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Annie Ernaux 1940-

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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

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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 de ma nuit” [“I Remain in Darkness”] (autobiography) 1997

L'événement [Happening] (autobiography) 2000

La vie extérieure: 1993-1999 (essays and criticism) 2000

Se perdre (journal) 2001

L'occupation (novel) 2002

L'écriture comme un couteau [with Frédéric-Yves Jeannet] (interviews) 2003

Victoria Jenkins (review date 23 July 1995)

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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 Woman, she examines her transformation from a rollicking hoyden into an aggrieved and resentful wife and mother.

“Fragile and vaporish women, spirits with gentle hands, good fairies of the home who silently create beauty and order, mute, submissive women—search as I may, I cannot find many of them in the landscape of my childhood,” Ernaux begins. Her ribald, energetic female relations—her grandmother, great-aunts and her mother—are bad housekeepers and indifferent cooks who work in the fields or in factories, are uninterested in children and gossip over coffee fortified with brandy.

These are women apparently untroubled by convention. Thinking herself alone in her garden, the grandmother spreads her legs under her long skirts and urinates standing up. Yet Ernaux says of this grandmother, “Once she'd been like me, running around, going to school, with no idea what was coming, and then disaster struck …” A good student, the head of her class, she gave up her studies to help out at home. But it's hard to see the disaster in this; her life as Ernaux tells it seems to have been rich and happy anyway.

The Eden of Ernaux's childhood is her parents' combined cafe and grocery, an eventually lost world of innocence that is based on the aura of equality engendered by the interchangeable roles her parents play in this enterprise. “They know the same things, they worry about the same things,” she writes, and their responsibility for various tasks “… seems to have evolved according to their personal preferences and abilities.”

Ernaux is an only child, an afterthought, as she says, her mother's darling, her father's pet. The conventions of the papa who goes to work while the mama stays home and cleans house are merely sentences assigned as school exercises for spelling and grammar. Ernaux doesn't realize that her parents' partnership is unusual. She's encouraged to read and study, her school achievements are applauded. Her mother is aiming high, no factory work for her daughter. “So nothing is asked of me that might hamper my success, no little chores or housework that would tire me out,” Ernaux writes.

What her mother doesn't calculate on is the power of men, the allure of sex, the biological imperative that all too quickly subverts the high ideals. The first part of A Frozen Woman is a paean to childhood, what follows is an angry lament. The unfettered and indulged girl grows into a woman, choices are made, and these choices—marriage and children—constrain and encumber her.

Now begins a life that includes the career woman's “second shift,” which calls for all the conventionally female tasks somehow to be fitted in at the edges of the days while professional ambitions languish and recreation is non-existent. So much is deferred, so much compromised.

And yet here, exploring a conundrum that plagues so many modern women, Ernaux loses some sympathy. Her voice becomes distinctly petulant. No stiff upper lip for her, no looking on the bright side. She's keeping score, tabulating the mounting injustice. Yet this philippic is also funny, laced with acerbic, self-deprecating wit and droll observations on the absurdities of domestic life. Talking about her son's nap, “the great prize of the day,” she's speaking for all mothers when she writes, “For two years, in the flower of youth, I see all the freedom of my life hang by the thread of a dozing child … a fragile respite, poisoned by the fear of a premature awakening …”

Kiddo, Ernaux calls her son, with an offhand affection, and she acknowledges the unexpected happiness motherhood sometimes brings. But she rails against the notion that that particular happiness should mitigate drudgery and sacrifice. She takes the baby for a walk, sits in the park, “Killing time, waiting for the child to grow up.”

Meanwhile, her husband moves up the corporate ladder, and with each rung ascended, he contributes less at home. The shared responsibilities of the early days are now regarded as quaint aspects of impoverished student life. Ernaux struggles and studies and juggles and eventually realizes her dream of becoming a teacher, but her glass is persistently half-empty. She refuses to be consoled by what she has achieved or the gifts life has bestowed. There is always something she's missing and some domestic obligation she must fulfill at the cost of independence.

Ernaux's writing sizzles' along, full of irony and outrage. Masterly but deceptively simple, like a flood of conversation, it has none of the writerly self-consciousness that distracted attention in Simple Passion. Much credit should go to the translation by Linda Coverdale, which so effectively captures a highly personal, idiosyncratic and colloquial tone that it's hard to imagine that this is indeed a translation.

Most people settle into the realities of life, adjust to the accumulated disappointments with an amnesia that erases the sting of abandoned or compromised dreams. Ernaux remembers, and by the very act of documenting the losses, rebels.

A Frozen Woman is a disquieting book. A normal and privileged life is rendered as tragic but not as singularly tragic—not the result, say, of a loveless marriage or a narcissistic character but an example of a universal tragedy that afflicts all women, whether or not they know it or will admit it. The ordinary pleasures that sustain most lives are dismissed here as banal or resulting from slavish service to men and convention. It's a hard position to argue against without sounding sanctimonious, but this may not be a gender issue. Rather, what ails Ernaux may be the ennui of privilege, the affliction of the upwardly mobile.

Having elevated herself so far beyond the boisterous squalor of her peasant roots, she may have lifted herself right out of the stuff of life into some ether of unrealizable expectation. There may be no happily ever after for men or intellectuals any more than there is for princesses.

Linda Barrett Osborne (review date 10 November 1996)

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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 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.

A Frozen Woman, first published in France in 1981, is a young wife and mother's fictional lament on the inequality of the sexes and the crushing exhaustion of domestic routine. Exteriors records Ernaux's observations of real people and urban landscapes, most of them glimpsed in the planned “new” community of Cergy-Pontoise outside of Paris, where she lives.

While the novel is largely autobiographical and emotionally charged, the journal is crisp and photographic, distancing itself from the lives of the people it briefly captures. They are intriguing precisely because they have no story to be told, no future and no past.

Of the two books, Exteriors is the more original and compelling, offering readers fragments of society and culture which they are free to construct and reconstruct as they wish. Ernaux recorded these diary entries in “an attempt to convey the reality of an epoch—and in particular that acute yet indefinable feeling of modernity associated with a new town—through a series of snapshots reflecting the daily routine of a community.” These “snapshots” include snatches of argument, techniques of begging and the behavior of people caught in transit or simply waiting:

“We are standing in front of the automatic teller in the shopping mall, forming a long line. A confessional without curtains. A panel slides open, we all repeat the same motions: wait, our heads tilted to one side, press keys, wait, take our money, put it away and leave, avoiding other people's eyes.”

Exteriors is a collection of such images, both provocative and familiar. It is the images themselves which contain meaning, unassisted by narrative, just as Ernaux's new community of high rises and shopping malls is “a place bereft of memories,” without connections to tradition and history. In this world, the words of customers in a butcher shop are a clue to their place in society, and discarded garbage at the edge of town a symbol of loneliness. Since many of these observations are made in large, impersonal spaces like train stations and “hypermarkets,” it is not surprising that they often reflect anger, embattled dignity, isolation, or anxiety.

Ernaux also reflects in her journal on what it means to be a writer, revealing an insatiable curiosity. “I realize that I am forever combing reality for signs of literature,” she says at one point; at another, “I am visited by people and their lives—like a whore.” For Ernaux, there is something brash and manipulative in telling a story; the act of writing exposes the self to risk yet craves an audience.

But writing is also a way to express pain and expose fallacies in society's thinking. Both are evident in A Frozen Woman, whose indictment of sexist values and middle-class marriage has become so familiar since the novel was published 15 years ago that it has lost much of its impact.

The narrator, a 30-year-old wife, mother and teacher, looks back on her life to determine the forces which shaped it. Although her parents are unconventional—her gentle father cooks and gardens while her strong-willed mother runs the family shop with a hard head—she realizes in early adolescence that women are expected to attract and nurture, men to succeed. She struggles to be passionate and independent, but society's expectations overwhelm her: “I'll never be closer than I am at seventeen to sexual freedom and a glorious sensuality. And I discover immediately that they are out of reach. This first, clearly perceived difference drives me to despair—I feel it will never be abolished. Boys are free to desire, not you, my girl …”

The first part of A Frozen Woman is the strongest, with its vivid family portrait, particularly of the mother. There are also engaging details of a French childhood in a small town. The men in the book, however, are given short shrift, down to the husband, who is nameless and expresses almost generic attitudes and responses. It comes as no surprise that he doesn't help with the cooking.

The writing in the novel is lucid and often perceptive, but it covers well-trodden ground and feels dated. Too often the narrator's voice sounds, in her own words, like “picayune complaints and scattered whines.” Exteriors, on the other hand, captures attitudes and experience as they are happening, and Ernaux's stark observations offer insight into our times.

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

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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, “is immodest. It's like crying on the shoulder of the reader.” Ernaux leaves much up to the reader, even what exactly her books are: “It doesn't matter to me if something I've written is called a novel or autobiography,” she says. “It's readers who decide if what they're reading is one or the other.”

Which is all well and good, but it does make it hard to predict what she will be like as a person. From the outside, Ernaux is easy enough to characterize—tall, slim and extremely beautiful. After spending six hours on a plane, on her first day of a series of lectures, readings and signings promoting her new book Exteriors, just out from Seven Stories, she arrives dressed simply in slim gray pants and a black turtleneck. Her gray-streaked brown hair falls straight down her back, and she wears a minimum of makeup; her high cheekbones and large, sad eyes don't require further enhancement. She is, in short, elegant without being coiffed. Gracious and soft-spoken, she punctuates her lilting French conversation with easy laughter.

Ernaux was born in 1940 in the little Norman town of Yvetot, where her parents owned a small store. Her parents tried to give their only child the advantages they never had, sending her to parochial school and eventually to Rouen University in Normandy's capital.

Ernaux's mother, although not, she points out, a cultured woman, “had a profound desire to learn things and a taste for words. She really encouraged me in my studies and in my reading.” But she also speculates that her mother was not solely motivated by love of learning. “For her, being a writer was a great thing—there was nothing better. So in some ways, I became a writer to please my mother.”

Becoming a writer didn't happen right away. There were several abortive attempts at fiction: a few short stories (“rather tragic,” she says), and a complicated novel, influenced by the nouveau roman, that she finished when she was 22 but never published. Aside from a journal she kept when she was 16, there was nothing autobiographical.

For the time being, it seemed she was destined to be a “wife/mother/teacher” as she once described it in her novel, A Frozen Woman. She married Patrick Ernaux in 1964, and shortly thereafter had a son, Eric, and four years later another son, David. She followed her husband, getting teaching jobs in Annecy, in the Haute-Savoie near Switzerland, and in 1974 moved to Cergy-Pontoise, a town some 27 miles outside of Paris.


“I always thought about writing,” she says, “but my first real work, Cleaned Out, wasn't finished until I was 32.” In fact, she had mulled it over for several years after her father died. Told from the perspective of a young woman who has just had an illegal abortion, Cleaned Out, published Stateside by Dalkey Archive in 1990, describes a childhood and youth in Normandy that paralleled Ernaux's. The novel is a raw, often angry depiction of an adolescent girl's burgeoning sexuality; of her distance from, and her disdain for, her uncouth parents. Ernaux was now a professional, a teacher with a comfortable living doing a respected job, but the cost had been a rupture with her working-class past.

“When I was 15,” she writes in the novel, “I was dying to open their eyes and tell them that the real world was polite, well-dressed and clean. I couldn't stand being the only one who hated [how we lived]. Let them see their customers through my eyes, and our home, if you could call it that, so awful, so humiliating.” It's a painful revelation of teenaged nastiness combined with guilt: “I hated myself for not being nice to them, for not being gentle and affectionate.” That social and cultural divide, which her parents enabled and from which they suffered, informed much of her subsequent work. Ernaux describes her 1977 novel, Ce qu'ils disent ou rien (her only work not yet translated in the U.S.), as concerning a young woman's sexual awakening and her growing recognition of social inequality. And her 1981 novel, La femme gelée (published in 1995 as A Frozen Woman) went a step farther into the narrator's marriage and early motherhood. (This and subsequent novels were published in the U.S. by Four Walls Eight Windows; but, with the recent parting of the ways between John Oakes and Dan Simon, the Ernaux backlist and future titles are being published by Simon at his new house, Seven Stories.)

While she had been working on these two novels, however, Ernaux had had another project in mind. “Right after finishing Cleaned Out, I wanted to write about my father, but I was having trouble.” She began a novel in which he was the main character but then abandoned it. “Halfway through the book, I became disgusted. I had started to write about my father in the same style in which I'd written my first two novels, and I began to see this as a form of betrayal. If I wanted to be true to my father's life, to a life that was dictated by indignities, a life that did not lend itself to novelistic transformation then the narrative had to be spare and factual.”

Starting with the 1983 publication of La place (or A Man's Place, as the 1992 U.S. edition was called) Ernaux's books were indeed more streamlined. This recounting of her father's youth as a Norman peasant and his struggle to better himself as a factory worker and a small shopowner only to watch the daughter for whom he worked so hard drift away, is not so much a narrative as an accretion of descriptive scenes.

A Man's Place, like Ernaux's subsequent books, was also increasingly punctuated by her thoughts on writing. “Just before writing La place,” she explains, “I began asking myself about the relationship between writing and the reality I was describing. I began thinking that it would be good to include these thoughts in the text—even if it seemed a little intellectual.” She wanted to show her readers that writing didn't just appear out of thin air and so began, as she says, “to include all the marks of its fabrication.”

Le Monde called La place “a fine literary success”; Figaro deemed it “Exceptional … intense and extraordinarily powerful.” Later that year, La place won the Prix Renaudot, probably the highest award for a French writer after the Prix Goncourt.

But the prize was in some ways too late. Her father was dead and her mother was deteriorating rapidly as a result of Alzheimer's. Ernaux and her mother had never really talked about her books. “She never said anything about Cleaned Out,” recalls Ernaux. “I think it was too hard, to violent for her and she preferred to say nothing. It was a way of maintaining good relations between us. At the same time, I think she was truly divided because, while she certainly wasn't pleased by the book, her daughter was now a writer.”

Even more than her father's death, her mother's decline spurred Ernaux to write. The first book to result was basically a distaff version of La place. Une femme was published in 1987; four years later, as A Woman's Story, it was both a New York Times Notable Book and an L.A. Times Fiction Prize finalist. But Ernaux had already started on another tack while her mother was still alive, one that eventually resulted in her most recent book, the 1993 Journal du dehors, published this fall as Exteriors.

“My mother was no longer really of the world; her connections had disappeared,” recalls Ernaux. “Her illness had been a real ordeal for me and I found myself constantly wanting to get outside of myself.” Ernaux began to keep a journal of events, scenes, people she saw on the train, in town, or in the news. In retrospect, she recognized that these distinct episodes were interconnected: frequently, they involved people who were—like her mother—somehow outside, on the fringe. Although she tried to write without imparting any particular emotional significance to the record, she admits that the Journal du dehors (journal of the outside) was also a Journal du dedans (journal of the inside).

Her mother's illness also inspired her to write another, yet unpublished, journal which more explicitly describes that decline, and Ernaux also has plans for another book on her adolescence, though one written in a different style. But she is now in her 50s, which raises the question of why—after 30 years of an adult life that has included a successful career, a marriage, the raising of two children and, in 1985, divorce—she continues to write about events of the 1940s and '50s. “I'm not trying to write a real autobiography,” she explains. “I don't believe that the feelings, experiences, encounters that happen to me are interesting because they happen to me. Rather they are things that happen to a person, who happens to be me.

“I make use of the various parts of my life. My divorce, for example, is something I haven't dealt with, or at least not yet. I don't have the desire to write about it. I don't know why.” It's clearly not because she is shy. After all, as Ernaux points out, “I did write about a Passion simple.

Passion simple is the 1991 book (published in 1993 as Simple Passion) that chronicled a recent love affair Ernaux had with a married man. During the affair, she had written a journal which, with her customary honesty, she later used to create a painfully vivid account of a grown woman's obsessive, embarrassing and all-too recognizable preoccupation with every nuance of her lover's behavior. It was for her the most terrifying book to write. As she describes the trepidation with which she looked over the manuscript, she occasionally groans and buries her face in her hands.

But however painful it may have been, the book sold well for her French publisher, Gallimard. The Renaudot-winning La place had sold 150,000 copies; A Woman's Story sold 100,000; but then Simple Passion doubled that with 200,000. Ernaux had garnered sales and awards, and her books were being taught in classrooms.

By any measure, Ernaux is a successful writer. But she doesn't really play the part as it often manifests itself in France. She continues to live in Cergy, which isn't exactly chic. It is, she says, “a very functional town, a town whose design shakes up our conception of beauty. Above all, it is a place with no sign of the past, a town without memory.”

She also continues to work preparing students for the literature portion of their teaching certificate through the Centre National d'Enseignement par Correspondance, where she has worked since 1977. She says that on some level she would like to stop, but it's not likely to happen. “Because I need to make money to live. As things are now, I am extremely fortunate: I can write books and not have to worry about whether they make money or not. I'm free,” she says. “Mon métier, c'est ma liberté.

She is also largely independent from the often confined French literary scene. It is, she feels, a “little world” alien to the lives of most of her readers. “I believe that writing has nothing to do with these little ceremonies. In the final count, writing is an attempt to understand through words the things of this world. It is an attempt to create links between people.”

In A Woman's Story, Ernaux recalls meeting her aunt weaving drunkenly and unable to speak a single word. In the book she says, “My writing would never have been what it is had I not met my aunt that day.” Expanding on this she says, “once one has confronted reality that difficult, that disturbing, you can't write light things, novels or works divorced from what's real. Writing can't be a luxury or a game, but a serious endeavor, that takes measure of, or tries to take measure of, the sadness of the real.”

John O'Brien (review date spring 1997)

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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 to get past these things, to get to the story, for which these serve as introduction. In Exteriors Annie Ernaux foregrounds these materials, composing a book made up of short sections whose purpose is to isolate these details in and for themselves: phrases overheard in a grocery store, graffiti scribbled on a wall, a train passenger clipping his nails, what's playing on the Sunday morning radio. More often than not, such registrations are made without comment and even more often without reminder that the person registering is a novelist—this is not a romantic attempt at showing how a writer sees the world. Instead, Ernaux gives the world its due; the details, the overheard phrases, a brief scene from a train's window—here they are, in themselves. Taken in a certain direction, these could have turned into prose poems, but I think Ernaux purposely stays clear of that form, as much as she does the diary form despite a 1985-92 frame for the book. Instead, she presents and recognizes the everyday, the mundane, the trivial, all of which undergo a strange transformation when so isolated. This is a remarkable piece of writing, and one of the first new books to be published by Seven Stories Press.

Lawrence D. Kritzman (essay date winter 1999)

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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). Consequently her attempt to remember things past, the adolescent youth of the summer of 1952 as “little Annie D,” constitutes a quest for understanding unimpeded by the imposition of an artificial reality. “Naturellement pas de récit, qui produirait une réalité au lieu de la chercher” (38). Based on the premise that language puts memory into question, it reflects, however, on the manner in which one perceives the world and takes hold of one's life story however elusive it may be. “Ce qui m'importe, c'est de retrouver les mots avec lesquels je me pensais et pensais le monde autour. Dire ce qu'étaient pour moi le normal et l'inadmissable, l'impensable même” (37). What Ernaux recognizes must remain an incomplete narrative nevertheless affords her the possibility of engaging in a cognitive performance capable of unraveling unassimilated memory. In so doing, Ernaux's story suggests that the initial shamefulness prompting her to find the words to “dire l'inadmissible” also entails, and perhaps even requires, the provisional adoption of a mask of shameless normality and invisibility (“dire le normal”). Until Ernaux is able to do this she cannot let herself feel authorized to take pleasure in being the object of the gaze without the accompanying fear of experiencing affective confinement.

At the core of Ernaux's writerly quest is the desire to describe the etiology of her perception of shame. She situates the birth of this feeling in an event of domestic violence that she witnessed in June 1952. “Mon père a voulu tuer ma mère un dimanche de juin, au début de l'après-midi” (16). This scene of primitive violence revealed the dark forces that fatally marked her existence as being flawed and committed her to an interminable feeling of malaise.

Trauma, which literally signifies “injury” or “wound,” signals, as Freud has suggested, a situation of helplessness and the anxiety that it produces. Victim of an affective paralysis, Ernaux lived with a story that she was unable to put into words. “J'ai toujours eu cette scène en moi comme une image sans mots ni phrases” (17). The image of violence imprinted on the mind's eye makes evident the act of bearing witness as well as its failure to be articulated discursively. Ernaux's testimony neither effaces the truth nor attempts to deny it. Yet she cannot undo the shock of the event since the act of witnessing paradoxically realizes what Cathy Caruth terms “the witnessing, precisely of impossibility.”2 Instead of experiencing a sense of immediacy while observing a photographic image of herself at age twelve, the mature writer now discovers in it an uncertainty that allows her to fall prey to mis-recognition and an inability to repossess the mystery of the past. “Je ne croirais pas qu'il s'agisse de moi. (Certitude que ‘c'est moi’, impossibilité de me reconnaître, 'ce n'est pas moi’)” (25).

The traumatic event, the violence her father inflicted on her mother, functions as a disruption in the continuity of experience and necessitates an ellipsis in the narrative of her life's story. “Nulle part il n'y avait de place pour la scène du dimanche de juin” (108). The adolescent girl was obliged to efface the experience that pained her. The wound that is the result of the event, the shock of seeing her mother stricken: the impact of this trauma short-circuited the assignment of meaning and ultimately rendered language somewhat obtuse. “Les mots que je retrouve sont opaques, des pierres impossibles à bouger” (69). In this context memory became the site of the unthinkable, making the young subject immune to self-expression. “Il n'y avait presque pas de mots pour exprimer les sentiments” (70). In a way words were frozen and this phenomenon blocked Ernaux's access to language; it suggested that her testimonial capacity was one of vulnerability and linguistic impotence.

The remembrance of things past becomes the foundation of a scriptural quest in which we recognize shame as a sign of failure and a strategy of defense against rejection and the perception of contempt. What mattered to Ernaux was discretion and anonymity and the ability to vanish gently into a vast sea of humanity. “Etre comme tout le monde était la visée générale à atteindre” (66). But the drama that she witnessed silenced her in another way: it caused embarrassment due to the disgust associated with the indecent exposure of paternal rage against her mother. Her shame, as she describes it, forestalled on the possibility of putting it into words and by extension, the self-disclosure of unexplained memory. “J'écris cette scène pour la première fois. Jusqu'à aujourd'hui, il me semblait impossible de le fair … Comme une action interdite devant entraîner un châtiment” (16).

What is so striking here is the manner in which Ernaux's experience of shame and her vicarious appropriation of what she deems the inevitable consequences of her father's violence is transposed into guilt. The result of this contamination makes her feel that there ought to be a punishment for the revelation of the drama. As a result the daughter saw the unveiling of the family secret as a violation of the code of privacy (her parents believed that it violated a personal ethic) and a betrayal of parental trust. The fear of punishment for transforming this domestic drama into a public spectacle emanated from the belief that it would pose a challenge to an idealized image of family life and might possibly even destroy it. “C'est une scène qui ne pouvait pas être jugée” (18).

Ernaux's text thus translates the adolescent girl's urgency to retain a sense of normalcy by erasing the possibility of moral judgment and the expression of externalized feelings. “Il n'y avait de faute ni de coupable nulle part” (18). By neutralizing the effect of the drama and by situating her mother's shouting within the realm of the natural (“je devais considérer comme naturel qu'elle crie après lui de la même façon qu'après moi” [18]), she establishes a defensiveness that is meant to mask her perception of defectiveness. Ernaux's shame anxiety allowed her to engage in the complicitous act of family denial. “Mes parents ont peut-être évoqué entre eux la scène du dimanche, le geste de mon père, trouvé une explication, ou une excuse, et décidé de tout oublier” (20). Concealment required the creation of a provisional and precarious image that enabled her to survive by the erasure of an infelicitous identification.

As in the structure of trauma described by Freud in Moses and Monotheism (1939), Ernaux's text concerns itself not so much with the specific meaning of the trauma per se, but with the manner in which the victim (the twelve-year-old protagonist) was not fully aware of the impact of the event when it took place, and the ways in which it was subsequently “played out.” “Après, ce dimanche-là s'est interposé entre moi et tout ce que je vivais comme un filtre. Je jouais, je lisais, j'agissais comme d'habitude mais je n'étais dans rien” (18). The absence of engagement, the inability to act, translates a detachment and a numbness which reveals a sense of depression.

The experience of the young girl's trauma underwent what could be described as a period of latency. Ernaux recalls, in her writerly reenactment of the event, a series of situations subsequent to it, and which could be construed as metonymically related, for the effect of the trauma (shame and self-hatred) is repeated after its apparent forgetting. “Il y a ceci dans la honte, l'impression que tout maintenant peut vous arriver, qu'il n'y aura jamais d'arrêt, qu'à la honte il faut plus de honte encore … La honte n'est que répétition et accumulation” (113, 131). Through a symptomatology of embarrassment, the female subject carries within herself the traces of the suffering associated with the originary event. These associations evoke a number of memories from the summer of 1952 and recall Annie D's fear of rejection. To be sure, the story of shame suggests that Ernaux's crisis of truth is the result of the belated effects of the impact of the trauma and its reappearance in the experience of memory. But the enigma of that trauma cannot be unveiled in relation to a singular truth (“Il n'y a pas de vraie mémoire de soi” [37]), but only in terms of a repetitive impulse that derives its force from the fossilized images of shame. “Ce qui m'importe, c'est de retrouver les mots avec lesquels je me pensais et pensais le monde autour … Mais la femme que je suis en 95 est incapable de se replacer dans la fille de 52” (37).

Increasingly throughout the narrative Ernaux draws attention to her feeling of shame which could be read as a defense against her fear of becoming the object of the gaze. What is at stake here is the visual nature of the ideal. She projected fictions as she wished them to appear both to herself and to others. The “shame” anxiety sustained by the young girl is the result of neither wanting to see nor to be seen; it served as a shield of privacy protecting her from the exhibition of imperfections. Accordingly the perception of the potentially transgressive power of the gaze functioned as a projection of the fear of being seen and the wish to love (to retain the image of familial bliss) and be loved (not to betray her parents). “J'avais vu ce qu'il ne fallait pas voir” (108).

If exposure causes shame, denial of experience produces alienation. What was recognized as shameful was subject to denial, and the loss of the idealized image of the parents produced the surface disappearance of affect as it vanished into the realm of depersonalization. However, by forbidding access to proper subjectivity, she committed herself, nevertheless, to the impossibility of forgetting. Assimilated to the point of becoming invisible, the repeated instances of humiliation took on a somewhat benign quality burying deep within her body the memory of pain. “La honte est devenue un mode de vie pour moi. A la limite je ne la percevais même plus, elle était dans le corps même” (131).

Ernaux's adolescent universe is regulated by moral codes, social hierarchies, and topographical distinctions. “La mise à nu des règles du monde de mes douze ans me rend fugitivement l'insaisissable pesanteur, impression de clôture, que je ressens dans mes rêves” (69). It was through the education encouraged by her mother, at a local girls’ private Catholic school, that was supposed to provide Ernaux the means to escape the closed world she inhabited. “Pour ma mère, la religion fait partie de tout ce qui est élevé, le savoir, la culture, la bonne education” (102). Religious education, with its rigorous set of expectations, impinged on her internal world in such a way that it put forth a set of moral standards that clearly demarcated good from evil. “Nous sommes dans le monde de la vérité et de la perfection de la lumière. L'autre est celui où l'on ne va pas à la messe, où l'on ne prie pas, le monde de l'erreur” (80). In this context, the projection of an ideal self could only be achieved by allowing the subject to identify with and incarnate what is accepted as unequivocally good: the rituals and the teachings of Catholicism.

To live by the rules of the game signified an adherence to a series of codes that organized her life and rendered it subordinate to clearly demarcated constraints. “Univers dont, au fur et à mesure que je le remonte, la cohérence et la puissance me paraissent effrayantes” (79). The value system that the young girl assimilated required her to abandon the possibility of critical judgment. She was obliged to submit herself to culturally accepted beliefs and values that foreclosed on the possibility of autonomy and ultimately constituted a form of self-betrayal. “S'émouvoir facilement, être impressionable, provoquait des réactions de surprise et de curiosité. Il valait mieux annoncer, ça ne m'a rien fair” (64).

Through a series of references to cultural and psychological phenomena, the language of the text foregrounds the claustrophobic universe that Ernaux inhabited. Everything that she now describes appears to be regulated and categorized in such a way that it reflects the observations of an ethnographer in quest of delineating the characteristics of a local culture. “J'ai mis au jour les codes et les règles des cercles où j'étais enfermée. J'ai répertorié les langages qui me traversaient et constituaient ma perception de moi-même et du monde” (108). In assuming the role of cultural anthropologist (“Etre en somme ethnologue de moi-même” [38]) she sees herself functioning as the symbol of a particular social class (petit bourgeois), at a particular time (the early 1950s), and in a particular place (the provincial town called “Y”).

What we encounter in Ernaux's anthropological formulations is the critical difference between two social spheres. The experience subsumed by the young girl depicts the objects and sites in the village, which are described as possessing clearly demarcated characteristics making them more apt to stand out.

Décrire pour la première fois, sans autre règle que la précision, des rues que je n'ai jamais pensées mais seulement parcourues durant mon enfance, c'est rendre lisible la hiérarchie sociale qu'elles contenaient … en 52, il me suffisait de regarder les hautes façades derrière une pelouse et des allées de gravier pour savoir que leur occupants n'étaient pas comme nous.


In symbolic terms, the representation of the topography of the village landscape suggests how social space is petrified into immobility in her mind. Ernaux's narrative foregrounds the binary patterns that organize this world, and in the process deflates the illusion of a harmonious collective experience.

The highly generalized anthropology that she inventories, essentializing culture and space, is determined by the perception of the absolute separation governing her social universe.

La limite entre le centre et les quartiers est géographiquement incertaine … Mais claire pour tout le monde dans la pratique: le centre c'est là où l'on ne va pas faire ses courses en chaussons ou en bleu de travail. La valeur des quartiers diminue au fur et à mesure qu'on s'éloigne du centre, que les villas se raréfient et que les pâtés de maisons avec une cour commune deviennent plus nombreux.


Devoid of sentimental regionalism, Ernaux's neatly elaborated field work, residing in the recall of memory, postulates a scenography of reified space in which the traumatized experience shapes her perception of the social. Her ethnographic inquiry brings together configurations of village space with class distinctions, a practice which regulates the visual norms of the symbolic order.

De la rue de la République aux sentiers du Champ-de-Courses, en moins de trois cent mètres, on passe de l'opulence à la pauvreté, de l'urbanité à la ruralité, de l'espace au resserrement. Des gens protégés, dont on ignore tout, à ceux dont on ne sait ce qu'ils touchent comme allocations, ce qu'ils mangent et boivent, à quelle heure ils se couchent.


The milieu that Ernaux evokes in La honte recalls the precariousness of her parent's social stature. Motivated by her mother's driving force, Ernaux's family was able to transcend its peasant and working class status in order to accede to the niceties of a petit bourgeois existence. Having established a café-grocery-haberdashery, the family was eager to maintain its marginal success and not undergo downward mobility even on a symbolic level. That is perhaps why donning the mask of respectability was so essential for survival and revealing the family secret was tantamount to threatening its very stability. “Il fallait être simple, franc et poli … La politesse était la valeur dominante, le principe premier du jugement social” (64-65). The goal was therefore to remain invisible and to hide emotion. The family was obliged to engage in a form of theatricality and to project a zero degree of feeling.

Dans le café-épicerie, nous vivons au milieu du monde, comme nous nommons la clientèle. Celle-ci nous voit manger, aller à la messe, à l'école, nous entend nous laver dans un coin de cuisine, pisser dans le sceau. Exposition continuelle qui oblige à offrir une conduite respectable (ne pas s'injurier, dire des gros mots, du mal d'autrui), à ne manifester aucune émotion, colère ou chagrin, à dissimuler tout ce qui pourrait être objet d'envie, de curiosité. ou rapporté. Nous savons beaucoup de choses sur les clients, leur resources et leur façon de vivre mais il est convenu qu'ils ne doivent rien savoir sur nous, ou le moins possible. Donc, “devant le monde”, interdiction de dire combien on a acheté une paire de chaussures, de se plaindre de mal au ventre ou d'énumérer les bonnes notes de l'école.


Social acceptance required the muting of emotion, for the unveiling of the slightest manifestation of self-conscious behavior would produce a dangerously shameful exhibition of what must remain forever hidden. In a way, the family's internalization of shame, the feeling of being inadequate, forces it to engage in a form of theatricality, and in the process become a shameless exhibitor of what passes for unmarked behavior.

But the viewing space of the embarrassed twelve-year-old must finally become somewhat less inconspicuous when she is obliged to confront her magical thinking. It becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses that Ernaux's self-abnegation is the residue of the shame emanating from the visual perception of class differences. This sentiment is dramatized most poignantly in Ernaux's recounting of the young girl's return from a class trip organized by the Christian Youth Movement and the embarrassment that ensued when her teacher and classmates witnessed her mother wearing a nightshirt that was soiled by urine. Here the projection of the image of the maternal figure, against whom the adolescent girl sometimes measures herself, does not produce narcissistic satisfaction. On the contrary, it translates consciousness of intense humiliation and demystifies the illusion of belonging to the great catholic family romance where everybody is created equal (“Il n'y avait ni riches ni pauvres au pensionnat, seulement une grande famille catholique” [86]).

Ma mère est apparue dans la lumière de la porte, hirsute, muette de sommeil, dans une chemise de nuit froissée et tachée (on s'essuyait avec, après avoir uriné) … Je me suis engouffrée dans l'épicerie pour faire cesser la scène. Je venais de voir pour la première fois ma mère avec le regard de l'école privée. Dans mon souvenir, cette scène, qui n'a aucunement aucune commune mesure avec celle où mon père a voulu tuer ma mère, m'en paraît le prolongement. Comme si à travers l'exposition du corps sans gaine, relâché, et de la chemise douteuse de ma mère, c'est notre vraie nature et notre façon de vivre qui étaient révélées.


The threat posed by the apperception of the young girl emerges as a prise de conscience that recalls the paradigmatic scene of shame and once again reveals the spectacle of the mother's humiliation and the daughter's desire to wish it away. It is the moment in which the sordid realism of her petit bourgeois existence is unveiled through the power of visual reflexivity.

To be sure, by adopting the gaze of “a private school girl” the embarrassed spectator assumes recognition of her mother's inferior social position, which awakens in her an archaic feeling of estrangement. As the text makes clear, the power of the assumed gaze allowed the daughter to project her own feeling of impropriety which precluded the possibility of class mobility. The identification that the text foregrounds suggests that what she perceives as abject, represented here by the figure of the mother, is that which she had tried to deny.3 Abjection, as it emerges in this context, recalls a state prior to the self-gratifying masquerade which functioned as the prophylactic of Annie's displeasure with her somewhat unassimilated class consciousness.

Interestingly the mother who was once thought to represent the goodness associated with religion (“Ma mère est le relais de la loi religieuse et des prescriptions de cette école” [100]) is now depicted as a rather negative object of cathexis, a target of ambivalence, with whom she both identifies (“notre vraie nature et notre façon de vivre”) and distances herself (“le regard de l'école privée”). The figure of the mother is degraded and made to appear abject in relation to the somewhat more abstract ideal transmitted by the figure of the school teacher.

La question ne se pose pas de savoir si j'aimais ou non Mlle L. Je ne connaissais personne de plus instruit qu'elle … Ce n'était pas une femme comme les clientes de ma mère et mes tantes, mais la figure vivante de la loi … C'est à elle que je me mesure, plus qu'aux autres élèves.


Yet in spite of this judgment, the daughter's negative identification with the mother makes her victim of a “vestimentary fatality” and a feeling of shame that cannot be disavowed. “Dans le système de pensée qui était le mien, où la robe de chambre n'existait pas, il était possible d'échapper à la honte” (111).

It becomes increasingly clear in the course of the memoir that shame is theorized through the negative affirmations produced as a result of the various forms that the adolescent's identity performance takes. Near the end of the memoir Ernaux recalls a trip that she had taken in the summer of 1952 with her father to Lourdes, which exposed her to even more intense feelings of class inferiority. “C'était la première fois que nous étions amenés à fréquenter de près, pendant dix jours, des gens inconnus qui étaient tous, à l'exception des chauffeurs de car, mieux que nous” (116). The trip produces for the adolescent a feeling of homelessness not because she was away from home but because of her perception of the incompatible differences between herself and others. “Au dîner, nous avons été seuls à une table, au milieu de la salle à manger. Nous n'osions pas parler à cause des serveurs. Nous étions intimidés dans une vague appréhension de tout” (115). To be sure, the experience of strangeness translates a feeling of dislocation as it deprives her of an interior space where she would be capable of realizing self-love.

During the trip the adolescent encounters thirteen-year-old Elisabeth whom she recognizes as a fellow convent school student although somewhat more mature than herself. In the ensuing recollection we learn that Ernaux's decision to wear a gym outfit one day rendered her vulnerable to the judgmental attitude of Elisabeth.

J'avais cru naturel de rechercher la compagnie de la fille de treize ans, Elisabeth … Un jour, j'ai mis la jupe et le chemisier de mon costume de gymnastique, qu'il fallait user une fois la fête de la jeunesse passée. Elle l'a remarquée: “Tu est allée à la fête de la jeunesse?” J'ai été fière de dire oui, prenant sa phrase accompagnée d'un grand sourire pour une marque de connivence entre nous deux. Ensuite, à cause de l'intonation bizarre, j'ai senti que cela signifiait, “tu n'as rien d'autre à te mettre que tu t'habilles en gymnastique”.


Translated as a sign of rejection, Elisabeth's evaluative utterance makes Annie feel flawed and undesirable. Elisabeth's strange intonation functions as an ocular force by displacing the condescending tone of the grain of her voice to the imagined disciplinary power of a stigmatizing gaze. Annie's introjection of her perception of the other's symbolic value enhances within her a sensation of unhomeliness; her fragile sense of identity is threatened by her abdication of authority, which authorizes the judgment of an other.

Ernaux's self-image therefore emerges as the result of the cultural distinctions she catalogues in her ethnographic narrative. If Annie's self-hatred is the result of having internalized the negative gaze of what she perceives as being culturally superior, it is because she implicitly accepts the negativity attributed to her. By assimilating the projection, Ernaux describes herself as having accepted the shame that is the basis of feeling unworthy. But, as in the case of the witnessing of paternal violence against her mother, she never really comprehends its true nature. In a way, her embarrassment reified the values of the dominant class; she accepted as natural and just that which made her feel socially unacceptable. The internalization of her projection of the outside world, so that her perception of the outside is now inside, paradoxically situates her on the outside and makes her barely able to decipher the pain within.

(Après chacune des images de cet été, ma tendance naturelle serait d'écrire “alors j'ai découvert que” ou “je me suis aperçue de” mais ces mots supposent une conscience claire des situations vécues. Il y a eu seulement la sensation de honte qui les a fixées hors de toute signification. Mais rien ne peut faire que je n'aie éprouvé cela, cette lourdeur, cette néantisation. Elle est la dernière vérité …).


Ernaux thus makes clear in La honte that her transcription of the event and the reverberation of its consequences reveal the impossibility of achieving true cognition. She engages in what Laura Brown has termed “the retelling of the lost truth of pain” and accordingly she reenacts, through the writing process, the experience of separation and loss as a passage through difference.4 “Je n'ai plus rien de commun avec la fille de la photo sauf cette scène du dimanche de juin … C'est elle seulement qui fait de cette petite fille et de moi la même” (133). Choreographed as an experience rather than the seizing of a particular truth, memory enables Ernaux to describe a phenomenology of pain in the performance of her writing. “La mémoire n'apporte aucune preuve de ma permanence ou de mon identité. Elle me fait sentir et me confirme ma fragmentation de mon historicité” (96).

By telling her story Ernaux confronts her shame by translating a trauma into words. “Le souvenir aussi est une expérience” (133). As the reader of her own past Ernaux achieves a mediating stance whereby she is able to confront the repetitive nature of her pain and thereby render the trauma somewhat more ordinary. “Depuis que j'ai réussi à faire ce récit, j'ai l'impression qu'il s'agit d'un événement banal” (16). Ernaux's narrative testimony thus constitutes a “coming out” of sorts, an imperfect process of witnessing that allows her to unmask herself and disrupt the singularity of the traumatic event. “Cette scène figée depuis des années, je veux la faire bouger pour lui enlever son caractère sacré d'icône à l'intérieur de moi” (30). What matters is not the veracity of the testimony per se, but the performance, the experience of memory whereby the writer publicly functions as a witness and reclaims the effect and the affect of the event through a linguistic catharsis. The testimonial encounter with her past allows Ernaux to assume a certain degree of authority (in the sense of authorship) in relation to her life story through the performative act of bearing witness.

If Ernaux evokes the experience of memory in La honte, she uses it to represent the fragility of her identity and a sense of fragmentation. Interestingly, the narrative coda to Ernaux's text suggests her coming of age two years after the “event” when she triumphs over the shame of puberty through the fullness of orgasmic pleasure. “C'est elle [the photograph] seulement qui fait de cette fille et de moi la même, puisque l'orgasme où je ressens le plus mon identité et la permanence de mon être, je ne l'ai connu que deux ans après” (133). As in Freud's 1919 essay “On Narcissism,” where he claims a possible relationship between the organization of the body and the organization of the ego, the coda to Ernaux's story suggests that ego formation depends on a sense of corporeality for its realization. With that in mind, she magically conjoins object love with identificatory love, which allows her to repair the scarred ego of her shamed adolescence. The libidinal pleasure described here permits the writerly subject finally to realize the desire to be seen. The dramatic metamorphosis she has undergone enables her to become the unfettered exhibitor of her sexual being who no longer fears exposure and even derives from it a kind of strength by illuminating what otherwise might have remained invisible and by occupying a place where she can now enjoy the gaze differently.


  1. Annie Ernaux, La honte (Paris: Gallimard, 1997). All references are from this edition and will be indicated in the body of the text.

  2. Cathy Caruth, “Trauma and Experience,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995), 10. On trauma and memory see Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, ed. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York: Routledge, 1991); Cathy Caruth, “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History,” Yale French Studies 79 (1991); Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (Hanover: UP of New England, 1999).

  3. On abjection see Julia Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l'horreur. Essais sur l'abjection (Paris: Seuil, 1980) and Etrangers à nous-mêmes (Paris: Fayard, 1989).

  4. Laura Brown, “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma,” in Caruth, Trauma, 110.

E. Nicole Meyer (review date winter 1999)

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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 study, La honte recounts a long-passed moment which distances the young narrator from her parents (and from the reader). The work serves to disclose her realization, at the age of twelve, of social exclusion and of the existence of two worlds which are inherently separate. The event that leads to this definitive moment of childhood occurs when, on a June day in 1952, “mon père a voulu tuer ma mère.” The young narrator's intense shame at this incident results in her basic desire to write: “C'est elle qui est au fond de mes livres.” This pivotal event in the young Ernaux's life appears banal, however, and her attempts to create a book out of it render her style flat.

The second book, “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, whose title reiterates Ernaux's mother's last written communication, is less introspective. Presented as diary notes jotted in passing as a daughter experiences her mother's descent into Alzheimer's disease, the work provides an excellent companion to Ernaux's earlier text, Une femme (1988). The narrator's stated purpose (to destroy the unity or coherence of the previous work) intrigues the reader, who is instructed to read these pages as “le résidu d'une douleur.” Certain phrases from Une femme reappear here in slightly modified form—“Est-ce qu'écrire, et ce que j'écris, n'est pas une façon de donner?”—and thus give the reader a glimpse into the author's writing process.

In addition, Ernaux's thorough identification with her mother (“je suis ‘elle’”) becomes a role reversal: “elle est ma petite fille.” Shortly thereafter, we read, “Aveuglant: elle est ma vieillesse, et je sens en moi menacer la dégradation de son corps.” These charged moments shout out Ernaux's pain and display the potential power of her objective, neutral style, composed of few but poignant details.

Whereas her objective style paradoxically permits the reader to sense her devotion to her mother and her distress at her impending degradation and death, it also reveals Ernaux's egocentric attitude. Despite her frequent visits to her mother as well as her touching efforts to feed and groom her, the way the text reverts to the writer's je can be disconcerting.

Although “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” provides both a moving elegy to the author's mother and a fresh approach to the events that inspired Une femme, a combined reading of this work and La honte suggests that Annie Ernaux has already given the reader the most powerful versions of her past.

Robert Buckeye (review date spring 1999)

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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, she writes of the summer of 1952 when she was twelve years old, and dwells on three events: the Sunday her father tried to murder her mother; the trip she took with her father on a pilgrimage to Lourdes to fulfill a promise to her mother; and the onset of puberty. Her first reaction to her father's act that Sunday had been, “You'll breathe disaster on me,” and looking back on it forty-five years later, she sees it to be both a seminal event in her development as a writer and the enduring mark of her shame. (“We stopped being decent people.”) On the trip to Lourdes, she sees both her father and herself as others see them and experiences, for the first time, the damaging effects of class. The shame she feels at the onset of puberty culminates in the central event of her first book, Cleaned Out, an abortion she has in college. “Let me be cleaned out, through and through, freed from all that holds me back,” she ends that book, but she can never be freed, finally, from what holds her back because it will always be part of her. If her writing is a means of closing the wound, it merely serves to keep it open.

It has been the particular strength and virtue of her writing to refuse to make this story a story; to make it literature would be to falsify it, distance ourselves from it, give it a drama it does not have. Ernaux insists it can only be what it is. In Shame she continues to chip away at the consoling and romanticizing effects of narrative. Surely the effects of what Richard Sennett refers to as the hidden injuries of class, must have been present in the very fabric of the life of her neighborhood, and she picks over the detritus of habit, language, dress, behavior, and practice in school, at home, church to find what must have been there that she missed. “The values of any civilization,” Leo Frobenius writes, “go down to its least details.” Ernaux does not turn away from them, and her book is an itemization of the cost.

Lyn Thomas and Emma Webb (essay date spring 1999)

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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.]


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 themselves making the coffee and typing up the minutes of the revolutionary councils? The stylish and spacious des femmes bookshop in rue de Seine, or its literary equivalent—the linguistic complexities of the very different writers grouped together under the label écriture féminine? The aim of this article is not to assess the impact of these events and personalities on the present, but to explore an area of feminist writing in France which is not part of these images, and which generally receives less attention in the anglophone world.

We will be looking at the work of two writers—Marie Cardinal and Annie Ernaux—who perhaps have more in common with feminist autobiographical writing published in Germany, Holland, Britain and America since the 1970s, than with the ‘feminine writing’ associated with France (see Felski, 1989). The first person writing of Ernaux and Cardinal, which in both cases is heavily based on personal experience, may be seen as slightly passé when compared with the radical linguistic and political experimentation of writers such as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous or Monique Wittig. The use of the first person, and the (albeit to different degrees) publicly acknowledged links between the writer's life and her work seem to relegate Ernaux, Cardinal and others to an unfashionable backwater, a literary flashback to the 1970s which, unlike flared trousers and platform shoes, has not undergone a revival. We will be arguing that Ernaux's and Cardinal's more conventional approach to literature does not preclude them from making a significant contribution to the possibility of cultural and political change for French women, and that, on the contrary, many aspects of their work profoundly challenge both their readers' preconceptions, and the gender inequalities of French society.

In many ways we are following on from the work of Rita Felski, who has argued that ‘the reception of French feminism in the English-speaking world has been highly selective, focusing on Hélène Cixous and other proponents of l'écriture féminine to the detriment of alternative positions' (Felski, 1989: 20). We will discuss the reception of Ernaux and Cardinal, both in order to suggest reasons for the dominance and exclusions identified by Felski, and to argue for the importance of their work in terms of its accessibility and wide popularity in France, particularly with women readers. First, however, we will provide a discussion of the contemporary relevance of writing which operates predominantly, in Cardinal's case, within the conventions of autobiographical fiction and, in that of Annie Ernaux, in accordance with Lejeune's autobiographical pact (where the coincidence of name and identity of the author and narrator of the text defines the mode of reading; Lejeune, 1975). If the need to bring women's experience into literature led to a flowering of feminist autobiographies in the 1970s, to what extent does the reading and writing of personal life-histories still have a role for feminisms today?


Rita Felski has coined the term ‘feminist confessional’ to describe the sub-genre of autobiographical writing which presents ‘the most personal and intimate details of the author's life’ in order to create a bond between ‘female author and female reader’ (Felski, 1989: 88). For authors like Cardinal, writing the personal was seen as a political act which would empower women through the exploration of their marginal status and exclusion from public discourse. Cardinal's background as a middle-class French woman born and brought up in Algeria led to a fragmented sense of self, and to a need to write as an affirmation of her identity. This process is particularly apparent in The Words to Say It, where Cardinal employs the Bildungsroman (self-discovery novel) format and an intimate first-person narrative voice to recount the story of a woman's struggle to overcome debilitating psychological problems. The writing of her own life-history led Cardinal to a sense of sisterhood and shared gender experience, which are foregrounded in the text: the narrator achieves an autonomous identity, in part through her conversion to the feminist cause (Cardinal, 1975).1

For Ernaux, it was the need to express and explore her own experience of class-based oppression and the losses involved in the process of changing class through education which moved her to write. If class is in many ways Ernaux's dominant theme, it is never separated from issues of gender and sexuality. In A Frozen Woman, notably, Ernaux explores the inter-relationship of these areas of oppression, in a first-person narrative focused primarily on ‘clearing the path of my development as a woman’ (Ernaux, 1981: 63). Later, in A Woman's Story, Ernaux makes the combination of political and personal motivation in her writing abundantly clear; she is concerned to bring her working-class culture of origin into literature, through the account of her mother's life: ‘My mother, born into an oppressed culture she wanted to escape from, had to become history herself so that I could feel less alone and artificial in the dominant world of words and ideas which, according to her wishes, has become mine’ (Ernaux, 1988: 106).

The growing emphasis on difference within the feminist movement, and the postcolonial and postmodern distrust of totalizing discourses have meant that writers working in this genre often come under fire for what is seen as a naïve emulation of patriarchal values and modes of communication. It is interesting to consider the extent to which Toril Moi's seminal analysis of the differences between French and Anglo/American women's writing has had the perhaps unforeseen consequence of constructing communicative writing2 as the ‘other’ of feminist literature (Moi, 1985). Indeed, while Moi provides a balanced critique of the respective schools of thought, those reading the text might be tempted to exoticize the écriture in French women's writing and to oversimplify its Anglo/American counterpart as crude social realism. As Rita Felski has argued, it may be dangerous for feminists to overestimate the political potential of the disruptive textual strategies of écriture féminine. Felski reminds us that ‘there exists no obvious relation between the subversion of language structures and the processes of social struggle and change’ (Felski, 1989: 6). Making a similar point, Patricia Waugh warns against the conflation of the aesthetic and the political sphere while arguing that feminism ‘must believe in the possibility of a community of address situated in an oppositional space which can allow for the connection of the “small personal voice” (Doris Lessing's term) of one feminist to another and to other liberationist movements' (Waugh, 1992: 195). The positive response of women readers to the texts of Marie Cardinal and Annie Ernaux, discussed below, seems exemplary both of Felski's bond between reader and writer, and Waugh's ‘community of address’, suggesting that their widely read and accessible texts are far from being politically defunct.

