Archive for the ‘Annie Ernaux’ Category

Look at the Lights, My Love

June 5, 2023

Annie Ernaux’s Look at the Lights, My Love (now translated by Alison L Strayer), like Exteriors, is deliberately presented to the reader as a record, a series of journal entries – a different entity from her more reflective work such as A Man’s Place or Happening, and even more so from the book which (perhaps) won her the Nobel Prize, The Years. I mention this as it was subjected to a rather harsh review in the Guardian which described it as a “grab-bag of jottings, which is too presumptuous and banal to merit being published in this raw state.” While the first criticism (That it is a “grab bag of jottings”) is fair, the second is irrelevant (surely all art is presumptuous?) and the third is perhaps the point. As Kate Briggs has put in a much more sympathetic review in the Washington Post:

“Ernaux’s diary is a provocation: to accept these life scenes as worthy of our time and attention.”

The scenes in question revolve around the relatively recent phenomenon of superstores. Ernaux argues that such superstores “provoke thought, anchor sensation and emotion in memory” and that:

“We could definitely write life narratives from the perspective of superstores visited on a regular basis.”

She is also clear about her medium: “not a systematic investigation or exploration but a journal, the form most in keeping with my temperament, which is partial to the impressionistic recording of things, people, and atmospheres.” Her journal begins in 2012, now over ten years ago (Look at the Lights, My Love was originally published in 2014), with her own attraction for visiting the Auchen superstore, “as a way of breaking up the writing day.” The book is not without its criticism of the consumerism championed by the superstore. She speculates on the feelings of those who must check every price:

“The humiliation inflicted by commercial goods: they are too expensive, so I am worth nothing.”

There is mention of a fire in a textile factory in Bangladesh which kills 112:

“Of course, crocodile tears aside, we who blithely reap the benefits of that slave labour cannot be counted on to change anything at all.”

There is also a growing sense of something authoritarian in the way the superstore works, for example when she is told that she “is not allowed to take photos in the store, it is forbidden.” In reference to the self-checkout, she comments on “the growing certainty that consumer docility knows no bounds.” We might even suspect that, rather than a symptom of society, the superstore foreshadows it. But observation is more common than criticism, and, throughout Ernaux includes herself among the consumers, although pointing out after the discovery of a stranger’s shopping list, what we consume to some extent defines us. By visiting the store at different times, Ernaux also notices the customers are not uniform:

“Whole segments of the clientele are segregated from each other by the hours during which they do their shopping.”

Ernaux does not neglect, however, the joy that she witnesses. She spots some young adults looking at toys they used to own: “They look happy, lovably childish.” She sees a grandmother tell a child that they can only have one of two gifts, but then slip the second gift into the trolley. She notes an “ecstatic little boy” holding a packet of dates. She interacts with the staff, many of whom have worked there for years, though often briefly. Longer, more probing, conversations would certainly have added to our understanding of the place but she feels she is “unable to stand outside my status of customer.” This is typical of Ernaux, admitting to her own weaknesses and worries, as she does when she outlines her consideration of whether to say “black woman” – it is a mistake to see these as condescending as Ernaux has always exposed herself, often to her disadvantage, in her work.

Look at the Lights, My Love is certainly not the most vital of Ernaux’s work, and would be no-one’s idea of the best place to become acquainted with her writing, but it does exemplify her method, and her continued ability to look beyond where most writers are looking.

Do What They Say or Else

January 15, 2023

Do What They Say or Else was Annie Ernaux’s second novel (after Cleaned Out), originally published in 1977 and only now translated into English by Christopher Beach and Carrie Noland. It tells the story a fifteen-year-old girl, Anne, set largely in the summer between collège (middle school) and lycee (high school). Like Ernaux herself, Anne is the child of working-class parents who are proud of her educational success but often demonstrate this by nagging her to do better:

“My parents don’t have their high school diplomas, and yet they’re a thousand times more annoying about it than Céline’s parents who are engineers or something.”

