Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Jessica Neely

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 926 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Jessica Neely

SOURCE: "Divided by Language," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. VI, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 18-19.

In the following review of Cleaned Out and A Woman's Story, Neely notes Ernaux's focus on language, literacy, alienation, and class.

Lying in her dorm room after a backstreet abortion, alone and terrified of hemorrhaging to death, twenty-year-old Denise Lesur recalls the circumstances that brought her to this point of absolute vulnerability. Her intention is to "figure it out, get to the bottom of it all between contractions." What Denise attempts to understand is the divide between herself and her working-class parents, a rift that began when Denise was enrolled in a private school and that widened each year as she acquired the language, desires, and manners of the dominant culture.

Set in postwar France, Cleaned Out (originally published in 1974 as Les Armoires vides …) is the first semiautobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, winner of the Prix Renaudot for La place (1983), a memorial to her father. The English translation of A Woman's Story rounds out a trilogy of Ernaux's novels that explores the recurring motif of an educated woman's exclusion from her family and cultural roots.

Denise Lesur's narrative is a fluid stream of consciousness, at one moment brash, enraged, and at another rich with exquisitely phrased sentiments. The only child of two shopkeepers, Denise is invested with her parents' best hopes for a life filled with the opportunity, culture, and sophistication they cannot themselves have. Denise is spoiled, encouraged to read as many books as she can while her parents work downstairs in the family shop and cafe. All these parents ask of their daughter is that she succeed in school and stay out of trouble with the neighborhood boys.

With admirable attention to tangible detail, Ernaux evokes a childhood grounded in the world of the senses. Denise loves her mother, a vibrant, powerful woman, and recalls: "What seemed beautiful to me was that explosion of flesh, buttocks, breasts, arms and legs bursting out of brightly colored dresses that showed the contours, rode up, flattened, and came apart under the arms."

But it is the very physicality, the roughness of her bluecollar family that Denise rebels against when she compares herself with the daughters of dentists and doctors in her private convent school. Ashamed of her parents, of the drunks who frequent the cafe, Denise retreats into a "world, purer, richer than mine. A world of words." She is praised by her teachers, taught to speak "grammatically," and quickly rises to the top of her class. With pride, Mrs. Lesur buys Denise endless books, carrying them with two hands "as though they were the Holy Sacrament." And thus begins the divide. "What she didn't realize," Denise comments, "was that these same books were shutting me off from her."

As a university student, Denise thrives briefly in this world filled with nothing but studies. Soon, however, she meets a wealthy law student with a patronizing disdain for the working class. Impressed with his privileged background and the language he uses to intellectualize oppression, Denise allows herself to be "undressed layer by layer by the force of his words," willingly dismissing the legitimacy of her objections to him. When Denise becomes pregnant, her lover rebukes her, leaving Denise to pay for the abortion with her scholarship money. The final image in Cleaned Out is of a young woman, betrayed by a culture toward which she has aspired and cut off from parents who nurtured that ambition.

In Norman French, the word "ambition," Ernaux explains in A Woman's Story, "refers to the trauma of separation." In this best-selling novel, a requiem for Ernaux's mother, the author has exchanged the dramatic storyline for a form that is "a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction." Whereas the metaphor of abortion or expulsion shapes the narrative in Cleaned Out, A Woman's Story is a creative act, a reconstruction of one woman's life, located historically and shaped by words. "I am writing about my mother," Ernaux explains, "because it is my turn to bring her into the world."

This beautifully written book is thus the chronicle of one woman's struggle to escape the conditions of poverty, as she works her way from the small-town factories in Normandy to become, with her husband, proprietor of a family store. For Ernaux's unnamed mother, physical accomplishment has served as the measure of self-worth. The author recounts her mother's gregarious nature and the fervor with which she builds a life of sacrifice around the desire for her daughter's advancement.

Ernaux, as family archivist, achieves unflinching objectivity, for example, in relating her mother's awkward determination to improve her vocabulary. Yet this loving attention is also filtered through the author's perspective. The educated daughter looks on, painfully aware of her mother's difference and how these efforts to "improve one's position" are rooted always in economic fact. In her later years, Ernaux's mother comes to live with the author's family. Here Ernaux examines the inevitable conflict on many levels: personal, economic, cultural, Ill-at-ease in her daughter's fine home, "the mother who refused to be helped" rebels against a middle-class lifestyle that simultaneously welcomes and rejects her.

Language has served to divide the pair of women in these two important novels by Ernaux, but it is the author's hope that through writing she may also forge some kind of reconciliation. In A Woman's Story, Ernaux lends her mother's life historical form and so accompanies her into the "world of words and ideas, the world where she had wanted me to live."

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This section contains 926 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jessica Neely
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Jessica Neely from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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