The association of communicative literature of the type produced by Ernaux and Cardinal with naïve social documentary fails, furthermore, to take account of the transformative nature of the process of reading and writing itself. A number of critics have drawn attention to the fact that the sense of difference which marks many female writers' exploration of identity already ensures an awareness of the problematic relationship between discourse and reality, and of the constructed nature of identity. For the female autograph, who, in the words of Estelle Jelinek, has always felt herself to be ‘different from, other than, or outside the male world’, the boundary line between narrative construction and memory, representation and reality, fact and fiction has perhaps never been clearly delineated (Jelinek, 1986: 187). Molly Hite's definition of the genre as ‘a revisionary activity [which] reinscribes a prescribed subjectivity in another register [in order to] bring a somewhat different self into being’ (Hite, 1991: xv) can effectively be applied to those texts which at first hand appear to adopt more traditional approaches to narrating the self. Thus, while many readers have found it liberating to read The Words to Say It as the true story of a woman's recovery from a nervous breakdown, it is equally plausible to interpret the text as a metacommentary on the act of writing itself. The title, which implies the primary relationship between language and identity, highlights the literary nature of the work: the narrator's voyage of discovery can ultimately be read as a coming to authorship. For her, autonomous identity is confirmed when she manages to politicize her personal experience through the publication of her first book.

Although Cardinal's writing is heavily based on her own life, her continual rewriting and reinvention of her past history indicate a sophisticated understanding of the constructed nature of autobiographical narratives. Cardinal does not, in fact, base her work on the conventional autobiographical pact outlined by Philippe Lejeune as a prerequisite for the generic classification of a text as autobiography. Indeed, she has argued that her writing in the third person might be as self-revelatory as her first person narratives (Cardinal, 1977: 85). The ‘truthfulness’ of the narrative of The Words to Say It is notably called into question in the section when the narrator recounts her mother's revelation that she had tried to abort her. Cardinal opens chapter 7 by painstakingly constructing the setting of the encounter between mother and daughter. She offers the reader a host of realist details, including the date and the location of the encounter. The posture, expression and clothes of the narrator's mother are all recalled in precise detail. However, several pages on, the narrator calls the accuracy of her memory into question, confessing that: ‘In truth, this is not how it went. We were not in the living room at the farm in front of the wood fire. … We were on the slope of a very long street, the name of which I have by chance forgotten’ (Cardinal, 1975, trans. 1983: 131). Similarly, in her conversations with Annie Leclerc, Cardinal has drawn attention to the ways in which she restructured her past in order to produce a more convincing narrative. For instance, while the effect of the abortion revelation is attributed a key place in the text, this was of less significance in Cardinal's actual life (Cardinal, 1977: 28). Commenting upon the intertextual nature of Cardinal's writing, Lucille Cairns has identified a set of key actors and events which recur in various forms in many of Cardinal's texts:

A young woman, keenly alive to the sensuous beauty of her Mediterranean environment, marries early and endures exile; has children in close succession; suffers a sense of physical degeneration; falls into mental malaise and anguish; is estranged from her husband (who always departs to work in North America); takes a lover; and gradually establishes an inner balance.

(Cairns, 1992: 19)

In her study of Cardinal, Carolyn A. Durham has argued for a reading of her texts as ‘a context, the locus of the complex intersections—at once intergenderal, intertextual and interdisciplinary—of modern thought’ (Durham, 1992: 1). She proposes that Cardinal's interest both in textuality and embodied sexuality can ‘point the way’ to a ‘theoretical and textual reconciliation’ between French and Anglo/American feminisms (Durham, 1992: 11). In her more recent works Cardinal writes in the third person, and the generic description roman (novel) is displayed on the cover. In texts such as Comme si de rien n'était, which offers a fragmented and kaleidoscopic view of consumer society, and Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula, which consists of a series of ‘conversations’ between the protagonists, experimentation with narrative voice and formal construction have become predominant (Cardinal, 1990 and 1993). By crossing the borderlines between different cultural contexts and literary genres Cardinal rejects fixed definitions of literature and of female identity itself.

A similar questioning of any simple relationship between representation and reality can be found in the intertextuality of Annie Ernaux's works. In Cleaned Out, her first novel, published in 1974, Ernaux explored the change of class which had left her with feelings of guilt, anger and uncertainty. This theme is omnipresent in her writing, though foregrounded to varying extents. It is significant that over twenty years after the publication of Cleaned Out, Ernaux has returned to an exploration of the negative emotional consequences of social mobility in La honte (Shame), published in January 1997. Inevitably, as in Cardinal's case, the constant reworking of the material of her own life implies an awareness of the impossibility of arriving at a final truth, even if at times, this seems to be the purpose, or the motivating desire, of the project. Thus in A Woman's Story, Ernaux declares herself unable to rewrite the story of her father's death, since the definitive version, or more precisely order of words, has already been sought, and found, through the writing of Positions: ‘I cannot describe those moments because I have already done so in another book, that is to say that another account, with different words, a different ordering of the sentences will never be possible’ (Ernaux, 1988: 73). Yet, in La honte, we read descriptions of hitherto concealed events in the father's shared history with his daughter, including his failed attempt on the mother's life, which triggers both the narrative and Ernaux's enduring sense of shame. In 1997 Ernaux also published ‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’, a text she presents as the unedited notes she wrote during the sad months of her mother's decline, and eventual death from Alzheimer's disease.3 As she comments in the text, this publication questions the truth, or perfect order of words established in A Woman's Story, providing a more troubling and painful image of the mother, and the mother/daughter relationship:

For a long time I thought I would never publish it. Perhaps I wanted to leave a single image, a single truth—which I had tried to get close to in A Woman's Story—about my mother and my relationship with her. I now believe that the unity and coherence which a work of art results in—however strong the desire to take the most contradictory data into account—must be disrupted whenever possible.

(Ernaux, 1997b: 12)

Interestingly, Ernaux's intertextual rewriting of her past does seem to trouble and disturb her critics.4 However, intertextuality is not the only feature of Ernaux's writing which demonstrates her complex and sophisticated relationship to the much discussed ‘realism’ of her texts (for the latter see Holmes, 1996 and McIlvanney, 1992). Ernaux, unlike Cardinal, willingly espouses Lejeune's autobiographical pact, and indeed sees the use of the first person as fundamental to the political content of her writing: ‘I felt that the autobiographical “I” which declares itself as such was a more direct political action; it obliges the reader to take up a position in relation to the text’ (unpublished interview with Lyn Thomas, 1997). Nonetheless, the pact is simultaneously threatened and reinforced by the author's frequent interventions in the narrative to address the reader directly. On the one hand, the ‘truth’ of the autobiographical account is called into question by Ernaux's own reflections on its partial, and subjective nature; in the recent texts particularly, she depicts herself as a fully aware, postmodern subject:

For me—and perhaps for all those of my generation—whose memories are attached to a summer pop-song, a fashionable belt, to things which are destined to be ephemeral, memory brings no proof of permanence to my identity. It makes me feel, and is the confirmation of my fragmentation and my historicity.

(Ernaux, 1997a: 95-6)

Yet, at the same time, these interventions confirm the sense that there is ‘a person in the text’, and foster the reader/writer identification, which Felski sees as a specific feature of the consciousness-raising function of feminist literature. We will now turn our attention to the other essential component of Felski's model—the attentive woman reader, and to readers and readings generally, in order to explore the cultural and political places occupied by the two writers.


An in-depth study of the academic reception of a range of French women writers is beyond the remit of this article, but certain tendencies can be observed on the basis both of our impressions as academics working in the field, and of the two main relevant bibliographical databases—the BIDS ISI service, and the Modern Languages Association International Bibliography. Taking Irigaray and Cixous as examples of writers associated with écriture féminine, and comparing them with Cardinal and Ernaux, it would seem that the former have received noticeably more attention in the anglophone academic world. The MLA database (1981-97) produced a list of sixteen articles and one book on Ernaux, all published since 1990, mainly in the US. For Cardinal, nineteen articles and two books were listed. In comparison, in the same period, the MLA listed 150 entries for Irigaray, and 226 for Cixous. Even without a detailed analysis of the nature of these publications, the numbers seem to speak for themselves. The databases are not fully comprehensive, but they do provide a clear indication that the level of anglophone academic enthusiasm for ‘feminine writing’ massively exceeds the relatively modest, and recent, interest in Ernaux and Cardinal.5

A further point to note is that the work on Cardinal and Ernaux takes place mainly in the French departments, and French Studies journals of American and British Universities, whereas Cixous and Irigaray also attract the attention of academics and journals in English literature, comparative literature, Women's Studies, critical theory, aesthetics and philosophy.6 Given the interdisciplinary nature of her work, in the case of Irigaray this is hardly surprising, particularly in relation to philosophy and ethics. However, the significant presence of some French women writers, and almost total absence of others from published work and curricula in English literature and Women's Studies does require some interrogation. During the 1980s two key texts appeared with the express aim of introducing French feminist writing to the anglophone reader: Ernaux and Cardinal are significantly absent from these influential studies (Marks and de Courtivron, 1981; Moi, 1985). In the 1990s, Cardinal and Ernaux have been included in general works, such as Atack and Powrie's Contemporary French Fiction by Women, whose aim—to correct the ‘imbalance in the attention devoted to French feminist literary theory at the expense of fiction’—bears some similarity to our own (Atack and Powrie, 1990: 1). In 1991, both writers were included in a work entitled Language and Sexual Difference: Feminist Writing in France (Sellers, 1991). However, as its title suggests, this survey is dominated by the theories and main proponents of ‘feminine writing’. Cardinal is discussed mainly in relation to her approach to language, and in the brief section on Ernaux, social class is not mentioned (Sellers, 1991). More recently, two introductions to French women's writing designed for the English-speaking reader have been published in feminist series (Fallaize, 1993; Holmes, 1996). Fallaize, who concentrates on the contemporary period, included both writers, whereas Holmes, who covers the period 1848-1994, has a part chapter on Ernaux. It may be that these texts represent the beginning of a turning point in the anglophone reception of French women's writing, albeit led by academics working in French departments. Nonetheless, it seems that the fascination with ‘feminine writing’ as exotic ‘other’ is still dominant, and that for academic anglophone feminisms, the theoretical, not the personal, is political in the 1980s and 1990s.


The interest in writers such as Cixous and Irigaray which is so noticeable in the anglophone academic world is arguably rather less in evidence in France. In recent years, for instance, Irigaray has found a more receptive audience for her ideas among Italian feminists; Whitford argues that Holland and Italy are the European countries most interested in her work as a philosopher (Whitford, 1991). In general, women writers in France are less published and less recognized than women writers in the US and UK (Fallaize, 1993: 20-1). Perhaps in part (though only in part) because of the refusal of some of its protagonists to fight for equality, feminism has had less influence in France, both in terms of mainstream publishing, and academia. Thus, despite the dominance of écriture féminine in the anglophone view of French feminism discussed above, Ernaux and Cardinal still receive more academic attention in the French departments of American, Canadian and British universities than in France, where in both cases, the struggle to be taken seriously as writers is still an issue in the 1990s. Although here we are clearly not able to provide a comprehensive survey of the reception of these two writers in France (for Ernaux, see Thomas, 1999), we aim to highlight the most salient features, and to bring out the contrast between their popular success and the struggle for literary status.

The amount of published academic work on Ernaux in France is limited in comparison with the small but growing corpus of scholarly articles published in American and British French Studies journals. Although there are two books in French on her work as a whole, one was published in Holland (Tondeur, 1996) and the other by a fairly small and little-known publishing house based in Monaco (Fernandez-Récatala, 1994). Nonetheless, Ernaux is increasingly referred to in anthologies, and her works are studied in universities and schools. The brevity, plain style, and subject matter of texts such as Positions and A Woman's Story have ensured their popularity as set texts, which in turn has led to the publication of scholarly editions and critical commentaries in Britain and France (see for example Wether-ill, 1987 and Savéan, 1997). Ernaux comments that the interest in her work in schools is linked to the dominant theme of her writing: the painful process of changing class through education—a process experienced by many secondary level teachers, and equally relevant to pupils (unpublished interview with Lyn Thomas, March 1997). Also, according to Ernaux, there is an increasing amount of unpublished work on her writing, consisting mainly of MA theses. Perhaps the highpoint of Ernaux's literary recognition in France, apart from the initial acceptance of her first novel by Gallimard, one of France's most prestigious publishing houses, was the Prix Renaudot which she won in 1984 for Positions.

Despite these signs of acceptance by the literary and academic establishment, the French sociologist Isabelle Charpentier argues that ‘the guarantors of the literary value of the work of A. Ernaux are more fragile than it appears’ (Charpentier, 1994: 48). She goes on to describe how the publication in 1992 of Passion Perfect, an account of an affair with a younger, married man, enabled many journalists to express their repressed hostility to Ernaux, and to devalue not only Passion Perfect, but the earlier works, which had generally been well received. The recurrence of the word impudique (immodest, indecent) in reviews of Passion Perfect and some of Ernaux's more recent publications is particularly significant, indicating both the low prestige attributed to writing based on personal experience, and the gendered nature of the response to a woman writer, who is subjected to particular notions of propriety in French culture. The book shocked reviewers on a number of counts—but the fact that a ‘respectable’ woman writer and teacher had depicted herself in the throes of an intensely sexual passion was considered particularly scandalous, indicating the very different moral standards applied to men and women in French culture.

Charpentier carefully documents the explosion of negativity which Passion Perfect triggered among Ernaux's male critics, of all political persuasions. One of the most striking examples of this radically negative response is the article published in the left of centre Le Nouvel Observateur, entitled ‘A big trauma. Or how in Passion Perfect Annie Ernaux fancies herself as Emma Bovary's great niece’. Jean-François Josselin expresses his disdain by referring to Ernaux throughout as ‘la petite Annie’, refusing to attribute any literary value to the work—which he describes as ‘sad and banal’, ‘a tiny bit obscene’—and consistently trivializing the emotions expressed. Perhaps the key to it all is his total horror at Ernaux's inclusion of a popular culture version of ‘femininity’ which has no place in the French literary canon: ‘She buys underwear sets, watches soap opera, and has a little cry when Sylvie Vartan sings the superb “C'est fatal, animal”’ (Josselin, 1992: 87). Josselin's article is perhaps the most extreme, but the comparison with Emma Bovary is found elsewhere in the journalistic writing on Ernaux, as is the derogatory tone (de Biaisi, 1992; Delbourg, 1997). This linking of a woman writer with a male novelist's female character is indicative of the difficulty in French culture of seeing women as writing subjects, rather than objects of the male gaze, or textual mastery (see also Thomas, 1999: ch. 6).

Meanwhile, as Charpentier remarks, women journalists, both in the mainstream press, and in women's magazines, produced almost entirely positive reviews of Passion Perfect. The fact that Ernaux's slim volume instigated a gender-based querelle in the French press is in itself significant. The writer and journalist Jacqueline Dana commented in L'Evénement du Jeudi, for instance: ‘this way of depicting the signs of love, with precision and distance, has never been attempted before by a woman’ (Dana, 1992, quoted in Charpentier, 1994: 53). In Le Monde Josyane Savigneau defended Ernaux against Josselin's attack in an article entitled—‘Le courage d'Annie Ernaux’. Significantly, Savigneau sees Ernaux's text as breaking both a literary and a social mould, in its unadorned and frank use of the first person. She comments on a passage where Ernaux describes her indifference to her grown-up children at the height of her passion:

The masculine desire to stereotype women is out of luck here: Annie Ernaux is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Emma Bovary. In her work there is no guilt, and that's what is disturbing. No hysteria, no theatre. Just a commitment to write the truth about her passion, even when it shocks the common-sense view. … Is a woman entitled to write like this?

(Savigneau, 1992: 23)

The recent publication of the short text, ‘Fragments around Philippe V.’ (translated in this volume) suggests that Ernaux has every intention of continuing to ‘write like this’, and that she has not been intimidated by her critics. ‘Fragments’ is a detailed description of the social and physical nuances of a sexual encounter with a much younger man. The use of realist codes in this account of an older woman's sexual experience seems in some ways more troubling than the playful linguistic abstractions of feminine writing, which are safely contained within the category of the avant-garde. Here, the realistic description, for example of the pub in rue Monsieur-le-Prince, makes the introduction (and one could argue, celebration) of the ultimate taboo—menstrual blood—later in the text even more disturbing. Similarly, the image of the powerful older woman/writer may be more threatening when she is depicted as existing in contemporary social reality, rather than a feminist utopia. This publication has led, indirectly, to a further unleashing of critical fury. When the young man referred to in ‘Fragments’ (Philippe Vilain) published a novel based on his version of the relationship with Ernaux in 1997, Le Nouvel Observateur published an article which was vitriolic, not only about Vilain's text, but also about Ernaux's sexual mores (Garcin, 1997b).

As with Annie Ernaux, the critical response to Marie Cardinal in France is incommensurate with her popular appeal as a writer. In fact, Colette Hall's analysis of Cardinal's works (published in Holland by Rodopi in 1994) is the only full-scale criticism written in the French language. Despite the fact that reviews of her work are generally favourable, and that Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison has cited Cardinal as one of her major influences, Cardinal has failed to be included in the French canon as a writer of ‘serious’ literature (Lévy, 1994). Lucille Cairns has offered a plausible explanation for this, arguing that ‘neither her theory nor her praxis are assimilable to avant-garde trends of the last three decades’ (Cairns, 1992: 1). This analysis would seem to be borne out by the fact that Cardinal herself has commented negatively on the hermetic nature of some French theoretical writing (Cardinal, 1977: 82-97). Although in the past Cardinal was active in the Parisian literary scene, more recently she has adopted a more peripheral position, both textually and geographically (she moved from the French capital to Montreal, Canada in 1984 and now divides her time between Canada and the South of France). Thus a recent work, Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula has received little attention from Parisian critics (Lévy, 1993: 12). Indeed, Cardinal has recounted how the press officer at her publishers Grasset et Fasquelle forewarned her that the novel would not excite a great deal of critical interest in Paris because of her currently peripheral relationship to the Parisian mouvement—a term which for Cardinal herself remains couched in mystery (Lévy, 1994: 152).

It is true that Cardinal has received two prestigious literary prizes: her debut novel Ecoutez la mer (1962) won the Prix international du premier roman and The Words to Say It (1975) was awarded the Prix Littré for the best medical novel; however, as the nature of the latter prize indicates, her work has found an audience primarily as a source of sociological study rather than as the material for literary analysis. Commenting on the reception of The Words to Say It Cardinal has drawn attention to the tendency for critics to deny her creative ability, preferring to classify the text as a testimony or document on psychoanalysis. Following this pattern, one reviewer seems determined to unmask the author as an impostor: ‘This is the background to a work dishonestly described as a novel—are such deceptions a necessary part of the negotiation?’ (Schulmann, 1995: 943). More positively, if in the same vein, Jean-Jacques Brochier commented that ‘it is the best account of healing I have read since Freud’ (Brochier 1975: 51). Cardinal has proposed that the tendency to read women's writing as ‘merely’ autobiographical is part of a self-protective response on the part of male critics who, in her opinion, refuse to accept that female difference can be inscribed within the esoteric domain of Literature (Royer, 1978).

While critics may gain a sense of empowerment through reading her texts as an unmediated transcription of her life, it appears that Cardinal's descriptions of the female body are quite simply too direct, too real: ‘One time the blood had flowed in such large clots that it might have been said that I was producing slices of liver’ (Cardinal, 1975, trans. 1983: 31). Interestingly, the critics themselves often express their sense of shock in the hyperbolic terms which they find offensive in Cardinal's novel. Marlon Renard, a critic writing in a specialized literary journal, highlights this aspect of the text, describing the narrator as ‘this young woman, mother of three babies, whose rebellious womb bleeds interminably’ (Renard, 1975: 10). For Madeleine Chapsal of L'Express: ‘the novel retains a revolting odour of uterine blood’ (Chapsal, 1975: 44). Even a women's magazine, Marie-France, saw fit to warn readers that it would be hard to avoid being disgusted by Cardinal's descriptions of her menstrual flow (Hamel, 1975). Cardinal's refusal to disguise her embodied experience in academic, technical or elliptical language belies many of the conventions of ‘taste’ and ‘intellectualism’ which are rigorously enforced within the French literary milieu. Indeed, as Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out, the refinement of language and taste, and the subordination of the body to a culture of abstraction are the markers of French high culture (Bourdieu, 1979: 32). Cardinal's reclamation of crude lexis is all the more disarming because it deconstructs many of the unspoken expectations about what a woman should and should not say.

As is the case for Ernaux, the word impudique as a description of Cardinal's literary style appeared regularly in reviews of The Words to Say It, though the connotations were often more positive; given the desire to classify Cardinal's text as medical evidence, her lack of ‘pudeur’ (modesty) can become an attribute, as in this review, published, significantly, in Psychologie: ‘It's not the first time that a writer has tried to make us understand the process of psychoanalysis; but the sincerity of Marie Cardinal's account, which is without shame or concessions, is the closest to achieving this goal’ (Mouareau, 1975: 66). However, it would seem that ‘immodesty’ is a less positive recommendation in the literary world; Cardinal's direct approach to writing the body appears to have played a role in the exclusion of The Words to Say It from the shortlist for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Cardinal has argued that her description of the taboo subject of menstruation counted against her: ‘The same book with a prostate problem instead of uterine haemorrhaging would have been accepted’ (Spirlet, 1975). As this quotation suggests, Cardinal's rebellious reactions to the French literary establishment reinforce the challenge implicit in the text itself. The troubled tones of the critics, and the difficulty of classifying the work are a testimony to the strength and political significance of her writing.


One of the most striking features of the reception of Ernaux and Cardinal is the very large readerships which their works attract. We do not, on the whole, see the works of Irigaray or Cixous in the best-seller lists of the mainstream French press; this, on the contrary, is very much a feature of the response to Cardinal and Ernaux. Within weeks of its publication in January 1997 Ernaux's La honte was near the top of the lists in magazines and newspapers as diverse as Elle, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Point, L'Express and Aujourd'hui Le Parisien. By February, Marie-Françoise Leclère in Le Point spoke of the book's sales as an ‘astonishing result’, and by April, 68,000 copies had been sold (Leclère, 1997: 94; Gallimard, 1997). The sales figures for some of the earlier works are even more striking: to date nearly 460,000 copies of La place (Positions) have been sold in France, whilst the figure for Passion simple (Passion Perfect) is almost 275,000 copies. The significance of these statistics is reinforced by the fact that particularly since 1984, each of Ernaux's publications has been followed by invitations to appear on radio and TV, including the prestigious television discussion programme Apostrophes (now entitled Bouillon de Culture) as well as more popular TV programmes, often aimed at a female audience.

Similarly, Cardinal is a public celebrity in France. Several of her texts have achieved best-seller status while The Words to Say It has now sold over 2,500,000 copies world-wide and has been translated into eighteen different languages. As Carolyn A. Durham has pointed out, the immense popularity and enormous sales of The Words to Say It place it alongside Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Beauvoir's Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex, 1949) ‘as one of the most influential texts of contemporary feminism’ (Durham, 1995, viii). Cardinal has also become a popular figure in the French media; books such as The Key in the Door, The Words to Say It, and Devotion and Disorder, some of Cardinal's most controversial works, all based on her own life, have been the subject of interviews on radio and television and in women's magazines such as Elle (Cardinal, 1972, 1975, 1987). She appeared in around seventy television programmes between 1963 and 1993, ranging from serious literary debates such as Apostrophes, to light-hearted game shows such as Questions pour un Champion.

The mass appeal of Cardinal's texts is reflected in the vast amount of mail which she receives from readers who are keen to relate the act of reading to their life-histories. The fact that the reader response to Cardinal's texts is of interest to journalists is in itself significant, and it is this secondary literature which forms the basis of the remarks which follow. Although Cardinal has produced a number of impressive works since 1975, it is The Words to Say It which still commands the greatest popular response. Cardinal has explained that initially she received 200 letters a day, and that she still receives dozens of letters referring to this earlier text (Delay, 1975-6; Boncenne et al., 1982). The specifically feminist content of the text seems to be confirmed by the fact that particularly at the time of its publication most of the letters received were from women readers. However, its universal appeal as a story of liberation is highlighted by the significant number of responses which the author received from young male readers mainly after the text's appearance in paperback (Bosselet, 1977).

Many readers feel a close affinity with Cardinal and hence use the affectionate second person singular ‘tu’ or address her as ‘Marie’. Cardinal is praised for her courage and honesty as well as for her perceptiveness and capacity to convey a ‘truth’ which strikes a chord with many readers. One reader confides: ‘Marie, I don't know if you will get this letter. Your books have overwhelmed me: it's strong, it's good, it's true’ (Boncenne et al., 1982: 24). Another expresses the view that: ‘it took courage and talent to tell this long story of “the thing”, that all-invading madness’. The majority of readers see Cardinal as a kind of agony aunt in whom they place complete trust, divulging their own intimate testimonies and pouring out their personal problems: ‘Marie, I have a slight sexual problem …’ (Boncenne et al., 1982: 24). The interaction between analyst and analysand which was positively evoked in The Words to Say It is re-enacted through the relationship between author and reader. In many cases readers recount past histories which are not dissimilar to Cardinal's own, hoping to share in some of the strength and intelligence which enabled her to work through her own crisis. For instance, an article in Le Monde gives an illuminating account of the kind of narrative which the text inspires. In this piece, entitled ‘The Plain Woman’, Jane Hervé describes her encounter with Yvette, who is sitting on a bench immersed in The Words to Say It (Hervé, 1978). Like the heroine of Cardinal's text, Yvette has experienced a profound sense of social alienation and rejection by her peers and is driven by ‘an ardent desire to be loved’. Mistaken as a witch by young children, heavily built with a long nose and thin lips, Yvette's unfashionable dress and worn-out shoes testify to her inability to conform to the stringent aesthetic norms of French femininity. Again, like the heroine of The Words to Say It, she has managed to transcend a loveless relationship with her parents and to realize her autonomous identity through professional achievement. The content of the letters is repetitive, focusing, like this article, on the narrator's problems and subsequent salvation. The Bildungsroman structure of Cardinal's narrative is thus transferred to personal life-histories, with a resulting sense of inspiration and empowerment. Perhaps most importantly, The Words to Say It seems to have inspired in its women readers a belief in their ability to bring about change in their own lives.

Ernaux also receives very large numbers of letters from male and female readers, from a range of age-groups and social class backgrounds (for a more detailed discussion, see Thomas, 1999: ch. 5). The title and subject matter of the text often has a determining effect on the profile of the readers, and a significant number of letters recount a similar social trajectory to Ernaux's own, identifying with the emotional costs and consequences which she describes. Although Ernaux's texts do not end on the triumphant note which concludes The Words to Say It, the feeling of empowerment generated by the recognition of experiences of oppression is also found in readers' letters. Thus, a woman of working-class origins, and of Ernaux's generation, who has become a doctor describes Ernaux's work as crucial in her understanding of herself, and of her feelings of alienation and isolation:

However, it was Cleaned Out which affected me the most, since for the first time, actually, despite the fact that I read a lot, I saw situations and feelings described which I thought I was alone in experiencing, and which weighed heavily in my life, and still do.

(F., aged 50; 12/9/88)

Certain texts are particularly powerful for women readers: A Woman's Story and ‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’ attracted a high percentage of letters from women (80 per cent and 60 per cent respectively), perhaps because of the focus on the mother/daughter relationship which, as Irigaray has argued, is not widely represented in Western patriarchal culture (Irigaray, 1989). Of particular importance generally is the notion that Ernaux has expressed a hitherto unavowed experience, and that, through reading her, the women concerned have found a voice. Thus, a number of readers repeat Ernaux's words in order to express their own grief, or anticipated loss:

My parents are very old, but still alive … but I know that when they die, I will also have lost—if I may use your moving phrase—‘the last link’ or at least the strongest ‘with my world I came from’.

(F., aged 45, teacher; 8/2/88)

One woman even constructs a brief narrative of her life, based on the title of Ernaux's third book, A Frozen Woman: ‘A woman transfixed (figée) at twenty, not quite thawed out (dégelée) by forty’ (F., aged 50; 12/4/88).

As is the case for Cardinal, a striking aspect of Ernaux's letters from women is the desire to see her as a friend. Some women readers address her as Annie, and use the familiar ‘tu’ form; many others invite her—to dinner, lunch, or even for a holiday. One woman provides an idyllic vision of a sisterly chat with Ernaux: ‘Another, less rational motive: the desire to talk with you, about life, death, writing, oblivion, whilst striding along paths through mountains, the thyme-scented scrubland of the south, or by the sea’ (F. aged 57; 5/3/97). Again like Cardinal, Ernaux becomes a role-model and an inspiration:

This book [Passion Perfect] was my bible for many months, I dragged it about with me, everywhere. It was in my bag and my memory. Your book was my guiding light in my destructive relationship with a man. You were my model, I admired you for being able to face the final break-up.

(F., aged 26)

However, there is sometimes a desire to give, as well as receive support; Ernaux's readers often write angrily in her defence against the critics: ‘These reviews [of Passion Perfect] were absolutely disgraceful, the fact that they were written by men says it all. … They don't like truth, and for them sexuality does not exist in women’ (F., retired primary schoolteacher; 5/3/92). Although it is only possible here to provide a glimpse of the responses to Ernaux's texts, it will be clear from these few examples that a strong sense of gender and/or class-based solidarity emerges in these letters.

In conclusion, it would seem that despite very great differences of social background, and of style and content in their work, Ernaux and Cardinal currently occupy a similarly ambivalent place in French culture. They are both highly popular writers: the enthusiasm and loyalty of their readerships is resistant to critical opprobrium from the literary establishment, and seems strongly linked to each writer's willingness to draw on her own experience in her writing. The fact that this is an experience of oppression, whether as a middle-class, Catholic woman in Cardinal's case, or in terms of Ernaux's working-class origins, is important for many readers, who identify with the cultural and social exclusions described. Particularly for women readers, in a culture where the naming of women's physical and sexual experiences leads to accusations of impudeur (shamelessness), Ernaux's and Cardinal's texts represent a crucial questioning of gender-differentiated conventions. The fact that both writers break the rules and speak the unspeakable—in a literary form which is widely comprehensible and accessible—seems to give many women readers the sense that they too can find the words to express their experience, and that they are entitled to do so.

Despite their own distrust of Parisian intellectualism, and choice to live and work on the periphery (albeit more recently in Cardinal's case), Ernaux and Cardinal are in fact high-profile figures in the French media. The public fascination with these writers can in part be attributed to the fact that both, in different ways, call into question conventional definitions of both the literary, and of femininity. Their use of direct, unadorned language, and reference to their own personal experience makes them a still more troubling presence in contemporary French culture. Ironically, their popularity seems to result in an ambivalent response from the French literary establishment, whose view of women writers still seems to reflect the comment made, sadly, by Beauvoir herself in 1949:

she (the woman writer) brings into literature just that personal note which is expected of her: she reminds us that she is a woman by a few airs and graces, a bit of well-chosen preciousness; thus she will excel in the production of best-sellers, but one cannot count on her to venture into unknown territory.

(Beauvoir, 1949: 633)

The dichotomies inherent in this passage, between popularity and intellectual curiosity, and between the personal and literary value, have been compounded in the anglophone academic world by its fascination with French theory. Ernaux's discussion of social class, and both writers' emphasis on communication with a wide audience seem to have excluded them from the anglophone definition of fashionable French feminisms. The signs are that this is changing; perhaps in the next century recognition of difference will not be confined to the academically à la mode.


  1. The quotations and page references for Les Mots pour le dire are from the published translation (The Words to Say It). All other translations from French texts are the authors' own, and page references are to the original French texts.

  2. In her discussion of Cardinal, Carolyn A. Durham coins the term ‘communicative’ literature to describe writing which attempts to speak more directly to an audience than the avant-garde text, and is more concerned with the depiction of social reality (Durham, 1992).

  3. ‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’—‘My night is not over’. These were the last words which Ernaux saw her mother write, in a letter to a friend. The use of the mother's words as the title of one of her books is a further example of Ernaux's desire to save her mother and her culture from oblivion—whether through social relegation, or illness and death.

    An important intertext both to ‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’ and A Woman's Story is Beauvoir's Une mort très douce. This work also focuses on the mother's final illness, and the impact of this on the daughter's own identity, and fear of death.

  4. For instance, Le Figaro comments on the return to the mother's final months and illness in ‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’ that ‘what was exorcism has become exhibitionism’ (Matignon 1997). Whilst for Jérôme Garcin in Le Nouvel Observateur, Ernaux has transformed ‘this final song of love into an obscene description of physical degradation’ (Garcin, 1997a).

  5. On the BIDS database, seventy-seven items were listed for Irigaray, and of these twenty-five were substantive articles, published in the US, UK and Australia (most of the remaining references to each author in the BIDS listings were book reviews). In comparison, a similar search for Ernaux produced a list of only thirty-four items, of which seven were articles, published in the US or UK. The case of Cixous adds further confirmation, since the BIDS database provided 134 references for this writer, of which thirty-nine were articles or books.

  6. Ernaux and Cardinal are receiving increasing attention in French Studies in America and the UK, both in terms of published work and presence in the curriculum. All of the publications on Ernaux are in French Studies journals or books, and many are written in French. This is slightly less the case for Cardinal: two articles were published in an interdisciplinary and international literature journal, respectively, and a psychoanalytical reading of The Words to Say It in a critical theory journal (Bond 1994; Elliot, 1987; Powrie, 1989). Cardinal has also been discussed in general works on autobiography by women (Felski, 1989; Morgan et al. (eds) 1991).

Lyn Thomas is Senior Lecturer in French at the University of North London and has just completed a book on Ernaux which is to be published by Berg in 1999—Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience. She also researches and writes on contemporary French and British media.

Emma Webb is writing a Ph.D. thesis on the life-writing of Marie Cardinal and Annie Leclerc. She is a Visiting Lecturer in French at the University of North London.

Works Cited

Cited Works by Marie Cardinal

(1962) Ecoutez la mer, Paris: Editions Julliard.

(1972) La Clé sur la porte, Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle.

(1975) Les Mots pour le dire, Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, translated 1983 as The Words to Say It by Pat Goodheart, London: The Women's Press:

(1977) Autrement dit, Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, translated 1995 as In Other Words by Amy Cooper, with a foreword by Carolyn Durham and a postscript by Annie Leclerc, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

(1987) Les grands désordres, Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, translated 1991 as Devotion and Disorder by Karen Montin, London: The Women's Press.

(1990) Comme si de rien n'était, Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle.

(1993) Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula, Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle.

Cited Works by Annie Ernaux

(1974) Les armoires vides, Paris: Gallimard, translated 1990 as Cleaned Out by Carol Sanders, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press.

(1981) La femme gelée, Paris: Gallimard, translated 1995 as A Frozen Woman by Linda Coverdale, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows (now Seven Stories Press).

(1984) La place, Paris: Gallimard, translated 1991 as Positions by Tanya Leslie, London: Quartet Books and 1992, A Man's Place, New York: Seven Stories Press.

(1988) Une femme, Paris: Gallimard, translated 1990 as A Woman's Story by Tanya Leslie, London: Quartet Books, and New York: Seven Stories Press.

(1992) Passion simple, Paris: Gallimard, translated 1993 as Passion Perfect by Tanya Leslie, London: Quartet Books, and 1993 as Simple Passion, New York: Seven Stories Press.

(1996) ‘Fragments autour de Philippe V.’, L'Infini, 56, Winter: 25-6, translated 1999 as ‘Fragments around Philippe V.’, by Lyn Thomas, in this volume.

(1997a) La honte, Paris: Gallimard (not translated).

(1997b) ‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’, Paris: Gallimard (not translated).


Atack, Margaret and Powrie, Phil (1990) editors, Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de (1949) Le Deuxième Sexe, Paris: Gallimard.

———. (1964) Une mort très douce, Paris: Gallimard.

Boncenne, Pierre, Brasez, Edouard, De La Forest, Marie and Rogues, Christian (1982) ‘Lettres reçues par les écrivains’ Lire, April: 24.

Bond, David (1994) ‘Marie Cardinal's Comme si de rien n'était: Language and Violence’ International-Fiction-Review, 21, 1-2: 68-75.

Bosselet, Dominique (1977) ‘Maintenant Marie Cardinal reçoit des lettres d'hommes’ Le Matin de Paris, 24 February.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit; translated by Richard Nice (1984), London, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Brochier, Jean-Jacques (1975) ‘Les Mots pour le dire par Marie Cardinal’ Le Magazine Littéraire, July: 51-3.

Cairns, Lucille (1992) Marie Cardinal: Motherhood and Creativity, Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications.

Chapsal, Madeleine (1975) ‘Deux femmes sur le divan’ L'Express, 9 June: 44-5.

Charpentier, Isabelle (1994) ‘De corps à corps: réceptions croisées d'Annie Ernaux’ Politix, 27: 45-75.

De Biasi, Pierre-Marc (1992) ‘Les petites Emma 1992’ Le Magazine Littéraire, July/August: 59-62.

Delay, Claude (1975-6) ‘Une femme bien dans sa peau’ Vogue, Autumn-Winter: 94-5.

Delbourg, Patrice (1997) ‘Annie Ernaux: le bovarysme est un humanisme’ L'Evénement du Jeudi, 23-29 January: 82.

Durham, Carolyn A. (1992) The Contexture of Feminism: Marie Cardinal and Multicultural Literacy, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

———. (1995) Foreword to In Other Words translated by Amy Cooper, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Elliot, Patricia (1987) ‘In the Eye of Abjection: Marie Cardinal's The Words to Say ItMosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Fall, 20, 4: 71-81.

Fallaize, Elizabeth (1993) French Women's Writing: Recent Fiction, London: Macmillan.

Felski, Rita (1989) Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, Hutchinson Radius.

Fernandez-Récatala, Dominique (1994) Annie Ernaux, Monaco: Editions du Rocher.

Friedan, Betty (1963) The Feminine Mystique, New York: Dell.

Gallimard (1997) Unpublished summary sheet, April 1997.

Garcin, Jérôme (1997a) ‘La haine du style’ Le Nouvel Observateur, 16-22 January: 63.

———. (1997b) ‘Pour l'amour d'Annie Ernaux: Passion simple, suite’ Le Nouvel Observateur, 6-12 November: 126.

Hall, Colette (1994) Marie Cardinal, Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi.

Hamel, Thérèse (1975) Review of Les Mots pour le Dire, Marie-France, September.

Herve, Jane (1978) ‘La femme laide’ Le Monde, 31 December.

Hite, Molly (1991) ‘Introduction’ in Morgan et al. (1991).

Holmes, Diana (1996) French Women's Writing: 1848-1994, London: Athlone Press.

———. (1996) ‘Feminism and Realism: Christiane Rochefort and Annie Ernaux’ in Holmes (1996): 246-65.

Irigaray, Luce (1989) Le Temps de la Différence: pour une révolution pacifique, Paris: Librairie générale française.

Jelinek, Estelle (1986) The Tradition of Women's Autobiography from Antiquity to the Present, Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Josselin, Jean-François (1992) ‘Un gros chagrin’ Le Nouvel Observateur, 9-15 January: 87.

Leclere, Marie-France (1997) ‘Majuscules’ Le Point, 7 February: 94.

Lejeune, Philippe (1975) Le Pacte autobiographique, Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Levy, Bernard-Henri (1993) ‘Le bloc-notes de Bernard-Henri Lévy’ Le Point, 1101, 23 October: 12.

———. (1994) ‘Ecrivain par effraction’ La Règle du jeu, 5me année, 12: 150-8.

McIlvanney, Siobhán (1992) ‘Ernaux and Realism: Redressing the Balance’ in Maggie Allison (1992) editor, Women's Space and Identity, Women Teaching French Papers, 2, Bradford: Department of Modern Languages, University of Bradford, pp. 49-63.

Marks, Elaine and De Courtivron, Isabelle (1981) editors, New French Feminisms: An Anthology, Brighton: The Harvester Press.

Matignon, R. (1997) ‘Annie Ernaux: l'arrière-cuisine de l'enfance’ Le Figaro, 16 January: 33.

Moi, Toril (1985) Sexual-Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, London: Methuen.

Morgan, Janice, Hall, Colette, Snyder, Carol and Hite, Molly (1991) editors, Gender and Genre in Literature: Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction: An Essay Collection, New York and London: Garland.

Mouareau, Marie-José (1975) ‘Un grand roman’ Psychologie, October: 66-7.

Powrie, Phil (1989) ‘A Womb of One's Own: The Metaphor of the Womb-Room as a Reading-Effect in Texts by Contemporary French Women Writers’ Paragraph, November 12, 3: 197-213.

Renard, Marlon (1975) Review of Les Mots pour le dire La Quinzaine Littéraire, 16-30 June: 10.

Royer, Jean (1978) ‘Marie Cardinal: pour une autre humanité’ Le Devoir, 23 June.

Savean, Marie-France (1997) ‘Dossier: La place’, Paris: Gallimard.

Savigneau, Josyane (1992) ‘Le courage d'Annie Ernaux’ Le Monde, 17 January: 23.

Schulmann, Fernande (1995) ‘Marie Cardinal: Les Mots pour le direEsprit, December: 942-3.

Sellers, Susan (1991) Language and Sexual Difference, London: Macmillan.

Spirlet, Jean-Pierre (1975) ‘Marie Cardinal: les Goncourts sont misogynes’ Sud-Ouest Dimanche, 12 July.

Thomas, Lyn (1999) Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Tondeur, Claire-Lise (1996) Annie Ernaux ou L'Exil Intérieur, Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi.

Waugh, Patricia (1992) editor, Postmodernism: A Reader, London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Edward Arnold.

Wetherill, P. M. (1987) La place, London and New York: Routledge.

Whitford, Margaret (1991) Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, London and New York: Routledge.

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

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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 designated as “other” in order to ensure the constitution of a complete system of logical oppositions. In Le Deuxième Sexe, Simone de Beauvoir also underlines the connection between pregnancy and sickness: “On dit volontiers que les femmes ‘ont des maladies dans le ventre’; il est vrai qu'elles enferment en elles un élément hostile: c'est l'espèce qui les ronge. Beaucoup de leurs maladies ne résultent pas d'une infection externe mais d'un dérèglement interne” (68).

Annie Ernaux's first novel, Les armoires vides, is told from the perspective of a young university student undergoing an illegal abortion. As the amniotic fluid drains from her body, with a probe inserted in her womb, Denise recounts the story of her social alienation: although she was born to the working class, Denise's intelligence led to her placement in privileged bourgeoisie schools where her manners and speech were criticized. The child, thus displaced, experiences a profound conflict between the proletarian values espoused at home and the conflicting bourgeois values encountered at school. Increasingly, Denise becomes aware of the gap between the cozy homes of her refined schoolmates and the “café-épicerie” owned by her parents. Situated in a proletarian neighborhood, the café-épicerie hosts a clientele mostly comprised of factory workers. Denise's own parents come from a humble background and share with their clients an important number of linguistic and cultural habits. As she moves up the social scale, Denise feels forced to reject her “habitus,” i.e., the set of linguistic and behavioral habits characteristic of her social class. Eventually, she comes to reject her parents' proletarian milieu in order to conform to her bourgeois environment. In college, she dates Marc who, in her eyes, represents the prototype of the young educated and self-assured bourgeois man. But Marc proves to be of no avail when she accidentally becomes pregnant. Abandoned by Marc, and hiding the truth from her parents and professors, Denise opts for a dangerous clandestine abortion. As we shall see, in Les armoires vides, abortion functions as a powerful expression of the protagonist's social alienation. Beyond merely denouncing a given social order, the motif of abortion also enables the text to transgress the established order. Taking associations to their extreme (maternity, contingency, poverty, and sickness), and choosing the taboo and diseased female womb as a mode of representation, the text generates unexpected permutations of common stereotypes. Through promoting contamination, Les armoires vides aims at transgressing commonly accepted dichotomies.

The conflict experienced by Denise at an early age finds expression in an extended set of oppositions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is defined by transparency, lightness, immaculateness, external appearance, and the ability to escape from the body, to exist on its surface and over its surface. Jeanne, a wealthy student, is characterized by “sa légèreté, ses moqueries alertes” (62), the teacher by her long white hands (“ses longues mains blanches” [60]), and Denise's schoolmates by their general ease: “Je me sentais lourde, poisseuse, face à leur aisance, à leur facilité, les filles de l'école libre” (61). The lightness of their existence reinforces the narrator's feeling of heaviness: she feels that she is “une fille poisseuse et lourde vis-à-vis des copines de classe, légères, libres, pures de leur existence” (99). The school world in general is “limpide, bruissant et léger,” “pur” (75). The adjectives used by the narrator to describe her wealthy schoolmates also apply to mature women from the bourgeoisie. As Denise establishes a mode of comparison to differentiate between social classes, she defines the proper women (“[l]es femmes bien”) in terms of lightness and cleanness: “[l]a légèreté, voilà, et impeccables, propres” (96). Confronted with these women, the same feeling of inadequacy invades the protagonist. Denise feels literally alienated when she first meets Marc's mother:

La gaucherie, la chaleur, m'ont rendue muette et stupide. … Tout ce que j'avais imaginé, elle l'a, c'est irréel à force, le collier de perles, la blondeur discrète, la douceur, les friselis d'oiseau, les mots tendres à son fils. … Gentille, cultivée, futile, mais je suis une méduse vulgaire à côté, la pouffiasse qui remonte.


The superficial appearance—the pearl necklace, the discrete hair style—suffices to establish the lady's superior social identity. The body has become socially encoded. In the same fashion, a long description of Jeanne's clothing indicates that her pretty dress defines her social identity and establishes her as the teacher's favorite. Women from the bourgeoisie lack inner corporeality and seem to be entirely definable by a smooth surface. The bourgeoisie is shown to invest on surfaces and to demand that it be smooth and sterile as it puts the emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness (110). Bourgeois education leads Denise to value “[l]a blancheur d'un frigo, de jolis casiers, le propre, le médical presque” and to desire these things in the bar and grocery store owned by her parents (109).

Les armoires vides shows how the bourgeoisie defines itself by defining a field of absolute Otherness. The protagonist's world is made marginal and pushed outside of the new center she discovers through schooling: the educated elite. Listening to her imprudent descriptions of her home, her schoolmates comment that she must live in a strange house (59). They inquire of the location of the store which her parents own: “Quartier Clopart? C'est où ça? C'est pas dans le centre? C'est une petite boutique alors!” (60). Denise discovers that others are locating her at the periphery of their own world. To add to the protagonist's sense of loss, constant references are made in Ernaux's novels to the “magasins du centre” as opposed to her parents' neighborhood “café-épicerie.” Abjection as an exclusionary practice that delimits a domain of subjecthood is discussed by Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter:

This exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed thus requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet “subjects” but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject. The abject designates here precisely those “unlivable” and “uninhabitable” zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the “unlivable” is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject.


Seen from her newly acquired perspective, her home seems truly abject to the little girl. Those who are typically excluded from representation are characterized, according to Butler, by their performance of bodily functions so that universal man can be “relieved of the necessity of eating, defecating, living and dying” (48). Ernaux denounces classical exclusions. She repeatedly describes digestive functions as clearly associated with poverty and with the intrinsic nature of the narrator's social identity. Recurring descriptions of the café-épicerie's clients (all belonging to the working class), as well as evocations of the parents are linked to bodily functions. In particular, the parental “café-épicerie” is inseparable from its “pissotière,” a rudimentary wood cabin located in the courtyard. The term chosen by the protagonist to refer to it indicates the importance of urine in the text, and more generally of fluids. In Les armoires vides, urine, the pissotière, and the “seau de chambre” are mentioned no less than 44 times! On each occasion when these words appear, they evoke the café-épicerie, its clientele, and Denise herself. Urinating is clearly endowed with strong social connotations: descriptions of the café's clientele necessarily includes references to urine, whether it is because the men from the café are “tous rythmés par l'envie de pisser” (103), doomed to “le papier journal accroché au clou près de la tinette” (97), or simply referred to as “les pisseux de la cour” (131). Urine, in the text, is clearly associated with the lower working class and with Denise's social identity. Vomit, like urine, constitutes another strong network of images in Les armoires vides (vomiting and spitting are mentioned 29 times in the novel) and is associated with lower social classes.

The narrator's body expresses—and transgresses—the binary oppositions which cause her painful conflict. Her diseased womb comes to embody her origins while the outer surface of her body is vested with her new bourgeois identity. The text describes the bourgeois education lavished on the protagonist as one that affects the surface of her body, whereas her deep corporealness remains defined by her social origins.

When Denise is first confronted with the educated world of the school, it is her surface identity that the teacher addresses. Assuming that the little girl's home obeys the same bourgeois code of conduct as do the homes of the other students, the teacher actually addresses a “décalque,” i.e., a transparent model to which Denise's true identity does not correspond: “quand elle disait ‘votre papa, votre maman vous permettent-ils d'entrer sans frapper?’ en détachant les mots, j'avais l'impression qu'elle parlait de gens tout à fait inconnus, un décalque qui flottait derrière moi, à qui elle parlait” (60). Although this transparent model is still at a distance from Denise, she appropriates it through her bourgeois readings and wears it on the surface. Her heroines' clear and transparent lives—“la vie claire et transparente de mes héroïnes” (80)—enable her to draw the contours of a new bourgeois appearance: of her readings, she says “Ils dessinent … les contours flous d'une Denise Lesur telle que je la voudrais” (emphasis added; 80). When her achievements at school give her a new identity, they become associated with an external protective shell:

D'une classe à l'autre, à l'école libre, c'était toujours les mêmes filles. Elles ont admis mes bonnes notes et ma place de première. C'était ma liberté, ma chaleur, ma carapace. Redevenue la petite reine. La maîtresse me pardonne tout, les retards en classe, les bavardages, les fautes d'éducation, à cause des dix sur dix, des leçons toujours sues.

(Emphasis added; 73)

This choice of terms is interesting in the sense that for shell animals, the function of the “carapace” is to protect internal organs. The bourgeois education received by Denise appears in this passage as an outer shell which, by default, we assume to protect vital internal organs. According to the overall descriptions prevailing everywhere in the novel, these organs are associated with the working class's intrinsic corporealness: the protagonist's social origins are located within the “ventre”—both “belly” and “stomach” in French, the site for digestive as well as reproductive functions.

A dichotomous use of language reinforces the set of oppositions experienced by the protagonist. She explains:

Je porte en moi deux langages, les petits points noirs des livres, les sauterelles folles et gracieuses, à côté des paroles grasses, grosses, bien appuyées, qui s'enfoncent dans le ventre, dans la tête, font pleurer dans le haut de l'escalier sur les cartons de biscuits, rigoler sous le comptoir. … Les seules choses vraies sont là, celles qu'on sent partout, même entre les jambes. Les gâteaux roses qui m'ont fait dégobiller toute la nuit.

(Emphasis added; 77)

C'était tout artificiel, un système de mots de passe pour entrer dans un autre milieu. Ça ne tenait pas au corps, ça ne m'a jamais tenu sans doute, embroquée comme une traînée que dirait ma mère, les jambes écartées par le spéculum de la vioque, c'est comme ça que je dois dire les choses, pas avec les mots de Bornin, de Gide ou de Victor Hugo. … Ceux de l'école, des livres ne me servent à rien ici, volatilisés, de la poudre aux yeux, de la merde.

(Emphasis added; 78)

Like a grasshopper, the bourgeois language tends to fly away from the surface, it is too light to hold onto the body (“ça ne tenait pas au corps”). The mother tongue, on the contrary, is felt deeply inside one's belly, and is intrinsically linked to bodily functions.

In Les armoires vides, the image of the body enables the narrator to reverse common dichotomies. By acknowledging her proletarian origins as the core of her being, the narrator illuminates the fact that the abjected other also remains “inside.” As Butler explains, “the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (3). Through a recurrent pattern in Ernaux's descriptions of the protagonist's growing sense of social alienation, the working class comes to be located within the body and is associated with its digestive system, whereas the bourgeoisie is located at its periphery. This topography enables the narrator to express her proletarian identity as the core of her being. Through a curious reversal, marginalization becomes central to identity formation as it appears through textual representations. Via the image of the body, the social dichotomies between integrated bourgeoisie and marginalized outcasts have been reversed and the superficiality of the bourgeois values has been denounced.