In the novel we see her drift away from her parents, her mother in particular. At one point she remembers when her mother worked in a textile factory and would spend Sunday afternoons sleeping. As a child she would lie down beside her, “like two dogs packed into the same crate.” Now even the memory repulses her as she enters adolescence:

“…it doesn’t matter how much my parents talk about how they want the future to be: they’ll always represent my childhood and the past.”

Much of her rejection of her identity as a child is centred around her developing sexuality, and we see many echoes of her later work, A Girl’s Story. “What would I rather have, good grades or a good body?” Anne asks herself, “It would be too much to ask for both.” Her opportunities to meet boys are limited as her mother is watchful and Anne rarely leaves the house. Most of her friends are on holiday, but one day she meets an older girl she knows from school, Gabrielle, and they arrange to go to the fair together after being invited by some boys on scooters, neighbours of Gabrielle:

“…the boys had come, a sign a kind of complicity was growing between us. There wasn’t much else between us, and if you don’t count boys and sexual things we weren’t really friends.”

It is through Gabrielle that Anne meets some older boys who are working at a summer camp for young children. When Gabrielle tells her that she has met a boy there, Anne is desperate to hear about it:

“She made me drool with anticipation, since it was, you might say, my own future that she was going to be telling me about.”

Ernaux’s great skill in articulating Anne’s thoughts, a skill that she will later use in her more autobiographical work, is already evident, from the insightful to the fleeting (“I would have liked to be even uglier than she was so she wouldn’t suspect anything”). It is this, along with her acerbic observations of her own family, that allow the novel to rise above its rather traditional trajectory of lost innocence – though it is perhaps also marked as different by Anne’s less than innocent approach to losing her innocence:

“Alberte said that her mother said that women never like it, and on the swing set I swore that I would like it even if that wasn’t normal.”

She begins to meet one of the camp counsellors, Mathieu, and her intentions are as much physical as they are romantic. It is as if she hopes sex will change her in some way, though inevitably, when it finally happens, it is disappointing:

“When he had succeeded in doing it I felt a brutal emptiness. I had always wondered what it would feel like inside. It felt like nothing.”

Anne becomes aware that she can be treated simply as a body – the word ‘brutal’ appears more than once – but she, too, thinks more about sex than she does about love. She also recognises the double standards at play:

“Curiosity is normal at my age: it would be strange if that wasn’t the case. Except that for girls, curiosity can lead to anything, and it’s frowned upon.”

Ernaux is of my parents’ generation, but her presentation of the confusions and passions of adolescence do not seem dated or irrelevant, despite the fact she is writer who foregrounds the social setting of her characters. It would be interesting to present this novel to a fifteen-year-old girl and ask her if she see anything of herself in Anne. Such is Ernaux’s honesty and accuracy, I strongly suspect she would.

A Girl’s Story

May 24, 2020

Annie Ernaux has written about the power love and desire have to overwhelm us already in Simple Passion, but in her newest work, A Girl’s Story, published in 2016 and now translated by Alison L. Strayer, she recounts her first experience of this as a girl of seventeen spending her summer as an instructor in a holiday camp. As she points out, her anticipation of love is not unusual:

“Wherever they went, girls packed a supply of disposable sanitary towels and wondered with mingled fear and desire if this would be the summer when they’d sleep with a boy for the first time.”

In this girl’s case, this desire is perhaps particularly intense, exacerbated by a social awkwardness caused partly by her lower class origins, and an education at a Catholic girls’ school which leaves her entirely inexperienced in relationships with the opposite sex:

“I picture her arriving at the camp like a filly that has just fled from the paddock.”

Ernaux generally uses the third person, and ‘the girl’ rather than Annie, to describe her experience. Ernaux has, of course, rejected the idea that she writes autobiography or memoir:

“I reject belonging to a specific genre, be it novel or even autobiography. Autofiction doesn’t suit me either. The I that I use seems to me an impersonal form, barely gendered, sometimes even a word belonging more to “the other” than to “me”: a transpersonal form, in short.”

