Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Ann Fortune

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 679 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Ann Fortune

SOURCE: "Upwardly Mobile Norman," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4595, April 26, 1991, p. 23.

Here, Fortune lauds Ernaux's ability to evoke French experiences and an intimate portrait of family life for a universal audience in A Man's Place, which was published in England as Positions.

This exceptionally small book [Positions] is not only a moving personal memorial, but also one of much wider resonance. Annie Ernaux is writing about the life of her working-class father, who came of Normandy peasant stock; and at the same time to a lesser degree—because her focus is on him—recalls her own estrangement from him as a middle-class convent-school education took her to university, and teaching, and a middle-class marriage. She charts, in brilliant, bleached detail, a specifically French experience, though one which can be universally acknowledged.

Her father left school at twelve to work on the farm. Following service in the First World War he moved on, into the new local factory. After marriage to a bright girl there, he bought, with the help of a loan, a modest café-commerce and thus became the first member of his family ever to own property. Annie was born in 1940 when he was forty; he died in 1967.

All his life he slept in his vest and underpants, and ate with a clasp-knife, which he cleaned on his overalls or, after herring, by sticking it in the ground. He knew the song of every bird, and kept an exemplary vegetable garden, as much to observe the seasons as from self-respect. In the Second World War, he hitched a small cart to his bicycle and cycled thirty kilometres through the Normandy bombings to fetch goods for his customers who were unable to patronize the black market; for this he became a local hero, and "looking back felt he had contributed something and lived the war to the full".

It was a beleaguered, gingerly, inhibited life, though, for all its apparent contentment. "He realized we were inferior and refused to accept this, while at the same time doing everything he could to conceal the fact." (No politics, for instance; they were impolitic, in trade.) "He never asked questions which might betray envy or curiosity, so as not to give people a hold over us"; nor did he say anything which might invite envy or curiosity. He had enjoyed "learning", as a child ("In those days one just said learning, like eating and drinking"), and wanted his daughter to be "better than himself", but shunned her school, and grew embarrassed when she stayed there so long. Materially, the family fended off poverty by giving credit to needy customers, who would otherwise have been lured by larger stores and, ultimately, supermarkets. They discreetly exchanged their bicycles for a small Renault, and were called rich (one imagines richards) by the rest of the family, "which was the ultimate insult".

All this is recreated with a quite ferocious economy. "Irony, pathos and nostalgia are something I have always rejected", the author says; and if these seem a dangerously large and mixed bag to throw overboard, she is as good as her word. Difficulties come only from her very proper insistence on language as she recalls it from her youth. "Anything to do with language was a source of resentment and distress", she says, but the book is "an undertaking in which I must remain close to the words and sentences I have heard"; these define the nature and limits of her parent's world.

This places a heavy charge on her otherwise impeccably poised translator, Tanya Leslie, by introducing italics into the text. Ernaux's mother, for instance, "constantly battled with him to go to church"—which presumably conceals se bagarrer—but "mate" and "squire", as parts of demotic speech, chime unhappily with mon vieux or mon pote or patron, which must have been the original. But these are only small moments of unease, in a narrative of otherwise immaculate simplicity. This tiny book conveys a brilliantly delineated microcosm of a family life "governed by necessity". It is also a very poignant labour of "fractured love".

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This section contains 679 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ann Fortune
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