However, reversal alone would be a dangerous gesture as it would ultimately reproduce the very system of binary oppositions which it attempts to destroy. By associating the working class with internal organs, the body described in the text—that of the protagonist—becomes the site for a contamination of its surface. Flowing liquids, amniotic fluids, urine, vomit, manifest the eruption of the abjected internal identity. The latter contaminates the bourgeois surface and, by extension, the bourgeois culture, as well as the printed page.

Associations with an old, destitute, and sickly woman and with a cat who used to give birth on the protagonist's sheets when she was a little girl, establish a strong connection between pregnancy, the inside of the body, liquids, and the working class. During her childhood, Denise witnessed absolute poverty: an old woman who lived in miserable conditions at the outskirts of town. She was particularly shocked when the old woman lifted her sheets and exposed her sick leg for all to see. Denise observed in particular, “[e]ntre ses cuisses s'étend une grande mare de pisse séchée, avec des dessins plus roses au bord, des broderies passées” (41). She later describes a cat giving birth in similar terms. The act of giving birth is made to appear as an emptying of oneself. During the course of the narrative, Denise, excluded from the circle of well-mannered little girls at school, develops the feeling that she is an outcast. She inhabits the space formerly occupied by the old lady, one linked to poverty and sickness. At the close of the novel, the image of the destitute old woman and that of the body undergoing abortion are brought together in the depiction of the cat:

Toute seule à attendre le débondage. … Comme la petite chatte des voisins qui venait faire ses petits dans mes draps, les miens seulement, en cercles rosés et odiférants. ‘Elle se vide, c'est la fin,’ dit ma mère quand elle revient de chez une vieille. Personne n'est venu pour moi, il faut vider toute seule le petit sac de haine, rougeâtre, le loupé d'avance.


The association between the aborted body and social class is made explicit early in the text when the little girl encounters the environment of her new school. At first unaware of social differences and trying to fit in with her schoolmates, Denise decides to tell some stories about her family. As she proceeds, the social differences between the other children's lifestyle and her own become painfully apparent. Jeanne, whose father is an optician and whose mother does not work, tells family stories that make the teacher laugh (61). We are given to understand that the success of her jokes is related to her wealthy background. But when Denise—using a vocabulary impregnated with slang—explains how her father got drunk and vomited, and how her mother had to clean up after him, the teacher immediately changes the topic of conversation. The teacher's reaction sends a clear message to Denise about the inappropriateness of both her comment and her social identity: “Elle a changé tout de suite de conversation, la maîtresse, ce que je vivais ne l'intéressait jamais. Le goût. La sonde, le ventre, ça n'a pas tellement changé, toujours de mauvais goût. La Lesur remonte” (61). In this vivid description, a strong network of socially determined mental associations imposes itself on the text. Denise's social identity is defined as that which is internal and threatens to resurge (“La Lesur remonte”) whether in the form of her father's vomit or in that of the aborted fetus. Associating the abortion with the father's intoxication and the schoolteacher's disapproval enables the abortion image to function in a very powerful fashion. The belly becomes synonymous with social contingency, it functions at both a figurative and a literal level. The bad taste, indicative of Denise's working class origins, is also the “goût continuel de viandox ranci” (13) commensurate with the pregnant body. The need to throw up which is clearly caused by and associated with her state (a motif in the text) is also reminiscent of her father's drinking, which the narrative clearly suggests is a result of his social upbringing. Denise's reference to vomit seems to contaminate, in an almost literal fashion, the classroom discussions.

The image of the aborted fetus is transgressive of the established order and of the text because it threatens to erupt at any moment. Common depictions of gender associating liquid elements with the feminine and its power to disrupt (see, for instance, Luce Irigaray's discussion in “The Mechanics of Fluids”) are utilized to express subversion. Denise's successful completion of her college exams marks the definitive separation from her family and origins. As she celebrates her success, she literally empties herself: “La banquette collante aux cuisses, je macère dans le champ’, la peau et par saccades, les ondes chaudes qui s'éparpillent dans le tissu ouaté. Un vrai ruisseau. … Je ne pense à rien. Une pouque vidée, gluante d'alcool, de sueur, d'un flot tranquille et secret. Arrivée” (175-76). This emptying of herself contaminates the surface of her body: she becomes “sticky with alcohol, sweat, and a quiet and secret flow.” This emptying of oneself also provokes her loss of identity: she feels “[c]oulante de partout, l'impression d'être toujours entre deux spasmes. Floue, inexistante” (176). When, emotionally disgusted by Marc's deprecatory attitude, she feels like throwing up on him, it is the internal body, nauseated, that threatens to contaminate Marc's bourgeois world: “je suis prête à dégueuler sur ses cheveux, sur l'oreiller, dans le verre de Martini” (179).

Vomiting, and by extension spitting, function as powerful abortive images. Not only is the novel written while the narrator waits for “les contractions pour dégueuler tripes et boyaux” (28) but vomit itself, like urine, enters a configuration of images that links the proletariat with bodily and amniotic fluids. The words “cracher” and “vomir” recur in a specific social context: they are mentioned only as they relate to Denise, her parents, and people from her own social background. Her parents, as well as their clients, throw up because they abuse alcohol—a trait obviously associated with lower social classes in Ernaux's writings. Denise's vomiting during childhood is also associated with her social class. Her abuse of food, and her consequent nausea, betray the social connotations associated with physicality. As she herself indicates, the pink cakes that caused her to throw up all night are the only authentic things, “les seules choses vraies,” which she can mention without falling in the trap of canonical literature's artificial vocabulary (77-78). Vomiting is one of the authentic corporeal elements which, in her opinion, can bring to life the socially determined characters whom she attempts to portray in her novels. When Denise has an abortion, throwing up reinstates her proletarian identity. As she mentions, this could not have happened to a bourgeois girl (67); her abortion was practically a foregone conclusion given her class.

The need to throw up, rather than characterizing pregnancy, is associated with her social class and with her abortion, which she also considers to be a socially determined phenomenon. It is also used as a means to contaminate the bodiless realm of bourgeois education. The novel is framed by references to this contamination. In the first pages, Denise mentions almost throwing up in an auditorium, in a literal fashion, while listening to Bornin, a professor who, we later learn, represents everything she hates in bourgeois canonical literature (14). She soon follows by clearly stating the metaphorical value of her physical repulsion: “Les autres, les cultivés, les profs, les convenables, je les déteste aussi maintenant. J'en ai plein le ventre. A vomir sur eux, sur tout le monde, la culture, tout ce que j'ai appris” (17). Her physical need to throw up while listening to Bornin is later echoed in the novel: “Quand Bornin et sa face crémeuse discourait de Gide, de Proust, j'avais envie de dégueuler, je pensais ‘un petit verre de goutte et ça passerait’” (134). The metaphorical value of the literal act is thus made very obvious in the novel. The protagonist resorts to a socially determined vocabulary of corporealness (drinking and vomiting) to resist and contaminate academic discourse. Like Bornin, her boyfriend appears as the epitome of bourgeois linguistic exploitation, especially as he submits her to “[l]e décarpillage par la parole. Le plus terrible” (170). Facing her boyfriend, Denise cannot express herself. She likens having sex with him to an emptying process necessary to her social promotion: “Que je sois récurée de fond en comble, décrochée de tout ce qui m'empêche d'avancer, l'écrabouillage enfin” (170). When, in the final pages, she threatens to literally vomit on him, Denise reclaims the act imposed on her (abortion or cultural hollowing) to contaminate the bourgeois world around her. As a result, all the acts of vomit mentioned within the text appear retroactively as rebellious and spontaneous acts of contamination.

The inside world that has to be killed and expelled threatens to contaminate culture, books, and the text itself in various ways. Contamination is also brought about by the maternal love that Denise's mother expresses. Denise remembers a particularly touching habit of her mother who, knowing how her daughter loved ice cream, would bring some back home for her, perspiring because she was hurrying: “Elle me rapportait des Esquimaux du marché, en été, à moitié fondus. Elle suait même autour des yeux, tellement elle s'était dépêchée” (180-81). Her mother's loving act is associated with the aborted fetus: “La quantité de choses écrabouillées, celle-là, crochée, crevée, qu'il va falloir recracher toute seule aux chiottes. En eau de boudin” (181). Although the protagonist undergoes the alienating experience of having to empty herself and abdicate her origins, the flowing liquids contaminate the surface of the text. Of the ice cream, the protagonist observes: “[l]'Esquimau coulait sur les verbes latins du troisième groupe, elle l'avait ramené en godaillant à toute vitesse” (181). The whitish sticky liquid flowing over the Latin lesson also represents the transgression of the formal language taught at school. Throughout the text, slang expressions contaminate the surface of the written text and transgress literary codes. Bodily fluids, mentioned repeatedly as a reminder of Denise's origins, are made to flow over the text and contaminate the formal language learned at school. By extension, liquids are repeatedly mentioned as being spilled over surfaces. A bucket of warm water is spilled (84), so are bottles of wine (119), bottles in general (54), a glass of Pernod (157), champagne (175), and cider (181). The protagonist's heart is said to spill its bitter smell (“[l]e coeur écrasé répand son odeur acide” [150]) while her name, become liquid, fills up the classroom, traveling like an ocean wave (71). The text is framed by the water erupting from Denise as a result of her abortion (12, 15, 178-81). Sudden and uncontrollable eruption characterizes the threat posed by her abortion as she describes herself as potentially being “un obus, un ballon de foire, un geyser débondé” (15). The potential for contamination also characterizes the abortion itself: “Cette espèce d'eau traverse toutes les fissures du ventre, elle a imbibé la couverture” (180). Retroactively, all images of spilled liquid, because of their association with abortion, threaten their surroundings with eruption and adulteration.

The aborted fetus, “[v]iolet, informe” (149), is an image that depicts the narrator's destroyed proletarian origin. Not only the amniotic fluids but also the color and amorphism of the fetus are made to represent an origin that the bourgeois order demands be abdicated. Purplish colorings and lack of shape recur to form a motif defining both the aborted fetus and the people belonging to the narrator's native social class. Lack of form is characteristic of this underprivileged class of people as perceived by the narrator:

Des vieux sans couleur, tous les machins délavés, informes … les bras ballants, mous, incertains. … Les femmes qui viennent aux commissions, avec leurs chaussons, leur cabas de toile cirée, se ressemblent toutes, trop grosses ou trop maigres, toujours déformées, la poitrine fondue, absente ou lourdement collée à la ceinture.


Male clients frequenting her parents' bar are particularly remembered for their purplish complexion: a skin tone they owe to alcohol abuse. Whether described collectively or individually, the same coloration prevails. Denise's childhood memories are intrinsically associated with inebriated clients: “Des gens partout, titubants, gesticulateurs. Ils s'avancent partout, violacés, les mains pendantes, il en sort de tous les coins” (16). A purplish coloring characterizes them from head to toe as their “têtes violacées” (48) echo the “traînées violettes laissées par les clients après leur départ” (24). The description of one man in particular reflects the violence associated with this color: “Ses gros yeux roulent furieusement dans sa figure de toutes les couleurs, un vrai arc-en-ciel, rose de fraise, violet, mauve au bord des poches” (20). From the perspective of a young girl raised in a “café-épicerie,” the colors of the rainbow range from light reddish purple to dark purple. The color extends to an old woman living in the neighborhood and who is seen to display a purple tongue (84). Even the bank notes in her parents' cash register are disfigured as the local children write on them with purple ink (160). The same color purple is also employed to characterize the fetus before it even receives a name. In the very first lines of the novel, the protagonist describes the unseen, unborn fetus as a rotting purple flower:

Toutes les heures, je fais des ciseaux, de la bicyclette, ou les pieds au mur. Pour accélérer. Une chaleur bizarre s'étale aussitôt comme une fleur quelque part au bas du ventre. Violacée, pourrie. Pas douloureuse, juste avant la douleur, un déferlement de tous les côtés qui vient cogner contre les hanches et mourir dans le haut des cuisses. Presque du plaisir.


Not only the aborted fetus, but also the abjected origins come rushing against the surface of the body and threaten to flood and, potentially, kill the protagonist.

Alcohol itself bears social as well as gender connotations. Socially, it recurs throughout the novel as an infamous mark that characterizes the lower class. For example, during her communion ceremony, Denise fears that the director of her school will see that her relatives have drunk too much (88-89). They are “voyants,” i.e., alcohol functions as a sign of one's social standing. Therefore, to associate wine barrels to her vagina enables the narrator to use her specifically female body to express a social process. Of the abortion she says:

Il faut que tout parte. Ça me fait un peu peur, ça saignera, un petit fût de sang, lie bleue, c'est mon père qui purge les barriques et en sort de grandes peaux molles au bout de l'immense rince-bouteilles chevelu. Que je sois récurée de fond en comble, décrochée de tout ce qui m'empêche d'avancer, l'écrabouillage enfin.


If the protagonist's vagina is likened to a wine barrel, with all the associated social connotations, the abortion becomes synonymous with a scouring, or a violent emptying of her social identity. But this violent act does not come to pass without an overflow of liquids. Retrospectively, the text can be understood as a repetition of spillage contaminating the text. Not only urine, as seen earlier, but wine (spilled wine bottles repeatedly characterize the ambiance in the bar [119]), flow freely and disrupt the orderly world of bourgeois culture. When Denise, quietly installed in the university library, “imagine des trucs délirants, le clodo du coin avec son litron dans l'allée centrale” (166), she allows images of drunkenness and alcohol to invade bourgeois spheres of culture such as museums and libraries where food and drink—reminders of corporeality—are strictly prohibited. The final image of the novel restates its social associations with abortion: “Les bouteilles de cidre travaillaient à la canicule, les bouchons fusaient, ça moussait jaune sur la terre de la cave. Des tessons qui se retrouvaient à trois mètres et des bouteilles éclatées sur place comme des fleurs. Vides” (181).

Whether likening herself to a scoured wine barrel, a bursting cider bottle, or simply an empty wardrobe, the narrator expresses her loss through her sense of emptiness. However, she also allows the image of the aborted fetus to contaminate the whole text and make its presence felt in every page. This presence expresses the narrator's pain and anger inherent to her social alienation. Ernaux actually likens her text to a “cri de rage” (Le Dictionnaire, 182). As such, Les armoires vides could be compared to Edvard Munch's The Cry where the shriek radiates outward and thus alters the whole picture. The aborted fetus, just as in Munch's rendition of a shriek, unsettles its surroundings and contaminates the whole text. Ernaux can justly be praised for having unsettled literature, thus scoring high on her own scale, one according to which literature is measured “à son degré de dérangement” (Le Dictionnaire, 182).

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. Le Deuxième Sexe. Paris: Gallimard, 1949.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Ernaux, Annie. “Annie Ernaux.” Le Dictionnaire. Littérature Française Contemporaine. Ed. Jérôme Garcin. Paris: François Bourin, 1988. 179-83.

———. Les armoires vides. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Mechanics of Fluids.” This Sex Which Is Not One. New York: Cornell UP, 1985. 106-18.

Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de l'horreur. Paris: Seuil, 1980.

Loraine Day (essay date June 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9212

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 appropriateness of Lecarme's remark with respect to Ernaux's ongoing preoccupations as a writer is beyond dispute. Since the publication of La place (1984), Annie Ernaux has produced texts which work on lived experience in a style that is direct and unadorned.2 She seeks to elucidate ‘le vécu obscurément subi’,3 ever mindful that the truths which she pursues are personal and poetic, rooted in the perceptual matrix of the present moment of writing, and therefore necessarily relative.4 In another article, Lecarme and Bruno Vercier suggest that Ernaux's careful attempt in Une femme to define the field in which she works could stand as an appropriate description of many contemporary first-person narratives:

Annie Ernaux ne manque pas de récuser, à sa manière, l'horizon autobiographique: ‘Ceci n'est pas une biographie, ni un roman naturellement, peut-être quelque chose entre la littérature, la sociologie et l'histoire.’ Ne conviendrait-il pas d'ajouter la psychanalyse à cette constellation qui circonscrit avec beaucoup de justesse le champ où s'effectue, pour beaucoup, cette venue à un Je qui ne peut plus être celui du roman?5

Despite (or perhaps because of) Ernaux's current position as a writer whose work—in her own eyes and in the perceptions of readers and critics—centres on the exploration of a verifiable personal history embedded in a specific social and historical context, it is worth recalling that Ernaux has not always eschewed the fictional treatment of autobiographical themes.

Ernaux's first three publications (AV [Les armoires vides], CQD [Ce qu'ils disent ou rien], and FG [La femme gelée]) are all novels which draw in different ways on autobiographical sources. These three novels failed to achieve the critical or popular acclaim which greeted La place, and some critics have seen them as the early, uneven experiments of a writer who was struggling to find a distinctive style and voice.6 Whatever aesthetic judgement is made of this early phase of Ernaux's work (and it is my view that a sustained analysis of this issue remains to be undertaken), it is certainly the case that the semi-fictional texts contain the seeds of her later work. Although this is most evident from a thematic point of view, the three novels also prepare the ground for the formal and generic development of Ernaux's writing in subsequent years.

Taken overall, the triptych of novels published by Ernaux between 1974 and 1981 displays a marked shift in perspective and style which allowed Ernaux to move closer to the controlled and measured form of expression which she adopted in La place and subsequent works. La femme gelée, published in 1981, three years before La place, was Ernaux's third and last novel. With its unnamed narrator (allowing for the possible identification of narrator and author), its balanced tone and objective assessment of past experience, La femme gelée displays some of the features which would characterize Ernaux's later work, standing in marked contrast to Les armoires vides and Ce qu'ils disent ou rien where named narrators (Denise and Anne) vent their resentment and bitterness in the face of their milieu and situation. Adopting a substantive rather than a formal perspective, it can be said that both Les armoires vides and La femme gelée are broadly congruent with the author's personal history, as it is evoked in her more openly autobiographical works. By contrast, critics seeking to trace the connecting threads of a body of work which they, like most commentators, perceive as fundamentally autobiographical, have not found it easy to accommodate Ernaux's second novel, CQD.

For example, in her study of La place and Une femme, M.-F. Savéan accords marginal status to CQD, supporting this view by identifying the ways in which CQD deviates from the familial and generational context which is present in the other novels, as in La place and Une femme, and which is compatible with the personal history of the author herself. It is argued that in a body of work ‘axée sur l'autobiographie’, these departures from a verifiable personal history distance CQD from Ernaux's project as a writer. Somewhat paradoxically, Savéan also suggests that the fictionalized cast of CQD serves to mask the representation of experiences which the author may have felt to be too close to home. A further tension exists between the body of Savéan's commentary on CQD, which suggests that the autobiographical aspect of the novel centres on Ernaux's memories of adolescence, and the subsequent undeveloped remark concerning the ‘jeu de miroirs’ that can be identified in the reference to the French teacher in the concluding paragraph of CQD (Annie Ernaux was herself a teacher of French at a CES in Pontoise at the time when CQD was written).7 This tantalizingly reflexive moment at a key point in the novel surely merits further consideration, not least because it serves as a reminder that even if the novel does draw on the linguistic and cultural malaise which Ernaux experienced as a teenager, it does so through the prism of the author's intervening years and mediates the author's preoccupations, concerns, and needs at the time of writing.

Elsewhere, I have argued that CQD has an important place in the evolution of Ernaux's techniques as a writer, specifically in the development of the ‘plain style’ for which she is known.8 Here, I shall suggest that the novel draws on a complex network of autobiographical elements which connect CQD to the body of Ernaux's work, and that these sometimes competing elements are manifest in the text as a process of doubling which can be seen in the narrator's quest for a soul-mate or role-model as well as at the level of the textual figures who might be viewed as projections of the author. I shall further suggest that analysis of the imbrication of fictional and autobiographical elements to be found in CQD illuminates Ernaux's subsequent rejection of fiction, while simultaneously suggesting the extent to which all her writing, and indeed perhaps all writing, is autobiographical at some level.9 It will be argued that CQD marks an important phase in Ernaux's developing sense of the position she wished to occupy as a writer, in relation to her subject matter, her readers and the wider social context which contains and structures the literary field.

Ernaux has acknowledged the unique status of CQD in her work, describing it as ‘le seul de mes textes qui soit vraiment un “roman”’.10 Notwithstanding this comment, it is clear from Ernaux's remarks in an interview with me in 1987 that the novel draws substantially, if very flexibly, on autobiographical material:

Je me suis aperçue que finalement c'est plus facile de se projeter dans une situation imaginaire que d'aller à la quête du réel, très très nettement […] c'était plus facile pour moi d'écrire comme écrirait une adolescente … c'était une sorte de sortie de moi-même, sortie à moitié bien entendu, puisque … mais en même temps il y avait un jeu parce que j'étais professeur donc j'avais des classes comme ça, donc alors je voyais des filles, c'est-à-dire que je faisais une espèce d'osmose avec des élèves, j'avais un contact aussi très passionnel avec les élèves, je ne sais pas à quoi c'est dû, … mais j'avais des élèves âgées … qui avaient des difficultés, qui ne réussissaient pas à l'école … et elles me racontaient des choses … Je les voyais comme élèves mais je les voyais comme héroïnes [rires] … En même temps, elles étaient un peu moi aussi, c'est-à-dire qu'il y a toujours un jeu de projection, de souvenir, et en même temps elles étaient des filles de leur époque qui n'était pas la mienne […]. Mais finalement c'était plus facile à écrire que cette espèce de quête que je fais, que j'ai faite, une quête du réel, comme j'ai fait dans La femme gelée.11

Later in the interview, Ernaux identified other experientially-based threads which are taken up in CQD: her recollections of working as a monitrice in a colonie de vacances as a teenager, and her desire to write about Cergy-Pontoise, the new town to which she had moved in 1975. This complex interplay of memory and sensitivity to her current environment, identification with her pupils and unease in her professional life, was rooted in Ernaux's painful awareness of her own divided class identity and sense of betrayal in relation to her parents and their world, an awareness exacerbated by the daily contact with working-class adolescents which forced her to confront the implications of her accession to middle-class status. These interlocking autobiographical strands in the composition of CQD will be examined in my assessment of the ways in which Ernaux's work on the novel allowed her to move forward in the process of finding her place as a writer. Notwithstanding Ernaux's assertion that as a primarily fictional work, CQD is dissociated in her mind from the ‘quête du réel’ which she feels she undertakes in her best work, I shall argue that the novel may usefully be seen as an imaginative negotiation of very real difficulties in the author's quest for a sense of identity and direction in her personal and professional life, particularly as a writer.

In the summer of 1976, Ernaux's recollections of working in a colonie de vacances as a young woman were sufficiently prominent in her mind to provide the inspiration for a possible title for the novel: Les Enfants de l'été, a reference to the refrain of a song which was used as a kind of rallying chant at the holiday centre in Sées where Ernaux was a monitrice in 1958. CQD contains a reference to this song (p. 112), but Ernaux rejected ‘Les enfants de l'été’ as a title, mainly because it does not evoke the theme of language which is central in the novel.12 However, the very possibility of choosing a title linked to the summer spent in the colonie suggests that these memories were of more than tangential significance in the genesis of the novel. A stay in a colonie de vacances is also mentioned by the narrator of La place, who associates it with a painful memory. In this text, the narrator's reunion with her parents following her stage of eight weeks in the colonie triggers acute awareness of the gulf between herself and her parents, and a sense of guilt at leaving them behind: ‘J'avais pour la première fois vécu loin de la maison, pendant deux mois, dans un monde jeune et libre. Mon père était vieux, crispé. Je ne me sentais plus le droit d'entrer à l'université’ (P [La place], p. 86). Given that early versions of the work that would become La place flank the writing of CQD,13 it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the sense of betrayal may be seminal in CQD as it is in La place. This is a key point to which I shall return.

Like all Ernaux's published texts, CQD is a sustained first-person narrative, but it is unique amongst her works to date in so far as the generational and social situation of the narrating ‘I’ does not match the chronology and social frame of Ernaux's own story. The focalizer in CQD is a girl who is fifteen in the mid-1970s; she attends a state school (a CES); her parents (both manual workers, her mother on a part-time basis) are owner-occupiers of a small suburban villa (the mortgage has just under half its term to run). The setting of CQD is not the café-épicerie of Ernaux's childhood, although the novel makes reference to the place names familiar from Ernaux's other works (Rouen, Le Havre, Veules-les-Roses). As Anne broods in her bedroom, she hears cars speeding to the Normandy coast on the nearby route nationale, just as several of Ernaux's other narrators do from the first-floor partitioned bedroom in the house located in what is identified in La honte as the rue du Clos-des-Parts in Yvetot. Notwithstanding these references, Ernaux has stated that the décor of Pontoise provided the setting against which she imagined the events of Anne's summer (ILD). The signs of a recently and inadequately developed new town (high-rise blocks, monotonous estates, construction sites and vacant lots, have a clear if discreet presence in CQD. This amalgamation of Cergy-Pontoise and Yvetot in the setting of CQD points to the way in which the novel mobilized both Ernaux's memories of her adolescence and her situation at the time of writing the novel.

In broad terms, there are similarities between the familial situation of Anne and Ernaux's own adolescent background, as it is evoked in her other works. Anne's parents are on the wrong side of the economic and cultural tracks, although they are upwardly mobile in a modest way; they have aspirations for their only daughter, who is increasingly alienated from them as her education throws into relief their lack of sophistication and finesse, and who looks to sexual experience as a means to escape their sphere of influence and to punish them for the scorn they inspire in her.

On the other hand, Anne's parents have characteristics that clearly set them apart from the parental figures in Ernaux's other texts: Anne's mother is a fanatical housekeeper and her father drinks. Moreover, the austerity of the 1950s (which is the backdrop for the teenage years of Ernaux's other narrators) is replaced in CQD by the consumerist preoccupations of the 1970s, and the attitudes of the younger generation mimic the permissive mores vaunted in the media at the time. Anne's sexual experimentation advances at breakneck pace, in contrast to the cautious and carefully graduated process described in Les armoires vides and La femme gelée. As a teacher of low-achieving, sexually precocious teenage girls who readily confided in her, Ernaux was well placed to understand the difficulties of socially disadvantaged young women in the 1970s. Indeed, it is clear that the novel engages with many issues prominent in the feminist agenda at the time: double standards in sexual relationships, violence against women, the cultural and social subordination of women, the failure to disseminate adequately information about contraception.

CQD is written with careful attention to historical context: references to the political and economic climate, and to teenage fashion, style and taste, situate the novel in a particular historical moment. The extreme and unforgiving tone of Anne's internal monologue, as well as the unrelentingly colloquial register which characterizes it, are consistent with her position as a rebellious and confused teenager.14 The narrative does not overstep the perceptual capacities of the youthful and inexperienced narrator. These factors convincingly create and sustain the illusion of an authentic teenage voice of the 1970s, although the strong edge of social criticism which is implicit in the work points to the controlling vision of the thirty-six-year-old author. Readers familiar with Ernaux's other works will also recognize the author's voice in the evocation of Anne's radical disenchantment with her parents, as well as in many details of her story. I shall not attempt to identify all the features of CQD which connect it to the body of Ernaux's work or set it apart from her other texts. Instead, I shall suggest a reading of CQD that links it to a particular and crucial phase in Ernaux's adolescence, and to a specific text: La honte.

It is obvious that CQD and La honte are radically different kinds of work. A period of twenty years separates their respective publication dates; CQD is a novel with a fictional narrator, whereas La honte is an ethno-autobiographical work in which Ernaux speaks openly in her own voice; Anne is fifteen, whereas Ernaux was twelve in the summer of 1952 which lies at the heart of the narrator's quest in La honte. Notwithstanding these important differences, some similarities between the two texts can be identified: of all Ernaux's narrators, Anne is the closest in age and in linguistic range to the twelve-year-old whose experience is investigated in La honte; both CQD and La honte focus on a single traumatic summer, although, like all Ernaux's works following CQD, La honte has a mature narrator whose retrospective range is much broader than the one available to Anne; finally, and perhaps most significantly, CQD and La honte are associatively linked through a network of narrative details.

Broadly speaking, these details fall into certain categories. Firstly, there are expressions drawn from the linguistic register of Ernaux's childhood: ‘lui tirer les vers du nez’ (CQD, p. 75; H [La honte], p. 62), ‘on/elle (ne) vaut pas cher’ (CQD, p. 76; H, p. 63), ‘ça ne me faisait rien’/‘ça ne m'a rien fait’ (CQD, p. 20; H, pp. 64, 111), ‘qu'est-ce qu'on pense(ra)/dira(it) de toi/nous’ (CQD, pp. 128, 146; H, pp. 68, 104), and most significantly, ‘gagner malheur’ (CQD, p. 74; H, pp. 15, 31, 70).15 Secondly, there are circumstances linking Anne's summer and the summer evoked in La honte: the grandmother's death (CQD, pp. 72-79; H, p. 111), the mother's recent menopause (CQD, p. 43; Jnsp [“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”], pp. 56-57), the recourse to ‘the advertisement game’ which feeds the narrators' fantasies of social distinction (CQD, p. 37; H, pp. 127-28), and above all a backcloth of parental strife, including an incident when the narrators' glasses are broken (CQD, pp. 43-44, 85, 119-20, 124; H, pp. 13-15, 19, 112-13).16 Thirdly, there are signs of psychological disturbance in the narrator: the torpor which overcomes her at school, in the days and weeks following the crisis (CQD, p. 143; H, pp. 18, 109), visual disturbances (CQD, pp. 145-46; H, p. 120) and fear of madness (CQD, pp. 36, 107-08, 136; H, pp. 38, 120). Finally, there are references to bodily excretions which are usually veiled in silence: the used sanitary towel promised or produced by a school friend, for the enlightenment of the pre-pubertal narrator (CQD, p. 142; H, pp. 93-94) and the very idiosyncratic thoughts about excrement (canine in CQD, human in H, and in both cases deposited on open ground in summertime), pictured by the narrators as enduring ‘to mark the spot’, at least perhaps until the rains of winter, and carrying memories of a specific moment and state of mind (CQD, p. 82; H, p. 123).

What seems significant is not so much that cross-references can be made (in a creative project which works on personal experience, certain moments judged to be significant are likely to figure in more than one work), but that they are so numerous, and so distinctive, that they punctuate the course of a single summer and chart the narrators’ ‘descent into hell’, and perhaps above all that they include references to the possibility, fear, and incidence of violence between the narrators' parents.

It is not my intention to suggest that CQD straightforwardly transposes the stage in Ernaux's adolescence which is evoked in La honte. The overt focus of Anne's story, her sexual experimentation and subsequent disillusionment, has no parallel in La honte, although the narrator's nascent awareness of sexuality is certainly a very insistent subtext in the later work. The three-year age gap between the narrators, as well as the difference in their generational, familial and educational situation, allows Anne a level of sexual activity which is incompatible with the life of the narrator of La honte at the age of twelve. As an account of early sexual experimentation and adolescent rebellion against the parental model, no doubt CQD owes more to Ernaux's memories of her mid-teenage years than to those relating to her twelfth year. A careful reading of Ernaux's most recent works does indeed suggest that in writing CQD she drew partly on memories of her own fifteenth year, including her reading experience at that time. For example, numerous echoes of the work of Sartre may be found in CQD. These include issues of substance, notably a degree of consonance between Anne's ‘sentiment bizarre’ (CQD, pp. 20, 22, 23) and the malaise experienced by Roquentin in La Nausée,17 and her elated but fleeting impression of self-coincidence (CQD, pp. 113-14), reminiscent of Mathieu's remembered experiences in L'Age de raison.18 Points of detail also link CQD to Sartre's writing, for example the choice of an unusual and distinctive expression, ‘les yeux de chat qui fait dans la braise’ (CQD, p. 68; La Nausée, p. 75). “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” records Ernaux's memory of reading La Nausée at the age of fifteen (Jnsp, p. 47). That she did not consciously include intertextual references to Sartre's work in CQD19 suggests both the power of reading to mark and shape subjectivity and the extent to which all writing and all language develop through and from an existing discursive field. On a different note, the circumstances of the death of a pet cat also link Annie Ernaux's fifteenth year with Anne's (CQD, pp. 151-52; Jnsp, p. 20).

At this point, I propose to refer to psychoanalytical thought in order to draw out the significance of the connections which I have identified between CQD and La honte. It is a basic insight of psychoanalysis that fear of separation and loss is a universal, primal experience, first arising in infancy.20 Each new loss revives and resonates with earlier losses, in a process of accretion which lays down the psychic material which may later be implicated in depression. Given the infantile origin of what Rochlin has called ‘the loss complex’, the early experience of separation from the mother (or care-taker) subtends losses throughout life.21 Returning to CQD and La honte in the light of these insights, what seems most significant is that both texts explore a summer of crisis, when the narrators' self-image and relationship with their parents undergo a sea-change. It will be argued that Ernaux was (perhaps unconsciously) drawn to the events of 1952, at the time of writing CQD, because 1976 was also a time of crisis, uncertainty and disarray. I shall suggest that Ernaux found herself, at the age of thirty-six, working through conflicts which were associatively linked to the traumatic events which took place in the summer of her twelfth year, and that these conflicts profoundly influenced the form and content of CQD.

Ernaux's writing, and the considerable body of auto-referential material which she has produced in response to the questions of journalists and researchers, consistently identify her position in relation to her parents and their world as a residual source of conflict and division in her life, and as fundamental to her writing. This ongoing tension rests on the play of attraction and repulsion, connection and disconnection, and generates feelings of displacement, guilt and betrayal. Reading CQD in the light of La place, Une femme and “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” suggests that Ernaux's feelings towards her parents were preoccupying her, and perhaps more than usually troubling, at the time when CQD was written. As Anne's mother is such a dominant figure in CQD, I shall begin with the mother-daughter relationship.

In January 1976 Annie Ernaux's mother returned to Yvetot after six years of living with her daughter in Annecy and Cergy-Pontoise, helping bring up her two young grandsons (aged twelve and eight in 1976). Madame Duchesne22 had to adapt to living outside the family structure and without the grandmotherly responsibilities that had shaped her existence for the past several years (F [Une femme] pp. 78-79, 81-82), and although Ernaux has acknowledged the difficulty of having her mother live with her (F, pp. 75-76; Jnsp, p. 92), she must have found it hard to adjust to life as a working mother without the quality child care and domestic support her mother had lovingly provided (F, p. 79; Jnsp, p. 10).

The play between merger and separation in mother-daughter relationships has been explored over the past two decades by many feminist thinkers, working from a wide variety of perspectives. The theories which have been put forward are very diverse, but a recurrent theme is that fluid ego boundaries between mother and daughter make differentiation problematic, generating hostility between mother and daughter, especially from the daughter's side.23 This means that the task of finding a balance between mutuality and autonomy is a life-long task for both parties, beginning for the mother in pregnancy, and continuing for the daughter after her mother's death. The work of Donald Winnicott centres on the mother—child relationship and posits the crucial role of the provision of a secure maternal holding environment. His contribution to theories of human development extends far beyond the concept of ‘good-enough mothering’ for which he is widely known,24 and his importance for feminist theories of mothering and mother—child relationships has yet to be properly explored.25 According to Winnicott's theory of child development, a phase of destruction (of the other in fantasy) is necessary for the child to place the mother (or primary care-taker) outside the self. The internal image of the other is destroyed, testing the other's capacity for survival in the outside world. This process is a step on the way from the illusion of omnipotence to the capacity to acknowledge reality. If all goes well, it allows differentiation to take place, since the external object has been shown to exist independently, to be beyond the control of the child's mental powers.26 In an influential development of this theory, Jessica Benjamin has suggested the importance of this idea for the understanding of adult relationships.27

In CQD, the very negatively marked intensity of Anne's feelings towards her mother, provoking wilful denials of connectedness or intimacy between them, paradoxically suggests the extent to which Anne remains bonded to her mother.28 The daughter's defiant assertions of independence (for example ‘qu'est-ce qu'elle m'avait dit d'intéressant depuis longtemps. Début juillet, j'ai découvert que je n'avais pas besoin d'elle, sauf pour bouffer et dormir, m'acheter des affaires’ [CQD, p. 29]) are belied by the feelings of nostalgia, concern, guilt and dependency in relation to her mother which surface elsewhere in her interior monologue (CQD, pp. 58-61, 145). The cited remarks take on added resonance in the light of Madame Duchesne's move to Yvetot. The loss of her mother's practical support (perhaps in itself generating a degree of conscious or unconscious resentment) clearly triggered more pervasive feelings of severance in the daughter. Following her mother's move to Yvetot, the narrator of Une femme is acutely aware of their separation (‘ce studio est le seul lieu que ma mère ait habité depuis ma naissance sans que j'y aie vécu aussi avec elle’ [F, p. 83]), convinced the move had been a mistake (‘elle me paraissait encore trop jeune pour être là’ [F, p. 83]), and frustrated by the difficulty of communication in the absence of the daily preoccupations of a shared existence (F, p. 83). It would seem that the mother's attempt to (re)assert her independence left the younger woman perplexed and uncomfortable, while it stripped the older woman of her defences against encroaching old age. The narrator is uneasily aware that her willingness to reintegrate her mother into the family, for extended visits and holidays, stems as much from her own reluctance to visit her mother in Yvetot as from responsiveness to her mother's needs (F, p. 84), yet the evocation of their periodic reunions conveys a strong sense of homecoming for both parties (F, p. 84). No doubt the positively charged tone of this passage is partly a function of its place in the economy of the work as a whole (immediately preceding the account of the accident from which the narrator dates her mother's decline, it marks the last of the good times in the narrator's memories of her mother), but it creates an enduring image of two women linked by a powerful emotional and visceral bond.

If Ernaux's sense of loss in 1976 was acute, as these remarks suggest, might it not have reactivated the anxieties of the summer of 1952 which are the subject of La honte? At that time, the narrator's fears of losing her mother (whether through a second act of violence on her father's part, or through a separation which in the child's mind could become definitive, as with the trip to Lourdes) combined with the torment of being ashamed of her mother, (another kind of loss), plunging the child into a trauma which she would never fully overcome. Evoking a period of radical destabilization in a mother—daughter relationship, CQD might be read as a transposition of the author's ongoing need to work on her relationship with her mother. From this perspective, CQD may bear witness to Ernaux's struggle with the early stages of a process (accepting the inevitability of separation, while at the same time identifying and acknowledging her mother's place in her life) which would later be recorded and analysed in Une femme and “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”.

Anne's father has a much smaller place in her story than her mother does, perhaps because, immediately before the composition of CQD, Ernaux had been working on a draft of the text that would become La place. Since Ernaux had reached an impasse in her work on the text relating to her father when she started to write CQD, it may be that the need to take a break from work that had reached stalemate explains the relative slightness of the father's role in the novel, as well as the negative characteristics which differentiate him from the father figures in Ernaux's other works, if this critical slant is seen as a conscious departure from personal sources. Anne's father drinks, sometimes more than he should; he is quarrelsome and loudspoken, out of touch with his daughter and usually resentful rather than appreciative of her presence. These characteristics are in marked contrast to those of the gentle, nurturing father encountered in other of Ernaux's works (in H, the uncharacteristic nature of the father's violence is stressed [H, pp. 14-15, 125]). Equally however, with his irascibility and occasional violent outbursts, Anne's father anticipates the behaviour of the father whose verbal and physical aggression is recorded in the opening lines of La honte. As she thinks back to one of her parents' quarrels, Anne recalls her childhood fears that parental violence would one day go too far: ‘le grand soir moi je sais bien à quoi il ressemble depuis toute petite, ils se foutraient sur la gueule et les gendarmes viendraient, et je me bouchais les oreilles’ (CQD, pp. 119-20). In La honte, the narrator buries her head in a pillow to block out her parents' cries (H, p. 14), and fears her father will end up in prison (H, p. 19).

The mature narrator of La honte remembers that for the child who witnessed the struggle between her parents, la scene fell outside the domain in which judgement could be passed or blame attributed (H, pp. 18-19). However, the girl's very strong object-cathexis for her mother (evident in the two key scenes when the mother's body is subjected to actual or metaphorical assault [H, pp. 13-15, 109-11]) calls into question the possibility that her neutrality could be maintained in the face of a perceived threat to her mother's life. Anne's alienation from her father seems to be an accomplished fact rather than the wishful thinking manifest in Anne's stated indifference towards her mother. If CQD to some extent revisits the summer of 1952, the narrator's hostility towards her father might be read as a belated and indirect (perhaps even unconscious) expression of the author's uneasy disapprobation of her father's recourse to violence.

At this point, it is worth bearing in mind that Ernaux's relationship with her parents was nothing if not ambivalent, generating painful tensions which permeate her work. For Ernaux's narrators, hostile filial judgements of the parental figures sit uneasily with primal allegiances that cannot be disavowed, provoking anxiety and guilt. For all her scathing animosity towards her father, even Anne is not exempt from moments of discomfiture when she reflects on their former closeness (CQD, pp. 27-28).

Thinking about CQD in relation to La place, it is striking that the closing lines of the novel evoke a situation which is echoed in the conclusion of La place.29 Both texts bring together a teacher and a working-class pupil who has cause to feel let down by the school system. In La place, the unnamed young woman who works in the supermarket has ended up in a repetitive job with few prospects; in Anne's case, her teachers fail to meet her needs as a young woman alienated from her home environment and deeply confused by the adult world. The conclusions of both texts, like the opening section of La place (which juxtaposes the account of the narrator's success in the CAPES oral with the account of her father's death) evoke an unexpressed but potent sense of betrayal. In La place this betrayal is fully assumed by the narrator, who has precisely set herself the task of exploring the gulf that increasingly separated her from her father as she progressed through the education system. In CQD however, the teacher is not the narrator, but is focalized externally, represented from the outside by the younger narrator who is a fictional creation, albeit one which draws both on Ernaux's recollections of her own teenage years in Yvetot and on her observations of and projective identification with her teenage pupils in Pontoise. Moreover, the teacher is very explicitly criticized and challenged by the narrator (who herself plans to become a teacher) in the closing lines of her interior monologue: ‘Jamais je ne vais finir ma dissert, la prof me collera un zéro. C'est elle qui dit, ça lui prend, changer la vie, il faut changer la vie. Alors qu'est-ce qu'elle fait là?’ (CQD, p. 154). The figure of the teacher, who could herself be seen as Ernaux's double, is found wanting by a narrator who might be a surrogate both for Ernaux's adolescent self and for the pupils to whom and for whom Ernaux feels responsible, and who may further be said to represent the world of Ernaux's parents, which she has now left behind. The dérision which has been directed at Anne's parents throughout the narrative is now deflected towards the teacher, who is unable either to defend herself or to acknowledge the validity of Anne's judgement, since she has no access to the first-person voice.

As Anne's summer progresses, her sense of identity grows increasingly uncertain: she no longer recognizes herself in her parents' image of her, and she seeks in vain for a ‘double’ or role model to pit against the emptiness which she finds when she looks within herself (CQD, pp. 89, 116). Anne's cousin Daniel and one-time soul-mate Alberte provide two negative models; the dead-end fate which awaits them (in Anne's perception) is all the more distressing as she had strongly identified with them (CQD, pp. 76, 142, 153-54). Even the calm and attractive monitrice whom Anne admires is diminished when Anne realizes that the older girl's charisma provides no defence against male duplicity (CQD, p. 118). Anne wants to become a teacher, but more often than not, her own teachers disappoint her.

Driven by the need for self-understanding and self-expression, Anne tries her hand at writing, only to be discouraged and frustrated by the gap between her own experience and vocabulary and the formal conventions which, in her understanding, govern literary expression.30 Although she lacks the confidence to trust and act on her insights, Anne realizes that she wants and needs to tell her own story (CQD, pp. 106, 134) and to speak in her own voice (CQD, pp. 106-07), even if this means confronting the uncertainty of ongoing subjectivity (CQD, p. 89). If Anne is Ernaux's double, a surrogate for the teenager she was, or might have been, the teacher is both Anne's double, an image of the teenager's possible future (and potential disillusionment) and the double of Ernaux the French teacher. Is there a position in the text from which these doubles and surrogates can be embraced and acknowledged as the multiple avatars of a subjectivity in process?

In thinking about Ernaux's own voice or ‘place’ in the novel, it is tempting to suggest that the author is everywhere, omnipresent in the text. In a way this is true of all her works, not just because ‘all writers are writing about themselves at some unconscious level’,31 but also because Ernaux's texts are always attentive to the palimpsestic nature of subjectivity, as her narrators trace the successive stages of their development. However, it must be borne in mind that for Ernaux the concept of place is saturated with meaning; the attempt to situate herself in relation to a primary displacement (her cultural alienation from her parents), experienced as a founding moment of consciousness, is a fundamental trope of her writing. This fundamental concern with her place as a writer in the cluster of relationships which literature sets in play has led Ernaux to develop the directness of voice and expression and the ethno-autobiographical focus which are characteristic of her work from La place on.32 In my conclusion, I shall suggest that the composition of CQD contributed significantly to the process leading Ernaux to adopt the distinctive personal voice for which she has become known.

With the composition of La femme gelée (published in 1981, at a point in time roughly equidistant from the publication dates of CQD and La place), the author moved one step closer to overtly assuming a place in the narrative: although still designated a novel, the text features an unnamed narrator whose circumstances closely parallel those of Ernaux herself at the time of writing. In La place (1984) and subsequent works, the fictional frame is abandoned and the narrators speak in a voice which is progressively identifiable as Ernaux's own.33 As a writer, Ernaux has developed a very provocative literary voice, committed to frank communication and challenging readers to follow—and explore for themselves—the increasingly intimate pathways of self-investigation (self-exposure?) mapped out in her work.

In her interview with me in 1987, Ernaux said that of all her then completed works (AV, CQD, FG, and P had been published, and F was forthcoming), it was CQD for which she felt the least attachment. The reasons given were connected with the overtly fictional nature of the work, together with the speed and relative ease with which the novel was written (substantially in a month in the summer of 1976). Its composition provided release and escape from a personal situation in which Ernaux felt increasingly trapped, and which left no time for writing. In the context of the heuristic function which she associates with writing, Ernaux summed up the relative lack of appeal the novel held for her by commenting with self-directed irony: ‘J'ai l'impression de ne pas avoir assez souffert.’ However, Ernaux's recollections of the summer in question leave little doubt that intense suffering certainly preceded the composition of CQD, and that it found cathartic release in the process of writing: ‘Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, je l'ai écrit en un mois […] J'allais très mal, j'allais vraiment très mal, parce que je ne trouvais plus le temps d'écrire […] donc j'ai demandé à être seule pendant un mois C'était ça ou … je ne sais pas …’.34

The dispersed (and at times conflicting) nature of the autobiographical investments in CQD is consonant with the author's acknowledgement that the novel was written at a time of considerable personal malaise, perhaps involving a crisis of confidence and the loss of a sense of direction. ‘Le moi clivé’ which the author has identified in the narrator of La place,35 remains ‘unclaimed’ in CQD, although its presence is clearly felt in the fragmentation, doubling, and corrosive dérision which are so pervasive in the novel.36 This might be seen as a (perhaps unconscious) textual manifestation of the cultural displacement which was fundamental to Ernaux's identity, and which (although the writer herself may not have been aware of this at the time) would need to be fully assumed at a personal and textual level, before Ernaux could move forward in her evolution as a writer. Equally however, the presence of a figure (the teacher) corresponding to the author's persona at the time of writing, and appearing for the first time in Ernaux's work, might be seen as an acknowledgement of the author's need to make a place for the adult she has become, to address the conflicts of her position as a teacher and writer. It is hard to resist the idea that the narrator's very explicit challenge to this figure (‘qu'est-ce qu'elle fait là?’ [CQD, p. 154]) expresses Ernaux's own profound reservations about her position and practice as a teacher and writer committed to the belief that literature has a contribution to make in the struggle against social injustice.

It is also worth noting that, on several occasions, Anne's reflections could be read as ironic references to the author's own situation. For example, Anne imagines that life will be plain sailing when she is an adult woman with two children and a decent job (CQD, p. 9), and she is keenly sensitive to the middle-class aura which attaches to teachers, even when their appearance, behaviour or remarks suggest more ambiguous class affiliations.37 These scattered allusions have a caustic edge: two of them express the narrator's view that for a middle-aged person, the death of a parent is relatively untraumatic (CQD, pp. 41, 75). Such potentially self-referential moments further suggest that the author's desire to give textual presence to the contradictions and tensions which are contemporaneous with the process of writing is working its way to the surface. Finally, Anne's desiderata for her own writing (engagement with her own lived experience, using a discursive register with which she is comfortable, and speaking in her own voice) invite a reading of the novel that foregrounds literary practice. Indeed, the narrator's longing to write in a way which would allow her to work openly and directly on her own experience might be said to anticipate the evolution of Ernaux's own project as a writer.38 Taken together, these points suggest that for Ernaux, the problem of defining her place as a writer was a crucial one which could not be passed over, perhaps least of all in a work fuelled by the desire to tap dammed-up creative energy, and conceived within a fictional frame which left the way clear for an imaginative engagement with unfinished business; as Ernaux has said, ‘la fiction passe par où elle veut’.39 It may be surmised that the composition of CQD helped Ernaux to write her way out of school-teaching: she left the CES in Pontoise in June 1977, and has not held a post in a school since. I would also argue that the text signals the author's unease with regard to her position as a writer, both within the text and in the extratextual domain. Writing CQD did not allow Ernaux to overcome the creative impasse which blocked her progress with La place (on her own admission, CQD ‘est pris entre deux difficultés d'écriture’),40 but it may have planted the seeds of dissatisfaction with a creative form (autobiographical fiction) in which as a writer she was everywhere and nowhere, and in which both her engagement with her subject matter and communication with her readers remained oblique, indirect, and inhibited. If this is so, then CQD set the stage for a radical change of direction in Ernaux's writing practice, taking her closer to the adoption of the ethno-autobiographical voice and direct mode of address which have become the hallmarks of her works subsequent to La place.41


  1. J. Lecarme, ‘Paysages de l'autofiction’, in Le Monde des livres, 24 janvier 1997, p. vi.

  2. The following abbreviations will be used for works by Ernaux: AV (Les armoires vides, Gallimard, 1974), CQD (Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, Gallimard, 1977), FG (La femme gelée, Gallimard, 1981), P (La place, Gallimard, 1984), F (Une femme, Gallimard, 1988), PS (Passion simple, Gallimard, 1992), H (La honte, Gallimard, 1997, Jnsp (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, Gallimard, 1997). Page references are taken from the Folio editions, except in the case of La honte and “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, where the Gallimard Blanche editions are used as Folio editions are not yet available.

  3. Cited in Le Dictionnaire: littérature française contemporaine, ed. by J. Garcin (Paris: Françoise Bourin, 1988), p. 182.

  4. See for example H: ‘Il n'y a pas de vraie mémoire de soi’ (p. 37), or the comments in Jnsp concerning the text's relationship to F (Jnsp, pp. 12-13).

  5. J. Lecarme and B. Vercier, ‘Premières personnes’, Le Débat, 54 (1989), pp. 54-67; the quotation is from page 57. The quotation from F is from the concluding paragraph of the text (p. 100). Ernaux progressively revises the way she classifies her writing. In ‘Quelque chose entre l'histoire, la sociologie, la littérature’ (in La Quinzaine littéraire, 532 (1989), p. 13), Ernaux added another element to the description put forward in F: ‘j'ajouterais peut-être, maintenant, “la poésie”’. Ethnology has also become an increasingly important term in her conception of her writing project (H, p. 38).

  6. See W. Motte, ‘Annie Ernaux's Understatement’, The French Review, 69.1, (October 1995), 55-67 (especially p. 65). A similar judgement is implicit in the remarks of M.-F. Savéan (“La place” et “Une femme” d'Annie Ernaux (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), p. 39).