Here, she feels that the girl she is writing about is not only distant from her, but belongs to a part of her life that she “wanted to forget”. “The entire memory of the camp,” she says towards the end, “has been walled up.” Now she must attempt to recall that period and/as the girl that lived through it:

“I am her ghost. I inhabit her vanished being.”

As she explains the process while examining a photograph of herself taken in a cubicle in a girls’ dormitory:

“I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo. To be there at that very instant, without spilling over into the before or after.”

At the holiday camp a dance with one of the head instructors, H, quickly results in the girl being led back to his room on the assumption that she will sleep with him. She is, in a way, nether wiling nor unwilling:

“I do not know exactly when she inwardly consents to losing her virginity. It is not from resignation: she wants to lose it, collaborates.”

H, however, is unable to penetrate her and she remains a virgin. For H the gaol is simple: sexual satisfaction. For the girl it is more complex: she feels responsible for H’s arousal (“She had no right to abandon this man in the state he was in, raging with desire, all because of her”) and she also feels “there was no turning back, things had to run their course.” Her own desires do not even enter into her thoughts:

“She does not even ask herself if she likes him, or finds him attractive.”

For the girl it is the beginning of a relationship but she does not have the skills to build this relationship. She tells him, for example, that he is the second best good-looking man at the camp, thinking this will be taken as a compliment. She becomes “like a dog who begs to be petted and receives a kick instead.”

“She does not give up but simply waits for him to want her.”

She cannot imagine anyone but H taking her virginity, but at the same time “she is proud to be the object of lust, and quantity seems to her the gauge of her seduction value.” This leads to a series of sexual encounters with other boys which, in turn, influence how others see her at the camp.

Ernaux continues the girl’s story beyond the camp as her exploration of the event suggests that its effects were more sustained than she initially thought. She takes us through her final year at high school, he time training to be a teacher, and a period in London working as an au pair. H is not forgotten:

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.”

She also attempts to become the woman she feels he will love, losing weight, learning to swim and dance:

“To make him like me, love me, I had to radically transform.”

Ernaux’s narratives are never self-pitying or self-justifying. This not a story of blame, nor one where she is a victim. She seeks only to understand:

“What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge? … What compels her is the hope of discovering even a drop of likeness between this girl, Annie Duchesne, and any other being.”

Reading Ernaux’s work I frequently understand something new, have intuitions expressed clearly, and recognise experiences which only rarely seem to feature in literature. Her honesty is not simply in her content but in her craft. If it was up to me, I would give every teenager this book.

Lost Books – Positions

June 4, 2019

Although The Years did not win the Man Booker International Prize, its short-listing is one example of the rapturous response which Ernaux’s work has recently received in the UK, a reception which has already seen her begin to return to print. Though the scope of The Years is very different to what she has written before, the method is not entirely new, and something she touches on in Positions when she decides to write about her father’s life:

“If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something ‘moving’ or ‘gripping’.”

Positions, translated by Tanya Leslie, was published by Quartet Books in 1991, its title varying from the same translation in the US where A Man’s Place was chosen to convey the French original, La Place. The variation is interesting as, whereas the American publishers placed the focus on gender (and perhaps also as a counterpoint to A Woman’s Story), in the UK the emphasis is on class (presumably the French title conveys both). The word appears only once (meaning social class) in reference to the customers of her father’s café:

“It was a café of regulars, habitual drinkers who dropped in before or after work, whose place was sacred: gangs from the building site, as well as a few customers whose position meant they could have chosen a less proletarian establishment.”

Social class is, however, at the book’s heart. It begins as Ernaux qualifies as a teacher, perhaps the point at which she feels her class has irrevocably changed. When her father dies shortly after, even the funeral is described in terms of class:

“In distinguished society grief at the loss of a loved one is expressed by tears, silence and dignity. The social conventions observed by my mother, and for that matter the rest of the neighbourhood, had nothing to do with dignity.”

