Annie Ernaux | Critical Review by Patricia Laurence

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 1,057 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Patricia Laurence

Critical Review by Patricia Laurence

SOURCE: A review of A Woman's Story, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 270-71.

In the review below, Laurence praises the narrative structure and stylistic features of A Woman's Story.

"Mother died" are two words that reverberate in French literature ever since Camus's L'Etranger. In Annie Ernaux's A Woman's Story, the same spare words evoke an intimacy with the reader never achieved in Camus's description of Mersault's alienated relationship. "We think back through our mothers if we are women," observes Virginia Woolf, and Annie Ernaux also thinks back: "It was only when my mother—born in an oppressed world from which she wanted to escape—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." And so the mother's life of giving passes into the life of the writing daughter.

An Excerpt from a Woman's Story

When I think of my mother's violent temper, outbursts of affection and reproachful attitude, I try not to see them as facets of her personality but to relate them to her own story and social background. This way of writing, which seems to bring me closer to the truth, relieves me of the dark, heavy burden of personal remembrance by establishing a more objective approach. And yet something deep down inside refuses to yield and wants me to remember my mother purely in emotional terms—affection or tears—without searching for an explanation.

She was a working mother, which meant that her first duty lay with the customers who were our livelihood. I wasn't allowed to interrupt her when she was serving in the shop. (I can remember standing behind the kitchen door, waiting for a few stands of embroidery silk, permission to go and play, and so on.) If I made too much noise, she would burst into the room, slap my face and go back to the counter without uttering a single word. I learned at an early age how to behave with the customers: "Say hallo in a nice, clear voice," "Don't eat or quarrel in front of them," "Don't criticize anybody." I was also taught to view them with distrust: "Never believe what they say," "Keep an eye on them when they're alone in the shop." She had two expressions, one for the customers and one for us. When the bell rang, she went in and played the part, her face beaming, a paragon of patience, asking people the ritual questions about their health, the children, and the garden. Back in the kitchen, she flopped into a chair and the smile faded. She remained speechless for a few moments, exhausted by the role she had taken on. She felt both excited and depressed by the idea that she worked so hard for people who, she was sure, would stop coming to her as soon as they "found somewhere cheaper."

She was a mother everyone knew, a sort of public figure. At school, when I was sent to the blackboard, they would say: "Suppose your mother sells ten packets of coffee each at …" (Naturally, they never mentioned the other possibility, which was equally likely: "Suppose your mother sells three aperitifs each at …")

She was always in a rush. She never had time to do the cooking and look after the house "properly," sewing on a button seconds before I left for school, or ironing her blouse on a corner of the kitchen table before slipping it on. At five o'clock in the morning, she scrubbed the floor and unpacked the cardboard boxes. In summer she weeded the rosebeds before opening the shop. She was a quick, energetic worker and the chores which gave her the most satisfaction were, strangely enough, the most strenuous ones, the ones she cursed, like washing the sheets and scouring the bedroom floor with steel wool. She found it impossible to lie down or read a book without giving an excuse, for instance, "I think I deserve a little rest now." (And even then, if she was interrupted by a customer, she would hide her novel under a pile of clothes that needed darning.) The arguments she had with my father always centered on the same subject: the amount of work they carried out respectively. She used to complain: "I'm the one who does everything around here."

Annie Ernaux, in her A Woman's Story, translated by Tanya Leslie, Ballantine Books, 1991.

For this is not only a story about mothers and daughters, but also a story about class. Everything about Ernaux's hard-working mother, born in a small, windswept town of Yvetot, in Normandy—her escape from poverty and the threat of alcoholism, her youth as a factory worker, her early marriage, her life as a shopkeeper—was geared to her daughter's education. Sent away to a privileged boarding school, Ernaux was "both certain of her love for me and aware of one blatant injustice: she spent all day selling milk and potatoes so that I could sit in a lecture hall and learn about Plato." This daughter, writing a book after her mother's death, never forgets that having the time and the ability to write is "a form of luxury." The book then becomes a giving back through giving literary birth: "I believe I am writing about my mother because it is my turn to bring her into the world."

The word empty reverberates in the lyrical descriptions of Ernaux's own feelings and her mother's last days as she slowly "slipped into a world without seasons" suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It is at the sparsely attended funeral that Ernaux vows: "I wanted the ceremony to last forever, I wanted more to be done for my mother, more songs, more rituals." The writing about her mother is a ritual of "doing more" and reexperiencing her again: the times and pleasures shared when she was alive—a continued conversation.

Ernaux describes her book as a literary venture, and the genre as a cross between family history, sociology, reality, and fiction. For the reader, the tension of the crossing resides in both the objective approach in which she "searches for an explanation" of her mother's life in a glancing way, and in the emotional terms—"the affection and the tears"—delivered in bare sentences and stark images, the strongest part of this book.

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This section contains 1,057 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Patricia Laurence
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