  7. M.-F. Savéan, pp. 25-33; the cited remarks are taken from pages 30 and 33. Denis Fernandez-Recatala also focuses on the narrator's cultural and linguistic malaise as a teenager alienated from her parents (Annie Ernaux (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1994), pp. 41-64). C.-L. Tondeur and P. M. Wetherill miss or disregard the specificity of the context of CQD (C.-L. Tondeur, Annie Ernaux ou l'exil intérieur (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996), p. 92; La place ed, by P. M. Wetherill (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 41).

  8. See ‘Ce qu'ils disent ou rien in Annie Ernaux's Trajectory as a Writer’, Essays in French Literature, 35 (November 1998).

  9. In evoking the idea that all writing is in some sense autobiographical, I have in mind that all writers necessarily work with the material provided by their own lived experience. However, as James Olney has pointed out, in post-structuralist theory, the understanding that the self that produces writing is also produced by it develops into the proposition that ‘the self that was not really in existence in the beginning is in the end merely a matter of text. […] The self, then, is a fiction’ (‘Autobiography and the cultural moment’, in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. by J. Olney (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 22). As an agrégée des Lettres and as a teacher of literature for the CNED (Centre national d'enseignement à distance), Annie Ernaux is cognizant with contemporary literary theory, including the field of autobiography (she was responsible for a course in autobiographical writing in 1977-78), and her work engages with contemporary thinking about subjectivity and writing, while avoiding the kind of critical discourse which would be inaccessible to many readers. Notwithstanding her insistence that her work explores a verifiable personal history, Ernaux is certainly not exempt from the uncertainty about the self which has been so pervasive in the closing decades of the twentieth century. For Ernaux, the self is intersubjective, decentred, processual, and fictive, in the sense that memory and therefore identity are inseparable from imaginative ‘textual’ elaboration (see PS, pp. 68-69). Indeed, she openly challenges the very existence of a ‘self’: ‘Il n'y a pas de “moi”, de personne en soi, d'individu. On est le produit de différentes histoires familiales, de la société’ (‘Ce jour-là, le 15 juin 1952’, Télérama, 2453 (15 janvier 1997), p. 32).

  10. Letter to Loraine Day dated 20 February 1997.

  11. The interview took place on 26 November 1987 in Annie Ernaux's home in Cergy. It will be referred to as ILD in my article and notes. I am most grateful to Annie Ernaux for permission to quote from this interview and from other unpublished material (permission granted in letters dated 1 March 1998 and 7 November 1998).

  12. Information concerning the summer camp and the song is taken from ILD and from a letter from Annie Ernaux to me, dated 25 October 1998. The theme of language in CQD is explored in detail in my article referred to in note 8.

  13. A twenty-five page first draft of P was begun at Easter 1976, and set aside in May. CQD was substantially written in the summer of 1976, although it was not completed until October of that year. Between January and April 1977, Ernaux worked again on P, writing about one hundred pages of a novel based on her father's life. Many other drafts were written before Ernaux completed P in 1983 (information from ILD and from a letter from Ernaux to me, dated 8 March 1997). P. M. Wetherill has documented the lengthy genesis of P in his introduction to this text, pp. 30-35.

  14. Both the evocation of a specific historical moment in CQD and the stylistic features of Anne's discourse are explored in more detail in Loraine Day, art. cit.

  15. The terms listed here are limited to expressions that occur exclusively in CQD and H.

  16. In a letter to me dated 20 February 1997, Ernaux confirmed that the memory of the fear of violence between her parents entered into the composition of CQD: ‘Cqdr … contient … bien des éléments autobiographiques. Ainsi, une ou deux phrases qui font allusion à ce qui ouvre La honte (pp. 85, 119)’. My discussion makes no reference to the strong sense of parental indignity, because this is also very prominent in AV, and figures in some measure in virtually all Ernaux's works.

  17. Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée, Folio edition (Paris: Gallimard, 1938).

  18. L'Age de Raison, Livre de Poche Edition (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), pp. 71-73.

  19. Ernaux made this point in a letter to me dated 20 February 1997.

  20. Lack of space precludes detailed referencing in support of this point. For a useful overview of the place of separation and loss in psychoanalytical thought, see J. Rheingold, The Mother, Anxiety and Death (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), pp. 86-89.

  21. G. Rochlin, ‘The Loss Complex’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 7 (1959), pp. 299-316. For references to the cumulative and retrojective nature of separation anxiety, see M. Klein, ‘Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States’, in Love, Guilt and Reparation (London: Virago, 1988), pp. 344-69 (especially pp. 353-54 and p. 369). See also H. Segal, (Introduction to Melanie Klein (London: Karnac Books, 1988), p. 80), and J. Rheingold, pp. 86-87.

  22. The surname and the mother's forename Blanche appear for the first time in Ernaux's published works in Jnsp (p. 41).

  23. For a review of feminist work on motherhood and mother-daughter relationships from a psychoanalytical perspective, see Elizabeth Wright's Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary (London: Blackwell, 1992), specifically the entries by M. Hirsch (pp. 252-54 and 280-84), C. Kahane (pp. 284-90), N. Segal (pp. 266-70) and M. Whitford (pp. 262-66).

  24. See for example Segal in Wright, p. 267.

  25. Rosalind Minsky's discussion of Winnicott's work from feminist perspectives deserves acknowledgement (Psychoanalysis and Gender: An Introductory Reader, ed. by Minsky (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 110-36), as do Claire Kahane's brief but suggestive remarks in Wright, pp. 286-87.

  26. See D. Winnicott, ‘The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications’, in Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971), pp. 86-94.

  27. See Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love (London: Virago, 1990), especially pp. 36-42 and 68-84. Benjamin's analysis of adult relationships focuses on the erotic bond, but it is clear that her theory has more general applications.

  28. For a useful discussion of the mother-daughter relationship in CQD, see Lucille Cairns, ‘Annie Ernaux, Filial Ambivalence and Ce qu'ils disent ou rien’, Romance Studies, 24, (1994), 71-84. An analysis of the mother-daughter theme in Ernaux's work may also be found in Tony Jones and Loraine Day, ‘La place’ and ‘Une femme’ (Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1990) pp. 35-78) and in Tondeur, pp. 89-107.

  29. In a letter to me dated 20 February 1997, Ernaux wrote: ‘La conclusion de La place a été écrite après CQDR, de façon absolument certaine. Ces deux “fins” se correspondent en effet, je m'en suis aperçue ultérieurement’.

  30. Anne's feelings about writing, and the ways in which these articulate with Ernaux's development as a writer, are discussed in detail in my article referred to in note 8 above.

  31. Rosalind Minsky, p. 176.

  32. Ernaux's concern to define her place as a writer in the contemporary social order and in relation to potential readers may be usefully juxtaposed with Philippe Lejeune's concept of the autobiographical pact: ‘Ecrire un pacte autobiographique (quel qu'en soit le contenu), c'est d'abord poser sa voix, choisir le ton, le registre dans lequel on va parler, définir son lecteur, les relations qu'on entend avoir avec lui: c'est comme la clef, les dièses ou les bémols en tête de la portée: tout le reste du discours en dépend. C'est choisir son rôle’ in L'Autobiographie en France (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, ‘Collection U2’, 1971), p. 72.

  33. Ernaux readily acknowledges the autobiographical dimension of all her work and in extra-textual contexts she has freely identified herself as writer with the intratextual narrators of her works from P on. However, it should be noted that it is only in her most recent publications that authorial identification with the narrating ‘I’ is explicitly established in the texts themselves. In H and Jnsp, the narrator is referred to as ‘Annie’ (H, p. 42; Jnsp, pp. 21, 67, 69, 90), while in Jnsp the narrator is positioned within a network of family relationships (involving named individuals and familiars) which matches Ernaux's own family situation (for example, Jnsp, pp. 19, 31, 50, 93).

  34. ILD

  35. Unpublished interview with Loraine Day and Tony Jones, 6 July 1990.

  36. This interpretation is consistent with psychoanalytical theories of doubling. Freud, drawing on the work of Otto Rank, identifies three fundamental ‘motivations’ for doubling phenomena: preservation of the ego in the face of the threat of engulfment/destruction, premonitions of death and the workings of conscience (see S. Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, in Collected Papers, Vol. IV (London: The Hogarth Press, 1950), pp. 368-407 [see especially pp. 387-391]). Along similar lines, Winnicott suggests that disintegration may be seen as a defence against ‘unintegration’ in ‘Fear of Breakdown’, International Review of Psychoanalysis, 1 (1974), pp. 103-07; the reference is taken from page 104. Lack of space precludes further exploration of these remarks and their possible relevance to CQD, but it is worth noting that Freud's three categories of motivation and Winnicott's proposition all involve a threat or challenge to the ego.

  37. CQD, pp. 19, 115, 154. This issue is also flagged by Anne's reflection that a teacher observed strolling at a local fun fair seems out of place, an interloper whose pleasure is at best vicarious (p. 49). Ernaux is herself drawn to fun fairs, which for her evoke powerful memories of the excitement of childhood outings and adolescent encounters with boys (letter to me dated 12 November 1998).

  38. This subject is developed in my article cited in note 8.

  39. ‘Le silence ou la trahison?’, interview with Jean-Jacques Gibert, Révolution, 260 (22 février 1985), pp. 52-53; the quotation is found on page 52.

  40. Letter to Loraine Day dated 8 March 1997.

  41. My thanks to Tony Jones for his thoughtful response to this study. I also wish to express my gratitude to Annie Ernaux, for her continuing support and unstinting generosity in fielding queries and requests for information.

Warren Johnson (essay date summer 1999)

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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 romances, the stories she devours betray no authorial mediation. Giving free flight to her imagination, these texts, through their illusion of perfect transparency, offer a gateway to a solidly bourgeois world of businessmen and housewives that contrasts with the socially marginal milieu of her parents, proprietors of a café-grocery. The fictions she reads at home separate her reverie from the coarse banality of the quarrels and drunkenness that she experiences daily not by the artificial and self-consciously literary style of the belletristic works foisted on the young Denise by her teachers, but by the feigned effacement of their textuality that opens up a conduit for her vicarious living of both social propriety and intense passion.

This transparency of style becomes increasingly the goal of the narrator Anne in Ernaux's books starting from La femme gelée (A Frozen Woman, 1981). In La place (A Man's Place, 1983), the adult Anne, after renouncing her attempts to write a novel about her father, deceased more than fifteen years earlier, claims that the stripped down, neutral, and uninflected language in the account of his uneventful life comes to her effortlessly: “L'écriture plate me vient naturellement, celle-là même que j'utilisais en écrivant à mes parents pour leur dire les nouvelles essentielles” ‘Flat writing comes to me naturally, the sort I would use to write my parents to tell them the essential news’ (Place 24).1 The issue at the heart of this essay is the uncomfortable no-(wo)man's-land between language as arising spontaneously and naturally from a long-ingrained assimilation or rather as resulting from a conscious laboring of deliberate expression. The question far exceeds a study of “style” in a narrow rhetorical sense, a major focus of Ernaux criticism to date, for language in Ernaux's multi-volume fictionalized autobiography (only the original editions of her earliest books bear the label roman) blends itself intimately with the creation and projection of the narrator's personal identity. Ernaux's self-described écriture plate or unadorned style aims at a transparency that returns the adult, discursively sophisticated Anne to a prelapsarian linguistic state prior to the focused contention between the language of home and school that comes to alienate the adolescent from her family and past.

The nonstandard vocabulary, run-on sentences, interrupting onomatopoetic words, and blurred markers of speech attribution in Armoires and Ce qu'ils disent ou rien (Whatever They Say or Nothing 1977) echo the confusion between contending tongues that even the mature Anne cannot discriminate. The effort to define the relations between the self and her conflicted milieu reflects what Claire-Lise Tondeur calls “un traumatisme qui devient la source de toute son oeuvre ancrée dans l'autobiographique” ‘a traumatism that becomes the source of all her work anchored in the autobiographical’ (“Passé” 133). If writing an autobiography is ostensibly an act of accounting for the self that has evolved—even though that self has, at least since Rousseau, been an evident product of the autobiographical text itself—then Ernaux's books cannot be easily assimilated into the genre of self-descriptive writing prominent in contemporary French literature. For the autobiographical work, whether ostensibly factual or fictive, has an implicit teleology, the enumeration of the stages involved in forming the shifting complex of selfhood. Ernaux's texts depict instead a patchwork subjectivity comprised of the discourses surrounding the child, adolescent, and adult against which the narrator reacts, frequently without comprehending her own motivations. Imbued with argot, provincialisms, billingsgate, abrupt shifts, and fluid connections, the language of her early texts is a paratactic hodgepodge that mirrors the babel of heteroglossic discourses influencing her development. The shift to the écriture plate, while occluding the most obvious markers of these formative languages, still betrays their massive impact on the narrator's ideological mindset. In what follows, I will try to unravel the strands that make up Ernaux's language and explore how the self that emerges is an aggregate of the discursive spaces she has inhabited.

Against feminists who would claim that the boundaries of the woman autobiographical subject are necessarily fluid and blurred because of the inescapable influences of the female body, Leigh Gilmore persuasively argues that writing the self enables women to reconstruct the network of different formative discourses in which the female subject is inscribed. In rejecting the essentialist connection between, on the one hand, sexual difference (and consequently the gendered self), and on the other, the subject of representation, Gilmore gains greatly in the subtlety of her reading strategies while eschewing polemical simplicity. My reading, although remembering Gilmore's remarks about the gendered specificity of at least recent women's autobiographical writing, follows her central thesis in not seeking to describe how the adolescent protagonist of Ernaux's texts “becomes a woman.” Rather, I observe as I describe this fluctuating rebellion and submission to the discursive forces surrounding the narrator how her gender identity impacts her capacity and willingness to struggle against these various ideologically inflected languages.

Les armoires vides, whose title encapsulates Denise's sense of herself as empty container for the costumes that would outwardly fix her being, traces her unresolved and generalized hatred of those surrounding her, her desperate fear of becoming like them, and an equally strong impulse to imitate them. On first crossing the threshold of the schoolroom, she feels constricted by the interdictions on popular speech that the ironically named école libre imposes. The language of the canonical texts to which she is exposed at this age strikes her as inauthentic and alienated from her daily experience. Between the ages of eight and twelve, she becomes more adept at the code-switching required to suppress her native earthy and resonate tongue at school and still communicate with her parents for whom—especially her father—standard French feels as uncomfortable as an overstarched collar. “Je porte en moi deux langages, les petits points noirs des livres, les sauterelles folles et gracieuses, à côté des paroles grasses, grosses, bien appuyées, qui s'enfoncent dans le ventre, dans la tête …” ‘I bear in myself two languages, the tiny black specks in books, mad and graceful grasshoppers, next to the heavy, imposing, emphatic speech that rams itself into your belly, into your head’ (Armoires 77). While a rare self-consciously literary metaphor infiltrates itself into her description of bookish language, she views demotic speech as visceral, even sensual, impelling an emotional response.

Though she exalts in her scholastic success, her fear of being scolded for the intrusive colloquialisms that she has trouble banishing from her speech, however easily she manipulates formal vocabulary in writing, leads her to blame her parents for her occasional slips. Sexuality serves as a form of rebellion as much through the prurient pleasure of looking up lupanar and rut in the Larousse as from the physical act and its unwanted consequences. Language comes to erect a barrier between herself and the world of her parents, to whom she cannot speak of certain things in any words. Uncomprehending, her parents, and especially her mother, nevertheless have given her the opportunity to break out of a humdrum life by providing for her education and making excuses for her inclination to isolate herself with a book rather than serve customers downstairs. The social and cultural differences that set her apart from her peers, at least until she can eradicate vestiges of her class from her speech, she recognizes as the result of lack of money and hence education rather than moral or intellectual defects, a realization that implicitly gives her the hope of finally removing herself from her past. (In speaking of class, I point not simply to an occupational rubric but a participation in an ideological system. Expurgating her speech thus means more than acquiring surface polish, but rather undergoing a fundamental shift of allegiances.) Like the ideal of perfectly transparent language, she treasures the possibility of absolute and unmediated individuality: “Le véritable bonheur, se foutre de tout le monde, être Denise Lesur sans remords” ‘True happiness is saying to hell with everybody, being Denise Lesur without qualms’ (Armoires 137).

For Anne of Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, the notion of asserting her being by walling herself off from her surroundings proves increasingly illusory. She reflects, “je perdais pied moi-même, je répétais Anne mais le nom tout seul sonne creux quand on ne sent plus rien autour” ‘I was losing my grip on myself; I kept repeating Anne but the name by itself sounds hollow when you no longer feel anything else around you’ (Disent 66). Personal identity, encapsulated in the pronunciation of the proper name, remains an empty wardrobe without an acknowledgement of the necessary role of the Other in that self-construction. As with Denise, the jumbled fragments of her subjectivity are the site of a conflict of languages, the rule-governed exclusionary formality of scholastic discourse and the vibrant yet vulgar speech of the café-épicerie.2 This tension leads her to note with obvious disdain that her father's lips would sometimes move when reading Paris-Normandie and France-Soir. Her mother becomes increasingly the buffer between her and an uncomprehending paternal authority figure, himself reduced to silence by his wife's remark that he does not after all want Anne to end up a factory worker. Yet her mother herself cannot break out of her linguistically defined class. “Je parlais comme mes parents mais je ne voyais rien d'autre” ‘I spoke like my parents but I didn't see anything else,’ Anne says in self-justification (Disent 97), but the reason is that she has blinded herself, as Denise had done, to the pleasure of a world made accessible through the language of high (or even middle-brow) culture. She instinctively assumes that the books her teacher recommends for summer reading must be boring, when out of ennui she picks up L'étranger (The Stranger), presumably one her schoolmistress would have approved, and becomes absorbed to the point of distancing the world around her. Losing herself in a book, as the Anne of later continuations of her story will find, turns out to be a way of finding herself, not as self-authored and unique but as part of a culture to which well-crafted writing gives access. The price of that absorption and the movement away from the language of her parents that it implies is an increasing alienation as she recognizes she could not communicate to her parents the sense of wonder provided by the books she reads.

Instead of conceiving her being as self-creation, the young Anne believes, in a remark she as mature narrator will repudiate, that experience will provide her with a language, and more particularly, that absorbing the male organ will be the equivalent of being penetrated by the signifier of signifiers, the male discourse represented by the phallus: “Plus tard quand j'aurai vécu longtemps, ou quand j'aurai couché avec un garçon, je pensais alors, je saurai m'exprimer” ‘Later, when I will have lived longer, or when I will have slept with a guy, I thought back then, I will know how to express myself’ (Disent 64). In fact, as the later books show, she all too willingly accepts this abandonment to the Other, as her friend Alberte says prophetically to the future protagonist of Passion simple (Simple Passion), “quand on aime un homme on mangerait sa merde” ‘when you love a man you would eat his shit’ (Disent 49).

Giving herself over to the language of the book becomes an exquisite form of the pleasure of the text for Anne, who in La femme gelée, the next volume of her story, who finds a provisional identity paradoxically in the act of faultlessly reciting the words of great poets. Academic success comes to set her apart, at least in her own mind, from her peers, whose preoccupations with appearance and especially hair she finds superficial, yet as always the internal conflict of these irreconcilable value systems leads to self-doubt: “Si je ne suis pas poupée, qui suis-je alors?” ‘If I'm not a doll, who am I then?’ (Femme gelée 53). The old dream of being as an act of autonomous self-creation does not fade, however, as she chafes at her teachers' expectations of the sacrifices that young girls should endure and that mitigate her pride in her accomplishments.

Les petites filles doivent être transparentes pour être heureuses. Tant pis. Moi je sens qu'il est mieux pour moi de me cacher. Portée à croire que ça me sauvait cette attitude, je me préservais par en dessous, les désirs, les méchancetés; un fond noir et solide.

Little girls ought to be transparent in order to be happy. Too bad. For my part I feel it's better for me to hide. Led to believe that attitude would save me, I preserved my deep-down desires and maliciousness; a black and solid depth.

(Femme gelée 58)

Unable to speak in the bourgeois society to which she aspires of the erotic matters that form her major preoccupations—where severe restrictions reduce one's vocabulary to such euphemisms as ça (sexual organ), comme ça (sexually mature) and faire ça (have intercourse—the ideal of transparent language would be a way paradoxically of making opaque and stable a woman's self that men wish would remain on the surface. Yet rather than authentic being, the hidden “fond noir et solide” ‘black and solid depth’ may in fact be little more than the vacuous hole that allows Anne, like Emma Bovary, to be filled up by the masculine discourses surrounding her. The illusory independent self would appear to be falling victim to the woman's biological destiny as receptacle for both the penis and the phallus. When she becomes a mother, Anne takes her cue from the childbirth scenes in Gone with the Wind, reminding herself that she owes her milk to her newborn, and reads a handbook for advice. If she rebels inwardly at her own tendency to submit to the language of her reading, she also promises herself that if she has a second child she will do it by the book.

Her rebellion against one of those masculine discourses, already suggested in earlier texts, becomes accentuated in her exasperation at her father's speech in La place. Though experiencing nightmares about a father who would stress clear articulation, she has instead constantly to reproach him for such non-existent expressions as “se parterrer” and “quart moins d'onze heures,”3 which insinuate themselves into her own speech and provoke her teachers' ire. Her father can bring himself to affect polite speech, meaning not only a standard lexicon but measured tones, only with constant vigilance, an effort he relinquishes immediately when alone with his family and friends. Although her father senses the stigma of inferiority attached to patois, he remains unable to break himself off from his rural origins either in language or outlook. As the 16-year-old Anne struggles with imperfect success to rid herself of the values in which her father is entrenched, the mature narrator rejects her plebeian taste, branding it (as well as by extension her parents) as “péquenot” ‘hick’ (Place 79). The frequent domestic arguments about language, even more often a cause of dispute than money, externalize the adolescent's internalized struggle to find a way to mediate between the two linguistic spheres that pull her apart.

The écriture plate described in the text's opening pages, which she would use to write home, would thus appear to form a lingua franca, a bridge between writing and colloquial speech, yet its use only in the communication of essential news suggests the limits of this constricted language. For Christian Garaud, in his detailed study of the linguistic registers of La place, the opposition is between a pretentious dominant language and a subaltern but true discourse, and so Anne's uninflected style, which separates off alien discourses in italicized phrases, reconciles her, if only partially, to the ideology of her parents. Yet the search for a verbal room of her own, a position (place) that would define her against the speech and hence the values of her parents and particularly her father, occupies the forefront of La place and suggests that the quest represents more an exorcism of the environment from which she struggles to emerge into selfhood than a reconciliation. Ernaux herself, in an interview, underlines her sense of this alienation: “Je suis exilée de mon propre milieu. Jamais je ne me départirai de cela. J'ai le regard fait par cet exil intérieur” ‘I am in exile from my own milieu. I'll never get beyond the fact. My outlook has been formed by that internal exile’ (Tondeur, “Entretien avec Annie Ernaux” 38). Memory should not be confused with nostalgia. For the grown-up narrator (Ernaux's father died when she was in her mid-twenties), no longer in an adolescent phase of generalized rebellion, writing becomes a way of sorting out and positioning levels of language and values, assigning her father a prominent role in her development, at least as repoussoir, while striving to filter out those influences from which she has been working so hard to escape.

Anne's debt as practitioner of this écriture plate to the Camus she admired as a young girl becomes apparent in Une femme (A Woman's Story, 1987), whose opening paragraph gives an intertextual nod toward the incipit of L'étranger.4 But whereas for Meursault, notoriously neglectful of his genetrix, whose death meant nothing to him, for Anne the demise of the woman who could never truly be a role model despite her evident superiority over her father is profoundly affecting. The linguistic contrast between her two parents sharpens from the image in La place, as her father makes clear his indifference to norms of standard French. Her mother, who reads Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur as well as Catholic writers such as Bernanos and Mauriac (occasionally dipping into the supposedly scabrous Colette), appears superior to her other parent since she resembles more closely the professors who have become the objects of her emulation. Yet as with her father, her sense of distance from her mother arises from the frustration with her own inability to separate herself fully from the formative molding impressed on her by her upbringing. “J'avais honte de sa manière brusque de parler et de se comporter, d'autant plus vivement que je sentais combien je lui ressemblais” ‘I was ashamed of her brusque manner of speaking and behaving, all the more so since I sensed how much I resembled her’ (Femme 63). (The tension between identification and shame will become central in later books.) This alienation becomes crystallized not merely as a matter of vocabulary or speech habits, but as an ideological divide signaled by difference of language.5 “A certains moments, elle avait dans sa fille en face d'elle, une ennemie de classe” ‘At certain moments, she had in her daughter before her a class enemy’ (Femme 65). If Anne's portrait of her mother reveals her as a much more sympathetic character than her brusque and inarticulate father, her sober reflections on her mother's limited outlook as well as the indignities of the old woman's decline, a concomitant of the écriture plate, also point to the fissures that the narrator tries to highlight in the values she has inherited.

Passion simple (1991) would seem to mark Anne's liberation from that inheritance as she, now separated from her husband (who figures surprisingly little in the series), embarks on an affair with a married foreigner. The vestiges of narrativity that form composite pictures of her childhood and parents are refused in a text that seeks to describe only in an atemporal fashion the lover's presence or absence.6 That apparent space of freedom, the house in a new bedroom community outside Paris, undoubtedly accentuates at least this reader's growing irritation with the narrator's voluntary abandonment of a sense of purpose to a man who appears in the text as remarkably ordinary. To one who has followed the maturation of the narrator as she struggles to fix an identity through the adoption of a language that would set her apart from both the spheres of the pedantically and prudishly correct as well as the crudely parochial, the uses she makes of her liberty seem disappointing. Her obsession with her lover enacts her friend's monition in Ce qu'ils disent that for a woman, as the friend colorfully expresses it, loving a man means being willing to eat shit.

Such a sense of frustration has little to do with either her desire to recount an eternal present or with her explicit rejection of a moral reflection on her actions. Rather, the languages of the Other, from which she has striven to free herself, become once again her constant guide and justification. “Les chansons accompagnaient et légitimaient ce que j'étais en train de vivre … il me prenait l'envie de voir sans délai tel film dont j'étais persuadée qu'il contenait mon histoire …” ‘Songs accompanied and legitimized what I was living … I had the sudden urge to see right away such and such a film that I was persuaded contained my story …’ (Passion 27). Her libido is borrowed from the texts that have formed her conception of love. As mimetic desire, her passion loses its depth and authenticity, becoming mere repetition, an imitation that muddies the discursive contours of her account.

Tout ce temps, j'ai eu l'impression de vivre ma passion sur le mode romanesque, mais je ne sais pas, maintenant, sur quel mode je l'écris, si c'est celui du témoignage, voire de la confidence telle qu'elle se pratique dans les journaux féminins, celui du manifeste ou du procès-verbal, ou même de commentaire de texte.

The whole time, I had the impression of living my passion as if it were a novel, but I do not know, at this point, how I am writing about it, whether as a testimony, even a confession like the kind published in women's magazines, a manifesto or a courtroom statement, or even a paper for a literature class.

(Passion 30-31)

No longer sure if she is living pulp fiction from a trashy woman's magazine, a neutral testimony of her actions, or a schoolgirl's uncomprehending exercise in formulas learned by rote, Anne reveals herself to be shot through with the language of the Other, in the end failing to attain the space of freedom promised by the Grail of a self-constructed language. Even after the departure of her foreign lover, doubly an image of alterity as his imperfect mastery of French introduces at least a partial barrier to their bonding, she seems to encounter nothing but love stories on TV or in magazines.

If I use such a suspiciously “uncritical” term as irritation to describe Passion simple. I do so with the aim of underlining the direction of the narrator's self-development and the anticlimax—but the word seems precisely inappropriate to Ernaux—to the expectations built up in the course of the preceding five books sketched above. Appearing only two years later, Journal du dehors (Exteriors, 1993), by its very title, announces an abrupt turnabout from the paradoxically unreflecting introspection in the account of her affair. Like a lighthouse pointing the way out of the fog, the epigraph from Rousseau that opens this scrapbook of quotations—“Notre vrai moi n'est pas tout entier en nous” ‘Our true self is not entirely within us’ (Journal 9)—signals the narrator's realization that the quest for the authentic self apart from the language of the Other has been chimerical. Anne comes to recognize and adjust for her tendency to see reflections of herself in her reading, as she remarks parenthetically, “Je m'aperçois que je cherche toujours les signes de la littérature dans la réalité” ‘I realize that I am always looking for signs of literature in reality’ (Journal 46). That understanding allows her to abandon her narcissistic misreading of every text as a reflection of her own situation in favor of an acceptance of herself as having been formed by a particular culture, by certain discourses, and by the values they imply, even though they are no longer a living part of the person she has become. Observing a scene in a pharmacy, she notes, “Paroles transmises de génération en génération, absentes des journaux et des livres, ignorées de l'école, appartenant à la culture populaire (originellement la mienne—c'est pourquoi je la reconnais aussitôt)” ‘It is speech transmitted from generation to generation, absent from newspapers and books, ignored in school, belonging to popular culture (originally my own—which is why I recognize it immediately)’ (Journal 70). If Anne finally comes to a reconciliation with her past, it is not as an acceptance of what once repelled her, but as an awareness that personal identity means the very matrix of languages and ideologies that have conditioned her growth. There is no outside to language(s), no hors-texte, because those languages are the building blocks of the self, a self that may in turn contribute to the re-formation of those languages by the skill and finesse she applies to their manipulation.

Ernaux's two most recent books, “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” (“I Remain in Darkness”) and La honte (Shame, both 1997), explore how the refusal of narrative sequences, which have been steadily fragmenting throughout her work, can permit a reconciliation with two painful episodes in the life of her mother: the latter's deterioration in the face of Alzheimer's disease and a much earlier episode of her father's attempted murder of his wife in a moment of rage. The “night” of confusion and physical degeneration that overcomes her mother confronts Annie (as she now refers to her persona), whose notes during her mother's final months comprise the bulk of the text of Sortie, with uncertainties about her own identity. Compounding her disturbing sense of being merely a substitute for an elder sister who died at an early age, the narrator finds continuing parallels between the behavior of her senile parent and her own actions and language as a child. The malaise she apprehends at this identification—“Impression terrible de dédoublement, je suis moi et elle” ‘I have a frightening impression of being double; I am myself and her’ (Sortie 23)—arises marginally from the premonition of seeing herself in undignified old age, more significantly from the psychological untenability of the inversion of mother/child roles, and most insistently from a vague sense of guilt at supposedly allowing her early caregiver to become stripped not only of dignity but her mother's own sense of self and then relegating the incapacitated woman to a nursing home.

If the narrator's repeated avowals of culpabilité are authentic transcriptions of her state of mind a decade earlier, their function in the text is precisely to demonstrate the illegitimacy of those feelings.7 Annie's confession to an occasional sadistic impulse is left without further elaboration and contradicted by her scrupulousness in caring for her parent, compelling the reader who cannot help be both saddened and empathetic with the narrator to believe this feeling unwarranted. Her insistent rejection of the transformation of roles thrust upon her—“Tout est renversé, maintenant, elle est ma petite fille. Je ne PEUX pas être sa mère” ‘Everything is backwards, now; she is my girl. I CANNOT be her mother’ (Sortie 29)—demonstrates not her neglect but on the contrary the strength of her filial devotion and respect that cannot bear the indignities brought on by her mother's incontinence and “folie.”

At a more profound level, the strategy of inducing the reader's complicity in banishing the impression of guilt likewise acts to rewrite the understandable but finally erroneous fusion of narrator and mother on both the physical and psychical levels. Just as the accidental similarity of certain words and acts does not literally replicate the aged Mme Duchesne as the child Annie by a sort of backwards cloning, the phantasmic bond that the narrator senses is belied by Annie's self-awareness even when much younger as well as by her present verbal mastery that contrasts sharply with her mother's incoherence. The maternal figure portrayed in Une femme has had a marked impact on the formation of her daughter, but the assertion of an identification with a body that now is but an empty signifier of the person who once was serves in fact to reaffirm the reader's consciousness of the narrator's superiority and autonomy, a superiority demonstrated by her compassion and an autonomy proven by the act of returning to and so transcending the emotional perplexity resulting from the trauma of this period.

Akin to the discursive maneuver of “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” the act of writing in La honte about the quarrel between her parents, which occurred at a pivotal moment in the young adolescent's life when the sense of shame came to define her relation to the world outside the family circle, serves to bring that memory out of the private sphere associated with fear and enclosure. As with the feeling of guilt over the decline of her mother decades later, the text makes clear the nature of shame as a social construct—even while producing the impression of being alone in feeling this humiliation—arising from her parents' marginal position in the town's social stratification and the bourgeois values of the religious school she attends. But unlike in Sortie, whose diary form plunges the reader into the thick of inchoate emotion, the distance in time and place from the events, along with the narrator's youth in 1952, allows the recognition that her sense of being stigmatized by others constituted a formative influence on her adolescence and that to attempt to reconstruct who she was requires recapturing the milieu in which she was submerged.

Naturellement pas de récit, qui produirait une réalité au lieu de la chercher. Ne pas me contenter non plus de lever et transcrire les images du souvenir mais traiter celles-ci comme des documents qui s'éclaireront en les soumettant à des approches différentes. Etre en somme ethnologue de moi-même.

Naturally, I do not want a narrative, which would produce a reality instead of searching for it. It is not enough to content myself with calling forth and transcribing images from memory but to treat them as documents that will become clear when analyzed in the light of different approaches. It is my role to be the ethnographer of myself.

(Honte 38)

This search to convey the texture of her surroundings must first of all dispense with narrative structure, a series of preterites, for what she tries to evoke could only be conveyed by the imperfect or, more insistently, by an iterative present tense that emphasizes the continuing presence of the past to the adult narrator. Equally to be abjured is the scrapbook miscellany of Journal du dehors, for its refusal of linearity masks a shirking of the burden of analysis. She must then reconstruct the laws, rites, beliefs, and values that comprised the contradictory pulls of home, school, and region. The meaning of the events of that summer of 1952 for the future writer becomes apparent only through a process of (re)producing the shame that the memory of that violent dispute caused by making public through writing what was apparently kept quiet. The moment when her father threatens her mother with the billhook marks what would be an unspeakably radical violation of the social code of her milieu that suppressed domestic disputes, swearing, and unkempt dress in public. Even as an adult she cannot bear to continue her project of reading the archives of the local paper to see if her family contributed to the motley collection of horrifying faits-divers.

By exposing that incident, now that the participants are long deceased, the narrator asserts that she seeks to deprive it of its “caractère sacré d'icône” ‘sacred character as an icon’ (Honte 30). The catharsis that publishing her Honte can bring necessitates re-establishing its context, situating it as part of a series of points of friction between her parents, including over religion where her father's perfunctory and grudging fulfillment of Catholic ritual approximates much more closely the narrator's present scepticism. That moment of violence belongs to a complex of (potentially) shameful incidents, many trivial, that likewise must be re-enacted in order to purge them of their miasmic effects on Annie's psyche, even though the act of writing itself is shameful, “[c]omme une action interdite devant entraîner un châtiment” ‘like a forbidden act necessarily leading to punishment’ (Honte 16). As a creation of language, her shame has to be reconstituted in the languages that comprised her at around age twelve in order to come to terms with who she was. “Ce qui m'importe, c'est de retrouver les mots avec lesquels je me pensais et pensais le monde autour. Dire ce qu'étaient pour moi le normal et l'inadmissible, l'impensable même” ‘What is important to me is to recover the words with which I thought about myself and the world around me. I have to express what was for me the normal and the inadmissible, even the unthinkable.’ But inasmuch as she cannot fully recreate those languages, her memory of her parents' quarrel, like that of the rest of her life during the period, will remain fragmentary and elusive. “Il n'y a pas de vraie mémoire de soi” ‘There is no true memory of the self,’ she is forced to conclude (Honte 37). She tries to recover a primordial “langue matérielle” ‘material language’ (Honte 69-70) that would precede even the concreteness of the écriture plate, a language deprived of sentiment and sentimentality (which would have to be borrowed later from songs and books), closely tied to the specific locale in which she was nurtured. By doing so, she has come full circle from Denise Lesur's taste for the escapist romances that offered a window onto a higher social caste, instead struggling to recapture ever more accurately the languages of her origins, though still valorizing texts to the degree that they present themselves as transparent and deny their nature as constructs. In marked contrast to her earliest books, whose non-standard vocabulary poses barriers for at least this foreign reader, she annotates in this text the one regional expression used, increasingly conscious of the distance that separates the language of her birth from that of her audience as well as herself as writing subject.

In this second panel of the diptych that returns to periods treated in previous books, the immediacy of Sortie gives way to a summary reflection on her being as impressed on by the ideological charge latent in varying registers of language and a confession that even while abandoning the artificiality of the récit, the evocation of memory does not reconstitute her as a unified self. She acknowledges, “la mémoire n'apporte aucune preuve de ma permanence ou de mon identité. Elle me fait sentir et me confirme ma fragmentation et mon historicité” ‘memory does not furnish any proof of my permanence or of my identity. It makes me feel and confirms my fragmentation and historicity’ (Honte 96). If the apparent pure temporal contingency of the sections forming La honte (she confesses not being sure if some of it has anything to do with the rest other than taking place around the same time) mirrors the splintered nature of her identity and its rootedness in a specific historical setting, the bricolage form of the text, by its very faithfulness to her piecemeal subjectivity, necessarily fails to account for the self she would become. For the stratagem of purging unjustified feelings of shame and guilt by making them public (which is precisely what the sense of shame should forbid) cannot be anything other than a rewriting of memory and of the self. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, that no observation is without intrusive consequences, applies equally well to the act of reconstructing the formative influences on personal identity. Ernaux's latest two texts mark a significant subtilization of her probing into her nature as formed by the languages of others, for she recognizes in these books that the sum is far greater, and much more uncertain, than the parts that collectively have impinged on her subjectivity.

If Ernaux has emerged as one of the leading contemporary French writers, one of the reasons may be that her texts, despite her erasure of the label roman, foreground what Bakhtin has identified as an essential constituent of the novel's verbal art, the mixture or heteroglossia of competing languages (or ideologies) that intermingle and renew each other. Far more than being merely the latest avatar of the degré zéro de l'écriture, 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, who will finally concede that her being as speaking and writing subject—her ability to communicate perceived reality—is constituted by the languages she has absorbed and digested. In this sense, we can offer some possible conclusions about the narrator's efforts toward autonomy and self-definition. Should we read Anne as “oppressed” by exterior linguistic and ideological forces, as in La femme gelée, where she is mired in the routine of child-care and domestic chores while trying to get her career under way? Or is this failure to define the self to be seen as a capitulation (to phallic discourses, for example) stemming from her own personal insufficiencies? Or is the notion of coming to a sense of identity through a self-generated “natural” language such as the écriture plate an impossible project, one that Anne implicitly recognizes in Journal du dehors when she effaces her subjectivity and intervention in favor of being a transcribing eye and ear, collecting aleatory fragments and assembling them into a textual collage? Or does her success as writer of documents whose autobiographical content she has readily acknowledged, texts that follow her labors to give birth to an independent self through an act of auto-parturition, demonstrate that she has in fact achieved her goal in creating that persona, even while ostensibly failing? Or do the two most recent books surveyed here suggest that Ernaux has achieved a fundamental breakthrough by recognizing that the reconstitution of the subject entails not only a recovery of the languages of her past but the mediation of the reader whose exteriority and axiological acuity can supplement the narrator's vision blurred by its proximity to the events she transcribes?

Ernaux's books, as is apparent from even a superficial reading, are neither tracts nor pathetic confessions, neither polemics nor exercises in self-abasement. The self that emerges from the nine texts surveyed here neither preaches against particular value systems, masculine domination, the situation of the underprivileged classes in France, or the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, nor does she wallow in a preoccupation with the obstacles that have stood in her path toward fashioning a sense of her own being with which she, in middle-age, can feel comfortable. If the project of being independent of the formative forces surrounding her turns out to be misguided, the effort has not been wasted, for it has furnished a strikingly vivid account of the struggle of the individual to achieve an awareness denied to her parents and other inhabitants of her milieu of the possibilities that open up through entry into the spheres of other languages. To the extent that Ernaux has succeeded in her work, from La femme gelée forward, of establishing her own voice, even in the negatively measured tones of an écriture plate, she has created a recognizable image of the self, but one that never ceases to acknowledge its constitution by a cacophony of discordant languages. She has at very least proven the falseness of the parental dichotomy between being “ce qu'ils disent ou rien.” She is someone.8


  1. All translations are my own.

  2. Carol Sanders concludes in her stylistic study that the long, grammatically unstable sentences of Armoires “seem to indicate the urgency of saying what has hitherto been suppressed, the pent-up feelings and expressions of generations of women” (23). Such a generalization, neglecting the specificity of Ernaux's narrator's relation with her surroundings, tries too hard to force Ernaux into the mode of écriture féministe and ultimately tells us little about her language. Claire-Lise Tondeur (Annie Ernaux) argues more convincingly that Anne's identity is formed most importantly by her social origins, rather than by her sex.

  3. Meaning, presumably, ‘to fall down’ and ‘quarter to eleven.’

  4. Tondeur (“Ecriture”) notes this parallel between the initial page of the two works and Ernaux's general debt to Camus.

  5. Laurence Mall claims the stripped-down language that avoids precious turns of phrase and rare images respects the simplicity of her mother's language. Yet as this and other Ernaux texts make clear, Anne's “mother tongue,” with its gros mots (abandoned only when in old age her mother comes to stay with her), lower-class slang, and strident high-decibel projection, bears little resemblance to the écriture plate. Lucille Cairns recalls how Anne in Ce qu'ils disent would avoid conversations with her mother and reject her language because of its inability to convey anything other than platitudes.

  6. Claire Marrone points out the contrast she discerns between the “very conventional narrative voice” and the “deliberately non-traditional narrative structure and strategies” (81).

  7. In this sense, Sortie can be read as an inversion of the accusation constructed against Meursault on the basis of his insensitivity toward his mother in the intertext evoked by Une femme: Annie's avowed feeling of wrongdoing is sufficient to exculpate her.

  8. My thanks to Lauren Doyle-McCombs for her skillful critique of an earlier version of this essay.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Cairns, Lucille. “Annie Ernaux, Filial Ambivalence, and Ce qu'ils disent ou rien.Romance Studies 24 (1994): 71-84.

Ernaux, Annie. Les armoires vides. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 1974. (Cleaned Out. Trans. Carol Sanders. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive P, 1990.)

———. Ce qu'ils disent ou rien. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 1977.

———. La femme gelée. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 1981. (A Frozen Woman. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996.)

———. La honte. Paris: Gallimard, 1997. (Shame. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.)

———. “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit.” Paris: Gallimard, 1997. (“I Remain in Darkness.” Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999).

———. Journal du dehors. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 1993. (Exteriors. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996.)

———. Passion simple. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 1991. (Simple Passion. New York: Ballantine, 1993.)

———. La place. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 1983. (A Man's Place. New York: Ballantine, 1993.)

———. Une femme. Paris: Folio-Gallimard, 1987. (A Woman's Story. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1991.)

Garaud, Christian. “Ecrire la différence sociale: registres de vie et registres de langue dans La place d'Annie Ernaux.” French Forum 19 (1994): 195-214.

Gilmore, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1994.

Jones, Tony and Loraine Day. Annie Ernaux: “La place,” “Une femme.” Glasgow: U of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1990.

Lebrun, Jean-Claude and Claude Prévost. Nouveaux territoires romanesques. Paris: Messidor/Editions Sociales, 1990.

Mall, Laurence. “‘Moins seule et factice’: la part autobiographique dans Une femme d'Annie Ernaux.” French Review 69.1 (1995): 45-54.

Marrone, Claire. “Past, Present and Passion Tense in Annie Ernaux's Passion simple.Women in French Studies 2 (1994): 78-87.

Motte, Warren. “Annie Ernaux's Understatement.” French Review 69.1 (1995): 55-67.

Sanders, Carol. “Stylistic Aspects of Women's Writing: The Case of Annie Ernaux.” French Cultural Studies 4 (1993): 15-29.

Tondeur, Claire-Lise. “Annie Ernaux: d'une écriture véhémente à l'‘écriture plate.’” Cincinnati Conference on Romance Languages and Literatures. Cincinnati, 9 May 1996.

———. Annie Ernaux ou l'exil intérieur. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

———. “Entretien avec Annie Ernaux.” French Review 69.1 (1995): 37-44.

———. “Le passé: point focal du présent dans l'oeuvre d'Annie Ernaux.” Women in French Studies 3 (1995): 123-37.

Nancy K. Miller (essay date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6954

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 others unbearable.

—Annie Ernaux, Shame

“My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.” This starkly simple sentence begins the slim volume of reminiscence that unfolds from that act manqué. The sentence and the scene it introduces come as a shock to the readers of Ernaux's previous work.1 Why, so many years after the published narratives devoted to her father and her mother, did Annie Ernaux decide to recount this episode for the first time? Or since that is the subject of the memoir itself, let me move the burden from writer to reader. How do readers—acquainted with Ernaux's recorded past or new to its universe—respond to the familial trauma exposed in the pages of Shame? Like testimony of unspeakable suffering that requires a listener “who is a party to the creation of knowledge de novo” (Felman and Laub 57), memoirs that carry the burden of traumatic experience demand the reader's adhesion. In this case, picking up the terms of Ernaux's epigraph, and freely adopting Lejeune's famous pact of responsiveness to trauma's work in writing, will the reader keep the bargain or shudder and look away?

The scene. It was a Sunday. Annie had been to mass. Her parents, struggling owners of a small café/grocery store, had been bickering during lunch; her mother in a bad mood had picked a fight. Suddenly, beside himself with rage, her father grabs her mother and drags her into another room. The girl goes upstairs and throws herself on the bed, burying her head in the pillow. But she hears her mother's voice screaming from the cellar, calling for her daughter, calling for help. When the twelve-year old Annie reaches her parents, her father is holding her mother by the shoulders with one hand and with the other is threatening her life, wielding a scythe used for cutting firewood. (Despite the confident details of recall, a doubt creeps into the description: her father was grabbing her mother either by the shoulders or the neck.) Then, abruptly, the images stop. The memory of the scene moves on to its closure—and by evening life has returned to normal. The mother marks the end of the drama she seems to have provoked: “Come on now,” she said, “it's over.” The three go for a bike ride in the countryside. The scene took place on June 15, 1952—the first precise date, Ernaux writes, of her childhood.

This is the memory, the defining moment of childhood, that Ernaux now wants to recount, after having confessed it, she admits, to a few lovers, who seemed unable to reply. Something terrible, she thought, would happen once she put pen to paper. A punishment. A permanent writer's block. But no, the words continue to come; the words to describe how the effects of this trauma produced an inalterable sense of difference in the girl's idea of herself: “We stopped belonging to the category of decent people, who don't drink, don't fight, and who dress properly to go into town.” No matter what outer signs of belonging to the world of proper people she might display, inside the rupture was fatal. The sheer fact of having borne witness to the scene set in motion a free fall into abjection that cannot be halted.

Shame reshapes identity, becomes a way of life, becomes almost invisible, as though it had entered the body itself. The guilty knowledge of shame that excludes you in your own eyes from decency, operates regardless of whether others know about it. Does bringing the private guilt into the public eye compound the sense of stigma? For Ernaux the question is almost rhetorical. “But what shame equal to the power of what I experienced in my twelfth year could come to me from the writing of a book?” None, so why fear the shame of writing? Over a decade ago, Ernaux described in A Woman's Story the details of her mother's descent into Alzheimer's disease. Ernaux remarked then that she was writing not only for herself—to make bearable for herself the drama of disintegration she witnessed daily—but “for other people, so that they can understand.” For Ernaux, individual experience is always shareable—potentially collective, or at least social—and always passes through the mesh of class difference as the individual gathers cultural meaning in the world of others. And because of this belief that an event's meaning inevitably comes to be processed or understood through class relations, it makes a compelling kind of sense to put the writing of shame out into the world of so-called decent people, against whom she defines herself—or did. But the shame of not belonging, of feeling excluded by a horrible secret is never wholly contained by class boundaries, and so the readers of Shame often join Ernaux where she might least expect to be met. I would argue further that the success of her work points to the complexity of class assignment, since readers both identify with—you tell my story—and disidentify across unpredictable class lines. What I want to track here are the places in the narrative—the story which unfolds from this initial assault on the mother—where shame spreads, leaks into other domains for the writer, and also for the reader.2

If in doing memory-work we become detectives of our lives, as Annette Kuhn has suggested in her book Family Secrets, we often return to the scene of the crime, looking for clues to the mystery of how we became who we are, but despite the Freudian tones that we therapy-conscious American readers might hear in the repeated use of the word “scene,” or the invocation of trauma, of perhaps a screen memory behind which stands an intolerable primal event, Shame is not, the author insists, turned toward psychoanalysis. Rather, you could say that the memoir is a complex explication de texte of a sentence, the phrase that Ernaux remembers having uttered as a response to her father's panic at his own behavior. He was crying, Ernaux recalls, and saying over and over again, why are you crying, I didn't do anything to you. The girl's panicked reply is: “Tu vas me faire gagner malheur.” In the French version the local, hence unfamiliar, expression receives an explanation in a footnote (one of two in the narrative); in the English-language translation, the note drops out and moves into the text, but I keep it here: “In Norman dialect, you're going to make me “catch” unhappiness [in the Leslie translation: “You'll breathe disaster on me”] means to become crazy and unhappy forever in the aftermath of a shock.” It's this childhood fear that she will be driven crazy even now that has prevented Ernaux as an adult from putting the scene into the public domain. To write the scene might mean stripping those childhood words of their magical and terrifying meaning. In some sense the book reads as an apotropaic gesture, warding off harm: to put the scene into words is to make it move, dislodge it from its sacred place as the origin of all that brought the woman to writing. But it also shows the desire by the writer, the adult in the present, to regain mastery over the terror, to domesticate it. Ernaux writes: “Since I've succeeded in producing this narrative, I have the impression that it's just a banal event, more frequent in families than I had thought.” The tension in every memoir is the constant testing of your private, exclusive event against the narratives of other; in the process one can't help but modify one's sense of uniqueness.

But the retrospective account does not erase the original shock of traumatic experience. Moreover, if trauma always means a blow to body or soul, trauma always also means its lived effects in memory. As Jean Améry memorably declared in another register of extreme, that of torture during the Holocaust, “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured” (34), just as he writes of the “first blow” the victim in the camps receives, “At the first blow, however, this trust in the world breaks down. The other person opposite whom I exist physically in the world and with whom I can exist only as he does not touch my skin surface as border, forces his own corporeality on me with the first blow. He is on me and thereby destroys me. It is like a rape, a sexual act without the consent of one of the two partners” (28). I don't mean to compare the two experiences literally, of course, but there is an eerie overlap between the two descriptions of traumatic events; Ernaux's account of the radical effects produced in her, in her body, of witnessing the scene, makes her a victim of a blow that shattered her world, her view of her place in it, and her innocence, through the threatened violence, the blow that doesn't land. Her (always ambivalent) identification with her mother's body and her more porous identification with her father make her a participant in the scene; the daughter feels the father's rage seeping into her mind and body. The gesture of the blow strikes fear into the daughter, a fear that lives on forty-three years later. Such is the afterlife of certain memories, memories that function as indelible stains in the brain; just as traumatic memories show up differently when you scan the brain as a physical object.3

Like most writers turned toward the past, Ernaux begins by opening the family album. She studies her past self through two photographs from the summer of 1952—before and after. The photographs will haunt the narrative. The first, important placemarker of her Catholic childhood, was taken on the occasion of the renewal of her vows. In this formal photograph, twelve-year Annie D. is kneeling on a prayer stool, holding her rosary beads and her missal. A studious-looking girl with glasses and a bad permanent, she seems to be just a face. “Impression that under the nun's habit there was no body, because I can't imagine it, even less imagine it as I feel mine now. Astonishment to think that nonetheless, it's the same one today.” Although the girl's face is detailed in the description, it's in fact the secrets (always veiled) of the body that preoccupy Ernaux in this narrative. The body's potential for shame and pleasure and its relation to writing emerge after the initial revelation as the driving subject of Shame (as it was also in the earlier book about her father's life and death, A Man's Place). The second photograph, and the one more important to Ernaux in the construction of her narrative, was taken almost three months after the disastrous day, at the end of the summer. The photograph is set in Biarritz, where the girl has gone with her father on an organized trip to Lourdes. Standing next to her father, the daughter is smiling. She looks thin, flat, because of the design of the skirt. “In this outfit,” Ernaux remarks, “I look like a little woman.”