Unlike Edouard Louis, who escaped his poverty in one bound, Ernaux’s parents’ act, to some extent, as bridge between their working-class origins and her middle class existence. From working-class origins they rise to run their own business, a shop and café, leaving her father “both worker and shop keeper.” This leaves them to some extent alienated from both the class they have left and the class they have not yet entered:

“Behind their backs, they were referred to as the rich, which was the worst possible insult.”

It also leaves them with a fear of returning to poverty, “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty.” Her father’s greatest fear, however, is of embarrassment:

“He was always afraid of being ashamed or out of place.”

Ernaux reports, “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.’” One area of possible ‘shame’ is language:

“My father saw patois as something old and ugly, a sign of inferiority. He was proud to have stopped using certain idioms.”

This was something I immediately recognised from my own childhood, where the language my father used at work was different to the one my mother taught us to speak at home (and then was surprised later when there were words or expressions I didn’t know which she knew from her own parents). Ernaux goes as far as to say “anything to do with language was a source of resentment, far more than the subject of money.” It’s an important reminder that class is not simply a matter of income but a more subtle sense of confidence and agency – one reason why, on meeting Ernaux’s future husband, “all they asked from the boy was that he had good manners.” Ernaux understands the difficulty of escaping from the class one is born into:

“Now I often say ‘we’ because I shared his way of thinking for a long time and I can’t remember when I stopped doing so.”

Again, I recognise the difficulty (which she, as a successful writer has managed much better than I) as I still don’t entirely feel I belong in middle class settings (such as, ironically, book festivals). She also admits to the difficulty class creates in writing about her past:

“As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a lifestyle generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it… I am constantly wavering between the two.”

It is Ernaux’s ability to analyse her own responses, as well as penetrate the thoughts and motivations of the characters she writes about, that make her such a rewarding writer, somehow both subjective and objective, both emotional and analytical, at the same time – exactly those qualities which made The Years such a success.


February 24, 2019

“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Annie Ernaux insists at one point in Happening, one of the many thin books through which she has delivered her life in slices over the years, continuing:

“There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.”

This has long been the raison d’etre for her work, now finally beginning to reach a wider audience since the appearance of her life-long chronicle of France, The Years. Happening, translated by Tanya Leslie, and originally published by Seven Stories Press in 2001, tells the story of an abortion Ernaux underwent as a student, which also formed the basis of her first novel Cleaned Out in 1974. It begins with Ernaux waiting for the results of an AIDS test, and the difficulty she still feels in connecting the potential consequences to the act:

“I couldn’t associate the two: love-making, warm skin and sperm, and my presence in the waiting room. I couldn’t imagine sex being related to anything else.”

In a book which is about memory, it is at this moment she is reminded of the abortion:

“I realised that I had lived through these events at Lariboisiere Hospital the same way I had awaited Dr N’s verdict in 1963, swept by the same feelings of horror and disbelief.”

When Ernaux falls pregnant (the father is a fellow student with whom the occasional sexual encounter has not been representative of any deeper relationship) she immediately decides she cannot have the baby, which she describes as “a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs.” Abortion is, of course, illegal at this point, but she says she had little fear of it:

“I wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about getting an abortion. It seemed a highly feasible undertaking, admittedly not an easy one, but one that did not require undue courage.”

Her problem is the legality as she does not know who to turn to:

“Girls like me were a waste of time for doctors. With no money and no connections – otherwise we wouldn’t accidentally end up on their doorstep – we were a constant reminder of the law that could send them to prison and close down their practice for good.”

The book is as much the story of the time attempting to find someone that will help her as it is of the abortion itself. At one point she reminds herself:

“I must resist the urge to rush through those days and weeks, and attempt to convey the unbearable sluggishness of that period as well as the period of numbness that characterizes dreams, resorting to all the means at my disposal – attention to detail, use of descriptive past tense, analysis of events.”

