Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Diann Blakely Shoaf

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 885 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Diann Blakely Shoaf

SOURCE: A review of A Woman's Story, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 11, No. 5, July-August, 1991, p. 6.

In the following, Shoaf offers praise for A Woman's Story, classifying the volume as a "fictional memoir."

Though little known in the U.S., the fiction of Annie Ernaux frequently makes the bestseller list in her native France. A Woman's Story, a biographical novel about Ernaux's mother, and its companion work, La Place, a portrait of her father, are both taught to French schoolchildren as contemporary classics. The former, first published in the U.S. this past Mother's Day, appropriately enough, begins with Ernaux's account of her visit to the convalescent home—where Mme. Ernaux had resided for several years—immediately after being notified of her mother's death. In terse, elegant prose, she describes the minutiae surrounding the event—the facility's custom of having "the body of the deceased remain in its room for two hours following the time of death"; the inventory of personal belongings Ernaux must sign for; the choosing among several models of caskets—the prices of which, she is told, include tax. Ernaux presents these details with a realism and detachment reminiscent of Flaubert, with whom she shares a Norman birthplace. This strategy of distance allows Ernaux both to write about her mother in the midst of the numbness and confusion that accompany grief and to tell the truth, without distortion or sentimentality, about the woman who gave her life.

The scope of A Woman's Story, however, extends beyond the history of a single person, presenting as it does a deftly factual account of what it was like to come of age in rural France during the early part of this century. Ernaux's mother left school at the age of twelve to work in a margarine factory, scarcely an uncommon fate in those days. The hardships and privations of day-to-day existence for her and other members of her family later resulted in an equally common affliction, as Ernaux relates:

Unless [the members of her mother's family] had had a certain amount to drink, they remained sullen and taciturn. They slogged through their work in silence, "a good employee," or "a charwoman who never gave any cause for complaint." Over the years they got used to being judged solely in terms of how much they had drunk, they were "tipsy" or they were "sloshed." One year, on Whit Saturday, I met my aunt M. … on the way back from school. It was her day off and as usual she was going into town with a shopping bag full of empty bottles. She kissed me on both cheeks, swaying slightly, incapable of uttering a single word. My writing would never have been what it is had I not met my aunt that day.

Her aunt was not the only formative influence on the young Ernaux. Her mother, who through relentless work achieved far greater material success for herself, her husband, and her small daughter than did her brothers and sisters, was also dedicated to the notion of "self-improvement," believing that it "was first and foremost a question of learning and [that] nothing was more precious than knowledge." Indeed, we are told that books were the only objects Mme. Ernaux handled with any care or delicacy—"she washed her hands before touching them." The same gesture is seen in a heartbreakingly different context several years later, after Ernaux has left home to attend university, then to marry and raise a family of her own. After her father died of a coronary, Ernaux writes, she watched her mother tenderly washing his face, then:

easing his arms into the sleeves of a freshly-laundered shirt and slipping him into his Sunday best. As she dressed him, she lulled him with soft, gentle words, as if he were a child one bathes and sends to sleep. When I saw her neat, simple movements, I realized she had always known he would die first. The first night following his death, she would lay down beside him in bed. Until the undertakers removed his body, she popped upstairs to see him between customers, just as she had done during his four-day illness.

Ernaux performs similar functions for her mother when she begins slipping into the later stages of Alzheimer's disease. The author discusses with candor and directness the pain and resentment that are the natural concomitants of such duties. For we want, and in some ways, expect, our mothers to take care of us—lovingly, sternly, with unquestionable devotion—always; anyone who has assumed the care of an aging parent will immediately understand the anguished truth behind Ernaux's protest that she didn't want her mother "to become a little girl again, somehow she didn't have the right."

This "fictional memoir" was written in part, Ernaux says, to give her the peace of mind she felt would come when she found a way to unite the Alzheimer's victim with the strong-willed, energetic woman her mother had once been. It was surely also written to bring about the birth of the fully adult self: "I believe I am writing about my mother," Ernaux states, "because it is my turn to bring her into the world." A Woman's Story is thus an act of great love and of great pain, and there could be no better introduction of its author to this country.

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This section contains 885 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Diann Blakely Shoaf
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