Bent on retrieving the girl of that summer, the writer stares at the photographs, hoping, we might almost say to reincarnate herself. But at the same time, the founding dilemma remains intact. If the writer had never seen these photographs before, would she recognize herself? This is the autobiographer's torment: “Certainty that ‘this is me’; impossibility of recognizing myself, ‘it's not me.’” What is the solution? How can we become historians of our past lives faced with so much uncertainty? Here Ernaux engages the paradox, defined by theorist Philippe Lejeune, of the autobiographer who is condemned to write at the end of the twentieth century after the death of the author, not to say subject. “We indeed know,” Lejeune, famously sighs, “that the subject does not exist, we are not so dumb,” and yet. … There's something about the photograph that compels belief in a past, if not present truth. “That was,” says Barthes about the referent lurking in the photograph's aura. That was, therefore I am? The riff on the cogito is seductive, difficult to resist, even for the hardheaded.4 And yet. Ernaux reads the two photographs as bookends that hold the closing days of childhood innocence: the one, the good little Catholic girl, the other, the girl who no longer coincides with the child posing in good faith. The second photograph marks the beginning of the time defined by shame, the time after which shame forever becomes her.

Ernaux's strategy—since solution there is not beyond the practice of writing—is to act as though she were a historian marking out dates on a time line. To locate her twelve-year old notions of history, Ernaux gathers the material traces of that fatal year: a black and white postcard of Elizabeth II, a sewing kit, a postcard from the trip to Lourdes (a collective pilgrimage), a collection of postcards, her missal, and the score for a song, “Voyage à Cuba” [Miami Beach Rhumba], the words to which she can still conjure up as she writes in 1995. And then, following the impulse to flesh out the time line that could recalibrate individual experience with the world historical record, Ernaux goes to the archives to examine the newspaper her parents read to see what really happened that day. That this research is not a neutral activity is confirmed by the return of the dread invoked earlier and summarized in the phrase from the scene punctuating her consciousness, as if just turning the pages of that month would bring the madness on, like the recurrence of a disease. Although some of the events and personalities in the newspaper are still familiar, they have lost their effect, or they signify only as historical markers, emptied of affective power in the present tense: “That Stalin, Churchill, Eisenhower were as alive for me as Yeltsin, Clinton or Kohl are today seemed strange.” Thus, despite moments of recognition—the comic strip, the title of some movies—in the end Ernaux concludes that these documents of a regional or national life, the thousands of little facts contained in the pages of the newspaper, cannot touch, do not coexist on the same plane as the scene. “It alone was real.” She leaves the municipal archives suddenly aware that she had almost expected to find the scene reported in the local paper.

If the signs of the public record, the surround of a collective life, can't account for that reality, what can? For Ernaux, here and elsewhere, the crucial issue in any understanding of an individual or social life is the way the things of the world are divided up, not the things themselves. What matters is not, as she puts it, the number of refrigerators, but who possesses them. It's those distinctions that define the shape of a child's life by the power of social codes: what you don't have, what other little girls do. The writer's task is to find the words that define the boundary between what is normal (other people) and what crosses the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the everyday and the extreme.5 Finding the words to say it would not erase the problem of time and memory; impossible for the woman of 1995 to step back into the shoes of the girl of 1952 since that past has been reworked and transformed by the very memory of that scene and reshaped by the writer in the present tense. History and experience have already rescreened the event.

Ernaux here would seem to throw up her hands in face of the difficulty every autobiographer must grapple with: are you still what you once were? “There is no true memory of the self.” And since there is no true memory, she turns to another gamble of recovery, less historical and more anthropological. “To become, in a word, an ethnographer of myself.” Continuing to circle around the scene of the day, the day she thought she would go mad, Ernaux returns in memory to her village as a participant-observer committed to uncovering the protocols of archaic rituals and rites.

The bulk of the narrative that makes up Shame records and analyzes the codes and languages that contained the childhood world of her village. But over and over nothing in the ethnography of this provincial universe explains, Ernaux concludes, the scene of that Sunday in June, the day in Normandy after which nothing was—or ever could be—the same. The signifying status of this scene, Ernaux maintains, not only escapes psychoanalysis—eliminated at the start; it also seems to escape the class grids of social life that Ernaux typically relies on to make meaning. The scene remains an inexplicable, indelible stain.

Aftermath of the aftermath.

Much later in the narrative, we come to another scene of shame, which, in my reading, unsettles the foundational status of scene number one. This second scene (this is not literally the second scene in sequence since there are several others, minor, to be sure, that stud the narrative; shame, Ernaux remarks, is only “repetition and accumulation”) takes place three weeks after the domestic violence that opens the memoir. We move here from father to mother, from one extreme of bodily threat to another. It's a Sunday night and Annie returns home late after a school outing. All is dark and shuttered in her parents' home. Finally, the lights go on and her mother, still half-asleep, comes down to open the door to the store. With the lights behind her, she appears as if on a stage to an audience of the teacher and a few pupils wearing “a nightgown that was wrinkled and stained (we used to wipe ourselves with it, after urinating).” With a shock, the girl Annie D. sees her mother from the outside, through the gaze of the world of her private school classmates.

Shame? I confess that as a reader, the description of the soiled nightgown, capped with the throwaway parenthesis of the ethnographic detail—we used to wipe ourselves with it, after urinating—brought me up short. Earlier Ernaux revealed that she slept in the same room as her parents, as was the custom of the country, and shared a chamber pot with them, so in a way, this further detail should not have been shocking. “It's as though,” Ernaux writes, “through the exposure of this body gone slack without a girdle and the stained dress, that our true nature and our way of life were revealed.” Here the guidelines of social distinction give meaning to the epiphany: “For the first time, I had just seen my mother through the eyes of the private school.” Ernaux explains that had it been customary in her parents' world to wear a bathrobe, neither the nightgown nor the mother's body would have been revealed to the teacher and the other girls; the memory of the episode forgotten in the wash of personal history. But since it was not, and since there was no bathrobe to cloak maternal abjection, shame inevitably ensued. Suddenly, your parents are no longer your parents—in the way that parents tend to be for children until adolescent distance sets in—they have become other to you. Shame again here derives from an act of witness—seeing or being seen. Shame in this other sense is relational, not solitary; it depends on a the gaze of another (here the teacher and the girls) which affects your own vision. And yet, Ernaux maintains, we feel we are alone in our shame. This is one of shame's paradoxes; shame is both what's most private and most revealed. Had her mother only worn the bathrobe, the nightgown would have remained indoors, unseen; but of course, the body will always give off its secrets, no matter how much we try to cover it up.

If the traces of urine speak volumes about what makes the mother's body scary to a girl, especially a girl on the threshold of puberty, the nightgown talks, gives off messages, tells one kind of irremediable truth. I imagine myself in the daughter's place and share her shame, her embarrassment in front of her classmates, but am I with her or with the classmates whose distaste (stupefaction is her word) she imagines? Ernaux remarks in Exteriors, “‘I’ shames the reader.” We don't need to rehearse the heavily theorized mother/daughter entanglement to understand this moment. How many times did I cringe at the very notion of being seen—say in Junior High School—with my mother. But somehow, at the same time, the detail of the stained nightgown causes me to turn away, avert my eyes. I pull back and say no, not me, I don't want to be in this picture. This moment of disidentification, as I suggested earlier, is central to the experience of reading autobiography. For every response of identification, there is a moment of distancing, where readers, however captivated, reconstitute themselves, replace themselves in their own stories, becoming the outsider—here, the decent person who remains at a judging distance. (No, not in my village, as dissenting anthropologists like to say.) But Ernaux's scene of exposure goes further into the dark zones of these familiar positions by attaching the shame to the body's soil. In my high anxiety about what's revealed, I think fleetingly: she's gone too far, she's going to extremes. As soon as I make that judgment I realize something else: My class is showing, as clearly as the stains on the nightgown. And yet never in this memoir have I felt closer to what I take shame to mean, to the abjection that threatens even as it marks boundaries of identity. For me, the stained nightgown trumps the symbolic murder that itself stands in for the primal scene of parental sexuality.

Ernaux contends that this scene of maternal humiliation was incommensurate with the attempted murder, and yet in memory, she states, the second appears to be an extension of the first. After the trauma, everything seemed shameful; shame inhabited every moment. As a reader of the two scenes, three weeks apart, that defined the summer of 1952, I reverse the measure. This one feels more personally upsetting, more traumatic. Am I being perverse? What, on the face of it, could be more frightening than a murderous impulse captured in full swing? Do I feel this because fear and terror (minus the scythe, of course) are what I lived in my own family? Because the father's act was a threat that remained incomplete—almost a symbolic gesture, the wrath of paternal authority—and the mother's associated with the abject domains of the murky, maternal body?

It's hard for a daughter to separate from the mother; this we know. In A Woman's Story, Ernaux clearly images the passion of attachment and resentment that inheres in the mother/daughter plot. In a dream she had about her dead mother as she was writing the book about her, she sees herself “lying in the middle of a stream, caught between two currents. From my genitals, smooth again like a young girl's, from between my thighs, long tapering plants floated limply. The body they came from was not only mine, it was also my mother's.” But at the same time, Ernaux remembers her adolescent desire to separate in order to embark on her sexual life. “I experience the same feeling of depression I had when I was sixteen, and fleetingly, I confuse the woman who influenced me the most with an African mother pinning her daughter's arms behind her back while the village midwife slices off the girl's clitoris.” This mother/daughter boundary confusion underlines both scenes through the daughter's ambivalent connection. Perhaps this second scene feels closer to the readerly bone because it comes almost as an afterthought to the first, tormenting, one that sets the entire narrative in motion. The scene carries less authorial freight, but it hones in nevertheless on a body unprotected by constraint—the body at its most revealing, not naked but not veiled either. This body makes visible what remained hidden by the traumatic assault upon the mother in the basement. Now the shame is visible—like a wound—to the look of the outsider, the look she wishes as a writer to find unbearable. (In this chapter, Ernaux offers a dictionary of shame, aphorisms about what it means to suffer from it.)

It's on this question of extreme emotions that I return now to the defiant remarks on the jacket blurb that are drawn from the next to last page of the memoir; these lines return us to the present, the time of writing. It's the summer of 1996 and bombs are falling in Sarajevo. In the newspaper, these episodes are called “the shame that grips us.” A moral morass. In the face of this public sense of shame, Ernaux continues to dwell on the meaning of her personal, private—and now, as she writes—exposed shame. If the Sarajevo bombing is forgotten by newspaper readers the next day, these intimate horrors remain embedded in memory. History, with a capital H, fades; personal history remains.

But wait, we have not come to the end of Shame; the book is not closed yet. In the very last paragraph of the memoir, Ernaux suddenly casts all she has written in a new light. She returns to the photograph, the photograph of a girl with her father. She thinks about the fact that her father has now been dead for twenty-nine years. And she marks her distance from the girl in the picture: “I no longer have anything in common with the girl of the photograph, except for the scene of that Sunday in June that she is carrying in her head and that made me write this book because it never left me.” Our past selves continue in us; our autobiography is the story of how we live that continuity in discontinuous time. The girl of twelve and the writer of fifty-six are joined by the scene. Are they one and the same? Here, in the last sentence of the memoir, another radical break occurs. “It's only this scene that connects the two of us, that girl and myself, because orgasm, in which I experience myself as myself the most fully, only came two years later.” What separates the writer from her childhood self is an experience of sexuality she could only guess at as a maturing girl. If the self born out of extreme sexual pleasure—orgasm—is the source of permanent identity, does sexuality dislodge class as a defining, foundational knowledge?

Here, I can only venture out on the limb of interpretation, following the connection Ernaux implicitly makes between the scene in the cellar and the orgasm to come. What separates Ernaux the writer from “la petite D.” is another intense experience that shatters categories: sexual bliss. Seen this way, Ernaux places the burgeoning of her own sexuality under the sign of an unconscious logic that exists in but also beyond class. Perhaps there is shame to come—or the refusal of it in sexual experience. In A Man's Place, a book also structured by the dynamics of shame, Ernaux briefly describes her parents' affective relations, saying that her mother was “always ashamed of love.” She explains that while in her presence her father, she came to understand as she was growing up, would “make sexual allusions” to her mother and hum tunes like Parlez-moi d'amour to convey his meaning; her mother would sing too, sometimes at the top of her lungs. In Shame, Ernaux is demonstrably proud of her sexual curiosity—her lack of shame; she describes her fascination with the older girls in school, looking for signs of sanitary napkins; these are the ones she seeks out “to learn about sexual things.” She doesn't ask her mother.

The book Shame closes, as Ernaux's work often does, on this always difficult question of what belongs to the past, what to the present, on the work that memory does keeping the world of childhood alive, work done always from another scene, from a geography removed from the scenes of childhood. Can a writer stop going back? What's there to gain in the return? Or lose?

Let me mention just briefly another piece of the family memoir that Ernaux published in 1997, “I Remain in Darkness” [“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”] for some glimpses of an answer. This short work is a series of diary entries written during her mother's illness and disintegration, the subject of the 1988 memoir A Woman's Story. In the preface to the diary pages, Ernaux explains that she did not reread these pages during the time she was writing the memoir. She thought she would never publish the diary entries, wanting perhaps to leave the more distanced account of the later work as her final word on her mother's story, but then decides—at the time of publishing Shame—that she now believes that the integrity and coherence of a work should be deliberately threatened—“mises en danger”—whenever possible. Publishing what was not meant to meet the public eye is a way of courting that danger.

In yet another publishing venue of this same literary season, in the 1996 winter number of Philippe Sollers's journal L'Infini, Ernaux published an autobiographical piece called “Fragments autour de Philippe V.” (Phillippe V. is also the dedicatee of Shame.) The frankly erotic character of the fragments, which describe Ernaux's first and autobiographically recent sexual encounter with a young man, a student, did not come as a complete surprise to Ernaux's readers, in particular to those of Simple Passion [Passion simple (1991)], a narrative that recounts the story of a French woman's passionate affair with a married man, “A.,” who lives somewhere in Eastern Europe and that begins with the description of an X-rated movie. It's a porn flick that turned up on television one evening about the encounter between two sexes (represented by their genitalia) of which the crowning moment classically is the money shot, the sight of ejaculation that proves the sex is “real.” This woman writes in the aftermath of the affair, in the first person. After providing the basic details of the movie shots, Ernaux meditates on the surprising fact that “it's only now that it has become possible to see the two sexes join together, and the [emergence of] sperm—something that one couldn't watch without almost dying, now as easy to witness as a handshake.” For Ernaux this spectacle has its importance for writing. “It seems to me,” she concludes, “that writing should aim at this, the impression provoked by the scene of the sexual act, the anguish and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.” (You may hear in these lines the elements of a connection to the representation of the second violent scene in Shame—in particular the sense of “stupefaction” produced by the sight of the private suddenly made public: the soiled traces of the mother's body and fluids. But in Shame, moral judgment is not suspended; the shock translates immediately into locatable class terms.) What's important here in Simple Passion is the link established between the effects that writing can produce and the effects of witnessing a sexual act. Or more precisely, the desire for writing to enact a form of suspension: that in the time of reading you enter the scene. You see the sperm, you see the arc of the scythe. You catch your breath, but do you suspend judgment?

“Fragments” narrates the early stages of another sexual passion. What's crucial here is the inaugural moment when Ernaux acts on her desire, makes the first move—or rather the first move that interrupts polite conversation, the physical act that sparks the explosion of sexual passion. The woman gets up and passes her hand through the young man's hair. It's a deliberate gesture. The next day—this text is largely though not entirely elliptical—Ernaux reviews the scenes of the previous night and reflects upon the importance of her gesture, of having started something: “I thought it was of the same nature as that of intervening in the world, of beginning a story. And I felt that for a woman, the freedom to write without shame goes with that of being the first to touch, with desire, the body of a man.” What comes first? Touching a man's body or putting the first marks of writing on a page? What would it mean for a woman to write freely? Without shame. This desire for a kind of freedom also releases the writing of the narrative Shame, in which the repressed scene between the father and the mother is brought out of the shadow and into the domain of published words. What, Ernaux asks, as did Sade, in the epigraph to Simple Passion, is the relation between sex and writing? And more specifically between an older woman and a much younger man.

In a series of short paragraphs that come to embody that relation, Ernaux describes an experiment in which the couple makes love on a sheet of drawing paper to see what kind of painting would emerge from the mixture of his sperm and her menstrual blood. It was his idea; the two are pleased with the result. The man frames the first “drawing” and hangs it in his room. Over the next few months, they repeat the performance, which gave them the impression that sexual pleasure could have a kind of permanence, that “all was not over with orgasm, that a trace would remain—the date and hour recorded on the sheet of paper—something like a work of art.” The fragments conclude with a statement that is also a poetics: “Write and make love. I feel that there is an essential link between the two. I can't explain it, but only retranscribe the moments where this appears to me as a kind of obvious truth.” The paper written by the body, as Barthes might say, paper bodies—but also fleshy bodies that emit fluids, that leave indelible traces, like those on the nightgown, or on the sheets. On sheets of paper, the writing of Ernaux's poetics bodies forth, like a reenactment of the moment in which a sexual passion demands and requires expression. This writing produces the trace of pleasure, pleasure's document, the bodily signature, acts of presence marked in historical time: like the summer of 1952, or that moment in 1954 when Annie discovered orgasm.

In 1997, Philippe V. signs his name—Philippe Vilain—to a novel that tells the story whose beginning Ernaux evoked briefly in print in “Fragments.” Published in Philippe Sollers's collection called L'Infini, which is housed at Gallimard, Ernaux's publisher, L'Etreinte [The Embrace] is an “autofiction” that recounts the passion of a young man who has an affair with a woman, he does not fail to note, old enough to be his mother, a well-known writer named by her initials, A. E. The affair ends badly when the young man, a student, becomes insanely jealous of the lover, “A.,” with whom Ernaux lived an intense affair revealed in Simple Passion. Vilain's novel was well reviewed in Le Monde and excoriated in Le Nouvel Observateur.

Are we or are we not in the same story that Ernaux tells in “Fragments”? Within the night of seduction, at least, these crucial moves belong to a shared narrative. In fact there are other particulars of this founding encounter that also mesh through the actual repeated language, and the sequence of actions and gestures. The pronouns change, of course, and mark the difference in perspective that an encounter between a man and a woman—or any two people entering a relation—necessarily entails. But there's an important difference in the young writer's point of departure. Part of his frame for that evening is Ernaux's first novel, Les armoires vides [Cleaned Out]; reading that book brings Phillippe V. to make the move that in turn leads toward the sexual connection that now hangs between the two actors. He has read her novels; she has read his letters. He perceives, he writes in an early letter, in the heroine's difficulties with her parents and in the shame she sometimes felt about them, a deep connection to his own life. This identification is precisely the other side of the projected disgust of readers whose gaze she will not want to endure.

What ties these three pieces together is the entwining of writing and danger, of a danger in turn bound to the exposure of uncontainable bodily acts, and secretions. As you tell the secrets of others and violate family codes, you separate yourself from their power over you, even as you return to them in memory. In French, as in English, there is a saying about what should remain private, in the family: “Il faut laver son linge en famille.” In English we are exhorted not to wash our dirty laundry in public. I can't help feeling that the outed nightgown—part of the various meanings of “linge” is precisely the kind of dirty laundry meant to remain hidden from view, meant to remain indoors, protected by a bathrobe, Like many family memoirists, Ernaux knows this and yet daringly resists the maxim. It's as though you have to get your dirty little secrets out, out of your system and onto the page, into the public space, in order to integrate the past into present writing.

In autobiography, the very acts—performed and witnessed—that might seem to beg not to be revealed are the very ones that produce writing. Thus the inaugural trauma of the scene in the basement is transformed into a shareable narrative when finally put into words; secret guilt becomes public shame, and shame becomes Shame. Ernaux's memoir project, in its deceptively simple language, gives voice to the scenes that never cease to haunt us, readers attracted in this fin de siècle, to the abyss of memory, the deep pool of reflection in which we furtively look to find our darker selves. “‘I’ shames the reader,” Ernaux maintains in Exteriors. Should we conclude that we enjoy being shamed?

What I've called memory stains are permanent traces of what we might hopelessly wish to forget: the screens of the primal scene, the abject forms of the maternal body, but also what we wish to preserve: the erotic performance of fluids (in a weird echo of maternal excretions), traced in the place of words on a sheet of paper. Publishing “Fragments” rescues the bodily acts that might otherwise vanish unless preserved on a page. Consigning to paper the scenes that threatened to obliterate you is to try as an adult to repair the irreparable in a child's past.

Can an auto/biographical writer go too far to get there? Rousseau didn't think so.


  1. Shame has been translated by Tanya Leslie. I've preferred to provide my own translations, less graceful and more literal, although I have also consulted hers. For this reason I will not include page numbers, which could confuse readers looking for the exact passage.

  2. On these and other issues, I refer the reader to Lyn Thomas's new and illuminating study, Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience. Her chapters 4 and 7 are particularly relevant to this essay. This excellent book, the first on Ernaux in English, is both an introduction and a work of theoretical analysis.

  3. John Eakin's How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves gives a fascinating account of what neuroscience is discovering about how memory works that provides new ways of understanding the process of memory itself.

  4. On the complexity of the debates around the photograph and the detail of these references, see Jay Prosser's essay in this volume, and also Marianne Hirsch's study, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory.

  5. On the relation of the everyday to the extreme in a collective experience, see Michael Rothberg's essay in this volume.

Works Cited

Améry, Jean. “Torture.” At the Mind's Limits. Trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld. New York: Schocken, 1986.

Eakin, Paul John. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999.

Ernaux, Annie. Exteriors. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories, 1996.

———. “I Remain in Darkness.” Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories, 1999.

———. “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit.” Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

———. La honte. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

———. La place. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

———. Le journal du dehors. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

———. Les armoires vides. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

———. A Man's Place. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories, 1996

———. Passion simple, Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

———. Shame. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories, 1998.

———. Simple Passion. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories, 1993.

———. Une femme. Paris: Gallimard, 1988.

———. A Woman's Story. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven, 1990.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

Kuhn, Annette. Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London: Verso, 1995.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Trans. Katherine Leary. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota, 1989.

Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Thomas, Lyn. Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

Vilain, Philippe. L'étreinte. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

Nancy K. Miller (review date July 1999)

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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 her childhood in a huge Park Avenue apartment where everyone had separate rooms, not to mention baths.

Annie Ernaux and Anne Roiphe are well-established authors and cultural critics who began their careers as autobiographical novelists and have since made the turn to memoir. Both tell painful family stories that prove Tolstoy right: “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Their domestic accounts trace a slow escape from the childhood humiliations of which memory still bears the mark. Like an ethnographer of the self (as Ernaux describes her role), each writer reconstructs the class rituals and codes of the village that shaped her life in the late forties and early fifties. Ernaux returns in memory to the rules of behavior that prevailed in a small town in Normandy, Roiphe to the equally class-bound culture of a Manhattan apartment building.

Readers often wonder why a writer decides to write a memoir, what impulse or urgency is at work. Ernaux anticipates the question: “I've always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward, the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others. But what degree of shame could possibly be conveyed by the writing of a book which seeks to measure up to the events I experienced in my twelfth year.”

“My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.” This explosive sentence launches the opening salvo of Shame—an immediate best-seller after its publication in France two years ago. Even the most jaded reader of contemporary memoirs trafficking in extreme situations will be rattled by the violence that emanates from these simple words, aligned without a cushion. In the compact pages that follow we travel back to the shocking event that “little Annie D.” witnessed in June 1952 and that changed her forever. “We stopped belonging to the category of decent people, who don't drink, don't fight, and who dress properly to go into town.” Having absorbed the scene she was not meant to see, the girl became a pariah in her own eyes: “I began living in shame.” Inexplicably, more than forty years later, the daughter goes public with the secret, the subterranean terror that haunted her life as a writer. In so doing, of course, the daughter betrays the parents she also wants to protect and violates the rules of their personal civil code: never let outsiders know your private affairs.

In Shame Ernaux sets out to understand the social force of this singular childhood trauma. Now a participant-observer revisiting the local culture that once contained her, the adult writer examines the archives and artifacts of this other world with the compulsiveness of a historian. Like the vast majority of French citizens, Ernaux's mother and father came from generations of peasant stock; by a determination fueled primarily by the mother's energy, the couple managed to leave behind them both the misery of the farm and the wretchedness of the factory in the hard years immediately following World War One. Once they succeeded in acquiring the little café-grocery, their one desire was to not “fall back,” as they put it, into the class of wage workers.

The family remained on edge about the stability of their new place in the world. “‘In front of people,’ it is forbidden to say how much we paid for a pair of shoes, to complain of stomach ache or to reel off my good grades at school … I must say hello in a clear, loud voice every time I enter or walk through the store or the café.” Any failure to obey the codes might derail the upward movement of class transformation longed for by her parents—in Annie's case through education (at a local private Catholic boarding-school).

A staggering number of readers have written to Ernaux in a gesture of identification: “You have told my story.” The letters usually express a kind of gratitude for her unsparing representation of what it means to live out one's working-class origins in postwar French consumer society—however invisible these markers may seem to have become. Beyond the elegance of her style (even in translation), the precision of her language and the remarkable, if somewhat deceptive, surface of her writing, a great deal of Ernaux's tremendous success in France has to do with the detail and borders of the childhood world she inhabited, a town she calls Y.

Location, location, location. The ritual incantation of this word is the key in real estate jargon to the value of, say, your apartment in Manhattan (regardless of its size or condition). The cliché popped into my mind along with the address—1185 Park Avenue—that makes up the title of Anne Roiphe's newly published memoir. Park Avenue, a magical address that says wealth and privilege, and typically old money, either makes you curious—how did those rich people live? or resentful: why should we read about them, what's their problem?

Roiphe is a second-generation descendant of Jewish Russians who landed in New York during the great waves of immigration at the turn of the century. Her grandfather became the owner of the Van Heusen shirt business; her parents enjoyed the wealth that ensued. When Roiphe summarizes that classic immigrant plot she maps an important piece of collective American biography, a story of assimilation punctuated by an anxiety of belonging. “My father married up. My mother married down. Here lies the dingy underbelly of the wonderful story of immigration. Class lines were permeable in America and that was good but those left on the wrong side were embarrassments.” Embarrassment is an attenuated form of shame.

In the same way, a scene that captures the private horror of 1185 Park Avenue echoes Ernaux's traumatic vision in another register of threatened violence, where words administer the blows. After obeying a practice air-raid drill on the radio, Anne's parents quarrel bitterly, seeking to injure each other beyond forgiveness. Her father verbally assaults his wife: “You disgust me with all that flesh on your tiny spine. You're nothing but a dumb broad … and you stink like a bitch …” The daughter remains a silent, ambivalent spectator to her father's abuse and her frantic mother's desperate reaction: “her long nails are scratching her face.” Suddenly her frail, asthmatic little brother, coming to his mother's rescue, throws himself at his father's furious body, landing tiny blows. Disgusted by the son he disdains—“You sissy, you pansy, you fag”—the father stands there “undented, unrepentant, his hands curled into fists.” The scene ends when the drill is over.

The wounds of these wars never heal, even if the casualties are not literally fatal. “I know this happened in the same way,” Roiphe remarks, “that more than a half-century later, I remember our phone number at 1185 Park Avenue …” In this longer, diffuse narrative, no single episode is given the weight of Ernaux's transformational one, but here too family horrors are the most powerful of childhood memories.

These horrors, however, do not appear in the family photographs from past to present included in Roiphe's book. On the cover of 1185 Park Avenue, in sepia, Anne's father Eugene Roth stands flanked by his two children in front of their apartment building. Dressed in the masculine elegance of the time—from the felt fedora to the break in his trousers over his well-polished oxfords—Roth, an inveterate philanderer, is nothing if not dapper in his double-breasted coat, his pointed collars held stiffly in place by a tie-pin. Buttoned up in a beautifully tailored coat, Anne looks pleased to be protected by her father's gloved hand, sturdy in her lace-up oxfords, her curly hair struggling out of her hat.

The family snapshots are the mirror of an era, but Roiphe does not dwell on their meaning. They seem to stare out at the reader ironically as the facade behind which lives the private misery she exposes. She lets the captions hint at the dissimulation that was central to daily family existence. Consciously or not, the memoir hinges on this ironic structure. “My mother and father on a lawn chair in Rye. Now isn't that a pretty picture? I can hardly believe my eyes.” Your father may have loathed your mother but in the family album, they're seated together smiling; you're smiling too. Your little brother might have been a troubled, fanatical boy, but in the pictures he looks cute in his leggings and cap, though there is a slightly puzzled look in his eyes, as though he's not sure that he belongs here. The reader wishes for more from the photographs—at the very least, an explanation for the absence of the mother on the cover that frames the memoir.

Photographs in memoirs, reproduced or remembered, typically prompt meditation on the passage of time, on the face, body and clothing of an earlier self. In Shame Ernaux situates the time frame of her story—before and after the trauma—by two photographs of herself at twelve that the readers see only in imagination: one in her communion dress, one three months later with her father at Biarritz on their trip to Lourdes. She studies the images of her earlier self in detail, the hair, the glasses, the shape of the nostrils: “I stare at the two photographs until my mind goes blank, as if looking at them for long enough might allow me to slip into the head and body of the little girl. … Yet, if I had never seen these pictures before and if I were shown them for the first time, I would never believe that the little girl is me.”

1185 Park Avenue ends where Ernaux's began, in the basement. The old laundry has since been turned into an exercise room; and the closing image of 1185 Park Avenue finds Anne and her brother back in the basement of memory, children again as they watch the maids folding sheets. Then, a last word, given in italics: “Redemption: (tred, pend, note, mend, poem, peer, mope, etc.).” This is the game of taking a single word apart to see how many separate smaller words can be formed, a game that the daughter avidly played in the precious moments spent alone with the mother, now dead, to whom the book is dedicated. The word redemption invites the reader to believe that the passage through pain repays; that what gets lost in one generation can be redeemed in the next. Now Anne Roiphe's own children live in “the tenements [her] grandparents once inhabited as greenhorns and fled as soon as they could.” This nostalgic return to the old neighborhood, the immigrant world of hardship and promise, offers a downwardly mobile version of familial continuity only the rich can afford.

A world of difference separates Ernaux's memoir from Roiphe's: geography, ethnicity, class, to name the more obvious distinctions in the imagination of identity. These identification marks necessarily order the styles of autobiographical experience just as physical spaces and material locations shape the patterns of selfhood itself. And yet the stories that issue from those ineluctable givens engage the reader by the way they move across another kind of territory. In the space of reading what counts, I think, are not only the customs of our tribe, the map of our villages, but, also as powerfully, the accidents of any history that memory retains and reconstructs. What draws the worlds of Shame and 1185 Park Avenue together for me are the scenes of emotional soil that stain memory, leaving a residue of unresolved emotion—and the scars of witness.

However securely we may think we are anchored in the present tense, memory, the great elephant of the unconscious, never forgets. The memoirs ponder that puzzle of then and now as they search for the missing pieces of time past that, like history, still hurt. With Ernaux, I believe that “the worst thing about shame is that we imagine we are the only ones to experience it.” By publishing the book she effectively ends that loneliness. With Roiphe, I still remember the old phone number, even if it's too late to call.

James Sallis (review date spring 2000)

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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, and confessional elements, of the discursive and the representational, leads us virtually with each sentence to question supposed borders between finding and making, re-creation and reinvention; to question the notion of literature itself.

This present volume stands looking off down the hall at the author's earlier Une femme (A Woman's Story). That book, written in the ten months following her mother's death, attempts to re-create her mother's history and very presence, all the while (as in all Ernaux's work) foregrounding the author and the writing process to which the reader bears witness. “I Remain in Darkness” comprises a series of notes Ernaux scribbled out hurriedly during her mother's illness. The title derives from the last written words of this woman who always told Ernaux “You expect too much of life,” this woman who has now gone missing.

Ernaux offers up the notes just as originally written, unguarded, unreconstructed, unadorned. Ernaux shaves her mother's face, sprinkles her with cologne to cover the smells rising from her body, or, leaving after a visit, finds that she needs “to listen to music at full blast as I drive along the highway. Today, amid exhilaration and despair, I chose Léo Ferré's hit C'est Extra. I need to feel sexy because of my mother's body and her life in hospital.” Of the many savage equations emerging here, the most savage is Ernaux's absolute identification with her mother. Faced with her mother's death, with the decline and failure of mind and of body, Ernaux is forced to confront and to flee her own.

Literature, Ernaux notes, is so powerless. Yet writing for her has ever been a cycle of passion, grief and recovery. In Norman French, she tells us, one might say (as her mother did) “That dog died of ambition,” ambition alluding to the trauma of separation, of being far away. Nothing underscores more certainly our separation, our distance one from another, than the sort of identification Ernaux discovers between self and mother. “I Remain in Darkness” is a very ambitious book.

Loraine Day (essay date summer 2000)

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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 lived experience, her creative project incorporates a sustained reflection on the function and meaning of writing. It is therefore to be expected that her texts will lay bare contradictions or difficulties relating to her sense of direction as a human being and as a writer, signalling the necessity for further work if personal and creative development is to be sustained. Thus it might be said that earlier works set the agenda for her subsequent creative evolution, or that the seeds of later works are contained in earlier texts.1 Here, I want to suggest that this is a useful way to view the relationship between “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte, published simultaneously in 1997.

Alice Jardine, amongst others, has argued that in a patriarchal culture, symbolic-matricide is fundamental to the process of maturation and to creative endeavour.2 She concludes her essay with an exhortation: “[N]ew kinds of feminist subjects need to begin […] rewriting, without repeating the death sentences of the past” (130). With the emphasis on “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte, I shall argue that in the triptych of works constituted by “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, Une femme and La honte, and more indirectly in other works which she published between the mid-1980s and 1997, Annie Ernaux continued to “rewrite” the story of her relationship with her mother (already a key theme in her semi-autobiographical novels) precisely in order to achieve a perspective in which “matricidal” impulses are not translated into a death sentence. My aim is to add to the existing body of useful work on the role of the mother in Ernaux's writing and to contribute to the wider debate on the maternal function in the process of subject-formation and the elaboration of culture.3

The Journal des visites (published as “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”) was written as a series of occasional notes recording Ernaux's perceptions and feelings as she cared for and visited her mother in the last two and a half years of the older woman's life. Begun in December 1983, it was discontinued in April 1986, three weeks after the death of Ernaux's mother. In the introductory pages which Ernaux wrote for the work in 1996, she states that “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” was not originally intended for publication, and that it was not used as a direct resource for the composition of Une femme, since she did not (indeed felt she could not) consult the Journal des visites when she wrote Une femme: “[L]es pages rédigées pendant la maladie de ma mère […] m'étaient comme interdites” (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 12). The text remained “forbidden” in the early 1990s, when Ernaux reread it with a view to possible publication, but decided that it remained too intimate and painful to be released into the public domain.4 Her conviction that she would not publish the text in her lifetime, and the gloss she later put on the decision to deposit it with Gallimard (“je l'avais enfoui pour ne pas le lire” [Walter 96]) suggest that material contained in the work remained highly sensitive, volatile and compelling, perhaps to the extent that it would inevitably resurface in later works.

“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” is the only one of Ernaux's works, apart from La honte, to contain a direct reference to the scene which Ernaux describes at the beginning of La honte, her father's assault on her mother in 1952. The potential significance of the reference to “la scène” in “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” (59-60) is attested by Ernaux's acknowledgement in La honte of the force of the personal taboo which prevented her from describing the scene for nearly forty years: “J'écris cette scène pour la première fois. Jusqu'à aujourd'hui, il me semblait impossible de le faire, même dans un journal intime. Comme une action interdite devant entraîner un châtiment” (La honte 16). The reference to the scene in the Journal des visites does not invalidate this statement, since the incident itself is not described. Tentative motivations and causes relating to “la scène” are sketched in (these will be examined later), but the nature of the event is not revealed, whereas in the fragment for the text that would become La honte, written in a single afternoon in January 1990,5 the incident is recounted without preamble and without speculation as to possible causes. It might be said that each text poses a question (“what happened?” [“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”] and “why?” [La honte]) which is “answered” in the other text, albeit tentatively, with respect to the possible causes of the incident. In this way, the texts inevitably exert a mutual attraction. Given the powerful taboo surrounding the description of “la scène” for Ernaux, the passage in the Journal des visites may perhaps be read as an acknowledgement of work to be done, a self-directed challenge which Ernaux would take up in the description of the scene written in 1990, and later pursue in La honte when she resumed work on it again in the summer or autumn of 1995. Early in 1996, at a point when she had written approximately a quarter of La honte, and some four and a half years after locking away the Journal des visites, Ernaux decided to publish “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” simultaneously with La honte.6

Ernaux's stated reasons for publishing “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” (to complement and challenge the image of her mother presented in Une femme [“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 12-13]) may be linked to her project of working on a corpus of lived experience from a variety of perspectives, but it is interesting to note that the rationale which is advanced focuses exclusively on the connections between “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and Une femme. It is possible that Ernaux felt that the decision to publish “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte simultaneously hinged on general and circumstantial factors which did not require elucidation: both texts evoke the narrator's relationship with her mother and their shared history, and by the mid-1990s, the prospect of publishing the record of her mother's last years no longer stirred unmanageable grief. However, if Ernaux's work is seen as an ongoing attempt to elaborate the meaning of lived experience, and if the dialogic relationship between individual texts (by Ernaux) is seen as fundamental to this process, then her silence regarding the possibility of making connections between “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte is suggestive. It points to the possibility that the task of linking the two works might be part of the writer's challenge to her readers, and/or to the idea that the alignment of the two texts rests on the author's (perhaps unconscious) engagement with issues which are thrown into relief by the juxtaposition of the texts, even if the precise nature of the issues involved remained elusive to Ernaux herself.7

In “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, Ernaux emphasizes her newly-awakened and increasingly powerful sense of identification with her ailing mother, tacitly acknowledging her earlier refusal of the mutuality her mother had always desired, in her relationship with her daughter.8 Past conflicts between mother and daughter are evoked through a chain of references to the constant maternal surveillance which irritated and oppressed the daughter, provoking the need to protect herself from her mother's gaze, to create a space for her own separate existence. As I have argued elsewhere (Day 2000), sexuality and frank exploration of lived experience in writing became focal points in the daughter's struggle for differentiation from her mother. The complex relationship between the mother's (repressed) sexuality and obsession with propriety and the daughter's commitment to freedom of (sexual) self-expression is an important and unresolved theme in “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”.

The narrator's strong sense of connectedness in relation to her mother during the latter's illness threatened her own equilibrium, not only because the protracted experience of separation was emotionally draining for the younger woman,9 but also because identification with her mother's suffering challenged her sense of identity and made her aware of her own inevitable physical decline. A new awareness of her earlier, determined resistance to identification prompted feelings of guilt (she had not been the daughter her mother wanted, she had blocked her mother's greatest desire, for closeness to her daughter) and regret (the potential for intimacy and for communication was now definitively lost). On the other hand, closeness to the point of fusion between mother and daughter represented a threat to the daughter's sense of autonomy and identity, arousing the dread of maternal power and challenging her capacity to adapt to her mother's death. I want to suggest that her competing needs for identification and for disidentification in relation to her mother became particularly apparent to Ernaux during her mother's illness and in the wake of her death, and that the desire to bring these into balance may be seen as one of the main factors driving Ernaux's writing in the decade following the loss of her mother. It will be suggested that unfinished business contained in “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” created a “knot,” an emotional sticking point which would need to be negotiated before the author could hope to achieve the reconciliation with the maternal imago that she felt she had failed to accomplish at the time of her mother's death (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 104).10 I shall argue that Ernaux's writing between 1986 and 1996 (when La honte was completed) allowed her to untangle or at least loosen this knot, making it possible for her to publish “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, and that the simultaneous publication of La honte marked the achievement of a new equilibrium in the author's evaluation of her relationship with her mother and the place of that relationship in the ongoing construction of her own identity.

Before turning to La honte, I want briefly to consider the works which Ernaux published in the years between her mother's death and the composition of La honte, from a perspective focusing on the ways in which these texts might carry forward the process of mourning and adaptation to the loss of the mother. I make no claim here to offer a comprehensive reading of the texts in question. Even in the case of Une femme, with its specific focus on the narrator's mother, my comments will be very selective and indeed reductive: my aim is tentatively to sketch in the broad lines of the author's evolving feelings about her mother (both the lost flesh-and-blood mother and the internalised mother who lives on in the daughter's psyche).

Begun just thirteen days after her mother's death, Une femme might be seen as an attempt both to engage with and to contain the narrator's grief. Although her first impulse is to evoke the maternal imago which dominates her consciousness (22-23), the narrator also seeks to reach an understanding of “la femme qui a existé en dehors de moi, la femme réelle” (23). Within the limits of the necessarily subjective focalisation, Une femme works towards an “objective” assessment of a mother-daughter relationship rooted in a specific social and historical context (62), arguably creating a measure of distance between the daughter-narrator and her mother and nurturing her capacity to survive the loss she has sustained.11 The inevitable failure of this bid for objectivity is signalled particularly clearly in a passage that refers to the conflict between mother and daughter on the subject of the narrator's adolescent sexuality, and which contains the savage image of a mother complicit in the excision of her daughter's clitoris (60-62; this passage will be discussed in more detail later). In Une femme, the struggle between mother and daughter over the daughter's adolescent body and awakening sexuality is contained in three pages of the text (60-62). The difficulties between mother and daughter in these years are evoked in overview, from the perspective of the adult narrator who can see the pressures at work on mother and daughter, and with as much objectivity as can be mustered: “j'essaie d'écrire et d'expliquer comme s'il s'agissait d'une autre mère et d'une fille qui ne serait pas moi. Ainsi, j'écris de la manière la plus neutre possible” (62). In La honte, Ernaux would return to the initial stages of this alienation from her mother, with her own subjectivity centre-stage and from her own perspective as a child, in so far as this could be recovered.12

Passion simple, substantially written between November 1989 and March 1991,13 is the account of a passionate love affair between the narrator and a foreign diplomat who is a married man some twelve years her junior. As I have argued elsewhere (Day 2000), it is a text which can be said to maintain the dialogue between Ernaux and her internal mother. Firstly, it allowed Ernaux to go to the limit in defying the sexual restraint and repression which her mother had always sought to impose on her daughter.14 Secondly, although the love affair represents a very significant stage in the narrator's recovery from grief,15 the sense of fusion which the narrator experiences in relation to her lover suggests that (perhaps like all experiences of falling in love) her passion has its ultimate point of reference in the unconditional childhood love she felt for her mother, a love which was revived at the time of her mother's illness and death. It may also be noted that defiance implies acknowledgement of a powerful other, and that willful transgression of the values of the internal mother might well induce guilt or indeed be unconsciously felt as “matricidal” in relation to the internal mother.16

It may be surmised that the notes which comprise Journal du dehors (written between 1985 and 1992) initially represented a counterbalance to the Journal des visites.17 Whereas the latter text focuses on the intimate world of the mother-daughter relationship, set against the enclosed space of the nursing home, Journal du dehors records the narrator's observations of people, events and situations encountered in the public domain (in streets, shopping precincts and on train journeys). The notes included in Journal du dehors explore (amongst other subjects) social exclusion, alienation and the performativity of social interaction. Although the narrator casts herself in the role of observer and recorder of scenes she has witnessed, she also stresses her “permeability” as a subject, foregrounding the way she sees herself in others or reads her own existence through the lens of observed scenes. Her own past and present experience shapes the selection and interpretation of material,18 and reflexive thought is stimulated by her glimpse of other people's lives. In this way, the narrator's ongoing preoccupation with her relationship with her mother has a clear presence in the text. Exchanges between pairs of mothers and children are frequently noted,19 and an overheard remark acts as a painful reminder to the narrator that her own parents would express disapproval of some aspect of her behaviour by pointing out that, one day, she would be without them (88). Journal du dehors concludes with remarks which relate explicitly to the mother-daughter bond, reporting that the gestures or words of strangers often remind the narrator of her mother (106-07).

It is perhaps in the treatment of issues relating to sexuality that Journal du dehors connects most significantly with Ernaux's relationship with her mother. The sheer number of references to sexuality in Journal du dehors, as well as their frankness and the fact that they occur in a wide variety of contexts, many of them far from obviously sexual, make this a provocative aspect of the text.20 I want to suggest that the choice to foreground sexuality explicitly and repeatedly perpetuates the defiance of maternal values noted in Passion simple. This is most apparent in the narrator's reflections on a newspaper article relating to transgression: “[O]n ne voit aucun inconvénient à insulter Dieu mais rares sont ceux qui acceptent de cracher sur le crucifix (sans doute moindre encore aurait été le nombre de ceux qui se serviraient de celui-ci comme d'un godemiché)” (77). Given the enormous importance of religion for Ernaux's mother (La honte 107-11, Une femme 29), and her opposition to the open display of sexuality, whether in words or deeds, the juxtaposition of the crucifix and the dildo must surely be seen as a bid to outface maternal interdictions.

“Fragments autour de Philippe V.,” a short text written between 1994 and 1996, describes the first and subsequent sexual encounters between the narrator and a man in his twenties. The public acknowledgement of a cross-generational relationship (much more transgressive when the woman is the older partner), the emphasis on female sexual agency, references to semen and menstrual blood and the creation of an art object from the secretions produced by sexual activity, combine to produce a provocative erotic text. As a celebration of transgressive desire, the text could clearly be read as defiant rejection of the sexual restraint associated with the internalised mother.

The composition of Une femme paradoxically allowed Ernaux to contain her grief and to put a hold on her sense of loss (e.g. 43-44, 68-69, 104), while simultaneously permitting her to acknowledge her mother's legacy and continuing importance for her, Passion simple, Journal du dehors and “Fragments autour de Philippe V.” may be seen as texts which engage with the world outside and beyond the narrator's mother and the shared family past, although I have suggested that all three works maintain the dialogue between the author and her internal mother. In La honte, Ernaux returns to the exploration of her childhood (especially her twelfth year) and its continuing importance in her life and writing, focusing for the first time in an openly (ethno) autobiographical work on the effects of her childhood environment on her own existence, her own developing consciousness. The text ranges widely over the conditions of the eleven-year-old's existence, at home and at school; it takes in her relationship with her father (and to a lesser extent with other members of the family, and with teachers and contemporaries at school), as well as with her mother; it examines the connections and disconnections between the narrator as she was, aged eleven, and as she is at the time of writing. Crucially however, from the point of view of my argument here, the narrator's relationship with her mother, and particularly her feelings about her mother's body, are central to the text.

The account of the events of the narrator's traumatic summer in 1952 is organised round three dramatic “set pieces,” of which the first acts as a kind of vortex, drawing the later scenes in and holding them in its drag, so that all three scenes are linked in the narrator's memory (La honte 117-18 and 134-35). The first scene describes the father's assault on the narrator's mother (13-15). The second episode concerns the narrator's nocturnal return home following a school trip, when she is mortified by her mother's unkempt appearance as she opens the door to the waiting group of teacher and schoolgirls (117-18). The third scene features father and daughter in a restaurant in Tours on the journey home from Lourdes; on this occasion, the narrator is crushed by a sense of their social inferiority in relation to other clients (132-33). These three scenes are presented as successive stages in the painful process that installs shame at the root of the narrator's subjectivity. All three describe highly charged moments which sap the foundations of her sense of identity and security. For the mature writer, these moments represent the unmistakable signs of the developing gulf that would thereafter separate child and parents. However, it is the first scene which the narrator invests with the most destructive power, according it foundational status in the evolution of her consciousness. “La scène” represents the end of an era, expulsion from the Eden of childhood into the time when shame seemed to colonise her body and mind, to be as inescapable as the very air she breathed. The iconic status the incident has assumed in Ernaux's personal mythology and in her sense of herself as a writer, together with the impossibility of assimilating or fully comprehending it,21 seem to confirm her view that “la scène” is permanently inscribed in the deepest substratum of her consciousness.

Following the account of the evening in the restaurant in Tours, the narrator acknowledges the subjective basis of her conviction that the trip with her father, and her feelings about it, bear closely on the events of the fateful Sunday in June, but asserts (in a curiously tentative formulation) that past experiences inevitably colour our perception of subsequent events: “[C]omment affirmer qu'un fait survenant après un autre n'est pas vécu dans l'ombre portée du premier, que la succession des choses n'a pas de sens?” (La honte 135). This seems an unexceptionable position, and of course, as the narrator knows, the proposition can be inverted: as we look into the past, we read past events through the lens of subsequent developments (39). This would have been true of the eleven-year-old narrator, trying to make sense of “la scène” in subsequent weeks and months, just as it is true of Ernaux the adult narrator, as she looks back to events which occurred some forty years earlier. With this in mind, and thinking about the place of the maternal body in the psychological faultlines which fracture the child's consciousness in the weeks following the assault, how might the relationship between the three key scenes be assessed?

The maternal body, and the narrator's relationship with it, are clearly central to the first two scenes under discussion. The narrator's assessment of the connection between the two incidents assigns a subordinate place to the later event: “Dans mon souvenir, cette scène, qui n'a aucune commune mesure avec celle où mon père a voulu tuer ma mère, m'en paraît le prolongement” (La honte 117-18). I shall suggest that the process linking the two scenes operates both from the past towards the future, and from the later event towards the earlier experience. Moreover, whatever leverage the narrator has on the meaning of the first scene emerges from the perspective of later events, and in the first instance from the late-night scene.

The assault scene occurs “in camera,” on a Sunday afternoon, the only time of the week when the family is not under surveillance by clients in the shop or café. It seems probable that this is a key factor in the drama: had the players been observed, the mother's keen awareness of propriety in the presence of clients would surely have resulted in the avoidance of the scene. Contained in the private space of family life, and only temporarily disrupting the regular Sunday routine, the incident has no repercussions on the family's dealings with outsiders or on their standing in the community. The violent scene radically distorts the narrator's way of being in the world, but the new and uncomfortable hyperconsciousness which the mature narrator recalls is generalised and unfocused; the meaning and even the nature of the change that has occurred in her remain beyond the child's grasp (La honte 18-19). In the wake of the incident, the narrator watches her parents closely, but this surveillance is custodial (intended to keep the peace) rather than judgmental (19), and it is exercised by a daughter who continues to position herself within the family unit.

By contrast with the contained and private nature of the opening scene, the late-night scene exposes the family to the gaze of outsiders and positions the daughter very differently in relation to her parents and their world. As the narrator's mother opens the door, she is revealed in intimate disarray, clothed only in an old, stained nightdress. Ample flesh unconstrained, hair awry, she is scarcely awake and barely able to speak. Her undisciplined, shapeless form is at once in excess and in deficit in relation to the middle-class femininity of the maternal image which has currency at the narrator's school. The entire waiting group falls silent and all eyes, including the narrator's, focus on the dishevelled figure in the doorway: “Je venais de voir pour la première fois ma mère avec le regard de l'école privée” (La honte 110). Ironically, through lack of foresight or exhaustion, on this occasion the narrator's mother failed to anticipate the negative judgement of others which she is routinely concerned to deflect (72, 111 and 114).

