Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Ginger Danto

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 757 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Ginger Danto

SOURCE: "'When Mother Became History,'" in The New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1991, p. 13.

In the review below, Danto discusses thematic aspects of A Woman's Story, lauding the volume's originality and tender portrait of Ernaux's mother.

In her 1964 novella, A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir wrought from the charged theme of a dying mother a portrait of a daughter's own emotional trial. Moreover, because the story concerned the author's mother, readers had the option of considering it as literature or life.

The trend encouraged by de Beauvoir garnered an enthusiastic response in France, which may explain the success of more recent practitioners of this genre, notably Annie Ernaux, a professor of literature whose last two novels, La Place and Une Femme, describing the deaths of her father and mother, respectively, became best sellers. Like de Beauvoir, with whom she has been compared, Ms. Ernaux all but relinquishes any pretense of fiction, annotating the deaths of her protagonists with the exquisite intimacy of one who knew them in life. But it is in tempering the poignancy of this knowledge with a spare, almost coded prose style that Ms. Ernaux makes of her generic topics infinitely original books.

Thus A Woman's Story, which has been effectively translated by Tanya Leslie, offers a selective memoir of a mother's incremental deterioration due to Alzheimer's disease and her subsequent death. Though from the outset we are told dates and places—the mother dies on April 7 in a nursing home in the Parisian suburb of Pontoise—and reality elsewhere intrudes in footnotes for newspaper citations, we are spared proper names. Even the ghosts of a once-large farming family remain anonymous, though we learn that attrition caused by alcoholism and other afflictions left few witnesses at this woman's grave. Among them, however, is the stricken narrator, who decides that a life distilled to an inventory of belongings assembled in a plastic bag, courtesy of the nursing home, must, through a form of fiction, be brought back.

So from the broad facts of her birthplace in the small, wind-swept town of Yvetot, in Normandy, to such details as her dress size, which expands unabashedly with age, or the shade of makeup worn to conceal the passage of the years, the mother comes systematically into focus. From a youth lost to factory work and an early marriage, she was determined to use her limited intellect and lesser means to realize "the only ambition which lay within her reach: running a grocery business." The shop she kept, on and off, until her health failed became the secure setting from which she experienced the world—the neighbors who brought more gossip than business, the war remembered fondly for generating both.

But it is the book's gracious anonymity—we will not recognize its characters' names on tombstones—that gives this work its ultimate leverage as fiction. It suggests that A Woman's Story is every woman's story, the story of every daughter who loses a mother, every matriarch whose power ebbs with time and every widow who surreptitiously loosens her fierce grip on life.

Indeed, all three themes unfold in this brief book, whose power rests not in the drama of its main event but in moments that might escape unnoticed, if not for a writer desperate to recapture every last image that her memory reluctantly yields of a lost loved one. For, just as it is in the meeting of glances or in words left unsaid that the deepest communication can occur, so a person's essence can become apparent in unguarded moments when enacting the odd, idiosyncratic rituals that reveal the most private self: thus the mother ceremoniously washes her hands before touching books or stows sugar lumps in her apron while on a diet. These are the things a daughter sees, a tender witness to half-mad acts who wonders if, when she reaches her mother's age, she will act the same way herself.

Ms. Ernaux's quest for truth is evident not just in such details but also in their arrangement. Her narrative mimics the nature of mourning that rocks the conscience back and forth between awareness and denial. As such, this book about the mourned reveals much about the mourner, who writes, "It was only when my mother … became history that I started to feel less alone and out of place in a world ruled by words and ideas, the world where she had wanted me to live."

It is a world from which a once-ungrateful daughter can make amends by infusing the notion of literature into a most ordinary life.

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This section contains 757 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ginger Danto
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