Annie Ernaux Essay - Critical Essays

Ernaux, Annie (Vol. 184)

Introduction

Annie Ernaux 1940-

French novelist, autobiographer, memoirist, critic, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ernaux's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 88.

A critically acclaimed and best-selling author in France, Ernaux is recognized for her highly personal works in which she blends elements of biography, autobiography, and fiction. Through her skillful depictions of often painful memories and emotions, Ernaux creates compelling portraits of past events, while placing them within the larger context of such issues as familial relationships, sexuality, death and loss, class structure, and the social mores of post-World War II France. In 1984 Ernaux was awarded the Prix Renaudot, one of France's top literary honors, for her memoir of her father's life, La place (1983; A Man's Place).

Biographical Information

Ernaux was born on September 1, 1940, in Lillebonne in the Normandy region of France. Her parents, Alphonse and Blanche Duchesne, raised Ernaux as an only child—her older sister died before she was born. Ernaux's family came from working-class backgrounds and owned a small grocery store that housed a café—a setting which figures prominently in many of Ernaux's works. After attending secondary schools in the area surrounding Yvetot, a small town northwest of Rouen, Ernaux attended Rouen University where she earned a degree in letters modernes. In 1964 she married Philippe Ernaux, though the couple later divorced in 1985. After graduating from university, Ernaux worked as a secondary school teacher in Haute-Savoie and Paris and later became a professor at the Centre National d'Enseignement par Correspondance, where she taught from 1977 to 2000. In addition to the Prix Renaudot, Ernaux has won numerous awards and accolades for her writing. Both La place and Une femme (1987; A Woman's Story) were listed as New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and Une femme was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Major Works

Scholars and critics have experienced difficulty in trying to classify Ernaux's narratives into one specific genre due to the author's frequent blending of fictional and autobiographical details. Ernaux's first three published works—Les armoires vides (1974; Cleaned Out), Ce qu'ils disent ou rien (1977), and La femme gelée (1981; A Frozen Woman)—are considered novels, though all three contain elements drawn from Ernaux's own life. In Les armoires vides, Denise Lesur, a young female college student recovering from an illegal abortion, recalls the pain of her childhood, seeking to understand how she came to be in such a state of desperation. Denise laments the fact that circumstances surrounding her abortion have resulted in her alienation from her working-class parents who consistently sacrificed themselves for her well-being. Ernaux employs a fifteen-year-old narrator named Anne in Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, who embodies the common anxieties and ennui of a teenager as she describes her summer vacation from school. Unlike Ernaux's previous two works, La femme gelée follows an unnamed narrator, a woman who recounts her progression through childhood and adolescence. While attending university, the narrator watches her friends become married and begins to question the appeal of a traditional domestic life.

Beginning with La place, Ernaux began publishing more overtly personal narratives, which most critics have labelled either memoirs or autobiographies, despite their literary qualities. La place—Ernaux's memoir of her father—begins with her father's death as the catalyst for a series of reminiscences, focusing on his peasant upbringing, how his humble origins set the limits for his adult life, and the inevitable gulf that separated him from his daughter as she became more educated. Une femme, based on Ernaux's relationship with her mother, adopts a similar structure, viewing the death of Ernaux's working-class mother through the eyes of her estranged, university-educated daughter. Through a retelling of her mother's life story—in which she and her husband save enough money to buy a small grocery-café that enables them to send their daughter to university—Ernaux not only examines the complexities of her past but also draws attention to issues of class, age, and gender identity. Ernaux's next book, the autobiographical novel Passion simple (1991; Simple Passion), traces the obsession of an unnamed first-person narrator as she indulges in a two-month affair with an East European businessman known only as “A.” In Journal du dehors (1993; Exteriors), Ernaux collects a series of her own journal entries, written between 1985 and 1992, which present snapshots of details—her own observations of people, landscapes, images, and memories—in the planned French community of Cergy-Pontoise.