Here the narrator is in a very ambiguous and invidious position. Because she identifies with her mother, she feels included in the critical gaze directed at the older woman; at the same time, however, she is the subject or agent of the gaze, she sees her mother with the critical eye of an outsider. I want to suggest that the experience of being subject to the critical gaze of others activates a way of reading the assault scene that becomes fundamental to the narrator's developing awareness of her situation. Having seen others observe (and judge) the mother with whom she is closely identified, the narrator internalises the critical gaze. Henceforth, it operates even in the absence of others, and retroactively, so that when the events of the previous week are replayed in her mind, it becomes a scene that might have been (and might as well have been) witnessed by others.22 On the other hand, the discovery of herself as a subject whose critical gaze condemns her mother is perhaps even more devastating. The primary object of attachment becomes an abject object, with whom identification is simultaneously deeply felt and resisted.

In the first scene, the narrator is an innocent third party, drawn into the crisis through her empathic response to her mother's fear and vulnerability. She rushes to her mother's defence, and is herself a victim, both as a child terrified by parental conflict, and as a daughter who has a powerful object-cathexis for her mother (this is why her father's words: “[J]e ne t'ai rien fait à toi” [La honte 15], clearly miss the mark). In the late-night scene, the narrator remains a victim (in so far as she identifies with her mother), but her position is also that of aggressor, as she becomes an actively engaged subject and agent capable of judging her mother, who is excluded from the ranks of the socially pure and good by the critical gaze of a group which includes her daughter. I want to suggest that the “matricidal” gaze activated in the narrator in this scene triggers guilt, which in turn becomes associated with the father's recent physical assault on the mother's body. In this way, “la scène” is invested with the symbolic weight of subsequent filial betrayals; it comes to stand for the narrator's “matricidal” impulses.

At this point, I want to pause over the textual positioning of the late-night scene in relation to the assault scene. Although the two scenes occur within a week of each other, they are separated by a hundred pages of text. The intervening pages explore the codes and values which constitute the narrator's world, at home and at school. This is a journey of exploration into past time, in the knowledge that there can be no hope of understanding the impact of the assault scene on the eleven-year-old unless the ways of seeing and thinking which seemed natural to the narrator as a child can be resurrected, in so far as this is possible (“il n'y a pas de vraie mémoire de soi” [La honte 39]). The substantial hiatus in the account of the events of 1952 effectively isolates the opening scene, highlighting its status as an event apart, more grievously momentous and refractory than any other experience in the narrator's life, so that it becomes the fulcrum on which the rest of her existence turns. At the same time, the narrator's painstaking elaboration of “les codes et les règles des cercles où [elle] étai[t] enfermée” (115) contextualises and therefore mitigates her reactions in the late-night scene. Whereas her father's assault on her mother remains starkly unexplained, her own “betrayal” of her mother (through the judgmental gaze) is rendered comprehensible. If she was under the sway of an inflexible system which condemned slovenliness in mothers, how could she avoid judging her own mother's slovenly ways? It is almost as if the narrator could only tolerate recounting her “rejection” of her mother once she has satisfied herself that it was inevitable.

The mother is physically absent from the third scene (in the restaurant in Tours), but the narrator's temporary pairing with her father points to the disturbance in the narrator's cathexis for her mother following her debasement in her daughter's eyes in the scene of the late-night return. Indeed, both parents are displaced as objects of identification, as the narrator's sense of lack leads her to idealise the middle-class couple (an adolescent girl in the company of an older man), whose reflected image fills her with longing and despair. In so far as this announces the narrator's disengagement from the family circle, and her investment in the (illusory) perfection and fullness of identity promised (through the ægis of a male figure) by middle-class status, it signals the inevitability of her renunciation of both parents as primary love objects. It is worth noting, however, that, as the primary object of attachment, the narrator's mother has further to fall; the narrator's father is also disqualified as an ideal object by his inferior class standing, but he is less of a disappointment to the narrator because he has always lacked the charisma and authority to challenge maternal dominance in the family triad effectively (La honte 19 and 114). Here, then, it is the absence and displacement of the mother which is most deeply felt by the narrator. On the first day of the journey to Lourdes, feeling out of sorts and out of place, the narrator is beset by fears that she will never see her mother again (122). It is as if the separation forces the narrator to acknowledge the losses sustained in June, when her mother was unseated from her position as the phallic (perfect) mother and revealed as fundamentally flawed, through the bestiality of her intimate relations, through the humiliation she suffers at the hands of her husband, and through her subsequent “public” exposure as socially unworthy (in the late-night scene).23

All three scenes could be said to transpose key moments familiar from psychoanalytical models of development. The opening scene of La honte might be seen as an alternative primal scene: in “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, the narrator surmises that it might have been a manifestation of sexual frustrations (59-60), while the narrator of La honte comments: “[J]'avais vu ce qu'il ne fallait pas voir” (116), and imagines a possible reconciliation between her parents in moments after they have made love (21). Indeed, if the narrator's response to the assault scene is read using the Freudian concept of deferred action, it might be surmised that the traumatic effect of the episode derives partly from its power to reactivate (unconscious) memories of parental intercourse dating back to the narrator's early childhood.24 The late-night scene sets in play the disaffection with the mother which in the Freudian scheme is triggered by the child's recognition of maternal lack. The restaurant scene confirms maternal displacement, signalling the shift from female to male object-cathexis which Freud considered to be the difficult task confronting girls (“Female Sexuality” [1931], XXI: 223-43).

The repudiation of the mother as libidinal object is sometimes referred to as symbolic matricide. This is a subject that has assumed considerable importance in feminist analyses of mother-daughter relationships and in feminist literary theory.25 In general terms, symbolic matricide refers to the necessity of breaking away from infantile closeness to the mother in order that maturation may take place. Theorists disagree on the question of how this process operates. Those working in the tradition of Freud and Lacan argue that the mother must be rejected as primary object of affection, and that this involves the child's alignment with the father (boys identify with him, whereas girls passively depend on his recognition and approval). Freud acknowledged that a daughter's break from her mother could be an extended process which might never be brought to a conclusion, but he maintained that in order to achieve femininity and adult female sexuality, girls must relinquish their mother as love object, and transfer object-cathexis to the father.26 On the other hand, Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, and theorists influenced by their work (for example, prominent feminist object-relations theorists such as Nancy Chodorow and Susie Orbach), attach more importance to the mother than to the father in the story of human development: it is the mother, not the father, who presides over subject-formation and the entry into culture.27 Although these theorists identify powerful aggressive or destructive elements in the child's relation to its mother, it would be inappropriate to align the hostile impulses they describe with the concept of symbolic matricide. There are two reasons for this: firstly, hatred (even if it is extremely violent, as in Klein's thought) is seen as an essential facet of primary attachment, perhaps even as one of the faces of love; secondly, the figure of the mother remains central to the subject's psychic and creative development throughout life.

Notwithstanding Ernaux's expressed disinterest in psychoanalysis as an interpretative tool (Passion simple 31-32, La honte 32-33), a fruitful dialogue can be set in play between psychoanalytical models, concepts and techniques, and Ernaux's project as a writer. For example, Ernaux writes in response to a painful but productive sense of disjunction, her work rests on the premise that childhood experience is decisive, and patiently excavates “le vécu obscurément subi” (Garcin 182). Cross-identifications with others (the domain of intersubjective cathexes which Winnicott referred to as “the place where [you] find something of [your]self” [1971:133]), with the mother as the primary and most significant other, are fundamental to the enquiry Ernaux pursues in successive works. While Ernaux's narrators have a firm libidinal cathexis for men (indeed, the absence of strong female relationships outside the bond with the mother is noted [Une femme 22]), it is the relationship with the mother which remains primary, in so far as it provides the materials for self-evaluation and self-definition throughout life. Ernaux's mother has a more dominant presence in her work than her father; it was Ernaux's mother who encouraged the daughter's intellectual development and her investment in writing,28 and who vicariously shared in her daughter's achievements (La honte 110).

There are ways, then, in which Ernaux's work may be productively aligned with psychoanalytical perspectives, particularly object-relations approaches, with their emphasis on relationality and environmental provision.29 However, the three key scenes in La honte, which I have tentatively aligned with stages of development identified in Freudian theory, substantially rework the psychoanalytical models they evoke. In La honte, social factors very largely displace unconscious drives as the force which subtends developmental shifts. The “primal scene” later engenders social shame in the narrator who witnessed it, maternal lack is premised on social inadequacy and the idealised image in the restaurant mirror appeals through its social perfection (although, like the mirror image which plays a key role in Lacanian theory, this would prove to be an illusory basis for future identifications30). In La honte then, the lack associated with the maternal body (the motivation for the repudiation of the mother) is derived from social factors, not from an unconscious rejection of a morphologically incomplete maternal body or defective feminine identity, nor from an inexorable process of development which relegates the maternal to the place of absence, silence and loss, as would be the case in psychoanalytical scenarios in the Freudian and Lacanian traditions.

Here, as throughout her work, Ernaux very clearly signals the crucial importance of social class in the construction of identity. As Steph Lawler has persuasively argued, discourses relating to family life make the figure of the mother the primary focus for the pathologisation of working-class experience.31 In educational, medical, psychological and sociological discourses, social unworthiness and inferiority are written on the maternal body, the base and centre of the family unit. For the eleven-year-old whose story unfolds in La honte, the discovery that her mother's body bears the stamp of social disgrace leads inevitably to the progressive realisation of the degraded social status which contaminates every aspect of her family's existence.32

Although it is clear that the late-night incident crystallised the narrator's discomfiture with her mother's body, the scene was already set for conflict between mother and daughter on the subject of sexuality and the body. In 1952, the narrator was impatient for the onset of menstruation and the bodily signs that accompany it, in order to achieve the status of a young woman. She was newly aware of her body, and longed for the feminine accoutrements that would announce her existence as a sexual being: high heels, stockings, tight skirts, lipstick and above all, the fashion accessory of the summer of 1952, the broad black elasticated belt. She was allowed to wear a semi-fitted skirt and tiny heels, but her mother categorically forbade the wearing of a “waspie” belt, no doubt for the same reasons her daughter wanted one: “[L]a ceinture élastique noire date de manière sûre un éveil au désir de plaire aux hommes dont je ne vois pas trace avant” (La honte 101).

At the narrator's school, the body was disciplined and denied to the point of endangering health (for example, the provision of toilets was inadequate, they were dirty, and could be used only during breaks in the school day). At home as at school, the sexual body was taboo. Parents and teachers maintained a determined silence on sexual matters, with the result that adolescent sexual curiosity was forced underground. The acquisition of sexual knowledge depended on guesswork fuelled by whispered confidences, the careful observation of older girls, overheard adult conversations and popular romance novels (strongly condemned at school [La honte 90]).

If the mother policed her daughter's sexuality, the child seems to have been barely aware of her mother's existence as a sexual woman. Apart from a passing reference to affectionate exchanges between her parents (La honte 20), the narrator acknowledges no direct childhood awareness of parental sexuality. Ernaux's (ethno)autobiographical texts suggest that her mother was sexually inhibited and morally conservative, sublimating her sexual energies in hard work and social aspirations. In “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, it is suggested that the assault recounted in La honte might have been linked to the mother's recent menopause, and to the father's frustration following the discovery that his wife was not pregnant as he had hoped (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 59-60).33 For the child who longed for the onset of menstruation, the mother's newly menopausal condition may have contributed (perhaps at an unconscious level) to maternal diminishment in the summer of 1952.

As Ernaux has remarked, parents and children are rarely comfortable with each others' sexuality (Passion simple 26), and it would not be surprising if the eleven-year-old in La honte blocked thoughts of her mother as a sexual woman. However, the maternal body which arouses the narrator's hostility in the late-night scene is a body which is marked as sexual by its physical abandonment and by the dubious stains on the night-dress which clothes it so inadequately. The mature narrator's comment that she broke a taboo in witnessing the assault scene (La honte 116) certainly suggests a retrospective awareness that as a child she had interpreted the violent scene between her parents as a transposed form of sexual intimacy which mobilised filial anxiety.

Taken as a whole, La honte (and Ernaux's work in general) suggests that there are two reasons for the adolescent narrator's alienation from her mother. Firstly, the daughter finds her mother's body excessively corporeal, carnally female in a way that is thoroughly “unfeminine,” because it bears the marks of inferior class status. Very clearly, this is the discovery which subtends the daughter's anxiety in the late-night scene in La honte. Secondly, maternal efforts to repress her daughter's sexuality are bitterly resented by the young woman. In La honte this element in the child's feelings towards her mother is relatively undeveloped, and filial resentment of imposed constraints plays no obvious part in the shift in the relationship of mother and daughter which takes place in the late-night scene. Indeed, the “matricidal” feelings which I have identified in this scene are triggered by the daughter's response to the excessive, uncontrolled maternal body. By contrast, in Une femme, the narrator's acknowledgement of matricidal impulses is set in a context which prioritises the battle over the daughter's sexual body (60-62). Filial discomfort with the maternal body, leading to the daughter's rejection of her mother as a role model, is also acknowledged (Une femme 63), but its textual position (following and typographically set apart from the account of the mother's attempt to block her daughter's awakening sexuality) de-emphasises this element in relation to the expression of indifference to the possibility of the mother's death. Thus, in Une femme, the narrator's “matricidal” feelings figure primarily as a response to maternal opposition to her daughter's developing sexual awareness, whereas in La honte, it is the daughter who appears to “open hostilities,” repudiating the maternal body in a moment of revulsion prompted by her internalisation of middle-class discourses. An initial reading of the two passages (Une femme 60-65 and La honte 117-18) suggests that the memories evoked in Une femme are more distressing for the mature narrator, who is momentarily possessed by the image of her mother as a woman betraying her daughter by assisting in the excision of the daughter's clitoris (Une femme 62). In recounting the late-night scene, the mature narrator of La honte remains controlled and dispassionate, “objectively” reporting events as she remembers them. The overt suffering in the scene lies in the past, in the disarray felt by the eleven-year-old who is suddenly ashamed of her mother. Yet several factors point to the possibility that this scene carries strong residual pain for the adult daughter: the absence of the episode from the author's earlier (autobiographical or semi-fictional) accounts of her childhood; the deferral of the description of the scene until the narrator has carefully reconstructed the oppressive weight of the conditioning to which she was subjected; the mature narrator's explicit evocation of the dilemma in which the child was caught (La honte 118). These points suggest that by returning to the origins of the narrator's adolescent repudiation of her mother, the late-night scene made its own distinctive contribution to the overwhelming sense of risk and transgression which accompanied Ernaux's work on La honte.34

I have argued that although filial resentment of the strict sexual code imposed by the mother is present in La honte in an embryonic form, it had not yet become a flashpoint between mother and daughter as it would with the daughter's physical maturation and increased sexual awareness. However, as the conclusion of the text makes clear, the eleven-year-old who coveted a broad elasticated belt would experience her first orgasm only two years later. The final paragraph of La honte sets up an unexpected and startling juxtaposition between the “scene” of June 1952 (with its oppressive freight of shame) and erotic desire:

Je regarde la photo de Biarritz. Mon père est mort depuis vingt-neuf ans. Je n'ai plus rien de commun avec la fille de la photo, sauf cette scène du dimanche de juin qu'elle porte dans la tête et qui m'a fait écrire ce livre, parce qu'elle ne m'a jamais quittée. C'est elle seulement qui fait de cette petite fille et de moi la même, puisque l'orgasme où je ressens le plus mon identité et la permanence de mon être, je ne l'ai connu que deux ans après.


If the first part of this passage acknowledges the continuing existence and power of shame in the narrator's ongoing subjectivity, the second part, with its stress on sexual pleasure, provides a counterbalance to the destructiveness of shame, an upbeat closing flourish which ensures that shame does not have the last word. The final sentence of the text also retroactively confers significance on the references to the body and sexuality which occur earlier in the text. The embryonic pre-pubescent stirrings of sexuality are retrospectively transformed into a lifeline for the confused and near-despairing eleven-year-old. The survival value of sexual pleasure is endorsed by the mature narrator, who asserts her continuing commitment to what was most forbidden (because most shameful) according to the rules of conduct laid down for her at school and at home. In this way, the narrator flamboyantly defies the maternal and conventual values which are unearthed and recorded in the text. The behaviour patterns of the child are retrospectively owned and chosen, creating a sense of agency and continuity.35

In a complex expulsive manoeuvre which operates on several levels, the mature narrator of La honte refuses the moralistic legacy of her childhood environment at home and at school (the repressive sexual code imposed on her along with the requirement to keep personal matters firmly in the private domain), while simultaneously reserving her most damning critique for the hypocritical, self-serving middle-class elitism which alienated her from her parents (La honte 91). To adapt the analysis advanced by Nora Cottille-Foley, it might be said that by exploring and writing about the origins of her sense of social shame, the narrator, gives textual expression to the way of life of a class which was ignored and despised at her school in the 1950s (La honte 139-40), releasing and asserting her abjected internal identity. From the same perspective, the curious and suggestive anecdote concerning the excrement deposited by the narrator on open ground near a buvette, on the journey home from Lourdes (La honte 131) might be said to have a symbolic function. If, as Cottille-Foley argues (following Judith Butler), bodily processes and corporeal products are associated with the working class, then the excrement may be said to be a symbol of abjected class identity, marking the failure of the narrator's passage of initiation into the middle-class world (represented by the bourgeois space of the excursion to Lourdes).36 However, when the incident is included in a published text by an established writer, the symbolic failure to suppress corporeality is transformed into a symbolic repudiation of middle-class sensibilities. The text permits, records and broadcasts the return of the repressed, making an infraction into literary culture, which remains one of the bastions of elitism.

As I suggested earlier, in La honte the narrator's shame in relation to social origins assumes its most concentrated form in shame of the mother's body. For the eleven-year-old narrator, struggling to establish her subjectivity and anxious to maintain identification with her schoolmates, abjection of the mother is necessary because the boundaries between mother and daughter are fluid. However, as an abjected object, the mother remains a powerful force in the narrator's psyche, as what Judith Butler refers to as a “founding repudiation” (Butler 3, cited by Cottille-Foley 890). The shame felt by the child in relation to her parents and their way of life is compounded in the mature narrator by shame of having been ashamed, by a sense of disloyalty and betrayal, provoking the desire to make reparation to the internal parent figures. In condemning the middle-class values by which she judged and abjected her mother as a child, the mature narrator affirms her solidarity with the abjected mother against the middle-class world. At the same time, the insistence on sexual pleasure (prioritised alongside shame in the narrator's sense of ongoing subjectivity) marks the narrator's autonomy from her mother. The text thus maintains connection alongside disconnection and unites mother and daughter, while simultaneously holding them apart.

In Donald Winnicott's theory of artistic creativity as a transitional space, the need to sustain paradox lies at the heart of creative development. The fundamental paradox involves the capacity to tolerate the coexistence of separation and connection between inner and outer world, self and others. The primary manifestation of transitional space occurs in the psychical space between a baby and its mother or caretaker. This space allows the baby to negotiate the transition from fusion to separation in its relationship with its mother, to progress from a state of subjective omnipotence (the feeling that it is one with its environment, over which it has magical control), to the capacity objectively to perceive that reality comprises “me and not-me phenomena.” In order to effect this transition, the infant makes use of a transitional object, which might be a favourite teddy bear, a treasured piece of cloth, or even a familiar rhyme or melody. The transitional object acts as a kind of talisman, helping the child through the difficult process of reconciling the subjectively perceived mother (conceived of by the child as merged with itself) to the objectively perceived mother (recognised by the child as separate from itself). Crucially, this early use of transitional space involves destruction as well as love: the child destroys the (m)other in fantasy to prove to itself that the other exists independently of its own inner world and mental powers. The child's aggressive impulses do not develop adequately unless opposition is encountered in the external world (initially through the primary object). The experience of an appropriate degree of opposition (neither too much nor too little) is essential if the subject's capacity to enjoy excitement (intellectual, emotional and physical) and therefore to exercise creativity is to be released. However, the primary object/external world must also be able to tolerate and survive the (fantasied) destructive attack mounted by the subject. If the primary object survives attack, the subject can learn to accept his/her own aggression and establish the confidence to develop and create spontaneously.

The achievement of what Winnicott called the capacity to use objects (the ability to tolerate one's own destructiveness, which—provided the destructive attack is survived—makes others “real,” that is, whole, separate and external to the subject) is a difficult and delicate process, and the transitional domain (in infancy and in adulthood) provides a “resting place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated” (1953:2). Clearly, the need to balance inner and outer reality is a lifelong task. For Winnicott, the function of the earliest transitional object is subsequently taken over by play, and later still, by participation in the cultural domain (whether as creator or consumer). Cultural activity occupies a space opened up in infancy, in relation to the mother; the transitional, inter-subjective space of culture (the “common pool of humanity” [1967:99]) is used to keep inner and outer reality, self and others, separate and yet connected. It is as if the mind remembers and continues the mother's care, using cultural activity as a bridge which allows the subject to preserve its links to the external world, while maintaining the possibility of disconnection.37

The preservation of a private space to protect the intimate self is crucial, since for Winnicott, every individual is ultimately an isolate, and part of the self must remain secret or “incommunicado.” It is in this area of his thought that Winnicott's taste for paradox is most apparent. He writes: “[I]t is joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found” (1976:186, original emphasis) and asks “how to be isolated without having to be insulated?” (1976:187). The subject simultaneously wants to communicate with others, and to preserve his/her inviolability as an individual. Winnicott suggested that this paradox is most pronounced in the case of creative artists: “In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found” (1976:185). This means that artists are motivated by two contradictory desires, seeking on the one hand to transmit their understanding and experience, reaching out to others in a quest for empathic recognition, while simultaneously seeking to protect the integrity of ongoing subjectivity, consistently deferring the closure of fixed identity. For this reason, Winnicott maintains that “we cannot conceive of an artist's coming to the end of the task that occupies his whole nature”.38

For theorists like Winnicott, who identify the pre-oedipal period as the time when the most crucial developments in subject formation occur, the process that is of greatest interest is the distinction between self and other, whereas theorists focusing on the oedipal scenario are more concerned with the differentiation between the sexes. It can be argued that the relationship between self and other, first played out between mother and child, is a primary focus of Ernaux's work, and indeed that her project as a writer may be seen as an ongoing quest to develop a form of writing which might adequately mediate between self and others. The usual cross-generational difficulties of communication between mothers and daughters were exacerbated in the case of Ernaux and her mother by the cultural gap which opened up between them as a result of the daughter's middle-class education. Towards the end of the mother's life, further barriers to communication arose when the mother succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. Taken together, these factors made it impossible for mother and daughter to communicate on a basis of shared assumptions and values. At the same time, the mother had an enormous emotional investment in her only daughter, longing to give the younger woman all the opportunities she herself had been denied. Determined to foster and safeguard her daughter's chances of social advancement, she subjected her to a regime of strict surveillance, imposing rigid standards to the point where (especially but not only in the sexual domain) the daughter felt deprived of the space to develop freely. I want to suggest that these factors have played a significant role in the evolution of Ernaux's writing project. The activity of writing creates a space where she can negotiate the relationship with her (internal) mother on her own terms, allowing her to adjust the distance that separates daughter from mother in a way that varies from text to text and accommodates the changing patterns of the relationship over time. Yet even when Ernaux wished to defy her mother's values in her writing, or, as in the case of Les armoires vides, to exclude her mother as a potential reader, her activity as a writer represented a gift to her mother, in so far as it fulfilled the older woman's aspirations for her daughter.39

I have surmised that Ernaux's writing is motivated partly by relational difficulties between herself and her (internal) mother, and that these difficulties involve a desire for connection, held in tension with defiance and repudiation in face of the mother's values. It could be argued that the same relational modes (a desire for communication combined with a need for personal space and a refusal to accept appropriation by others or submission to oppressive values) characterise Ernaux's relationship with implied readers. On the one hand, the increasingly open self-exposure which typifies her work suggests a desire to be known, accepted and perhaps loved, to have her behaviour or feelings validated by the recognition and understanding of others.40 On the other hand, she seeks to unsettle, challenge, shock or shame readers through her frankness, her implicit denunciation of social injustice and her disregard for commonly accepted norms relating to feminine behaviour or literary form and value.41 Ernaux's texts build bridges (between the writer and her parents, between different social classes, between the work and pleasure of writing and reading), yet they are undeniably oppositional and confrontational, interpellating readers and challenging them to take up a position in relation to the issues she explores.42

These features of Ernaux's writing are brought together in the concluding pages of La honte, in two passages which evoke the wellsprings of her sense of herself as a writer and as a woman. Firstly, she links the shame she knew as an eleven-year-old with her desire as a writer to run the gauntlet of public disapprobation: “J'ai toujours eu envie d'écrire des livres dont il me soit ensuite impossible de parler, qui rendent le regard d'autrui insoutenable. Mais quelle honte pourrait m'apporter l'écriture d'un livre qui soit à la hauteur de ce que j'ai éprouvé dans ma douzième année” (La honte 140). Ernaux is clearly aware that in choosing to write in a way that involves intimate self-exposure, she runs the risk of readers' incomprehension, derision, or embarrassed disengagement from her text(s). Equally clearly (and here I refer to the second passage evoking the substrata of her ongoing subjectivity), she remains undaunted by the potentially censorious judgement that her writing may provoke. The studied defiance of the concluding sentence of La honte, which is transgressive in its unexpectedness as well as through its references to (early) teenage orgasm and the adult pursuit of sexual pleasure, does not issue from the pen of an author who is ashamed to (metaphorically) return the gaze of her readers. In Journal du dehors, Ernaux acknowledges that for her, awareness of the public gaze and the desire to challenge the limits of what can be said or shown about the self, are implicit in the writing process, even in its apparently most private moments (91).

Shame and defiance are certainly not mutually exclusive, as Erik Erikson has convincingly argued.43 Indeed, the juxtaposition of narratorial submission (symbolized by the imagined inability to hold the gaze of others) and buoyant assertiveness (against the odds, and in defiance of social norms relating to femininity, the narrator has placed sexual pleasure at the centre of her existence) suggests that shame and pride (perhaps even narcissistic exhibitionism) both have a place in her motivations as a writer.44 This oscillation between discomposure and self-assertion, vulnerability and bravado, may usefully be aligned with what Winnicott calls “the artist's […] urgent need not to be found” (1976:185). Other forms of resistance to transparency might be identified in Ernaux's writing: fictional elements and linguistic exuberance and derision in her early novels, minimalism and a notational, elliptical style in later works (leaving conceptual “knots” at key points in her texts) and the repeated “rewriting” of lived experience, from different perspectives and with different emphases.45 These elements all suggest a writerly desire to elude definition, to make a place in her work for the unspoken and the unknown. For Winnicott, transitional space is creative precisely because it permits exploration and sanctions flux and paradox. Like the intermediate space between mother and baby, artistic creativity allows the boundaries between self and others to be constantly reconfigured; any position adopted remains provisional and inconclusive.

It may be argued that the paradoxes of the mother-daughter relationship, and especially the tension between identification and disidentification, are particularly evident when “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte are viewed as a diptych. Indeed, despite Ernaux's concern to unsettle the idea that the “truth” or “reality” of her relationship with her mother could ever be contained in words (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 12-13), whatever earlier hopes of this she had entertained (Une femme 23), there is a sense in which “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte taken together suggest (without attempting to delimit or fix) the complex multidimensionality of the bond between mother and daughter, much as a cubist painting might offer the materials to construct imaginatively a “whole” picture of its subject, while simultaneously negating the possibility of doing so. “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” focuses mainly (but not exclusively) on the mother-daughter relationship in the mother's final years, while La honte evokes mother and daughter as they were more than thirty years before the mother's death. Each work stages a textual confrontation with the abject maternal body. In both cases, identification with the abject mother is powerfully felt, but in La honte the identification engenders shame and is resisted, whereas in “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” it is accepted and assumed, while remaining a source of anxiety and fear. La honte returns to the origins of filial disidentification from her mother, although the daughter's strong cathexis for her mother is implicit (without it, disidentification would not be necessary), while “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” traces the daughter's overwhelming experience of reidentification with her mother at the time of her mother's fatal illness, honing awareness of the disidentifications of the past. The complexity, ambivalence and inexhaustible range of the mother-daughter relationship are acknowledged. Notwithstanding the strength of the visceral, psychic and emotional attachment between the two women, the necessity for filial repudiation of the mother is also asserted, in so far as there can be no reprieve for the mother's repression of sexuality and submission to the demands of propriety. Through the simultaneous publication of “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” and La honte, Ernaux acknowledged and assumed the contradictions at the heart of her relationship with her mother, allowing paradox to prevail and asserting the importance of learning to tolerate the inherent tension of opposites. I want to suggest that filial hostility that may have been experienced as “matricidal” when the daughter was subject to stress or guilt (for example, in the summer of Ernaux's twelfth year, or in the wake of her mother's death) is more appropriately seen as one pole of the inevitably oscillating relationship that is a sign of primary attachment, and that Ernaux's work on La honte enabled her to achieve this more forgiving perspective in relation to the hatred she was capable of feeling for her mother.

“Matricidal” impulses certainly have a place in Ernaux's feelings as a daughter; indeed, it might be said that opposition to the maternal values of sexual constraint and respect for propriety subtends a whole dimension of Ernaux's work. Yet it would be entirely inappropriate to suggest that Ernaux's work is premised on matricide, on a death sentence which must be symbolically enacted upon the mother if the daughter is to have the freedom to write. On the contrary, Ernaux's work may be seen as an attempt to maintain a dialogue with her real and internalised mother, and as a bid to negotiate a mother-daughter relationship, and concomitantly, a relationship with implied readers, where separation can coexist with connection. Like Klein and Winnicott, who held that the mother remains at the centre of human development throughout life, that hatred is inevitable and ongoing in a relationship of primary attachment,46 and that destruction is integral to the capacity to form mature intersubjective relationships and to the potential for personal growth and creativity,47 Ernaux invites readers to explore a world which is unequivocally matrifocal, and in which paradoxical modes of relating to others must be allowed to stand unresolved.48


  1. Elsewhere, I have studied this process in relation to Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, focusing on the disjunction between the highly complex form of the work and the directness of expression and voice, together with accessibility, which emerge as the narrator's desiderata for creative writing (see Day 1998, 1999). A similar point might be made with reference to Les armoires vides, where the concluding paragraph draws attention to the narrator's complicity with the bourgeois perspectives which she purports to despise (181-82). In this way, later works may be said to develop organically from earlier texts.

  2. A number of other writers who have addressed the issue of symbolic matricide are referred to in note 25 below.

  3. For a useful discussion of the mother-daughter theme in Ernaux's work, see Thomas 90-100, Tondeur 1996: 89-107, and Cairns. An analysis of the mother-daughter theme in Une femme may be found in Day and Jones. Day 2000 examines the relationship between maternal and filial sexuality.

  4. Ernaux reread the Journal des visites, typed up the manuscript, and decided to deposit one copy with Gallimard, in October-November 1991 (information from an e-mail from Ernaux to me, dated 11 June 1999). In Ernaux's interview with Walter, the rereading of “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” is dated at 1989/1990 (Walter 96), but Ernaux has suggested (in the e-mail to me referred to in the previous sentence) that this is a transcription error.

  5. Information from a letter from Ernaux to me, dated 11 December 1998.

  6. Information from a letter from Ernaux to me, dated 11 December 1998.

  7. In a letter to me, Ernaux stated: “J'ai décidé de publier “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” en février ou mars 96, quand j'étais, environ, au quart de La honte, sans que je sache réellement pourquoi: le moment était venu, il ne me paraissait pas possible de publier ce texte sur ma mère tout seul et La honte était un livre qui allait “avec” ce journal” (letter dated 11 December 1998; my emphasis).

  8. In an interview with Walter, Ernaux spoke about the time of her mother's illness in the following terms: “Avant, je n'avais jamais mesuré à quel point je lui ressemblais, à quel point elle avait désiré entre nous une fusion que j'avais toujours repoussée” (Walter 96).

  9. Evoking the separations and losses she has suffered since 1985, Ernaux has written: “En tout état de cause, ce qui a été le plus bouleversant pour moi a été la mort de ma mère, et peut-être plus encore sa maladie” (letter to me dated 25 October 1998).

  10. Speaking of “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit”, Ernaux has said: “Ce texte présente un rapport mère-fille qui est absolument fou. Là, si vous voulez, vous avez la matrice […] au sens propre” (Bacholle 150).

  11. These comments leave aside the connections which the narrator also established between herself and her mother through the composition of Une femme, and which equally helped her adapt to living without her mother.

  12. Alienation from the mother is also an important theme in Ernaux's novels. In Les armoires vides and Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, filial repudiation of the mother has the violence of catharsis; in La femme gelée, adolescent disaffection is evoked in a more measured and controlled way.

  13. Except for the opening section on the X-rated film, which was written in the summer of 1989 (information from an e-mail from Ernaux to me, 17 November 1999).

  14. Evoking the composition of Passion simple in an interview with Tondeur, Ernaux stated: “Tant que ma mère vivait, quelque part il y avait un frein. Ma mère, c'était la dernière censure. Une fois ma mère décédée, je voulais aller jusqu'au bout. Transgression et censure font partie de la mère” (1995:40).

  15. Freud's work on mourning suggests that the capacity to cathect a new object is a sign that the bereaved person is no longer exclusively preoccupied with the lost object (“Mourning and Melancholia” [1917], XIV: 243-58).

  16. Commenting on Passion simple, Thomas suggests that “the emphasis on pain rather than on pleasure in the text as a whole” suggests a reading “where the psychological sufferings described are a punishment for the physical pleasure (implied)” (69). It is worth noting that Ernaux reread the Journal des visites in autumn 1991, in the interval between the submission and the publication of Passion simple.

  17. Ernaux recalls that she began the journal that would become Journal du dehors early in 1984, which means that it coincided approximately with the start of the Journal des visites, although she has stated that there was no planned connection between the two (information from an e-mail to me, dated 11 June 1999).

  18. Primary selection clearly operated when Ernaux noticed and recorded specific encounters or events. Secondary selection came into play when Ernaux reviewed the text prior to publication, eliminating material which seemed inappropriate (information from the e-mail detailed in note 17).

  19. Journal du dehors 14, 15-16, 35, 40, 48, 49, 64, 72, 87-88 and 106-07; see also 81 and 104.

  20. For references to sexuality in Journal du dehors, see 23, 30, 43, 50, 51, 66, 71, 73, 77, 82, 83, 88-89, 92-93, 95-96 and 97. A series of references to love, romance, desire, jouissance, the body and sexual violence may be said to develop this theme: see Journal du dehors 11, 13, 16, 18, 29, 36, 46, 62-63, 102 and 106.

  21. As the “real,” as lived experience which lies below and outside words, “la scène” inevitably exceeds any attempt to assign meaning to it. This is why, even after the publication of La honte, Ernaux said: “[P]our moi, la scène est restée telle quelle. Je reste avec cette scène incasable” (Walter 96).

  22. Positioning others as socially inferior is a fundamental but unacknowledged part of the ethos of the narrator's school (La honte 76-78, 85-86 and 90-91), but until the events of June 1952, the narrator had evidently not questioned her right to a place amongst the elect. However, the child's mastery of two discourses (one for use at home, one for school [La honte 58-59 and 85]) suggests that psychical splitting and the abjection of the home environment were already in process, at an unconscious level.

  23. The term “phallic mother” can be understood in a variety of ways. Here it is used in the sense of a mother who is perceived as complete and full, not yet flawed. The reference to the teacher (herself “la figure vivante de la loi” [La honte 95]) who draws attention to the “augmented” form of the eleven-year-old narrator's written “m”s (with the initial stroke curled inwards in a pseudo-phallic shape) is suggestive. On one level, it demonstrates that the teachers (as well as pupils) are the sexual beings the culture of the school asks them not to be. More tentatively, it might be read as a bizarre symbol (recognised as such by the mature narrator) of the crisis which the eleven-year-old would soon have to negotiate, when the status of the phallic mother would be challenged. This incident is curiously reminiscent of Freud's anecdote concerning a patient's mnemic association between his discovery of sexual difference and a childhood experience of being taught to distinguish the letter n from the letter m (“Childhood Memories and Screen Memories” [1901, revised 1907, 1920 and 1924], VI: 48-49).

  24. It may be noted that as a child, the narrator shared a bedroom (initially unpartitioned) with her parents, so that parental intimacy can scarcely have passed unnoticed by the daughter (see “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 83, and my analysis of this passage [Day 2000]). Freud's account of the “Wolf-man's” case includes a discussion of the mnemic mechanism of deferred action (see “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis” [1918], XVII: 1-122; Section 4, entitled “The Dream and the Primal Scene” is particularly relevant to my remarks here).

  25. A comprehensive discussion of symbolic matricide is undertaken by Hirsch (see especially 54-58); see also Jacobus, and Walker. The subject has generated many essays, of which the following represent a selection of those which I have found most useful: Gardiner, Hall, Hughes, Jardine 1985, Rich, and Yalom. It should also be noted that the work of Luce Irigaray identifies, deplores and attempts to reverse the personal and cultural effects of symbolic matricide (see for example 1981: 11-33).

  26. See Freud, “Female Sexuality” (XXI). In a general way in patriarchal culture, it is assumed that female creativity finds expression primarily, if not exclusively, in women's role as child bearers and homemakers; other forms of creativity are the birthright of men. From a Freudian and Lacanian perspective, accession to the status of subject and entry into language and culture are achievements dependent on the oedipal process and on alignment with the masculine economy. As the ground against which subjectivity and language develop, the maternal is relegated to the place of absence and silence; language and creativity are initiated by the loss of the mother, reinforcing the association between maternity and lack. Furthermore, in the Freudian family romance (which allows the child to liberate itself from its parents by imagining they are not its real parents), the fact that the mother is “certissima” (unlike the father, whose paternity is always in doubt) means that the possibility of imaginative liberation from the mother is blocked. Children's fantasies therefore focus on the replacement of the father. Freud believed that the challenge to the father is stronger in boys (because girls have already internalised the idea of female inferiority, they seek paternal approval, rather than aspiring to take the father's place). In this way, mothers are “written out of the story,” and the daughterly imaginary revolves round attachment to a powerful male other. Lawler has produced a perceptive critique of the Freudian concept of the family romance. Freud's original discussion of this concept may be found in “Family Romances” [1909], IX: 237-41.

  27. For an accessible account of the place of the mother in Kleinian thought, see the essay “Melanie Klein” in Sayers 205-57. For a concise and cogent discussion of the role of the mother in Winnicott's views on maturation and creativity, see Minsky. Suleiman also provides a stimulating commentary on the connections between motherhood, subjectivity and creativity in the thought of Klein and Winnicott, as well as a brief but suggestive discussion of the work of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, all of whom assert the subversive power and creativity of the feminine/maternal forces which support individual and cultural identity even as femininity and maternal genealogy are suppressed in patriarchal culture (352-77).

  28. Ernaux has said: “Ma mère voulait que sa fille fasse tout ce qu'elle n'avait pas fait. Un projet maternal terrible a pesé sur moi, mais qui m'a poussée aussi. Ce n'est pas toujours agréable, mais c'est ce qui me détermine”; and: “Je crois que, quelque part, mon désir d'écrire vient du désir de ma mère. “Ah c'est bien, si j'avais su, j'aurais aimé écrire un roman”, m'a-t-elle dit quand je lui ai parlé du roman que j'avais écrit” (Tondeur 1995:39 and 42).

  29. I am thinking especially of the work of Winnicott and of feminist object-relations theorists such as Nancy Chodorow, Jessica Benjamin and Susie Orbach. Object-relations theory may be said to derive from the work of Klein, in so far as it develops her insights concerning the primacy of the mother and the preoedipal dyadic relationship between mother and child. However, Klein stresses the power and autonomy of unconscious fantasy, to the relative neglect of environmental factors.

  30. See Lacan 93-100. Rose has written a cogent account of the illusory nature of the mirror image (30). As Thomas points out, this incident could be described as a “reversed mirror phase” (88), in as much as the narrator is painfully aware of the seemingly unbridgeable gap separating her own appearance and existence from the ideal image. At the same time, the reflected father-daughter couple incarnates the middle-class identity which the narrator would strive to achieve, and which she would eventually come to perceive as a lure and a trap.

  31. Lawler, 271. Steedman has also written persuasively of the importance of class in shaping family relationships.

  32. It is surely this moment, rather than the first scene, as Thomas suggests (21), which connects most directly with the question which the narrator of Les armoires vides asks herself: “Bon Dieu, à quel moment, quel jour la peinture des murs est-elle devenue moche, le pot de chambre s'est mis à puer […]?. Quand aije eu une trouille folle de leur ressembler, à mes parents […]?” (50). Crucially, however, Denise reminds herself that the transformation did not occur in a single day (50).

  33. No reference is made in La honte or elsewhere to the narrator's feelings about the possibility of a new baby in the family. If as a child she was aware of the mother's menopause and its significance with respect to child-bearing (as might be surmised from the remarks in “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” [59-60]), presumably jealousy would not have been aroused, except perhaps (no doubt at the level of the unconscious) in relation to parental intimacy. It seems likely that the alternative scenario (that she thought her mother might be pregnant) would have been more problematic for her, since (as a “substitute” for an older sister who had died before she was born, and with whom she felt she was unfavourably compared [“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 44 and 81]), she was already subject to a sense of displacement from maternal affection.

  34. Speaking of La honte, Ernaux has said: “C'est difficile pour moi de parler de ce livre parce que je suis partie dans l'inconnu comme jamais. Je me suis plus risquée que dans les livres précédents” (Walter 96).

  35. In a similar way, the “postcard game” (La honte 106) opens up imaginary channels of communication in response to a need which the mature narrator compares to sexual desire. The game seems to promise the possibility of escape from the child's sense of entrapment and isolation, and to announce the writerly activities of the adult narrator.

  36. The dirty shoes of father and daughter (La honte 130), their lack of appropriate clothes, travel accessories and spare cash (126-31), and the father's smutty jokes (131) also mark their inferior status within the group.

  37. The account of Winnicott's thought provided here is drawn mainly from Winnicott's Playing and Reality. A succinct and cogent account of Winnicott's views on aggression, including a discussion of the concept of object-usage, may be found in Abram 5-30. With reference to Winnicott's position on the relationship between aggression and creativity, see also the papers referred to in note 47 below.

  38. 1976:185. Winnicott's conception of art as an ongoing task is mirrored by a remark made by Ernaux in her interview with Bacholle: “[L'écriture] est une quête indéfinie, jusqu'à la mort” (Bacholle 146).

  39. In a letter to me on the subject of this essay, Ernaux emphasised that she did not want her mother to read Les armoires vides. She recalls that she was “affolée” when she heard that the book had been accepted for publication, and that she planned to conceal its existence from her mother (this hope was dashed when her mother took a telephone call from Gallimard in her daughter's absence [letter dated 23 November 1999]). She further noted: “[J]e pense, en revanche, qu'elle a été pour beaucoup dans mon désir d'écrire par l'admiration qu'elle portait aux livres et aux écrivains, le devenir à mon tour était réaliser un de ses désirs à elle.”

  40. Evidence of the author reaching out to her readers, to overcome solitude and establish common ground, may be seen in Une femme 52, Passion simple 65-66, Journal du dehors 36 and La honte 116 and 137.

  41. Thomas rightly argues that Ernaux's incorporation of “the popular culture of femininity” (as manifest for example in an interest in romance fiction and horoscopes) represents her most daring challenge to literary tradition (51, 71).

  42. In an unpublished talk on first-person narration at King's College London on 8 March 1994, Ernaux said: “[L]e “je” de l'écrivain fait honte au lecteur […] soit le lecteur pense “moi aussi”, soit c'est le refus total […] proposer au lecteur une sorte d'expérience et dire: “et vous?” […] à chaque fois le “je” engage, ce qui entraîne parfois un malaise très fort.” The oscillation between the appeal for recognition and the desire to establish distance between the writing self and implied readers is close to Sheringham's analysis of “ingratiation” and “repudiation” in autobiographers' relationship with implied readers (139-46). Thomas has noted the usefulness of Sheringham's analysis for the interpretation of Ernaux's work (46-48).

  43. “Too much shaming does not lead to genuine propriety but to a secret determination to try to get away with things, unseen—if, indeed, it does not result in defiant shamelessness” (Erikson 245).

  44. Speaking of La honte, Ernaux has said: “La honte est liée à l'orgueil aussi. Je crois qu'il faut une forme d'orgueil pour écrire un livre comme celui-ci” (Walter 95).

  45. The repeated reworking of lived experience in Ernaux's writing might be compared to Winnicott's remark that the defence of the “isolated core” of each person may proceed via “a further hiding of the secret self, even in the extreme to its projection and to its endless dissemination” (1976:187).

  46. Freud held that the co-existence of conflicting emotions towards the same object (with love and hate interdependent) is normally outgrown in adulthood: However, ambivalence is produced by all neurotic conflict, and Freud acknowledged that “many people retain this archaic trait all through their lives” (see “On Female Sexuality,” XXI: 223-43; the quotation and the remarks about ambivalence are taken from XXI: 235). For Klein and Winnicott, on the other hand, sadism, hatred and destruction intersect with love in object cathexes throughout life, even if neurosis is not present. Klein emphasised ambivalence in a way that Freud did not, according it a central place in the depressive position. This is a crucial developmental phase which, if all goes well, allows the infant (usually at four to six months) to recognise that “good” and “bad,” loved and hated elements, come together in its primary object. Depressive anxiety is integral to mature relationships, which require the capacity to tolerate ambivalence and to love despite imperfections (see Hinshelwood 138, 218). Winnicott maintained and developed Klein's emphasis on destructiveness; as explained earlier in my essay, he asserted the place of aggression in the capacity to “use” others, and therefore as a linchpin in the development of healthy object-relations. Asked if she knew her mother or her father better, Ernaux replied: “[C]onnaître, qu'est-ce que ça veut dire? […] la connaissance […] c'est des relations de haine, d'amour, c'est tout un ensemble de choses” (unpublished talk at Winchester College, 10 March 1988; cf. “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” 108-09). The presence of negatively-charged emotions in her feelings for her mother does not diminish Ernaux's conviction that her mother is of overwhelming importance in her life: “Je m'aperçois que ma mère je n'ai jamais cessé de l'adorer. Elle a toujours été dans mon horizon. Ma mère, elle est partout. Maintenant depuis son décès, elle est en moi” (Tondeur 1995:39).

  47. For Klein, aggression is crucial to the development of creativity because it provokes guilt and the desire for reparation (see Klein, especially “Early Analysis” [1923] 77-105, “Infantile Anxiety-Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse” [1929] 210-18, “The Importance of Symbol-Formation in the Development of the Ego” [1930] 219-32, “Love, Guilt and Reparation” [1937] 306-43, and “Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States” [1940] 344-69). For Winnicott, creative potential derives from the capacity to sustain aggressive, ruthless love alongside connection in the transitional domain (see the essays in Playing and Reality [1971] and Collected Papers [1958], especially “Reparation in Respect of Mother's Organised Defence against Depression” [1948] 91-96, “Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development” [1950] 204-18, and “The Depressive Position in Normal Emotional Development” [1954] 262-77; see also The Maturational Processes (1976), especially “Psycho-Analysis and the Sense of Guilt” [1958] 15-28, and Deprivation and Delinquency (1984), notably “Aggression, Guilt and Reparation” [1960] 136-44).

  48. I want to thank Tony Jones for many constructive discussions of the material I have presented here, and for his comments on the finished text. I also wish to express my gratitude to Florence Myles, who has provided invaluable support and advice, and to Annie Ernaux, for her unfailing patience and generosity in responding to many requests for information.

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Rosemary Lancaster (essay date November 2000)

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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 rêverie tout autre possible, ne laissent d'autre choix que le goût du nécessaire.

(Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction: critique social du jugement)

Ce sont mes parents, les miens, et je les vois bâfrer avec vulgarité, sans pudeur, leur seul plaisir, comme les clients, manger. Ils sont faits comme ça.

(Annie Ernaux, Les armoires vides)

Sisyphe de son rocher qu'il remonte sans cesse, ça au moins quelle gueule, un homme sur une montagne qui se découpe dans le ciel, une femme dans sa cuisine jetant trois cent soixante-cinq fois par an du beurre dans la poêle, ni beau ni absurde.

(Annie Ernaux, La femme gelée)

The determinist theories of the twentieth-century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, largely gathered in his massive volume, La Distinction: critique sociale du jugement, find particular resonance in the novels of Annie Ernaux. For Bourdieu, a disposition towards what he calls high or legitimate cultural practice lies in the controlling hands of the upper classes. The working class, deprived, for economic, social and historic reasons, of an elitist educational formation and, characteristically, of a family inherited commitment to high cultural awareness and aesthetic appreciation, find themselves socially disadvantaged, dispossessed of a cultural attitude, even bereft of cultural goods. If the present French educational system, moulded from the ideals of the Revolution, has worked in principle towards offering equal opportunity for cultural acquisition, Bourdieu's solid sociological evidence undertakes to show that, unhappily, this has not proved to be so. In one significant section of his survey that pre-empts Barthes's seminal essays on the culturally distinctive nature of culinary codes,1 he claims that the very food we eat is a manifestation of our social condition and that gastronomic habits, like educational attainment, are exemplary indicators of the hierarchical social differences that continue to separate the “classes dominantes” from the “classes dominées.”

The role of food as class-defining is a persistent preoccupation in Annie Ernaux's Les armoires vides and La femme gelée.2 Both novels, fictionalised accounts of the author's upbringing in Yvetot in Normandy, differentiate upper- and lower-class provincial societal values by persistent references to conflicting gustatory mores and codes. In both, Ernaux's clever heroines rise from working-class origins—the parents' livelihood comes from their café-épicerie—through to an adolescence marked by academic success and earned placements in bourgeois schools. Yet, in both, attempts at social migration and bourgeois acceptance falter, not merely because upper-class cultural capital is reluctantly conferred by its elect upon others, but also because ingrained lower-class manners are presented as difficult to lose. In Les armoires vides, the story of a university student who recalls her past while undergoing an abortion after a disastrous relationship with a young bourgeois snob, the question of social inequality is problematised as Ernaux explores the types of frictions engendered by incompatible gastronomic customs and rules. In La femme gelée, what is initially a recasting of the same story, told from the anonymous heroine's first-person point of view, eventually becomes a discourse on the oppressions of marriage and motherhood as the author takes to task the frustrations of the feminine identity as circumscribed by her traditional role as the giver of food.

In Les armoires vides the empty cupboards of the title signal the author's obsession with working-class impoverishment, and metonymically establish social deprivation as one of the book's key themes. As the mature heroine is emptied of her unwanted child by her abortion, she recalls the paucity of wares in her parents' shop with dismay. In Ernaux's frequent evocations of the middle- and lower-class diet, it is the former that is associated with wealth and leisure, and the latter with basic consumption and struggling to pay one's way. Whole sequences devoted to the heroine's family business construct a portrait of the physically exhausting rhythm of the petit commerçant's day: the supplying of plain provisions, the exchange of small money and goods, the unrelenting catering to clients' alimentary needs. While the young protagonist plays under the counter of the mother's grocery amidst sacks of staple products: retail biscuits, lentils, sugar, salt and oil, the father serves tinned cassoulet and cheap wine in his bistro to local bingers, factory workers and uncouth youths. Typically, in the Ernaux novel, lower-class food is distinguished as either common pleasure or commodity; it is a measure of taste as curbed by social rank and economic means. The middle-class is identified with the professions and easy living, the lower-class with trade and toil. Adequacy and affluence are the social extremes around which much of the food thematic of Les armoires vides and La femme gelée revolves. Of the wares in the family shop the young Denise, Ernaux's alter ego, laments: “y'a jamais rien chez nous de ce que veulent les gens chic. C'est pas une épicerie fine” (AV [Les armoires vides] 98).