The first person she confides in, a married student, attempts to seduce her. Typically, Ernaux conveys her attitude at the time rather than applying further outrage in hindsight: “It was an unpleasant episode but of very little consequence compared to my condition.” When she is eventually directed to a woman who will perform the abortion for her (in return for payment) it is described in excruciating detail, both the process itself and the aftermath, which will eventually see her taken to hospital. Ernaux is always a very physical writer and does not shy away from the torments of the body as well as the mind, though she is equally brutal with the psychological truth, describing the abortion as “giving birth to me” –

“At that point I killed my own mother inside me.”

Ernaux creates the truth of the book in layers: her recreation of the events, quotations for her journal of the time, and discussion of the process of writing, often delivered in parentheses. She does not proselytise, presenting the abortion neither as a courageous choice or a terrible mistake. Though her books are deeply felt, they are, in a sense, dispassionate, attempting neither to excuse nor justify:

“Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”

The Years

July 2, 2018

In 1985, as described in her newly translated (by Alison Strayer) autobiography The Years, Annie Ernaux begins to consider writing the book we are reading:

“…the idea has come to her to write ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, set between 1940 and 1985. It would be something like Maupassant’s A Life and convey the passage of time inside and outside of herself, in History, a ‘total novel’ that would end with her dispossession of people and things: parents and husband, children who leave home, furniture that is sold.”

It is worth noting that at this point Ernaux had been a published writer for over ten years working in the autobiographical genre, and that what she was imagining was clearly something which went beyond the work she was already producing. Previously her books have tended to focus on one aspect of her life: of the two I have read, for example, Cleaned Out relates her experience of abortion and I Remain in Darkness tells of her mother’s dementia. Now the intention was to produce something all-encompassing and cumulative, a new form which would require a new method, which, twenty years later, she describes:

“It will be slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life… There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before.”

It begins in valedictory fashion: a series of memories introduced with the phrase “All the images will disappear.” The conclusion to this prelude is equally certain:

“Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it.”

What follows both answers and emphasises: The Years preserves the memories within it, but in presenting a lifetime in two hundred pages it encapsulates the brevity, the impermanence.

Ernaux uses the frozen images of photographs as milestones on her journey, beginning with one of “a fat baby with a full, pouty lower lip and brown hair”. She begins, not with her own memories, but with those of the adults around her in her post-war childhood:

“The voices of the guests flowed together to compose the great narrative of collective events, which we came to believe we too had witnessed.”

Ernaux intends not only the milestones of her own life, but the milestones for France in the second half of the twentieth century, ‘the great collective narrative’, while at the same time distrustful of that narrative, noting that the adults “lacked the talent and conviction to speak of things they’d been aware of but had not seen.” Ernaux lacks neither talent nor conviction, and manages a tone that is both incisive and bemused, observant of the tides of change while not immune to being washed along; she is both camera and subject.

What most astonishes in reading The Years is the pace of change. Partly this is material: in her childhood Ernaux tells us:

“We lived in a scarcity of everything, of objects, images, distractions, explanations of self and the world…”

As an adult she sees the development of the ‘consumer society’:

“The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.”

(In case this seems rather distant and high-handed, Ernaux will happily satirise her own behaviour, teaching the dangers of advertising while buying all the latest technology “with a sense of using modernity to intelligent ends” – “For us and by us, consumption was purified.”)

By the book’s end, we find a very different world to that of her childhood:

“We lived in a profusion of everything, objects, information and ‘expert opinions’.”

Similarly there are striking changes in attitudes, to women, for example, and sex. Sex is a topic Ernaux returns to again and again, beginning with the judgements of her youth:

“The unwed mother lost her entire worth and had nothing to hope for, except perhaps a man who would sacrifice himself and take her in, along with the fruit of her sin.”