In 1997 Ernaux published La honte (Shame), perhaps her most autobiographical work to date. Centered around a childhood memory of watching her father try to kill her mother, La honte elucidates Ernaux's reflections on the legacy of domestic violence and its effect on her adolescent development. The work recounts in vivid detail the confusion and shame Ernaux experienced during the onset of puberty and traces how her damaged sense of self-esteem led her to obtain an illegal abortion while attending university. Released the same year as La honte, “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” (“I Remain in Darkness”) combines elements of autobiography with the diaristic style of Journal du dehors to construct a narrative around Ernaux's experience of witnessing the mental and physical decline of her mother during the 1980s. In L'événement (2000; Happening), Ernaux offers a literary examination of a period in her life when she became worried that she was infected with the AIDS virus. As Ernaux pursues medical attention, she reflects back to the events described in La honte, describing her abortion in exacting detail. Again returning to the diary format, Se perdre (2001) collects Ernaux's personal journals written during her brief affair with a married businessman—which was previously recounted in Passion simple. Marking Ernaux's return to the novel format, L'occupation (2002) constructs a meditation on jealousy and betrayal through the story of a woman who becomes obsessed with her ex-lover. In addition to her novels, memoirs, and autobiographies, Ernaux has also published La vie extérieure: 1993-1999 (2000), a collection of essays and criticism, and L'écriture comme un couteau (2003), a series of interviews between Ernaux and Frédéric-Yves Jeannet.

Critical Reception

Ernaux's autobiographical fiction and memoirs have met with critical and popular acclaim, and many of her works are often considered “contemporary classics” in her native France. Recognized for their moving and sometimes disturbing portraits of parent-child relationships, Les armoires vides, La femme gelée, and Ernaux's memoirs of her parents have been lauded for their compelling depictions of contemporary French history and society. For example, feminist critics have commended Ernaux for her unflinching portrayal of the emotions surrounding the decision to terminate a pregnancy in Les armoires vides, which was published when the legalization of abortion was a hotly contested political issue in France. Commentators have similarly extolled La place and Une femme as documents detailing the rise of the French middle class in the twentieth century and the ensuing problems associated with social mobility. Though some reviewers have criticized Ernaux's published journals—such as Journal du dehors and Se perdre—as scattered and lacking in narrative focus, others have praised these works for their vivid descriptive detail and insight. Scholars have additionally commented on the combination of fictional and autobiographical information in Ernaux's body of work. Certain critics have lamented the literary elements in Ernaux's prose, arguing that her stylistic flourishes dilute the impact of her true-life recollections. Others have countered this assessment by asserting that Ernaux's emphasis on using narrative devices traditionally reserved for fiction allows her autobiographies to obtain an uncommon level of introspection and accessibility.

Principal Works

Les armoires vides [Cleaned Out] (novel) 1974

Ce qu'ils disent ou rien (novel) 1977

La femme gelée [A Frozen Woman] (novel) 1981

La place [A Man's Place] (memoir) 1983; published in the United Kingdom as Positions

Une femme [A Woman's Story] (memoir) 1987

Passion simple [Simple Passion] (novel) 1991; published in the United Kingdom as Passion Perfect

Journal du dehors [Exteriors] (journal) 1993

La honte [Shame] (autobiography) 1997

“Je ne suis pas sortie...

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Criticism

Victoria Jenkins (review date 23 July 1995)

SOURCE: Jenkins, Victoria. “Annie Ernaux: A Life Full of Irony and Outrage.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1995): 3, 5.

[In the following review, Jenkins regards A Frozen Woman as a “disquieting book,” contending that “what ails Ernaux may be the ennui of privilege, the affliction of the upwardly mobile.”]

In four largely autobiographical volumes, wildly popular in her native France, Annie Ernaux puts aspects of her life under a microscope—her memories of her father and her mother in A Man's Place and A Woman's Story, and her pathologically obsessive love affair with a married man in Simple Passion. In her latest, A Frozen...

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Linda Barrett Osborne (review date 10 November 1996)

SOURCE: Osborne, Linda Barrett. “Snapshots from the Edge.” Washington Post Book World 26, no. 45 (10 November 1996): 6.

[In the following positive review of A Frozen Woman and Exteriors, Osborne lauds Ernaux's “ability to refine ordinary experience, stripping it of irrelevancy and digression and reducing it to a kind of iconography of the late-20th-century soul.”]

Annie Ernaux's work can evoke the same response that some modern art does in viewers: a tendency to think that, because it appears simple or direct in composition, it was simple to conceive, that anyone could create the same forms and impressions. Instead, at her best, Ernaux has the...

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Annie Ernaux and Maria Simson (interview date 9 December 1996)

SOURCE: Ernaux, Annie, and Maria Simson. “Annie Ernaux: Diaries of Provincial Life.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 50 (9 December 1996): 49-50.

[In the following interview, Ernaux discusses her personal history, her writing career, and the inspirations behind Exteriors.]