Taking into account their autobiographical inspiration, both Les armoires vides and La femme gelée can be read as the young author's angry reaction to her inherited social role. In both, the fictionalised parents, despite their industry, are blamed for having chosen a “métier dégoûtant” (AV 102). Against the backdrop of the modest café-shop, insistent comparisons are drawn between the life-styles of the rich and the poor. It is not only what Ernaux's characters eat that defines them socially; where they choose to eat, too, reflects differences in codes of work and play. Denise, Ernaux's mouthpiece, is ashamed to bring her bourgeois friends to her family's “boutiquette de quartier” (AV 98). In a revealing passage the author pits her protagonist's dream of social amelioration against the reality of her common lot. Denise feels her parents could have owned “un de ces beaux cafés du centre, où s'arrêtent les cars de touristes, où les jeunes gens du collège, les secrétaires boivent un Vittel-délices ou un crème, des banquettes, des glaces, un percolateur,” or else “une de ces belles épiceries qui s'appelaient la Coop, le Familistère, bien rangées, avec des comptoirs blancs, des frigidaires pour le lait et les yaourts” (AV 103). Instead, she says, “on vend à boire et à manger, et tout un tas de foutaises, en vrac dans un coin” (AV 103), indeed, “tout ce qu'il y a de plus ordinaire, du vin d'Algérie, le pâté en bloc d'un kilo, des biscuits au détail” (AV 102). In effect, in having her character defer to elitism, Ernaux supposes the validity of gastro-signs of class difference: that bourgeois taste is trendy and particular; that the working class appetite is served by bulk; that eating in the up-market centre has a fashionableness with which the out-of-town location cannot compete; that there are those, the favoured, who are, as it were, “in,” and those, the disfavoured, who are “out.” For Ernaux, mobility between classes is in essence difficult to attain. Denise finds herself chained to her milieu and her local environment. “Ligotée,” she says “… la fille de l'épicière et du cafetier, coincée entre l'alignement de mangeaille d'un côté, de l'autre les chaises remplies de bonhommes qui s'affalent autour de la table” (AV 101).

Food and meals serve as a crucial index of the protagonists' changing desires and fortunes in Les armoires vides and La femme gelée. They also betray the author's distinction between what Bourdieu terms the proletarian goût de nécessité and the bourgeois goût de luxe (Bourdieu 195). Both books recount the narrator's growth from an idyllic childhood through to puberty and the disillusionments of adulthood. In the early pages of Les armoires vides Ernaux pays attention to the innocence of her young protagonist who thrives on the produce of the family shop, unaware of the gastronomies of the outside world. For the young Denise the home cupboards are full; the grocery is a gourmand's Aladdin's cave. In a key episode, the child ranges indiscriminately through the mother's wares, tasting and touching at will: “mottes de beurre,” “lamelles de fromage,” “[cuillères de] moutarde,” “cubes de viandox” “bananes,” “oranges,” “cerises confites” (AV 31). Smells, tastes and colours convey the protagonist's hedonistic juvenile appetite. Yet, compared with Ernaux's descriptions of the bourgeois table, the list strikes as a telling inventory of the modest delights of the poor man's diet. Moreover there is something mildly vulgar and unbefitting in the jumble of foods the heroine prods and eats. The more the author defines food as raw pleasure in her reconstruction of childhood, the more bourgeois gustatory refinement is thrown into relief.

Within the trajectory of their episodic and largely linear narratives, both Les armoires vides and La femme gelée describe a bitter coming of age. In Les armoires vides chinks appear early in what Denise had first perceived as the unchallengeable armour of her family's locally held esteem. Repeatedly in the book, events related to eating show that social breeding is borne out not only by what is eaten, but how and where it is shared. Landmark events in the heroine's upbringing are vividly brought to trial in scenes where the manners of social intercourse are seen to fall short of those of the middle-class. In the sequence describing the heroine's first communion the breakfast augurs well with its menu of salmon and chicken served in the parental café. Yet the occasion, marred by the invitees' crass behaviour, offers a negative portrait of encoded lower-class festive traits. The guests are impolite, their manners boorish, the children fight with a mustard spoon, staining the heroine's white dress. Ernaux's preoccupation with upper-class propriety is foregrounded by the young protagonist's regrets: “J'avais pensé que ça ressemblerait aux réceptions des gens bien. La journée était à moitié et je voyais que ça ne tournait pas comme prévu. Le repas était trop long. Ma mère gueulait, plus fort que tout le monde” (AV 88-89).

Good and bad manners are in fact much commented on in Ernaux's two books. Indeed, where a certain standard of etiquette is not met, the heroines invariably report feelings of disgust (dé-goût). Ernaux's recurrent choice of words for working-class eating (“bouffer,” “se bourrer,” “bâfrer,” “gober,” for example) emphasise the partaking of food as feeding rather than savouring. The lower-class act of eating as appeasing hunger is distanced from the perceived seemly upper-class practice of eating to socialise. In the Lesur household “on mange la bouche ouverte” (AV 108), “le nez dans l'assiette” (AV 114). “Quand c'est bon, du poulet, des gâteaux à la crème” says Denise of her parents, “ils plongent, ils écartent les bras, ils aspirent, ils ne se parlent pas. Les bouchées passent et repassent avec la langue, un bon coup pour enfoncer, le petit soupir d'aise … Ma mère ramone ses gencives de l'index” (AV 114). One can of course suppose that the lower class eats lustily because it is nourishment well warranted after a hard day's work, whereas the rich, with their regular life-styles have the time to linger, appreciate and digest. Yet such passages also reveal Ernaux's sensitivity to the culturally exclusive nature of gastronmic rites. In her heroines' search for a new elevated role in society, lower class manners are seen as barriers to success. Denise longs to replace her parents' “précipitation,” “débordement,” “bruits de nourriture” (AV 115), by bourgeois gentility. The dream is to “manger du bout des dents,” like “[les] dames des salons de thé aux gestes raccourcis” (AV 115).

The problems Ernaux encounters in representing the working-class favourably create tensions in Les armoires vides and La femme gelée, the social significance of which is not resolved. The heroines of both novels habitually express feelings of physical cumbersomeness, of bodily weight, that contrast with the apparent lightness of being of the bourgeois state. Ernaux's working-class characters simply do not have the grace and delicacy which seem to belong so naturally to the middle-class. Denise repeatedly refers to herself as “lourde” and “poisseuse” (AV 61), as she compares her “grossièreté” (AV 61) to her school friends' “facilité du corps et des mouvements” (126). Indeed, heaviness is presented throughout the novels as an unprepossessing proletarian trait, all the more so since it appears as much apparent in demeanour and presence as in the quality of the spoken language and of the language of food. Lower-class family meals are consistently portrayed as stodgy and bland. Whereas Ernaux's heroines are brought up on a diet of noodles, potatoes, bread and tinned peas, the middle-class characters consume freshly washed strawberries, cakes and hand-whipped mayonnaise. In training herself to become the ideal bourgeois woman, the protagonist of La femme gelée undertakes to master the art of the mousse au chocolat and, when married, to produce the fluffiest of meals: the soufflé. For Ernaux a cultural chasm exists between the roughness of the lower-class diet and the finesse of the bourgeois palate, just as it exists in the way words are differently employed. Her milieu, notes the heroine of Les armoires vides, uses “des paroles grasses, grosses, bien appuyées, qui s'enfoncent dans le ventre” (AV 77); her family's conversations are peppered with patois idioms and “gros mots” (FG [La femme gelée] 60), with “phrases courtes et épaisses” (AV 45); the rich, however, speak “un langage bizarre, délicat, sans épaisseur, bien rangé” (AV 77) that singles them out as belonging to “un monde plus beau, plus pur” (AV 77); bourgeois women, paragons of elegance and discretion, never use “un mot plus haut que l'autre” (AV 96). Ernaux labours the point. For the young Denise the only viable escape from the weightiness of food and indeed of the language of her class is in the realm of magazines and books. “Les livres,” she says, “ne me reprochent rien, la vie claire et transparente de mes héroïnes ne me ramène pas à mes vols de nougat” (AV 80). “Je déguste ma tartine, mais elle s'est changée en poulet froide, celui de la villa des Iris Bleues et j'ai soif des rafraîchissements de mon héroïne” (AV 79). It is, then, in the imagination, rather than in reality, that Denise transcends her lot.

In portraying conflicting social attributes, Ernaux comes to express overall apprehensions about the possibility of changing class. It is not just heaviness that distinguishes proletarian food as in bad taste; whole distinctions about where it is prepared and served identify class comportments with domestic spaces that are worlds apart; in both novels the kitchen bespeaks the passage of daily grime and grind; it lacks airiness and privacy; rather it is disorganised and cramped; the heroine of Les armoires vides regrets her “cuisine coincée entre le café et l'épicierie” (AV 109), “la table couverte d'une toile cirée” (AV 109), “l'évier rempli de vaisselle ou de la cuvette des débarbouillages [de son père]” (AV 109) It is the thoroughfare through which the mother lugs stored goods from the cellar to the shop and where, in the evenings, the parents discuss the day's earnings around a table littered with soup dishes, accounts and bits of bread; if Denise is asked to describe it in a school essay she prefers to invent one modelled on the magazine ones about which she has read; the bourgeois kitchen, on the other hand exudes all the virtues that the protagonist associates with upper-class “aisance”: it is clean, well-equipped, neat and pristine white; it reflects the ordered life-style of privileged women who don't work, who have a salle à manger and the time to concoct dishes in the hygienic environment of a “cuisine miroitante” (FG 60). “Silence, lumière. Propreté” (FG 61) distinguish the upper-class kitchen from the “salété” of its lower-class counterpart. In striving to improve her social standing the growing Denise Lesur longs to attain what she sees as bourgeois spotlessness. “La blancheur d'un frigo, de jolis casiers, le propre, le médical presque, j'aurais aimé … pour faire oublier qu'on vendait du sel, du café” (AV 109).

For Ernaux not only is domestic space class-specific; gender roles, too, are portrayed as class-entrenched. Economic pressures, she shows, can cause the conventional functions of nurturer and provider to be reversed. In both books the rich carry out traditionally defined feminine and masculine duties; the poor do what makes ends meet. It is the heroine's father who prepares the meals, peels the vegetables and does the washing up. Except for special occasions, “la cuisine, c'est son affaire à lui” (FG 23); it is the tenacious, resourceful mother who mans the shop and takes charge of the accounts. For the young heroine of La femme gelée the sexually distinct notions of “virilité” and “féminité” (FG 32) are of no account. Yet later in her story, and in the wake of her bourgeois initiation, she deplores what she sees as her parents' embarrassing difference. The mother, she remarks, does not fit the magazine stereotype of “des maîtresses de maison qui mijotent de bons petits plats dans les intérieurs coquets” (FG 60). When a friend derisively comments on the father mashing the potatoes at her home she feels a loss of face: “la gentillesse de mon père se transforme en faiblesse, le dynamisme de ma mère en port de culotte” (FG 75).

It is ultimately the question of the woman as “nourricière” that bothers Ernaux in the latter part of La femme gelée. Her heroine, once married and integrated into an ostensibly better class, finds that the suppositions she held concerning conjugal equality and social improvement were false. Not only does she find herself lacking in culinary skills, being but “une intellectuelle paumée incapable de casser un oeuf proprement” (FG 131); her new class, she discovers, expects that she assume responsibility for her husband's (and eventually children's) nourishment, even as she completes her studies and takes up a job in a local high-school. Ernaux's novel, then, comes to give vent to some strongly felt feminist resentments, and ones in which food plays a directive role. It is the so-called liberation of the twentieth-century bourgeois woman that is finally seen as at risk. For Ernaux's heroine the ascension from educated student to educated wife incurs a loss of sense of individual self. Far from finding her new station fulfilling, she finds that she abhors the domestic tasks she must undertake, especially those that require her to take charge of the family's sustenance. She becomes (unfairly, she believes, in the light of her thwarted dream of shared marital rights) “la nourricière, sans [se] plaindre” (FG 132), “la gardienne du foyer, la prédisposée à la subsistance des êtres” (FG 148). Nowhere has Ernaux so thoroughly exposed the hidden drudgery of the modern woman's condition, nor so clearly rearticulated Simone de Beauvoir's assertions of feminine oppression, as expressed in Le Deuxième Sexe.

The conclusion of La femme gelée reads as a woman's fall from a briefly acquired state of grace. The possibility of bourgeois perfection is questioned and lost. The effortlessness with which the mother-in-law whips up little delicacies underlines the heroine's failure to be a successful wife. The food of early childhood is regretted (“Fini la nourriture-décor de [l'] enfance, les boîtes de conserves en quinconce …”, FG 131); the food of bourgeois adulthood (“la nourriture corvée,” FG 131) is associated with subjugation and fatigue. Ultimately Ernaux insists on the bourgeois home as a sterile and lonely feminine place. The “table dressée” (FG 151), the “cuisinière nickelle” (FG 152), the “frigo lumineux” (FG 153), far from representing a purity of life style, are judged to be part of “un système aseptisé” (FG 161) in which men play no active part. Of the conjugal couple it is the heroine who is “la seule à devoir tâtonner, combien de temps un poulet, est-ce qu'on enlève les pépins des concombres, la seule a [se] plonger dans un livre de cuisine, à éplucher des carottes” (FG 130).

Examined together, Les armoires vides and La femme gelée cast doubts on the possibility of achieving social integration by personal efforts at betterment. In each, the heroines come to feel uneasy not only with their own kind, whose life ambitions they surpass, but also with the class to which they aspire, since the acquisition of acceptable upper-class social skills is difficult to effect, all the more so that it is resisted by those who enjoy its fruits from birth. Besides, in La femme gelée gender equality in the upper echelons of society is portrayed as more myth than fact. Even within the upper-class system of economic prosperity women have not necessarily earned independence. One can conclude, then, that there is a certain pessimism on Ernaux's part. Within the context of twentieth-century democratic France, Ernaux exhibits concerns for the fair distribution of cultural knowledge; her socioculturally imbued narratives, informed by personal experience and explored in fictional depth, expose the negative consequences of lower-class marginalisation and bourgeois exclusiveness. It is only later in the overtly autobiographical La place (1983) and Une femme (1984) that the mature author seeks to come to terms with her roots. There, without ever straying from her exposure of class inequalities, she undertakes to redefine her parents' cultural worth, not so much by unfair comparisons with upper class advantage than by reassessments of the validity of their endeavours as plucky members of their class.


  1. R. Barthes, Mythologies, “Le Vin et le lait,” pp. 74-77; “Le Biftek et les frites,” pp. 77-79; “Cuisine ornementale,” pp. 128-130.

  2. Future references to these texts will appear in brackets as AV and FG.

Works Cited

D. Fernandez-Recatala, Annie Ernaux (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1994)

J. Goody, Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 1982)

B. Rigby, Popular Culture in Modern France: A Study of Cultural Discourse (London: Routledge, 1991)

D. Robbins, The Work of Pierre Bourdieu (Buckingham: Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1999)

Marie-France Savéan, “La place” et “Une femme” d'Annie Ernaux (Paris: Gallimard, 1994)

Claire-Lise Tondeur, Annie Ernaux ou l'exil intérieur (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996)

P. Bourdieu, La Distinction: critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Les Editions de minuit, 1979)

R. Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957)

Pamela A. Genova (review date winter 2001)

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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 emotive subjectivity.

The “event” of the title, quite frankly, is an abortion, the experience that changed the life of a twenty-three-year-old woman faced with the age-old desperation, loneliness, and fear that so many women have encountered in the same daunting and ambivalent situation, particularly given the social pressures of forty years ago. It must be said that L'événement is not a book for the faint at heart; Ernaux spares no detail and offers no gratuitous pity or maudlin metaphors to gloss over the actual procedure, the frightful physical pain this woman was unfortunate enough to undergo, the emotional worry and intellectual confusion that, as the author points out, often remain in fictional texts discreetly elusive, rarely detailed or analyzed in any significant way.

Ernaux's book is about coming of age, about leaving the ignorance and comfort of innocence, suddenly, violently, and irrevocably; it is also about social awareness, about women's rights and equality for those among the working classes; but most pressingly, perhaps, her book is about writing, about the various systems of life experience, subjective memory, and the power to make real through words. Throughout the text, passages in parentheses, more frequent as the narrative progresses, portray a contemporary voice musing on the event that shaped her adult life and on the difficulty, as well as the pleasure, of attempting to render that experience in esthetic discourse. These passages, metafictional and self-aware, detail the very act of writing as a kind of alchemy, at times as mysterious and indecipherable as exotic hieroglyphs or unfamiliar occult symbols, but also capable of transforming, in a moment of illumination and epiphany, into a language of suggestion, meaning, and beauty.

The narrative is presented in a double structure, with a present-tense framework enfolding a past-tense experience, the more contemporary second “event” of returning to the doctor's office to receive results of an HIV test serving as a catalyst for the narrator's memory to return to the original “event” of thirty-five years before. In a straightforward style and an extremely direct tone, Ernaux's presentation of past image and feeling is reminiscent of Durassian narration of similar elements: the often harsh realities of love, the emotional labyrinths of youth, the potential correlations between the mind's eye and the writer's pen. Ernaux leads the reader through an ambivalent space where elements of fiction, autobiography, memoir, and a kind of chronicle, both personal and historical, blend into a generically indefinable writing. Arguing that to have lived through an experience, any experience, gives an individual the absolute right to realize that experience fully through writing, Ernaux makes no apologies for her painfully honest, even brutal tale. To detail the exact dates of the evolving experience, to offer the names of the characters only in initials, since, as she states directly, the characters do in fact allude to “real people”—such techniques lend the text a hard-edged, realistic tone that renders the horror of the experience all the more “real,” all the more unforgettable.

As Ernaux writes at the end of the book, the event she experienced is now wholly complete, made coherent through the act of its being written, and the writer is finally free of the guilt that haunted her for decades: that of not having yet written experience, feeling, and her youthful self into a work of art.

Susan Marson (essay date winter 2001)

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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 about women.1 Nearly a quarter of a century separates the two texts: but the period between 1964, when Le Ravissement was published, and 1987, the date of Ernaux's Une femme, corresponds to an era in French cultural and intellectual history during which the concept of a writing specific to women was developed. In this context, the apparent difference between the two texts provides a terrain for questioning the specificity of women's writing, by asking how they both use and perceive the language of narrative.

Ernaux wrote Une femme, the story of her mother, as an act of mourning begun shortly after her mother's death. For Diana Holmes, Ernaux's writing can be described as realist, reproducing a known social world, encouraging identification with the characters and appearing to use language in a straightforward fashion to simply describe and recount.2 Indeed, Ernaux's narrator, in telling the story of a woman living in a rural, working-class milieu, speaks of the account as lying somewhere between literature and sociology. Duras's text, on the other hand, uses an unidentified setting where the English, German and French names of the characters, their professions and social activities all suggest upper middle-class life in colonial society. The story relates the effects produced on the central character, Lola Valérie Stein, by an event that took place at a ball at T. Beach when her fiancé, Michael Richardson, left her for an older, married woman, Anne Marie Stretter. The story line is complex and the narrative knowingly enigmatic.

Yet despite the obvious differences, which I shall discuss later, the two narratives do share a number of features, all of which stem from a common concern, that of using narrative to express otherness.


Both Une femme and Le Ravissement are first-person narratives where the narrator is a secondary character. For this reason perhaps, both emphasize the importance of perspective and of storytelling itself. What occurs is presented neither as the objective truth of an omniscient narrator, nor as the subjective truth of individual experience, but rather as one person's attempt to recount, or account for, another's experience. The two narrators, far from providing any stable point of knowledge or vision, are affected both by the events of the plot and by the act of storytelling. For Ernaux, writing the text begun three weeks after her mother's death is part of the process of mourning: “sortir un livre n'a pas de signification, sinon celle de la mort définitive de ma mère” (Une femme 69). For Jacques Hold, Duras's narrator, telling Lol's story is an act involving acquiring knowledge which increasingly concerns not only the character, but himself and his growing desire for her: “Mais qu'est-ce que j'ignore de moi-même à ce point et qu'elle me met en demeure de connaître?” (Le Ravissement 105).

The construction of the two texts is surprisingly similar, both consisting of textual fragments separated by blank spaces with no chapter numbers, where each passage generally refers to a memory. In neither text is the plot linear: Une femme and Le Ravissement are concerned with ordering memories to make meaning and communicate past truth.

Je passe beaucoup de temps à m'interroger sur l'ordre des choses à dire, le choix et l'agencement des mots, comme s'il existait un ordre idéal, seul capable de rendre une vérité concernant ma mère.

(Une femme 43-44)

Le bal reprend un peu de vie, frémit, s'accroche à Lol. Elle le réchauffe, le protège, le nourrit, il grandit, sort de ses plis, s'étire, un jour il est prêt […] elle recommence le passé, elle l'ordonne, sa véritable demeure, elle la range.

(Le Ravissement 46)

Both texts involve shifts in perspective: the point of view is sometimes the narrator's own, sometimes that of the central character. Both tell the story of events that happened before the narrator became part of the character's life: for Ernaux's narrator, the story of her mother before her birth; for Jacques Hold, the story of Lol before he met her. In each case, remembering for someone else also involves other forms of mediation: what aunts or uncles might say about the figure of the mother, what is shown on photographs; what Jacques Hold gleans from Tatiana Karl, Lol's school friend, or from Lol's mother, her husband Jean Bedford or even the children's governess. At other points however, the character's memory and the narrator's almost become one, and what is seen, imagined and remembered become intertwined. Thus in Ernaux's Une femme, a list of fragments is given as the narrator's scattered childhood memories of her mother:

à l'église elle chantait à pleine voix le cantique à la Vierge, j'irai la voir un jour, au ciel, au ciel. Cela me donnait envie de pleurer et je la détestais.

elle avait des robes vives et un tailleur noir en ‘grain de poudre’, elle lisait Confidences et La Mode du jour. Elle mettait ses serviettes avec du sang dans un coin du grenier, jusqu'au mardi de la lessive.

quand je la regardais trop, elle s'énervait, “tu veux m'acheter?”

(Une femme 49)

Yet a very similar list is given relating to a time before the narrator was born, as if character and narrator had access to the same pool of remembered fragments:

[…] une poupée de chiffon à Noël, les dents trouées par le cidre, mais aussi les promenades sur le cheval de labour, le patinage sur la mare gelée durant l'hiver 1916, les parties de cache-cache et de saut à la corde, les injures et le geste rituel de mépris—se tourner et se taper le cul d'une main vive—à l'adresse des ‘demoiselles’ du pensionnat privé […]

(Une femme 28)

By contrast, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein acknowledges from the outset the mediation of the memories presented.

Voici, tout au long, mêlés, à la fois, ce faux semblant que raconte Tatiana Karl et ce que j'invente sur la nuit du Casino de T. Beach. À partir de quoi je raconterai mon histoire de Lol V. Stein.

(Le Ravissement 14)

This ‘invention’ of Lol's story involves a reciprocal intervention, where Hold remembers for Lol, and Lol remembers through Hold:

J'essaye d'accorder de si près mon regard au sien que j'ai commencé à me souvenir de son souvenir;


Je ne peux plus me passer de vous dans mon souvenir de T. Beach.


The two narratives share, therefore, a form of play between the first-person narrator and the character whose story is told, involving both identification and differentiation.


There is however, of course, an obvious formal difference between Le Ravissement and Une femme. Ernaux's narrator is implicitly autobiographical, while in Duras's text, a male narrator plays a mediating role between the author and her female character.

As a general rule, perspective is always mediated in Le Ravissement. Firstly of course it is the story of Lol seen through Jacques' eyes, but the point of view is sometimes also Tatiana's, or Jean Bedford's. Again the events are sometimes seen through Lol's own eyes, even if it is Jacques Hold telling the story: when Hold appears as a character in the book, he is seen as he imagines, or invents, Lol seeing him for the first time. It is therefore not simply a question of seeing a woman through a man's eyes, but also of seeing a man, Jacques, through a woman's eyes, Lol's—or more accurately, through her eyes as a man might imagine it and as another woman, the writer Marguerite Duras, might imagine that perception.

This presence of a third person, an outside observer of the people involved in the scene, is a recurrent structure throughout the novel, implying not only mediation of perspective but also an endless shifting of viewpoints. Schematically, what Michael Sheringham calls the ‘device of the third pole’3 could be represented as in the following figure.4

Wishing to know and to understand someone, as Hold wishes to understand Lol, implies a form of identification: he has to be able to put himself in Lol's place. Insofar as this wish for knowledge involves desire, it also entails understanding how the object of desire might view others, including oneself. In this sense, the subject does not exist in a dual relationship with the object, but indeed in a triangle, presupposing differentiation, as the subject observes a couple, and identification, both with the object of desire and with the third party who reflects his own potential position in relation to that object.

No one position, therefore, in what Hold calls this ‘triangulation’, is privileged: the structure allows a permutation and a superimposition of roles. On the night of the ball, while Lol observes the couple formed by Michael Richardson and Anne Marie Stretter, she is herself observed by Tatiana Karl, who relates the event to Hold. Hold therefore ‘sees’ Tatiana with Lol at the ball, just as he later watches them together through a window at the Bedfords'. Later again, Lol displaces the initial couple of Stretter and Richardson, observing Tatiana and Hold together through the window at the Hôtel des Bois.

The triangular structure figures the complex relation of identity and difference at work within the narrative as a whole. The poles of the triangle can therefore, potentially, be occupied by any number of different elements: ‘Elle se voit […] au centre d'une triangulation dont l'aurore et eux deux sont les termes éternels’ (Le Ravissement 47).

The image of the observed couple thus functions as a window onto another world—the window of the hotel room where Lol watches Hold and Tatiana at nightfall—but also as a mirror like the one where Lol sees the sea, at dusk, from the station at T. Beach: “au crépuscule, mais bien après le moment où le soleil avait disparu […] une glace sur un mur” (Le Ravissement 152). It is no doubt in this sense that the double meaning of the word Ravissement should be understood, both as the fascination of otherness, and as an emptying out of identity. As Hold remarks, Lol watches, but she also imitates and thus becomes the other observed: “Lol imitait, mais qui? Les autres, tous les autres, le plus grand nombre possible d'autres personnes” (34). When, towards the end of the narrative, Lol finds herself in Tatiana's place, in bed with Hold in a hotel at T. Beach, she is at the same time taking the place of Stretter with Richardson. Yet it could also be said that she is in the place of anyone who, in a similar situation, can only relate what is going to happen to other scenes in the past, or even to events not yet experienced, but only imagined or glimpsed in the lives of others:

Lol rêve d'un autre temps où la même chose qui va se produire se produirait différemment. Autrement. Mille fois. Ailleurs. Entre d'autres, des milliers qui, de même que nous, rêvent de ce temps, obligatoirement. Ce rêve me contamine. […] Qui est là dans le lit? Qui, croit-elle? […] Qui est-ce? La crise est là.


In this sense, the experience lived is also an experience lived through others.

If we suppose that writing is itself a process involving the apprehension of otherness and thus both identification and differentiation, the generalized triangular structure, on the level of the plot, thus mirrors the triangle formed, on a textual level, by Duras, the narrator Hold, and the character Stein. Jacques Hold, as a mediating masculine presence, provides a necessary element of difference, the third pole in the triangle.

Interestingly, in Ernaux's text, the mother is first described in a very similar way to Lol in Le Ravissement: she appears as a passive presence, a woman with no story of her own to be told:

En quelque point qu'elle s'y trouve Lol y est comme une première fois. De la distance invariable du souvenir elle ne dispose plus: elle est là.

(43, my italics)

C'est une entreprise difficile. Pour moi, ma mère n'a pas d'histoire. Elle a toujours été là. Mon premier mouvement, en parlant d'elle, c'est de la fixer dans des images sans notion de temps […]

(Une femme 22, my italics)

Une femme begins with a sequence of passages describing the death of the mother and the narrator's reactions to it. That initial story line then breaks off to begin the long central analepsis recounting the history of her mother's life. This creation of the mother's story almost exactly reproduces the structure of a previous text written by Ernaux, concerning the death of her father.5 Not only is the narrative form of the two books similar, but their project, as acts of mourning, is very much the same, and many events related in Une femme also appear in the earlier text. In this sense, the earlier text concerning the father appears as a mediating intertext in Une femme, introducing a tacit male presence between the female author and her character. The woman sans histoire finds her place in narrative through the mediation of a male figure.

The title of Ernaux's earlier book, La place, published in 1983, referred primarily to the place the father occupied in society. The same idea, indeed the same words occur again in Une femme, as the story of the mother is related to the story of the father: “l'histoire de mon père ressemble à celle de ma mère” (Une femme, 36). In Une femme, the expression ‘la place’ at first refers, as it did in the earlier text, to the social position of the father. “Mon père […] ne se sent pas, en patron de café, à sa vraie place” (Une femme 41-42); “Il refusait d'aller dans les endroits où il ne se sentait pas à ‘sa place’” (Une femme 55). Yet it also comes to refer to the “place” of the mother, in a slightly different sense: “[Elle] réclamait sans cesse du travail […] et, en riant à moitié, ‘il faut bien que je paye ma place!’” (Une femme 77). Indeed, as the text progresses, the mother's story becomes inseparable from her place within society: “Son histoire s'arrête, celle où elle avait sa place dans le monde” (Une femme 89). The “place” then no longer defines the father, but is transferred to the mother, and finally to the narrator herself when, toward the end of the text, she sees herself taking her mother's place:

Ce soir […] je suis retournée à la maison de retraite. […] La fenêtre de l'ancienne chambre de ma mère était allumée. Pour la première fois, avec étonnement: “Il y a quelqu'un d'autre à sa place.” J'ai pensé aussi qu'un jour […] je serais l'une de ces femmes qui attendent le dîner en pliant et dépliant leur serviette, ici ou autre part.

(Une femme 103-104)

The inscription of the intertext through the expression “la place” and other textual echoes—such as a description of the father and mother in their wedding photo, occurring in both texts, whether by design or by accident, at the same place (page 37)—thus seems closely related to the possibility of recounting the story of the mother who, as a woman, une femme, at first appears outside of time and, therefore, of narrative itself. The formless image of the mother takes on the form at first attributed to the father, just as she takes his place, and he hers, a displacement which also comes to include the narrator, but also the author of these two very personal texts, Annie Ernaux. The particular triangular structure which emerged in Duras's Le Ravissement therefore also appears at play in Ernaux's text, for La place and the figure of the father can be seen as an implicit intermediary between Ernaux and the mother in Une femme, providing a third pole in the relationship, and leading to a shifting of identities and roles (see figure above).

It seems, then, that in the case of both these books written by women about women, the feminine couple of author and character in fact becomes a triangle including a third, intervening masculine presence: Jacques Hold, the father. In both texts, this masculine mediation is related to the language of narrative, either to its form, in Ernaux, or to the discourse itself, in Duras. In neither case can narrative language be viewed as a transparent vehicle for communicating experience; language appears, rather, as a foreign medium intervening between subject and object, creating the distance necessary to enable vision and understanding (see the following figure).

Within this triangular structure, the positions are not stable. In Ernaux's text, the “place” of the father becomes that of the mother and finally of Ernaux herself; in Duras's narrative there is a constant shifting of perspectives between the different characters. In the same way, the language of the narrative is used to express these different viewpoints, so that it comes to resemble a pole position that can be occupied by the subject, but which in no way belongs to the individual.


Both Duras's and Ernaux's texts contain a number of metadiscursive passages concerning the act of storytelling, of writing and of speaking, although the role of narrative language is perceived quite differently in the two texts. Ernaux's conception of her narrative writing is an ambivalent one.

Ce que j'espère écrire de plus juste se situe sans doute à la jointure du familial et du social, du mythe et de l'histoire. Mon projet est de nature littéraire, puisqu'il s'agit de chercher une vérité sur ma mère qui ne peut être atteinte que par des mots. […] Mais je souhaite rester, d'une certaine façon, au-dessous de la littérature.

(Une femme 22-23)

Firstly, the text clearly states that its project is literary: “mon projet est de nature littéraire.” Literature appears to be related to a truth that only one particular narrative order might be able to express.

[…] je passe beaucoup de temps à m'interroger sur l'ordre des choses à dire, le choix et l'agencement des mots, comme s'il existait un ordre idéal, seul capable de rendre une vérité concernant ma mère […] et rien d'autre ne compte pour moi […], que la découverte de cet ordre-là.

(Une femme 43-44)

Naturally, seen as intertext, La place seems almost to contradict this conception of a unique narrative order, although Ernaux repeats the claim in direct relation to the story of the death of her father:

En 1967, mon père est mort d'un infarctus en quatre jours. Je ne peux pas décrire ces moments parce que je l'ai déjà fait dans un autre livre, c'est-à-dire qu'il n'y aura jamais aucun autre récit possible, avec d'autres mots, un autre ordre des phrases.

(Une femme 73)

Secondly, however, Ernaux's narrator also states that she wishes to remain “en dessous de la littérature,” her project also including the idea of a social history:

J'essaie de ne pas considérer la violence, les débordements de tendresse, les reproches de ma mère comme seulement des traits personnels de caractère, mais de les situer aussi dans son histoire et sa condition sociale. Cette façon d'écrire, qui me semble aller dans le sens de la vérité, m'aide à sortir de la solitude et de l'obscurité du souvenir individuel, par la découverte d'une signification plus générale;

(Une femme 52)

Ceci n'est pas une biographie, ni un roman naturellement, peut-être quelque chose entre la littérature, la sociologie et l'histoire.

(Une femme 106)

The idea of writing a social history of her mother is quite different from the purely literary project of expressing a unique truth. Here it is precisely a question of placing her mother within pre-defined sociocultural categories: a working-class woman born in the North of France at the beginning of the twentieth century. The emphasis is not on her singularity, but on what she has in common with other members of that same social group, that is, with people who occupy the same “place” within society. From this point of view, the structural similarity between Une femme and La place is not surprising.

In the case of Duras, narrative is quite clearly conceived of as literary, in the sense of a unique expression of a singular experience. Jacques Hold, the narrator, aims to express what Lol experienced at the ball at T Beach, and to do so he recounts a story, “mon histoire de Lol V Stein.” Duras's narrator, unlike Ernaux's, does not choose to employ a public—medical or psychological—discourse in order to categorize Lol's experience. Indeed, what gives rise to the narrative of Le Ravissement is the fact that Lol cannot find the words to express what she experienced. There would, Jacques Hold claims, be a unique definition which has remained unnameable because the word for it does not exist: “[une] définition devenue unique mais innommable faute d'un mot”:

J'aime à croire, comme je l'aime, que si Lol est silencieuse dans la vie c'est qu'elle a cru, l'espace d'un éclair, que ce mot pouvait exister. Faute de son existence, elle se tait. C'aurait été un mot-absence, un mot-trou, creusé en son centre d'un trou, de ce trou où tous les autres mots auraient été enterrés. On n'aurait pas pu le dire mais on aurait pu le faire résonner. Immense, sans fin, un gong vide, il aurait retenu ceux qui voulait partir, il les aurait convaincus de l'impossible, il les aurait assourdis à tout autre vocable que lui-même, en une fois il les aurait nommés eux, l'avenir et l'instant. Manquant, ce mot, il gâche tous les autres, les contamine, c'est aussi ce chien mort de la plage en plein midi, ce trou de chair. […] Ce mot, qui n'existe pas, pourtant est là : il vous attend au tournant du langage, il vous défie, il n'a jamais servi, de le soulever, de le faire surgir hors de son royaume percé de toutes parts à travers lequel s'écoule la mer, le sable, l'éternité du bal dans le cinéma de Lol V Stein.

(Le Ravissement 47-48)

The word does not exist, yet appears as a lack in language, the limit to what language is able to express, contaminating all other words so that they too seem inadequate to describe individual experience. What literature can do, it is suggested, is make that absence within language felt: narrative communicates the existence of something beyond language. Duras, in this sense, presents the reverse side of Mallarmé's “fleur […] absente de tous bouquets,” the absence of the word signifying the continuing presence of the thing.6

Both Ernaux's and Duras's texts emphasize the importance of narrative order, foregrounding the role of narrative in linking or joining events. Ernaux's narrative thus aims to link the images of her mother in good health and then diminished by old age and illness—“je sais que je ne peux pas vivre sans unir par l'écriture la femme démente qu'elle est devenue, à celle forte et lumineuse qu'elle avait été” (Une femme 89)—or of her mother alive, then dead:

Elle est morte le lendemain.

Dans la semaine qui a suivi, je revoyais ce dimanche, où elle était vivante […], puis le lundi, où elle était morte […]. Je n'arrivais pas à joindre les deux jours.

Maintenant, tout est lié.

(Une femme 103)

The text also aims to link the two worlds she herself has inhabited, the working-class world of her parents and the middle-class one of her married life. In doing so, the narrator wishes to understand the relationship between mother and daughter, between her life as a child and her life as adult and mother herself:

Je n'entendrai plus sa voix. C'est elle, et ses paroles, ses mains, ses gestes, sa manière de rire et de marcher, qui unissaient la femme que je suis à l'enfant que j'ai été. J'ai perdu le dernier lien avec le monde dont je suis issue.

(Une femme 106, my italics)

The role of narrative as a link is also emphasized by Jacques Hold:

Aplanir le terrain, le defoncer, ouvrir les tombeaux où Lol fait la morte, me paraît plus juste, du moment qu'il faut inventer les chainons qui me manquent dans l'histoire de Lol V. Stein […]

(Le Ravissement 37, my italics)

In the case of Le Ravissement de Lol V Stein, the importance of providing links appears to stem from the essential lack within language referred to as the mot-trou; words, it appears, are ordered around that fundamental, missing element, a little like the crowd of people gathering around the dead dog on the beach at the end of the story:

ce mot […] c'est aussi le chien mort de la plage en plein midi, ce trou de chair.

(Le Ravissement 48)

Lol […] ne le voit pas, il y a un mouvement de gens, un rassemblement autour de quelque chose, peut-être un chien mort.


The crowd of people stops the observer seeing what lies in the centre of the group, yet also brings our attention to the unseen event; in a similar way, the words of the text also appear as “un rassemblement autour de quelque chose” which itself cannot be named.


Both texts, therefore, foreground the role of narrative in linking elements and events; in both texts, this narrative function is clearly related to the process of remembering, but also to the act of mourning which is essentially an act of forgetting, or of learning to forget. Indeed for Ernaux, narrative writing is seen as a way of distancing herself from the events related. Thus she speaks of being distanced from the death of her father, or again of finishing and publishing the book Une femme as the final death of her mother.

Je vais continuer d'écrire sur ma mère. […] Peut-être ferais-je mieux d'attendre que sa maladie et sa mort soient fondues dans le cours passé de ma vie, comme le sont d'autres événements, la mort de mon père […], afin d'avoir la distance qui facilite l'analyse des souvenirs.

(Une femme 22)

Il semble maintenant que j'écris sur ma mère pour, à mon tour, la mettre au monde. Il y a deux mois que j'ai commencé, en écrivant sur une feuille ‘ma mère est morte’. C'est une phrase que je peux supporter désormais, et même lire sans éprouver une émotion différente de celle que j'aurais si cette phrase était de quelqu'un d'autre.


Narrative language, then, is a way of ordering images to make a recognizable pattern and thus make sense of experience; a way of putting words to a memory so that those words might replace the presence of remembered images. Lol V. Stein reviews images from her past, ordering them, or as Jacques Hold says, sorting them out, a little like tidying a room in a house: once memories have been translated into words, they can be neatly labeled and put away. It is in this sense that linking, ordering and naming is a process enabling forgetting: the presence of the image is replaced by the word referring to it.7

This particular function is quite clear in Ernaux's text, where writing words appears as a way of coming to terms with an experience:

Elle a commencé de parler avec des interlocuteurs qu'elle seule voyait. La première fois que cela est arrivé […] je me suis bouché les oreilles. […] Après, j'ai écrit sur un morceau de papier, “maman parle toute seule.” (Je suis en train d'écrire ces mêmes mots, mais ce ne sont plus comme alors des mots juste pour moi, pour supporter cela, ce sont des mots pour le faire comprendre).


Writing words, then, is the first step on the way to the possibility of forgetting, that is, of ending a period of mourning:

Par moments, il me semble que je suis dans le temps où elle vivait encore […] Cette sensation, dans laquelle la présence illusoire de ma mère est plus forte que son absence réelle, est sans doute la première forme de l'oubli.


J'ai relu les premières pages de ce livre. Stupeur de m'apercevoir que je ne me souvenais déjà plus de certains détails […]


Indeed, since language necessarily implies the absence of what it refers to, naming is a way of replacing a thing, person or thought by a word. Thus the process of mourning, of coming to terms with loss, is also a process of putting the experience of loss into words, or more simply, of learning to tell a story.

In the Duras text, which hinges on Lol's incapacity to tell her own story and to come to terms with the loss she experienced on the night of the ball at T. Beach, the act of naming is continually referred to, not as a simple process, but as another example of the inadequacy of language: names, in Le Ravissement, simply do not name, and thus do not enable the process of forgetting.

—Je veux, dit-elle.

Elle se tait, regarde ma bouche. […]


Elle fait signe: non, dit mon nom.

—Jacques Hold.

[…] Pour la première fois mon nom prononcé ne nomme pas.

—Lola Valérie Stein.

—Oui. […]

Nous nous répétons nos noms.

Je me rapproche de ce corps. Je veux le toucher. […] Au moment où mes mains se posent sur Lol le souvenir d'un mort inconnu me revient: il va servir l'éternel Richardson, l'homme de T. Beach, on se mélangera à lui, pêle-mêle tout ça ne va faire qu'un, on ne va plus reconnaître qui de qui, ni avant, ni après, ni pendant, on va se perdre de vue, de nom, on va mourir ainsi d'avoir oublié morceau par morceau, temps par temps, nom par nom, la mort.

(Le Ravissement 112-113)

It is only towards the end of the text that Lol slowly becomes capable of talking and thus of learning to forget the night of the ball at T Beach. In Jacques Hold's opinion at least, once Lol has told her story, that initial memory will be replaced by the image of her return to the beach with Jacques; in a similar way to the Ernaux text, where the publication of the book will be the final death of the mother. Lol's telling her story will be the funeral, as it were, of the events of the ball:

Elle parle, se parle. J'écoute attentivement un monologue un peu incohérent […]. J'écoute sa mémoire se mettre en marche, s'appréhender des formes creuses qu'elle juxtapose les unes aux autres comme dans un jeu aux règles perdues […] Voici venue l'heure de mon accès à la mémoire de Lol V. Stein.

Le bal sera au bout du voyage […]. Elle revoit sa mémoire-ci pour la dernière fois de sa vie, elle l'enterre. Dans l'avenir ce sera de cette vision aujourd'hui, de cette compagnie-ci à ses côtés qu'elle se souviendra.



The ambiguity of the ending of Duras's text suggests this process is never finally completed: the fascination remains of a singular event that cannot be translated into words, categorized, put away and forgotten. The text affirms the continuing existence of otherness outside what narrative itself can contain, privileging movement and alterity as it refuses resolution into any fixed structure or position:

Je nie la fin qui va probablement venir nous séparer, sa facilité, sa simplicité désolante. car du moment où je la nie, celle-là, j'accepte l'autre, celle qui est à inventer, que je ne connais pas, que personne encore n'a inventée: la fin sans fin, le commencement sans fin de Lol V. Stein.


Le Ravissement shows narrative to be essentially flawed, but its disclosure of the negation within language becomes an affirmation of the unknown and an acceptance of difference.

Ernaux's Une femme, on the other hand, comes to a resolution in that the mother is no longer a singular, unique character, but indeed “une femme,” a woman amongst others: she has become a story, “une histoire.”

Il fallait que ma mère, née dans un milieu dominé, dont elle a voulu sortir, devienne histoire, pour que je me sente moins seule et factice dans le monde dominant des mots et des idées où, selon son désir, je suis passée.

(Une femme 106)

Once the mother has become history, once she has been contained within the book that Ernaux is about to finish writing, she returns to that first nebulous image where she appeared as a passive presence sans histoire.

Son image tend à redevenir celle que je m'imagine avoir eue d'elle dans ma petite enfance, une ombre large et blanche au-dessus de moi.


Language here appears as the means by which experience might acquire form and meaning, but at the price of difference and singularity. Indeed the major difference between the two authors lies, perhaps, in their respective attitudes towards this property of language. If Duras aims at using narrative to point to its limits and the continued existence of a singular reality which language cannot encompass, Ernaux views writing precisely as a process by which individual experience is generalized in order for it to be shared, recognized and understood.8


  1. Both texts are cited in the Gallimard Folio edition.

  2. Diana Holmes. “Feminism and Realism: Christiane Rochefort and Annie Ernaux,” in French Women's Writing, 1848-1994. London: Athlone. 1996, pp. 246-247. On Ernaux, see also Lorraine Day and Tony Jones, Ernaux: “La place,” “Une femme.” Glasgow: Glasgow University French and German Publications, 1990 and Lyn Thomas, Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

  3. “Knowledge and Repetition in Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein,Romance Studies 2 (1983), p. 126.

  4. I can hardly formalize this triangular relation without referring to John O'Briens's analysis, with its double superimposed triangles, of Lacan's hommage to Duras: “Metaphor between Lacan and Duras: Narrative Knots and the Plot of Seeing,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 19, 3 (1993), pp. 232-45; “Hommage fait à Marguerite Duras, du ravissement de Lol V. Stein,” Cahiers Renaud-Barrault 52 (1965), reprinted in Marguerite Duras et al., Marguerite Duras. Paris: Albatros, 1975, pp. 93-99.

  5. La place. Paris: Gallimard, 1983.

  6. Stéphane Mallarmé. “Crise de vers,” Oeuvres. Paris: Garnier, 1985, p. 279.

  7. On the role of language in the work of mourning, see Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok: “Deuil ou mélancolie: introjecter-incorporer,” in L'Ecorce et le noyau. Paris: Flammarion, 1987, pp. 259-75.

  8. A comparable view is expressed in Ernaux's recent text L'événement. Paris: Gallimard, 2000, p. 112: “Et le véritable but de ma vie est peut-être seulement celui-ci: que mon corps, mes sensations et mes pensées deviennent de l'écriture, c'est-à-dire quelque chose d'intelligible et de général, mon existence complètement dissoute dans la tête et la vie des autres.”

Jennifer Willging (essay date winter 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9112

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 a voulu tuer ma mère un dimanche de juin, au début de l'après-midi” (13). It quickly becomes evident that this “scene,” which Ernaux attempts to narrate in the first part of La honte and to understand throughout the rest of it, left a deep impression on her. My project here is to explore this revelatory text, along with interviews with the writer, in order to understand why this scene was not included in the previous texts that meticulously narrate and re-narrate precisely the time period in which it took place. The most obvious answer is that Ernaux was ashamed of what happened that June day in 1952, as the title of her book suggests. Yet she is not a writer who shies away from personal revelation, having described elsewhere in her autobiographical work an illegal abortion (Les armoires vides [1977]) and an obsessive passion for a married man (Passion simple [1991]). What, then, kept Ernaux, or rather her narrator, from narrating this important episode for over twenty years, and what desires or needs finally pushed her from silence to narration? What does she hope to accomplish by mining some very painful and deeply-buried memories and exposing her findings to the reader?

The narrator's description of the “scene” (as she herself refers to the event) fills only three pages of the 133-page text. In the interest of brevity, I will reproduce only what might be called the “essential” lines of it here. The events described take place on a Sunday afternoon after an ordinary family dinner.

Ma mère était de mauvaise humeur. La dispute qu'elle avait entreprise avec mon père, sitôt assise, n'a pas cessé durant tout le repas. La vaisselle débarrassée, la toile cirée essuyée, elle a continué d'adresser des reproches á mon père, en tournant dans la cuisine, minuscule—coincée entre le café, l'épicerie et l'escalier menant à l'étage—comme à chaque fois qu'elle était contrariée. Mon père était resté assis à table, sans répondre, la tête tournée vers la fenêtre. D'un seul coup, il s'est mis à trembler convulsivement et à souffler. Il s'est levé et je l'ai vu empoigner ma mère, la traîner dans le café en criant avec une voix rauque, inconnue. Je me suis sauvée à l'étage et je me suis jetée sur mon lit, la tête dans un coussin. Puis j'ai entendu ma mère hurler: “Ma fille!” Sa voix venait de la cave, à côté du café. Je me suis précipitée au bas de l'escalier, j'appelais “Au secours!” de toutes mes forces. Dans la cave mal éclairée, mon père agrippait ma mère par les épaules, ou le cou. Dans son autre main, il tenait la serpe à couper le bois qu'il avait arrachée du billot où elle était ordinairement plantée. Je ne me souviens plus ici que de sanglots et de cris. Ensuite, nous nous trouvons de nouveau tous les trois dans la cuisine.


“J'écris cette scène pour la première fois,” the narrator states, and indeed the scene is explicitly mentioned nowhere else in Ernaux's oeuvre. However, the narrator of La place, a text about her social and emotional alienation from her father due to her ascension into the bourgeoisie, does speak of her parents' frequent shouting matches: “Sous l'insulte, sortant de son calme habituel: ‘CARNE! J'aurais mieux fait de te laisser où tu étais.’ Échange hebdomadaire: Zéro!—Cinglée! Triste individu!—Vieille garce! / Etc. Sans aucune importance” (La place 71). Her insistence that these kinds of exchanges were “sans aucune importance” is perhaps comprehensible in that normally these battles remained entirely verbal—except, as La honte's narrator reveals, for one day in June 1952. This passage is followed by a blank space on the page, and while these spaces are somewhat common in Ernaux's later texts, which are organized episodically, the reader of La honte might see this particular blank as something more (or rather less): that is, as representing quite literally a hole or paralipsis3 in the childhood account that La place's narrator supplies. Other textual details also point to such a paralipsis. Several pages later in La place appears a paragraph set off by unusually wide blanks. In it, the narrator uses a demonstrative adjective to refer to a particular Sunday that, curiously, has no discernible antecedent in the text preceding it: “Ce dimanche-là,” she says, “[mon père] avait fait la sieste. Il passe devant la lucarne du grenier. Tient à la main un livre qu'il va remettre dans une caisse laissée en dépôt chez nous par l'officier de marine. Un petit rire en m'apercevant dans la cour C'est un livre obscène” (78 my emphasis). To what Sunday the narrator is referring is not at all clear. The puzzled reader might initially think that she is speaking of the only specific Sunday mentioned in the text, that of the father's death. The reader soon realizes, however, that this is impossible, because according to the narrator herself, the father lay incapacitated all that day until he died early in the afternoon (108-10). In this passage the narrator also refers to her parents' home as “chez nous,” signaling most logically that she was still living there on “ce dimanche-là,” and therefore not yet an adult, as she was when her father died. I will hazard the explanation that the Sunday referred to in La place is in fact that of the scene which the narrator remembers at the moment of narration—more or less consciously—but neglects to narrate. The description of signs of the father's usually hidden sexual desires may stand in here for that of the terrifying signs—the sudden gestures of violence—of his equally repressed hostility toward his hyper-critical wife. Both of these repressed desires perhaps came to the surface on that same day, “ce dimanche-là,” but the narrator of La place recounts only the one, repressing, in her turn, the other. “Le déchiffrement de ces détails [of her parents behavior and mode de vie],” she says, “s'impose à moi maintenant, avec d'autant plus de nécessité que je les ai refoulés, sûre de leur insignifiance. Seule une mémoire humiliée avait pu me les faire conserver” (72). The shame she felt over her parents' behavior caused at one and the same time the indelible impression of certain details upon the narrator's memory and the long-time repression of the most painful among them. Yet this repression is incomplete, for the missing referent to which “ce dimanche-là” points reveals, in its very absence, the presence of such undisclosed memories.

