie Ernaux's greatest stylistic accomplishment is her wealth of concrete detail: sights, smells and names which almost miraculously transform themselves into universal experience.

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This section contains 775 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Ruth Caldwell
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