All writers draw on their lives in their work, but few subject their past to the kind of unflinching examination that Annie Ernaux does. Whether she is describing her adolescent transgressions or her mature, infatuated affair with a married man, she never heroizes or editorializes, never tells readers what they should be feeling.

“Displaying one's feelings in a book,” she says,...

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John O'Brien (review date spring 1997)

SOURCE: O'Brien, John. Review of Exteriors, by Annie Ernaux. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 182.

[In the following review, O'Brien commends Ernaux's descriptive ability in Exteriors, calling the work “a remarkable piece of writing.”]

It has always seemed to me that a great deal of “description” and “details” in novels are done a disservice by being made to serve the “story.” That is, an opening paragraph in a typical novel exists for the sake of setting up character and story, its language subservient to these, and its function finally reduced to that of background music and decoration; in other words, the point is...

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Lawrence D. Kritzman (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Kritzman, Lawrence D. “Ernaux's Testimony of Shame.” Esprit Créateur 39, no. 4 (winter 1999): 139-49.

[In the following essay, Kritzman evaluates Ernaux's treatment of shame in La honte, noting how effectively the author portrays the emotion and its fragmenting effect on self-identity.]

Annie Ernaux's La honte (1997) is a semi-autobiographical work in which the author explores how a traumatic memory is stored and frozen in the mind.1 Her reflection is built on the assumption that memory can never be truly authenticated since traumatic experience precludes direct access to testimony. “Il n'y a pas de vraie mémoire de soi” (37)....

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E. Nicole Meyer (review date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Meyer, E. Nicole. Review of La honte and “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” by Annie Ernaux. World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 107.

[In the following review, Meyer finds La honte and “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” to be complementary books that provide telling insights into Ernaux's past.]

Annie Ernaux's two most recent books appeared almost simultaneously in late 1997. They serve as bookends to each other—similar in their need to disclose a certain truth about an essential event or time in Ernaux's life yet dissimilar in their approach and success.

Presented more as an ethnological...

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Robert Buckeye (review date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Buckeye, Robert. Review of Shame, by Annie Ernaux. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 1 (spring 1999): 175-76.

[In the following review, Buckeye applauds Ernaux's unflinching commitment to literary self-examination in Shame.]

Each book of Annie Ernaux's is the same book, each an effort to explain, resolve and understand the original sin; that she was encouraged by her working-class parents to go further in school than they did so that she might have opportunities they did not; and that the result of her education was to drive a wedge between their lives and hers.

In Shame, her most recent exploration of the stigma she bears,...

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Lyn Thomas and Emma Webb (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Thomas, Lyn, and Emma Webb. “Writing from Experience: The Place of the Personal in French Feminist Writing.” Feminist Review 61 (spring 1999): 27-48.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas and Webb discuss how the autobiographical works of Ernaux and Marie Cardinal fit into the genre of French feminist writing—écriture féminine—examining the critical reaction to their work in France and abroad.]

INTRODUCTION

What kind of images spring to mind when French feminism is referred to? The towering, but in some eyes tarnished, figure of Simone de Beauvoir? Those women in 1968 who despite their male companions' rhetoric of equality found...

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Nora C. Cottille-Foley (essay date April 1999)

SOURCE: Cottille-Foley, Nora C. “Abortion and Contamination of the Social Order in Annie Ernaux's Les armoires vides.French Review 72, no. 5 (April 1999): 886-96.

[In the following essay, Cottille-Foley maintains that the motif of abortion in Les armoires vides “functions as a powerful expression of the protagonist's social alienation.”]

Carefully analyzing the unconscious repression at work in canonical writing, especially in Leviticus, Julia Kristeva casts light on the implicit connections between impurity, contamination, sickness, and the womb of a pregnant woman (116-23). According to Kristeva, the body of the mother has to be abjected and...

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Loraine Day (essay date June 1999)

SOURCE: Day, Loraine. “Fiction, Autobiography and Annie Ernaux's Evolving Project as a Writer: A Study of Ce qu'ils disent ou rien.Romance Studies 17, no. 1 (June 1999): 89-103.

[In the following essay, Day characterizes Ce qu'ils dissent ou rien as an autobiographical novel and a significant work in the evolution of Ernaux's narrative technique.]

In an article which presents an overview of the relationship between autobiography and fiction in French literature in the last twenty years, Jacques Lecarme cites Annie Ernaux as a writer who is fully committed to the exploration of ‘les voies du récit vrai’.1

The...