The contraceptive pill changes everything for women, though initially “we didn’t dare ask the doctor for a prescription and the doctor didn’t offer, especially if one wasn’t married.” Later, too, Ernaux reflects:

“With the pill they had become sole rulers of their lives, but word hadn’t got out yet.”

Ernaux also charts the political scene, the wars (Algeria, Vietnam), the elections, May 1968 and its aftermath. Of course, some of this is less fascinating for the non-French reader, but much of it mirrors political movements in Europe as a whole.

Ernaux’s real success, though, is in combining all of this – political, social, economic – with the personal in a seamless narrative which is breath-takingly sustained. Time and again she finds exactly the right phrase to bring a new experience or thought to life (a Walkman, for example, is “the first time music entered the body”). The overall effect is intelligent, moving and, at times, revelatory.

Cleaned Out

August 19, 2017

Annie Ernaux’s Cleaned Out (translated by Carol Sanders) begins with an illegal abortion (first published in 1974, this scene takes place in 1960). Ernaux spares no detail – the story, as with most of her work, is autobiographical:

“I was on the table, all I could see between my legs was her grey hair and the red snake she was brandishing with a pair of forceps. It disappeared. Unbearable pain. I shouted at the old woman who was stuffing in cotton wool to keep it in place.”

The abortion, however, is the novel’s endpoint rather than its subject. Ernaux is instead intent on exploring the journey which has taken her narrator, Denise Lesur, from childhood to this moment:

“First I was the storekeeper’s daughter, always top of the class. Then a great big lump wearing socks on Sundays, the scholarship student. Then screwed up by a back-street abortionist, and that might be the end of it.”

It’s the story of a young woman caught between two cultures – her working class background and the middle class world she has entered via education – but belonging to neither of them:

“I didn’t always hate my parents, the customers, the store… I hate the others too now, those with education, the professors, the respectable people. I’m sick to death of them.”

Her parents own a store and bar in a poor neighbourhood, providing a level of prosperity which sets them above their customers. Denise’s childhood is a happy one – “I was like a fish in water” – the store means she never has to want for anything on its shelves, and the bar provides her with all the adult attention, unsavoury as some of it is, she needs. She is sent to a private school – a claim on entering the middle classes which her parents shrug off with, “not that we’re snobs, but the private school is nearer.” Though uneducated (or perhaps because they are), her parents place their faith in education – her father pronounces ‘school’ in the same tone as ‘church’. Denise is studious, but finds school “strange, indescribable, I was completely disorientated.” School and home seem like two different worlds: “Not even the same language.”

Denise, of course, does not fit in with the other pupils:

“In feel clumsy and awkward in comparison with the private-school girls, who are confident, who know just what to do.”

Her stories from home are “in poor taste.” Her marks, however, continue to be high:

“The others recognised that I got good marks and was at the top of the class. That knowledge made me feel free, warm, protected.”

The better she does at school, however, the more distant she feels from her life at home:

“I’m not like them. I’m different. I have nothing to say to them.”

School and home also create another dichotomy in Denise’s life. Her sordid origins become connected in her mind with sex; school, on the other hand, represents purity. As her sexual desire develops she sees it as something else that singles her out, a view exacerbated by her Catholic upbringing:

“There’s a monster growing between my legs, a flat, red cockroach, unclean. Don’t ever look at it, don’t ever touch it, don’t let anyone see it, the Devil’s down there…”

She sees her sexuality as something to resist, and her inability to resist it a sign of her own inadequacy, her true, inherited nature which she cannot escape through learning.

Cleaned Out is a fierce, physical book. In Ernaux’s hands, Denise’s emotions are often tangible, spreading through her senses. In an afterword, she talks of, “describing a life in all its aspects, including the affective and sensual, the taste of food, the smell of summer Sundays…” It’s a coming of age story, but also a coming to terms, in which Denise must wrestle with who she is before she can decide who she wants to be.