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Warren Johnson (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Johnson, Warren. “The Dialogic Self: Language and Identity in Annie Ernaux.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 23, no. 2 (summer 1999): 297-314.

[In the following essay, Johnson argues that Ernaux's narrative style is a projection of her personal identity and comments that, throughout her oeuvre, “Ernaux traces the coming into being of a female speaking subject, buffeted by the currents of contending discourses against which she struggles to define herself.”]

For the ten-year-old Denise Lesur of Ernaux's first book, Les armoires vides (Cleaned Out [literally, The Empty Wardrobes], 1974), a voracious reader of escapist...

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Nancy K. Miller (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Miller, Nancy K. “Memory Stains: Annie Ernaux's Shame.a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 14, no. 1 (summer 1999): 38-50.

[In the following essay, Miller maintains that the feelings of shame and self-pity expressed in Shame transcend class boundaries and function as a unifying thematic concern for Ernaux's readers.]

The force which opposes scopophilia, but which may be overridden by it … is shame.

—Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on Sexuality

I've always wanted to write books that I could not speak about afterwards, and that made the gaze of...

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Nancy K. Miller (review date July 1999)

SOURCE: Miller, Nancy K. “Ethnographers of the Self.” Women's Review of Books 16, nos. 10-11 (July 1999): 35-6.

[In the following review, Miller compares Shame with Anne Roiphe's 1185 Park Avenue, asserting that the works are connected by “scenes of emotional soil that stain memory, leaving a residue of unresolved emotion—and the scars of witness.”]

Could two memoirs be more different? Why did both have the power to move me? One by a French woman writer who grew up in a space above her parents' café-grocery so cramped that she shared a bedroom and a chamber pot with her mother and father at night; the other by an American woman writer who spent...

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James Sallis (review date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Sallis, James. Review of “I Remain in Darkness,” by Annie Ernaux. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 1 (spring 2000): 193-94.

[In the following excerpt, Sallis praises Ernaux's “ambitious” combination of fictional and autobiographical details in “I Remain in Darkness.”]

Annie Ernaux's work is remarkably of a piece, each book circling back to paraphrase, correct, emendate, and reinvest earlier ones. Einstein said of himself that in his life he'd had only one or two ideas. So it is with Ernaux, and she has made a life's agenda of drawing out the universe implicit in those ideas. Her work, with its blurring of fictional, autobiographical,...

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Loraine Day (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Day, Loraine. “Revisioning the ‘Matricidal’ Gaze: The Dynamics of the Mother-Daughter Relationship and Creative Expression in Annie Ernaux's ‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’ and La honte.Dalhousie French Studies 51 (summer 2000): 150-73.

[In the following essay, Day explores the parallels between “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte, focusing on the role of the mother-daughter relationship in Ernaux's work.]

The work of Annie Ernaux explores a verifiable personal history, embedded in a specific social and historical context, using the process of writing itself as the primary research tool. Focusing on...

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Rosemary Lancaster (essay date November 2000)

SOURCE: Lancaster, Rosemary. “‘We Are What We Eat’: Food, Identity and Class Difference in Annie Ernaux's Les armoires vides and La femme gelée.Essays in French Literature 37 (November 2000): 114-25.

[In the following essay, Lancaster posits that food functions as a signifier of class in Les armoires vides and La femme gelée and notes that both narratives “cast doubts on the possibility of achieving social integration by personal efforts at betterment.”]

Le goût [du peuple] est amor fati, choix du destin, mais un choix forcé, produit par des conditions d'existence qui, en excluant comme pure...

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Pamela A. Genova (review date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Genova, Pamela A. Review of L'événement, by Annie Ernaux. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 136-37.

[In the following review, Genova compliments Ernaux's attempts to present a literary examination of an emotionally-troubling incident in L'événement.]

A new book by Annie Ernaux, L'événement, not only presents a first-person narrative describing the events of a difficult experience for a young woman in Rouen in 1963; it also simultaneously offers a study in memory and time, in the dynamics of the elusive nature of human emotion and the individual attempt to recapture, reexperience, and translate in writing an episode of deeply...

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Susan Marson (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Marson, Susan. “Women on Women and the Middle Man: Narrative Structures in Duras and Ernaux.” French Forum 26, no. 1 (winter 2001): 67-82.

[In the following essay, Marson contends that a comparison between Une femme and Marguerite Duras's Le Ravissement de Lol v. Stein “provides a terrain for questioning the specificity of women's writing, by asking how they both use and perceive the language of narrative.”]

It is hard to imagine two texts more different in style and subject matter than Annie Ernaux's Une femme and Marguerite Duras's Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, even though they are both narratives written by women and...

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Jennifer Willging (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Willging, Jennifer. “Annie Ernaux's Shameful Narration.” French Forum 26, no. 1 (winter 2001): 83-103.

[In the following essay, Willging examines the recurring authorial voice in Ernaux's works, arguing that the author's surprising admissions in La honte represent an attempt on Ernaux's part to bring a sense of closure to her autobiographical accounts of her adolescence.]

In La honte (1997), Annie Ernaux describes a painful childhood experience to which she makes no explicit reference in previous accounts of her youth.1 In that “écriture plate”2 which has been her signature style since 1984, she writes: “Mon père...

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Lucy Dallas (review date 27 April 2001)

SOURCE: Dallas, Lucy. “Writing the True History of Love.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5117 (27 April 2001): 25.

[In the following review, Dallas compares Se perdre with Ernaux's earlier work Passion simple, asserting that Passion simple presents a more engaging blend of “fact and fiction.”]

Annie Ernaux is a respected writer and teacher who has always drawn on her own life and experience to furnish her books. These used to be called novels, but within the past ten to fifteen years, she has been producing directly autobiographical work. She has said of her books “Ce ne sont ni des romans ni de l'autofiction. Ce sont des récits...

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Elizabeth Richardson Viti (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Viti, Elizabeth Richardson. “Passion simple and Madame, c'est à vous que j'écris: ‘That's MY Desire.’” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 25, no. 2 (summer 2001): 458-76.

[In the following essay, Viti draws comparisons between the definition of desire in Ernaux's Passion simple and Alain Gérard's Madame, c'est à vous que j'écris.]

No two texts better exemplify the contemporary “he said, she said” phenomenon than Annie Ernaux's Passion simple (Simple Passion) and Alain Gérard's Madame, c'est à vous que j'écris (Madam, It Is To You That I Am Writing). Ernaux's book, published in 1991,...

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Julie Abramson (review date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Abramson, Julie. Review of Se perdre, by Annie Ernaux. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 171-72.

[In the following review, Abramson explores the role of truth in Se perdre and comments that the work investigates “the relationship between experience and its representation in writing.”]

In the introductory pages to Se perdre, Annie Ernaux informs us that the subject of her latest work is the same as that of Passion simple, published a decade ago in 1992 (see WLT 67:1, p. 152). Both works give accounts of Ernaux's love affair in 1988-89 with a married Soviet diplomat, referred to as S. Shortly following the fall...

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E. Nicole Meyer (review date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Meyer, E. Nicole. Review of La vie extérieure: 1993-1999, by Annie Ernaux. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 179.

[In the following review of La vie extérieure: 1993-1999, Meyer contends that “Ernaux's talent lies in her distinctive style, characterized by its simplicity, truthful nature, and occasional brutal violence.”]

For Annie Ernaux, a journal does not necessitate intimacy, but rather a series of neutral observations on “exterior” life. The RER, supermarket, shopping mall, and other aspects of modern daily life reappear throughout her journal entries, peppered among brief mentions of social and political events....

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Nancy K. Miller (essay date March 2002)

SOURCE: Miller, Nancy K. “Unsafe and Illegal.” Women's Review of Books 19, no. 6 (March 2002): 11.

[In the following essay, Miller views Happening as both an account of Ernaux's illegal abortion and also a “meditation on the nature of memory.”]

It's hard to forget your first abortion. The memory of that experience haunts coming-of-age accounts of life before the pill. The clandestine solution to unwanted (unthinkable would be closer to the emotional truth) pregnancy punctuates women's memoirs of this period—Audre Lorde's Zami or Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters—and looms large in women's fiction from Mary McCarthy's A Charmed...

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Gregory Howard (review date summer 2002)

SOURCE: Howard, Gregory. Review of Happening, by Annie Ernaux. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 2 (summer 2002): 246.

[In the following review, Howard praises Ernaux's honesty and descriptive detail in Happening.]

In Happening Ernaux returns to the experience of her illegal abortion that she plumbed in Cleaned Out. While that book used fiction to explain and expunge, this book self-consciously returns to convey and contemplate. I say self-consciously because Ernaux has written a detailed, explicit book not only about her pregnancy and abortion, but also about remembering and writing. The book was written over the course of nine months; by...

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