In Passion simple, the narrator offers insight into the act of revealing highly personal experience in narrative when she reflects on the imminent completion and publication of this text in which she explores her obsessive passion for a married man.

Continuer, c'est … repousser l'angoisse de donner ceci à lire aux autres. Tant que j'étais dans la nécessité d'écrire, je ne me souciais pas de cette éventualité. Maintenant que je suis allée au bout de cette nécessité, je regarde les pages écrites avec étonnement et une sorte de honte, jamais ressentie—au contraire—en vivant ma passion, pas davantage en la relatant.

(Passion simple 69)

She felt no shame, she maintains, while experiencing her passion, nor while writing her account of it. Reading this account, however, is somehow mortifying. “‘Je’ fait honte au lecteur,” remarks the narrator of Journal du dehors (1993), more so, apparently, than à l'écrivain, or only to this latter when she becomes a reader of her own pages (19). It is only when the passion is transformed from a deeply personal emotion to typed words on a page, words that are potentially accessible to all, that it becomes shameful. In La honte, the narrator's shameful experience is essentially different, then, from that of Passion simple's narrator, because the former felt shame, and much more, while the event was taking place: “J'ai toujours eu envie d'écrire des livres dont il me soit ensuite impossible de parler, qui rendent le regard d'autrui insoutenable,” she writes at the end of La honte. “Mais quelle honte pourrait m'apporter l'écriture d'un livre qui soit à la hauteur de ce que j'ai éprouvé dans ma douzième année” (132). Any shame a published account of the scene might bring her could be nothing compared to that provoked by the original. Why, then, once again, did Ernaux defer writing about the scene for so long when it obviously played an integral role in her life-story, a story she had painstakingly reconstructed and compulsively revisited in five previous books?

“Lorsque j'ai commencé, en 1990, le texte que j'appellerai ultérieurement La honte,” she said in a recent interview, “il s'agissait pour moi d'écrire ce qu'il serait le plus difficile et le plus ‘dangereux’ d'écrire … ce qu'il est pour moi le plus honteux, encore indicible, aller plus loin encore dans ce qui est l'effroi de la réalité vécue” (Vilain 146). Why did the scene of June 1952 cause her such “effroi,” and what sets it apart as the “plus honteux” of all her scenes of humiliation? Why did it for so long remain “unsayable,” and how was it finally said?

“Lorsque j'ai commencé, en 1990, le texte que j'appellerai ultérieurement La honte,” Ernaux said in a 1997 interview, “il s'agissait pour moi d'écrire ce qu'il serait le plus difficile et le plus ‘dangereux’ d'écrire … ce qu'il est pour moi le plus honteux, encore indicible, aller plus loin encore dans ce qui est l'effroi de la réalité vécue” (“Annie Ernaux” [“Annie Ernaux ou l'autobiographie en question”] 146). Her characterization of the experience as “indicible” is important in light of her failure to narrate it for over twenty years. The term here means not only “shameful” but quite literally “unsayable,” because the author felt as if no words, no language, could ever adequately represent what had taken place. She nevertheless undertakes the effort to speak the unspeakable, and her narrator, in reflecting on the task before her, sheds light on the origin of the scene's resistance to verbal explication. Thinking back to the months after the scene, it occurs to her that her parents “ont peut-être évoqué entre eux la scène du dimanche, le geste de mon père, trouvé une explication, ou une excuse, et décidé de tout oublier” (20). “Cette pensée,” however, “comme toutes celles qu'on n'a pas eues sur le moment, vient trop tard. Elle ne peut plus me servir, sinon à mesurer par son absence la terreur sans mots qu'a été pour moi ce dimanche” (21). Here the narrator underscores an important aspect of the scene for her: its utter incomprehensibility. Missing from her memory of the scene are both pensées and paroles—language—in which to understand it. Perhaps her parents had come up with a verbal explanation, but they had never shared it with her, indeed had never once mentioned it. While the narrator does write of hearing a voice—her father's—in her account of the scene, she describes it as “inconnue,” as if it belonged to a stranger. Moreover, she does not tell us what it said, possibly because of the incommensurability of his words and his actions: no words he could have uttered would have adequately accounted for the astonishing behavior he displayed that day.

This extraordinarily frightening experience, which the narrator vividly remembers but did not then and cannot now fully comprehend, can be characterized as a traumatic experience.4 In Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995), Cathy Caruth says that “the literal registration of an event … appears to be connected, in traumatic experience, precisely with the way it escapes full consciousness as it occurs” (152-53 author's emphasis). Caruth adds that Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Freud, “proposed that traumatic recall remains insistent and unchanged to the precise extent that it has never, from the beginning, been fully integrated into understanding” (153). A traumatic memory is an “etching into the brain” (153), a memory that stands out among others not only in its continual power to disturb and bewilder the rememberer but also in its extreme vividness and immutability. The narrator of La honte's memory of the scene can indeed be described as “insistent and unchanged”: forty-five years later she remembers the exact date (“le 15 juin 52”) and identifies it as “[l]a première date précise et sûre de mon enfance” (15).

Modern psychology and neurobiology have formulated hypotheses as to why certain frightening experiences leave vivid but sometimes inexplicable impressions. Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, in their contribution to Caruth's volume, discuss such research. “When people are exposed to trauma, that is, a frightening event outside of ordinary human experience,” they maintain,

they experience “speechless terror” (van der Kolk, 1987).5 The experience cannot be organized on a linguistic level, and this failure to arrange the memory in words and symbols leaves it to be organized on a somatosensory or iconic level: as somatic sensations, behavioral reenactments, nightmares, and flashbacks.


What the traumatized individual remembers, then, are images, textures, smells, sounds, and emotions; that is, bodily sensations the memories of which might be triggered later when he or she experiences similar sensations of a different origin. Specifically missing from these memories are words, which would render the event not only understandable—that is, graspable not just by the body but by the intellect as well—but also communicable.

These kinds of memories, sensory memories, are what La honte's narrator has principally retained of the scene between her parents. She remembers, for example, the sensorial quality of her father's voice (“rauque et inconnue”) as registered by her ear, but not what it said, not the sematic meanings it conveyed. It is the power of these mute but palpable memories, “la terreur sans mots qu'a été pour moi ce dimanche” (21), that she attempts to overcome by transposing them into words and then narrative. Van der Kolk and van der Hart, in a summary of Janet's early insight into traumatic memory encodement, discuss his notion of “narrative memory”:

Narrative memory consists of mental constructs, which people use to make sense out of experience (e.g., Janet, 1928).6 Janet thought that the ease with which current experience is integrated into existing mental structures depends on the subjective assessment of what is happening; familiar and expectable experiences are automatically assimilated without much conscious awareness of details of the particulars, while frightening or novel experiences may not easily fit into existing cognitive schemes and either may be remembered with particular vividness or may totally resist integration.


Narrative memory does not just passively store individual (normal) memories. It also actively evaluates and organizes them, then integrates them into a larger scheme of meaning that is the individual's “life-story.” “Psychodynamic psychiatry,” van der Kolk and van der Hart maintain, “has always attached crucial importance to the capacity to reproduce memories in words and to integrate them in the totality of experience, i.e., to narrative memory” (167). In trying to create finally a verbal narrative out of her wordless memories, La honte's narrator hopes to accomplish the work her mind was unable to at the moment of the scene's occurrence, which is to assign meaning to her impressions so that they may be integrated into the coherent store of past impressions that make up her life-story.

In recalling memories from the summer of 1952, the narrator is also struck by a feeling of what I will call dissociation, basing my use of the term loosely on the psychological definition.7 In order to begin telling her story, the narrator studies two photographs of herself taken during the summer of 1952. This strategy of refamiliarization fails, however, at least initially, because the girl in the photos strikes the narrator as an utter stranger: “si je ne les avais jamais vues,” the narrator remarks of the images, “qu'on me les montre pour la première fois, je ne croirais pas qu'il s'agisse de moi. (Certitude que ‘c'est moi’, impossibilité de me reconnaître, ‘ce n'est pas moi’)” (25). She can therefore only refer to the girl in the third person: “[o]n voit une fille au visage plein, lisse, des pommettes marquées, un nez arrondi avec des narines larges. … Un visage de petite fille sérieuse, faisant plus que son âge à cause de la permanente et des lunettes. Elle est agenouillée sur un prie-dieu” (22). Intellectually the narrator knows that the photos indeed represent her as a twelve-year old child, but missing from this knowledge is the memory, the feeling of kneeling in that church, of actually being her. The girl holds a missal (a book containing the prayers and readings for Catholic mass) that the narrator still owns. “De même que les photos constituent la preuve de mon corps de 52,” she says, “le missel—dont la conservation au travers des déménagements n'est pas anodine—est la preuve matérielle irréfutable de l'univers religieux qui était le mien mais que je ne peux plus ressentir” (29). The missal is significant to the narrator as a remnant and sign of the universe it survives, but this is the only way in which it is still meaningful. That is, the book no longer holds any of the religious significance she knows it once had for the girl. It is a signifier in that it points to something—a certain period in the narrator's life—but is itself empty of intrinsic meaning.

The narrator's profound lack of self-recognition and of emotional attachment to the girl in the photographs can be explained in part by the vastly different social and historical milieus in which these two live(d): “La femme que je suis en 95 est incapable de se replacer dans la fille de 52 qui ne connaissait que sa petite ville, sa famille et son école privée, n'avait à sa disposition qu'un lexique réduit” (37). Yet I want to suggest that it is the extraordinary and painful experience the girl underwent that summer, an experience which in fact was an important impetus of the social displacement the narrator is so conscious of having undergone, that is at the heart of the narrator's dissociation. Some experiences, say van der Hart and van der Kolk, lie so far outside the realm of what an individual considers to be normal experience that they cannot fit into any of the mind's preconceived categories (163). Impressions made by these traumatic experiences stand apart from ordinary meaning schemes like faulty pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The narrator's memories of the scene, because of their extreme irregularity, remain dissociated or detached from the careful and logical assemblage of other memories that represent for her her life story. The self who experienced the scene—the girl in the photographs—has thus also been excised from the narrative.

Parallel to the dissociation of self textualized in La honte is a dissociation or disintegration of linear time. Throughout the text, the narrator speaks of her life as if it were divided into periods or “temps” to which she gives specific names. Referring to her parents, she remarks, “Quand il leur arrivait de montrer qu'ils avaient de l'affection l'un pour l'autre, par un sourire ou un rire complices, une plaisanterie, je croyais être revenue au temps d'avant la scène” (19 my emphasis). On the other hand, the second photo she studies, an image of her father and her on a pilgrimage to Lourdes in August 1952, “inaugur[e] le temps où je ne cesserai plus d'avoir honte” (25 my emphasis). The scene has thus irrevocably cleaved her life into two periods, which have since remained utterly inassimilable. Similarly, other Ernaux narrators divide their lives into temporal periods, each marked by a particular emotional state and each disconnected from the others. The narrator of Passion simple, for example, refers to the period of her obsession with the foreigner as “le temps de la passion,” (66) and that of Une femme evokes “le temps où [ma mère] vivait encore” (104), implicitly opposing this period to that after her mother's death, a time no longer of active living but of mourning and imaginary re-living in narration.

Time in La honte is distorted in other ways as well. When describing her Catholic school years, the narrator speaks of “le temps scolaire,” itself “inscrit dans un autre temps, celui du missel et de l'évangile” (78). This last “temps” is “autre” in that it is not, like those described above: rather it is an ahistorical, ever-repeating cycle containing within it “[le] temps de l'Avent, de Noël … du Carême … de Pâques. … D'année en année, chaque jour, l'école privée nous fait revivre la même histoire” (78-9). The missal is dated 1951 to 1968, but these are “[d]ates étranges, tant le livre est hors du temps” (28 my emphasis). The “temps” of the narrator's adolescence—included within the dates of the missal—was a period when religion regulated or at least cast a shadow over the narrator's every action and thought. This period thus seems to her to have taken on the timelessness of the missal that serves now as a sign for it, and to be itself “hors du temps.” Of reconstructing in narrative the religious “universe” in which she lived around the time of the scene, the narrator says, “Je ne peux énoncer et décrire les règles de cet univers qu'au présent, comme si elles continuaient d'être aussi immuables qu'elles l'étaient pour moi à douze ans” (79). Trauma, according to Lawrence Langer, “stops the chronological clock and fixes the moment permanently in memory and imagination, immune to the vicissitudes of time” (174-75),8 and indeed the narrator does describe the scene as “figée depuis des années” (30). Her memories of it remain unchanged and undampened by the passage of time, as if they were not memories at all but fresh perceptions of a continually current and recurring event. The timelessness of the narrator's memories is then perhaps better described as a perpetual presentness: resistant to insertion at a fixed place along the narrator's personal timeline. The unanchored memories slide alongside it, always “catching up” with her and continuing to affect (negatively) her interpretation of current experiences. Van der Kolk and van der Hart maintain that the lives of many trauma victims are “characterized by doubt and humiliation, by feelings of guilt and shame,” because for them, too often, “past meaning schemes determine the interpretation of the present” (178). What is the “past meaning scheme” that affects the narrator, for whom I have said the meaning of the scene was indecipherable? While the narrator has been unable to comprehend the scene on the level of rational cause and effect (that is, what provoked her father that day? What suddenly made him want to kill his wife, and what in the end stopped him from doing so?), she has nevertheless always assigned to it a specific symbolic meaning: her parents' social “fall.” At that moment, “[ils ont] cessé d'appartenir à la catégorie des gens corrects,” those who “ne boivent pas, ne se battent pas, s'habillent proprement pour aller en ville” (108), like the parents of her schoolmates. At that moment, the narrator declares, “Je suis entrée dans la honte” (109). The scene is meaningful, then, in that it represents the shame that has never left her and after which she names the narrative that reveals the circumstances of its intrusion into her life.

In addition to that of self and of time, the narrator complains of living yet another kind of dissociation: that of self from others. While the text we read is the narrator's first attempt, she says, at a written account of the scene, she indicates that she had attempted previously to communicate it orally: “À quelques hommes, plus tard, j'ai dit: ‘Mon père a voulu tuer ma mère quand j'allais avoir douze ans.’ … Tous se sont tus après l'avoir entendue. Je voyais que j'avais commis une faute, qu'ils ne pouvaient recevoir cette chose-là” (16). Attempts at verbalization of her experience had always proved fruitless, their only effect being to aggravate the solitude and mutism in which the scene's memory had left her. “Cela ne pouvait se dire à personne, dans aucun des deux mondes qui étaient les miens” (108), neither in her parent's world, where the scene was simply “forgotten,” nor in her adoptive, bourgeois world, where such behavior was inexistent (or at least very well-hidden). Not only, then, has the scene been difficult to speak, it has also been difficult to hear, and so has long remained locked away in the narrator's mind. “Le pire dans la honte,” she remarks of this partly-imposed silence, “c'est qu'on croit être seul à la ressentir” (109). Feeling isolated is indeed another common effect of traumatic experience according to van der Kolk and van der Hart. The conversion of lived experience into narrative memory not only serves the individual's need for clarity and order, it “fundamentally serves a social function” as well (163). As the name Janet gave it indicates, this kind of memory's most salient quality is its narratability, its potential to be told to and understood by others. And since under normal circumstances the individual is the author of his or her own narrative memory, s/he can tailor it for each narrative situation so as to be assured of each particular listener's comprehension and, often, of his or her sympathy; the communication of narrative memory potentially brings teller and listener together and creates a sense of mutual understanding and commonalty. The recall of traumatic memories, however, resists such manipulation and so remains “a solitary activity” (van der Hart and van der Kolk 163).

Une femme's narrator makes a revealing comment about her own narrative project. Speaking of her mother, she says, “je sais que je ne peux pas vivre sans unir par l'écriture la femme démente qu'elle est devenue, à celle forte et lumineuse qu'elle avait été” (89). “Unir par l'écriture” the disparate images she has of her mother—her mother's different “selves”—is thus an essential goal of her narration, and at the end of her text she concludes that “[m]aintenant, tout est lié” (103). Somewhat paradoxically, though, this sentence forms a paragraph that is physically broken off from the rest of the text, which itself, moreover, is riddled with blank spaces—breaks—of varying sizes. Like all of Ernaux's later texts, Une femme is not a linear, teleological narrative but rather a collection of disparate impressions, an “inventory of signs” of a particular reality being sought (Passion simple 31, 58). Its narrator's claim that she has been able to link together in this very fragmentary text “everything”—every significant element of her mother's story and all the disparate traits that made her who she was—is therefore questionable. It is doubly so in light of the author's later production of a second text about her mother (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit” [1997]) which suggests that the first text had not, understandably, covered the “whole story,” had not woven “everything” together. To link or unite was nevertheless that narrator's perhaps impossible goal, as it is, I will argue, that of La honte's narrator.

This latter's desire to link finds several outlets. Firstly, the narrator wants to destroy the barrier that her traumatic memories and the shame they engender have raised between herself and others. Her isolation, however, has its origins not only in the scene but in the atmosphere of the young girl's universe. Home was her parents' café-épicerie where the family was constantly surrounded by clients, “[e]xposition continuelle qui oblige à offrir une conduite respectable (ne pas s'injurier, dire des gros mots, du mal d'autrui), à ne manifester aucune émotion, colère ou chagrin, à dissimuler tout ce qui pourrait être objet d'envie, de curiosité, ou rapporté” (67 author's emphasis). There, the golden rule of social intercourse was to discover as much as possible about others' lives while revealing as little as possible of one's own (62). Her life at school, which she describes at length, was to be equally well-guarded. “Aucune fenêtre au rez-de-chaussée,” she says of the hermetic brick building, just “quelques ouvertures rondes haut situées pour le jour et deux portes toujours closes” (71-2). The only men who could “pénétrer” this Catholic girls' school, she pointedly notes, were the priests and the gardener, the latter being strictly relegated to the basement and flowerbeds (74). “[R]ien du pensionnat n'était visible du dehors” (72), just as nothing of the young girl's thoughts, desires, or fears was to escape from behind her own facade.

Ernaux has said that one of the most important properties of writing is its “fonction de dénonciation,” especially of social injustice (Royer). Related to this function is writing's capacity to expose, to open what is closed and to make visible what is hidden. Writing renders the private public, as Ernaux's own writing certainly illustrates. “Associer pour toujours le mot privé au manque et à la peur, la fermeture. Même dans vie privée. Écrire est une chose publique” (86), remarks La honte's narrator. Through her public (to-be-published) narration, she dismantles both the literal and the figurative walls that have enclosed her.

Through narration, the narrator also begins to become reacquainted with the place and time in which the young girl lived and so to bridge the gap between her present and past selves. “En déployant l'univers scolaire de cette année-là,” she notes, “le sentiment d'étrangeté que j'éprouve devant la photo de communiante diminue. Le visage sérieux, le regard droit, le petit sourire, moins triste sans doute que supérieur, perdent leur opacité. Le ‘texte’ éclaire la photo, qui en est aussi l'illustration” (90-91). Now reflected in the “regard droit” of the girl—if still imperfectly—is the world that surrounded her and that the woman she became wishes to understand. In an effort to further illuminate this world, the narrator goes to the Rouen city archives to study the 1952 editions of a regional newspaper that was delivered daily to her parents' home. She begins by reading the January editions because, she says, “Je voulais retarder le moment d'arriver au 15 juin, me remettre dans la succession innocente des jours qui était la mienne avant cette date” (32). But finding a familiar world within this text proves more difficult than she had suspected:

Je connaissais la plupart des événements évoqués, la guerre d'Indochine, de Corée, les émeutes d'Orléansville, le plan Pinay, mais je ne les aurais pas situés spécialement en 52, les ayant sans doute mémorisés dans une période ultérieure de ma vie. Je ne pouvais [les] relier … à aucune image de moi en 52. … Je ne reconnaissais rien. C'était comme si je n'avais pas déjà vécu en ce temps-là.


Her goal was to link (“relier”) her own memories of the period to this supposedly objective representation of it, but this text is as foreign to her as were initially the photographs. The distinction the narrator makes between the words connaître and reconnaître, illustrated in this passage, helps explain her difficulties. She knows (“Je connaissais”) the historical events referred to in the newspaper, but only through having learned and memorized them retrospectively, most probably in school. The sense she gives to connaître here is therefore something like, “[a]voir dans l'esprit en tant qu'objet de pensée analysé,” a very dry definition that suggests lack of personal experience of or affective attachment to the object of knowledge (Petit Robert). In saying at the same time “Je connaissais” and “Je ne reconnaissais rien,” the narrator seems to lend an entirely different meaning to the word reconnaître, which here points to a knowledge by personal, sensory experience, as in “[s]aisir (un objet) par la pensée, en reliant entre elles des images, des perceptions; identifier par la mémoire” (Petit Robert, my emphasis). In this sense, to recognize is to recall, indeed to relive, the sensory impressions one once had in observing or experiencing first-hand an object or event. To recognize, then, is to feel, or rather to feel again what one once felt. The events described in the newspaper were of course never a part of the young girl's perceptual experience and so in no way help her recapture the past as she lived it.

Yet it is less the unfamiliarity of the events reported than the absence of another that troubles the narrator: “je me suis rendu compte,” she reflects about her visit to the archives, “que j'étais venue là comme si j'allais trouver la scène dans le journal de 52. … [A]ucun des milliards de faits qui s'étaient produits dans le monde ce dimanche-là ne pourrait être placé à côté de la scène sans me remplir de stupeur. Elle seule a été réelle” (36). After this review of the “facts” of 1952, paradoxically it is the scene—which, of course, does not appear among them and for which she has no proof other than her own problematic memories—that strikes her as the only real occurrence of that summer. “Sur les différences entre les époques,” she remarks, “les journaux ne fournissent que des signes collectifs” (37), signs of experiences, points of view, possessions, that however typical will always remain completely foreign to many members of that collective. When she attempts to situate a highly personal experience in collective experience, the narrator finds that the reality represented in the newspaper strikes her as so many fairy tales compared to that contained in her own memory. She must therefore conduct her “research” not by consulting newspapers and history books, but rather the archives of her own mind.

More importantly, she must carry out this research not by reading but rather by writing:

Mettre au jour les langages qui me constituaient, les mots de la religion, ceux de mes parents liés aux gestes et aux choses, des romans que je lisais dans Le Petit écho de la mode ou dans Les Veillées des chaumières. Me servir de ces mots, dont certains exercent encore sur moi leur pesanteur, pour décomposer et remonter, autour de la scène du dimanche de juin, le texte du monde ou j'ai eu douze ans et eru devenir folle.


By recalling and employing in her writing the language in which she and her parents thought and spoke, she will be able, she believes, to reconstruct what they thought and said, what they were like—their “réalité d'alors.” Of course, this “reconstruction” will be carried out with words rather than bricks and mortar. While her texts, Ernaux says, “sont une recherche sur la réalité” (“Entretien” 38), “le réel,” she says elsewhere, “c'est quelque chose qui est sans mot” (Royer), suggesting that for her there exists a reality beyond language. Consistent with this sentiment is the epigraph to La honte, a quote from Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude (1982), which reads, in Ernaux's translation: “Le langage n'est pas la vérité. Il est notre manière d'exister dans l'univers.” The quote serves as a sort of caveat lector, a warning to the reader who puts too much faith in the author's ability to grasp and convey knowledge about truth or reality with words. Also consistent with the belief in a reality outside of language is the prominent place of the material—buildings, household objects, food, the body, etc.—in her books, particularly as wordless signs of social class. Yet of course, these very concrete things can only make an appearance in the literary text as words. In the absence of a better tool, then, Ernaux will use words to convey her vision of reality, and while they can never perfectly capture the real, she is nevertheless scrupulous, she says, in her lexical choices. In her texts, “il faut que les mots soient collés au plus près du réel. Il y a tout de même des mots qui coïncident plus que d'autres avec le réel” (Royer). Here Ernaux displays more practical faith in language than many other serious writers of her generation.

The narrator of La honte expresses her own reliance on language in her “recherche sur la réalité.” Yet some of her statements, such as the following, seem to contradict the contention that ultimately, reality lies outside of language. “Ce qui m'importe, c'est de retrouver les mots avec lesquels je me pensais et pensais le monde autour” (37). The grammar here suggests that what the narrator attempts to re-find (“retrouver”) are not the “real” self and world but rather those the girl had constructed through the language at her disposition, for both the self and “le monde autour” are direct objects of the verb penser. She says in the longer passage cited above that she will use these words like building blocks to take apart and put back together (“décomposer et remonter”) the girl's world, here recognizing that narration produces or reproduces only words and not things. But she goes further by saying that the words she will use to narrate her story will be “les mots qui me constituaient,” suggesting that not only is the girl represented in her narrative a verbal construct but so was the “real” one living in 1952. The reality she seeks, then, is not “sans mot” at all, but rather made up of nothing but words, is less a material given than a psychological, ideological construct. But here is perhaps a distinction that Ernaux's writing questions. Laurence Mall speaks of “la forte structure dichotomique du projet d'Ernaux, où le personnel et l'objectivité, l'affectif et le politique, le singulier et la généralité, l'individuel et le social, le privé et le public sont sans cesse contrastés et fondus” (47). La honte's narrator looks for signs of reality wherever she can, in both collective and individual memory, in both material objects and immaterial impressions, and both inside and outside of language. She continually attempts to close the gap between the terms of these binary oppositions and to discover/create a reality in which all these facets of human experience are included.

I have argued that the narrator's memories of the scene and of the summer in which it occurred resist integration into a coherent narrative. These memories, which persist for the most part as images and emotions, do not easily lend themselves to verbalization, and what words the narrator does manage to find to communicate them do not always satisfy her. Yet the memories' own resistance to integration, to linkage, is not the only resistance perceivable in the text. At one point the narrator formulates her project in the following way: “je vise peutêtre à dissoudre la scène indicible de mes douze ans dans la généralité des lois et du langage” (38). She would like, she says, to “dissolve” the scene's absolute singularity in the bath of collective language and to make sense of it in terms of general social, economic, historical, and psychological laws. In this way she could insure that her narrative would be neither a self-indulgent plunge into personal reminiscence nor a nostalgic and falsifying glimpse of a past way of life, but rather a pointed critique of social injustice grounded in personal experience. She aims at demystification but finds that such stripping away of illusion—her own—is indeed a very painful process:

Décrire pour la première fois, sans autre règle que la précision, des rues que je n'ai jamais pensées mais seulement parcourues durant mon enfance, c'est rendre lisible la hiérarchie sociale qu'elles contenaient. Sensation, presque, de sacrilège: remplacer la topographie douce des souvenirs, toute en impressions, couleurs, images … par une autre aux lignes dures qui la désenchante, mais dont l'évidente vérité n'est pas discutable par la mémoire elle-même.


Pleasurable sensory memories (“impressions, couleurs, images”) are rudely replaced by the harsh lines of narrative—literally black lines of type on a white page. These lines expose the social alienation of which the young girl was still happily unaware. Moreover, “depuis que j'ai réussi à faire ce récit,” the narrator remarks, “j'ai l'impression qu'il s'agit d'un événement banal, plus fréquent dans les familles que je ne l'avais imaginé. Peut-être que le récit, tout récit, rend normal n'importe quel acte, y compris le plus dramatique” (16-7). In re-reading the narrative of the scene, though written by her own hand, the narrator is perhaps reminded of other narratives of domestic violence she has read, in the faits divers section of the newspaper, for example, or in a women's magazine. Instead of consoling her, however, this recognition disturbs her. The unique drama of the scene seems to dissipate in its elaboration in narrative, as the unique drama of a play, performed by living actors in particular costumes in front of a particular decor, etc., might dissolve in its publication as text. Narrative renders “normal” all acts, the narrator comments, but normality, of course, is not necessarily desirable. “Être comme tout le monde était la visée générale” she says of the young girl's world, and the memory of such compulsory normalcy leaves the adult feeling claustrophobic rather than comforted (66, author's emphasis).

The narrator, however, is suspicious of the apparent banality of her experience. The words she has so carefully chosen strike her, upon re-reading them, as “étrangers, presque incongrus” (17); that is, they do not fit the images and emotions—products of the body and not the intellect, so indicibles in their very essence—they are meant to clothe. “For the survivor of trauma,” says Caruth,

the truth of the event may reside not only in its brutal facts, but also in the way that their occurrence defies simple comprehension. The flashback or traumatic reenactment conveys, that is, both the truth of an event, and the truth of its incomprehensibility. … [T]he capacity to remember [in narrative] is also the capacity to elide or distort.

(Caruth 153-4, author's emphasis)

Narrating the scene may “cure” La honte's narrator of some of its traumatic effects but only at the cost of falsifying her experience. She emphasizes throughout her narration that what she seeks is the reality of the scene and of her life that summer, but as she advances toward her goal she realizes that every gain is accompanied by a certain loss. Locked within her memory, the scene maintains its absolute singularity and drama, but this singularity of experience alienates her from others. Narrated, it loses some of its traumatic grip on the narrator, but it also suddenly seems banal, just another story of working-class domestic violence. As uncommunicated memory, the scene remains completely personal, but also isolating. Narrated, it becomes a potentially comforting lieu commun for the narrator and others like her, but it also becomes public, exposed to judgment and false interpretation like an unseemly fait divers. And finally, as memory, the scene is both maddeningly as well as romantically inexplicable. As narrative, it becomes comprehensible—its causes and effects graspable and communicable—but at the same time loses its mystery and even its power as creative source. Is the banalization of personal experience through exposure of it a fair price to pay for relief from the isolation and shame it produces? Does this exposure even secure such relief? Can the rational, ordered elaboration of memory in language ever be truly faithful to that memory? And finally, can such an elaboration of memory ever reveal the reality of the actual experience? For part of the truth of traumatic experience, as Caruth maintains, is precisely how it eludes conventional understanding. These are some of the questions the narrative raises but does not—perhaps cannot—definitively answer.

The narrator is aware of the “explanation” a psychotherapist would likely offer her: “Je n'attends rien de la psychanalyse ni d'une psychologie familiale dont je n'ai pas eu de peine à établir les conclusions rudimentaires depuis longtemps, mère dominatrice, père qui pulvérise sa soumission en un geste mortel, etc.” (31). Yet a socio-historical explanation, the one she initially attempts to uncover through her narrative, turns out to be unsatisfactory in its own way. The scene's reality lies, the narrator suspects, less in its cultural causes or its significance as “symptom” (of social or sexual oppression, for example) than in its effect—its very subjective effect—on the narrator.

The most obvious of these effects is that the scene's occurrence saddled the narrator with a henceforth unshakable feeling of shame, a sentiment from which she had been free as a little girl. An even greater, as well as much more positive, effect is the narrative drive it gave her. “Cette scène figée depuis des années,” she declares, “je veux la faire bouger pour lui enlever son caractère sacré d'icône à l'intérieur de moi (dont témoigne, par exemple, cette croyance qu'elle me faisait écrire, que c'est elle qui est au fond de mes livres)” (30-1). The scene, the narrator/author believes, is the seed not only of La honte but of all her other narratives as well. Part of her long-held reluctance to narrate the scene is an underlying belief, she says, that doing so would bring upon her some sort of punishment, “[p]eut-être celui de ne plus pouvoir écrire quoi que ce soit ensuite” (16), as if revealing the source of her creativity would destroy its power. For a long time the narrator both desired to shake the scene's spell and feared doing so. With La honte, desire finally overrides fear, but not without anxiety. In an interview about the writing of La honte, Ernaux reveals the following:

J'ai écrit d'une traite la scène du dimanche 15 juin 1952. … Pendant quatre ans, j'ai laissé de côté ces pages, j'ai “tourné” autour de la honte, comme d'une matière dans laquelle il faudrait plonger un jour ou l'autre. … [J]avais besoin de (re)prendre un thème, une période, déjà présents dans mes textes et de les soumettre à une autre approche, constamment. Comme si la “vérité” ne pouvait être obtenue que dans ces mouvements “tournants”.

(“Annie Ernaux” 146-47)

Ernaux brooded over her story, revisiting and reworking it, until the drive toward communication overrode the anxiety of disclosure. She was also aware that prior narrative evocations of the “same” psychic preoccupations were not satisfactory. In La place, she had already suspected that the exploration of childhood and family she had begun in Les armoires vides would not be soon completed: “L'écriture n'est pas une psychanalyse. Au bout de quatre livres, je ne suis pas débarrassée de ce qui est fondamental. Peut-être vais-je trouver d'autres biais pour évoquer cette coupure de façon différente” (“Le Silence ou la trahison?” 53). The “coupure” she speaks of here is somewhat ambiguous, but she seems to be referring to the gradual social separation from her parents she underwent during adolescence and young adulthood. Ernaux certainly has since found “d'autres biais” to represent this separation, and the compulsion to return to the same period and many of the same issues in almost all her texts indeed suggests the ultimate elusiveness of understanding and closure. It also confirms, I believe, the traumatic nature of the scene Ernaux considers to be at the origin of both her shame and her writing. As van der Kolk and van der Hart note, “the traumatized person has to return to the memory often in order to complete it,” that is, to grasp its significance, to integrate it into the life-narrative each one of us constructs, and so finally to eliminate its pathology (176). Through her writing, Ernaux makes frequent trips to “Y.,” but the paths she takes to get there—that is, the memories she taps and the words she chooses to evoke them—are always different, and it is through these differences that she is perhaps able to gain ever more understanding with each journey.

In the end, though, just how much understanding has La honte's narrator gained? Has this narrative exercise brought her closer to weaving the scene's memory into her life-text? Some of her closing comments suggest in fact that it has not: “J'ai mis au jour les codes et les règles des cercles où j'étais enfermée. J'ai répertorié les langages qui me traversaient et constituaient ma perception de moi-même et du monde. Nulle part il n'y avait de place pour la scène du dimanche de juin” (108). The puzzle piece still does not fit. Yet narration has thrown some light on a certain reality: not the kind history books describe in narrative, but rather the kind one feels intuitively and viscerally, through the exploration of sense memory:9

Après chacune des images de cet été, ma tendance naturelle serait d'écrire “alors j'ai découvert que” ou “je me suis aperçue de” mais ces mots supposent une conscience claire des situations vécues. Il y a eu seulement la sensation de honte qui les a fixées hors de toute signification. Mais rien ne peut faire que je n'aie éprouvé cela, cette lourdeur, cette néantisation. Elle est la dernière vérité.


The sensation—the imprint of experience on the body—tells more truth than any narrative ever could, yet it is precisely the process of narration that has led the narrator to this “dernière vérité.” “C'est elle,” this “sensation de honte,” “qui unit la fille de 52 à la femme en train d'écrire” (126). Indeed it is this truth that has made the girl into the “femme en train d'écrire.” It has driven her—and will continue to do so, I imagine—to generate a continuous narrative that, while always just missing the mark (the impossible reality of the scene), nevertheless turns about it (tourner autour) in more and more compelling ways.


  1. These more or less explicitly autobiographical accounts are: Les armoires vides (1974), Ce qu'ils disent ou rien (1977), La femme gelée (1981), La place (1984) and Une femme (1988). In a recent article, Lorraine Day shows that there are lexical and thematic similarities between Ce qu'ils disent ou rien and La honte and convincingly argues that there are veiled, perhaps unconscious allusions to the experience revealed in La honte in this earlier text. Presently I will maintain much the same thing about La place.

  2. La place 24, All page numbers given for Ernaux's text previous to La honte refer to the Folio editions. Those for La honte refer to the NRF edition.

  3. According to Gérard Genette, with a paralipsis “the narrative does not skip over a moment of time, as in an ellipsis, but it sidesteps a given element (52 author's emphasis); that is, the narrative conceals a certain element of the story only to reveal it later on.

  4. By defining the narrator's experience as trauma, I in no way mean to trivialize the term, which may first call to mind such horrific experiences as live combat or death camp imprisonment. According to Cathy Caruth, “the pathology [of trauma] cannot be defined … by the event itself—which may or may not be catastrophic, and may not traumatize everyone equally” (4). Simplistically (or tautologically) speaking, a “traumatic” event is any event that leaves a witness with symptoms of trauma. I will define these symptoms.

  5. This reference is to Psychological Trauma.

  6. This reference is to L'évolution de la mémoire et la notion du temps.

  7. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th. ed., gives this definition as “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment” (477).

  8. Also quoted by van der Kolk and van der Hart, 177.

  9. In her post-Auschwitz memoirs, Charlotte Delbo names “mémoire du sens,” or sense memory, memory that recalls past experiences not as narrative (as does “intellectual memory”) but rather as sensorial impressions that indefinitely conserve their original (and most often distressing) physical impact (14). Delbo's personal and very poetic description of this kind of memory, which has much in common with traumatic memory, evokes perhaps better than any clinical definition what this memory is and what its recall feels like to the person remembering.

Works Cited

Auster, Paul. The Invention of Solitude, 1982. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Caruth, Cathy, “Recapturing the Past: Introduction,” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995.

Day, Lorraine. “Fiction, Autobiography and Annie Ernaux's Evolving Project as a Writer: A Study of Ce qu'ils disent ou rien.Romance Studies 17:1 (1999): 89-103.

Delbo, Charlotte. La Mémoire et les jours. Paris: Berg Intl., 1985.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th. ed. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1994.

Ernaux, Annie. “Annie Ernaux ou l'autobiographie en question.” Interview with Philippe Vilain. Romans 50/90 24 (1997): 141-47.

———. Les armoires vides. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

———. Ce qu'ils disent ou rien. Paris: Gallimard, 1977.

———. “Entretien avec Annie Ernaux.” Interview with Claire-Lise Tondeur. French Review 69 (1995): 37-44.

———. Une femme. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

———. La femme gelée. Paris: Gallimard, 1981.

———. La honte. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

———. “Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit.” Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

———. Passion simple. Paris: Gallimard, 1991.

———. La place. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.

———. “Le Silence ou la trahison?” Interview with Jean-Jacques Gibert. Révolution 260 (22 Feb 1985): 523.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980.

Janet, Pierre. L'Evolution de la mémoire et la notion du temps, Paris: Cahine, 1928.

Langer, Lawrence. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1991.

Mall, Laurence. “‘Moins seule et factice’: la part autobiographique dans Une femme d'Annie Ernaux.” French Review 69-1 (1995) 45-54.

Royer, Jean. “Pour que s'abolisse la barrière entre la littérature et la vie.” Le Devoir 26 Mar. 1988: D1.

Van der Kolk, Bessel A. Psychological Trauma. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1987.

———. “Trauma and Memory.” In Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, Ed. Bessel A. van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane and Lars Weisaeth. New York: Guilford Press, 1996.

———, and Onno van der Hart. “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995.

Lucy Dallas (review date 27 April 2001)

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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 véridiques.” This truthfulness has led her to publish not only a bleak account of her mother's decline and death (Une femme, 1998), but also her own diary on which the book was based (“Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit,” 1997). Here the same tactic is employed; in 1991, she published a short book called Passion simple, a first-person history of an affair between the narrator, a woman writer called Annie, and a married Russian diplomat living in France. Now she has released another book on the same subject, but without any pretence at authorial distance; Se perdre is Ernaux's diary covering the eighteen months or so of the affair.

In an introduction, she tells us that the journal remains wholly unedited, except that initials are used to protect others. Her lover is referred to throughout simply as “S”, though with all the details disclosed about him here he must be easily identifiable; Ernaux admits to publishing the journals without consulting him or even caring what he thinks, and she acknowledges that he may see the act as “… un abus de pouvoir littéraire, voire [une] trahison”. However, this is dismissed in the service of what she prizes in the diary: “une vérité autre que celle contenue dans Passion simple. Quelque chose de cru et de noir, sans salut, quelque chose d'oblation.

It is easy to believe that the diary has not been embellished; this really does seem to be a day-to-day account, concerned not with who said what to whom, how work was or what was in the news, but when S rings, how long he stays, what they do together and where. Here is a shortened version of Tuesday, November 15:

L'attente commence au réveil. … La peur qu'il ne puisse venir, tenaillante. … 16 heures. Je me souviendrai de ces superbes après-midi de novembre, pleins de soleil. Cette attente de S. Le bruit de voiture qui annonce l'entrée dans un autre temps, celui justement où le temps disparaît, remplacé par le désir. Minuit. … Il a trop bu. … Il veut faire l'amour, dans l'entrée, puis la cuisine. … Encore plus de désir.

The reader is spared nothing in terms of intimacy, to the extent that Ernaux lets us know that she lost her contact lens at one point only to find it on her lover's penis. As well as external details, she also records her thoughts, feelings and her lengthy dreams, which end up trying the patience of the reader; the temptation to skip is very strong. As the affair continues, S rings less and less often, and Ernaux is prey to more and more doubt, wondering if he loves her, when he will call, if he has another woman (another other woman); the tone is that of a neurotic adolescent. Ernaux is aware of her dependence on S, but reluctant to change the situation; she seems to want to put herself completely at his mercy and see what happens:

Je ne peux pas dire que les hommes me perdent, ce n'est que mon désir qui me perd, la soumission à (ou à la quête de) quelque chose de terrible, que je ne comprends pas, né dans l'union avec un corps, et aussitôt disparu.

The diary is clearly the work of someone who cares about writing and knows how to write, and there are passages of poetic intensity in the book. But it lacks the skill and coherence of Passion simple. Since literary merit or effort is not the issue, certain questions present themselves—why was this book published? Is the illustrious house of Gallimard functioning as Annie Ernaux's therapist? And what is it that makes Passion simple a better book? Se perdre is powerful, yet Passion simple does the same thing, only better; the way it mixes fact and fiction makes it more open-ended as a story, giving the reader more possibilities, and the craft in the writing combines with this to make it a more satisfying work of art. In this diary, Ernaux tells us at one point: “j'écris mes histories d'amour et je vis mes livres”. Perhaps it is again time to try the other way round.

Elizabeth Richardson Viti (essay date summer 2001)

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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, recounts the author's heretofore hidden affair with a foreign businessman living temporarily in France. Dissatisfied with Ernaux's account, Gérard assumes the lover's identity and chronicles events from his perspective, making Madame, c'est à vous que j'écris, published four years later, an explicit response to Passion simple. The result is a rare literary “tac au tac” very much in the public eye, in which a man and a woman both wish to tell their side of the story about a past sexual relationship. Furthermore, as is so often the case in these disputes, the two stories simply do not jibe, and there are reproaches, recriminations, accusations, and counter-accusations. However, it seems to me that what is most intriguing about this unusual pair is their disagreement over the definition of desire, and thus, how they illustrate the fundamental feminist notion that gender informs writing as well as reading.

For her part, Ernaux maintains that her narrative is not a betrayal of her former lover: “Il m'avait dit ‘tu n'écriras pas un livre sur moi.’ Mais je n'ai pas écrit un livre sur lui, ni même sur moi. J'ai seulement rendu en mots … ce que son existence, par elle seule, m'a apporté” ‘He'd told me “you will not write a book about me.” But I didn't write a book about him or even about me. I only put into words … what his existence alone gave me’ (76-77).1 Her goal is not to locate the source of her passion nor to explain it, but simply to expose it, privileging, at the same time, a suspension of all moral judgment. To this end, she refuses to make literature and, instead, reports events in an “écriture plate” ‘expressionless writing’ which both avoids the literary and intimately links the “je” ‘I’ to the author herself (Golopentia 86). Although, as she reiterates in an interview, Ernaux rejects the stereotypical love story framework, “pas ‘d'histoire,’ avec coup de foudre” ‘no ‘affair,’ with love at first sight’ (Tondeur 40), the traditional fictional female posture of the narrator contradicts her disclaimer that Passion simple is not a literary text.2 Ernaux portrays a woman with “un homme sans arrêt dans la tête” ‘a man constantly in her head’ (24) who falls victim to “l'éternel féminin” ‘the eternal feminine;’ and unexpectedly, the feminism found in her first novels, especially La femme gelée (A Frozen Woman), gives way to the demands of femininity (Morris 107):

Une nouvelle femme est née pendant cette liaison, elle est devenue coquette et narcissique, cherchant constamment à plaire. … Pour plaire à son amant, la narratrice retrouve les gestes de l'éternel féminin, qu'elle avait toujours dénoncés, ménage irréprochable, maquillage soigné, disponibilité illimitée, effacement de toute volonté propre, complaisance sans limite de femme-objet qui apprend à tolérer et même aimer ce qu'elle détestait auparavant.

A new woman was born during this relationship; she became coquettish and narcissistic, constantly seeking to please. … In order to satisfy her lover, the narrator rediscovers the gestures of the eternal feminine that she had always denounced—irreproachable housekeeping, careful makeup, unlimited availability, disappearance of all willpower, the endless accommodation of a woman as object who learns to tolerate and even like what she detested in the past.

(“Erotica/Pornorotica” 202)

Indeed, the first few words of this narrative of desire (after a brief explanation of the text's purpose) illustrate unequivocally Ernaux's dependence on a man: “A partir du mois de septembre l'année dernière, je n'ai plus rien fait d'autre qu'attendre un homme” ‘Last year, from the month of September on, I did nothing else but wait for a man’ (13). It is he who, with a phone call, decides when the two will meet. These calls are last-minute and infrequent and Ernaux's life revolves around waiting for the next one, her anxiety growing as the previous call/encounter recedes further into the past. So essential are they, and so fearful is she that an unforeseen event might prevent a call, that Ernaux superstitiously resorts to giving money to beggars or promises a donation to some charitable organization to ensure the ring of the telephone. When the phone does ring, Ernaux enters “une autre attente, sans pensée, sans désir même” ‘another wait, without thought, even without desire.’ Moreover, she later confesses, “J'aurais voulu n'avoir rien d'autre à faire que l'attendre” ‘I would have wanted to have nothing else to do but wait’ (17) … “je ne voulais pas détourner mon esprit vers autre chose que l'attente de A.; ne pas gâcher celle-ci” ‘I didn't want to focus my mind on anything other than waiting for A.: not to spoil this’ (18). Ernaux even admits that the thought of breaking up is intolerable because she cannot face a series of days without anything to wait for (45+), and in fact, once the affair is over, it is the memory of waiting that is most painful. Simply put, Passion simple quickly emerges as a narrative of desire that focuses on waiting and that privileges anticipation of the lover rather than the man himself.

Because he is virtual absence, Ernaux's portrait of her lover is shadowy, a vagueness she attributes to her desire to protect the identity of this married man. Thus, his name is never divulged and he is always referred to as A., although his true first initial is S. But it is also a function of Ernaux's inability to know her lover completely, despite efforts at intimacy: “J'avais le privilège de vivre depuis le début, constamment, en toute conscience, ce qu'on finit toujours par découvrir dans la stupeur et le désarroi: l'homme qu'on aime est un étranger” ‘I had the privilege of living from the very beginning, constantly and in total awareness, what we always end up discovering in amazement and confusion: the man we love is a stranger’ (36). The differences between Ernaux and her lover only serve to enhance this inevitable alienation. He is from an Eastern European country and not totally at home in the French language. In addition, at thirty-eight A. is younger than Ernaux, his youthful appearance enhancing this age disparity. Finally, while A.'s material tastes are highbrow—Saint Laurent suits and Cerruti ties, for example—he is otherwise lowbrow, exhibiting no interest in the intellectual or artistic that is so much a part of the author's life. Ernaux herself refers to him as a “rustre” ‘boor,’ demystifying her lover and refusing to crown him with a romantic halo (Morris 107), while obsessing over him at the same time.

Furthermore, it is evident that A., the active agent who initiates the encounters between Ernaux and himself, becomes little more than the object of female desire once in her company. He is reduced to pure libido and the reader has no sense that Ernaux and A. engage in any activities other than lovemaking. There is no record of museums visited, concerts heard, films or plays seen, meals shared, or gifts exchanged. There is not even any record of conversation. The only time Ernaux puts words in A.'s mouth, they are, in what might be called reverse irony, “caresse-moi le sexe avec ta bouche” ‘go down on me’ (21). On the one hand, Ernaux appears somewhat embarrassed at being in thrall to desire: she makes sure her two sons never discover this liaison and never speaks of it to anyone for fear of being labeled crazy. But on the other hand, she wishes to exploit it for all it is worth because she knows it cannot last:

Je calculais combien de fois nous avions fait l'amour. J'avais l'impression que, à chaque fois, quelque chose de plus s'était ajouté à notre relation mais aussi que c'était cette même accumulation de gestes et de plaisir qui allait sûrement nous éloigner l'un de l'autre. On épuisait un capital de désir. Ce qui était gagné dans l'ordre de l'intensité physique était perdu dans celui du temps.

I calculated how many times we had made love. I had the impression that each time something more had been added to our relationship but also that it was this same accumulation of acts and of pleasure that was surely going to distance us from one another. We were exhausting our capital of desire. What was gained in physical intensity was lost in time.


Ernaux appears content to limit her knowledge of A. to only one thing: the presence or absence of desire.

When Alain Gérard responds to Ernaux in this “he said, she said” exchange, he first rejects her statement that Passion simple is not a betrayal. He appropriates A.'s persona and, free to break the silence, complains in a delicious play on words that hers is a transgression each had sworn to forego: “Nous nous étions promis de ne jamais rien livrer de notre secret” ‘We had promised one another never to reveal anything of our secret’ (16; emphasis added).3 Now compelled to reply, he writes a lengthy letter to Ernaux which eventually becomes Madame, c'est à vous que j'écris. Thus, in direct contrast to Ernaux, who uses reportage to describe impersonally the impact of their relationship on her, Gérard uses this epistolary form to personalize his narrative. He passionately targets his former lover who, to his mind, has misrepresented their relationship whereas Ernaux dispassionately examines a phenomenon in human relations. His is a traditional narrative where, instead of an inventory of the lover's absence and presence, the reader finds references to events from their first encounter to their break-up. Most important, he wants to resuscitate in his text the very romantic model that Annie Ernaux eschews, seeing its absence as the source of Ernaux's misrepresentation:

L'Autre de l'amour n'est plus alors un rêve refusant d'être réduit à une simple attente, il existe et veut survivre à la passion qu'il suscite. Ce fut donc sans doute aux amoureux du monde que j'eus envie d'écrire.

Love's Other is no longer, then, a dream refusing to be reduced to simple waiting; he exists and wants to survive the passion he provokes. It was, thus, undoubtedly to the lovers of the world that I wanted to write.


Not surprisingly, then, Gérard insists on providing the narrative with a full blown hero because Ernaux “ignorait la voix, le discours, les regards, les souvenirs de l'homme espéré” ‘disregarded the voice, the speech, the expressions, the memories of this longed for man’ (10). (In fact, exploiting Ernaux's own words, he notes somewhat sarcastically that if more men recorded their sentiments “il existerait … des montagnes de mots superbes et maladroits écrits par de faux rustres” ‘there would exist mountains of superb if awkward words written by fake boors.’ For women, “leur cavalier serait moins étranger” ‘their knight would be less a stranger’ [13; emphasis added].) First, he offers an explanation of his past reticence about himself and their relationship, saying that it was difficult to speak candidly because she did not understand his native language nor did he speak hers adequately for such a task. So it is that he wishes to explain himself now (32). Then, as is so often the case in these “he said, she said” scenarios, Gérard decides to set the record straight. For example, he disproves what she represents as seeming inattention by describing what Ernaux was wearing for their first encounter; he calls into question her memory by recounting time spent beyond her apartment walls—“des échappées superbes vers le Midi ou vers le froid. Souvenez-vous!” ‘superb getaways to the South or toward cold climes. Remember!’ (38); and he refutes Ernaux's assertion that he never gave her gifts by recalling an African necklace: “vous le portiez toujours” ‘you always wore it’ (48). In short, Gérard wants to prove Ernaux's lover to be much more than the lout of Passion simple.

To realize this project, however, he must release A. from the narrowly circumscribed confines of sex object:

Je ne suis pas cet homme sans âme, sans mots, sans rêves de vous, palpable mais inaudible, cet homme-là tout près mais virtuel, un homme d'une grandiose insignifiance, un moujik d'alcôve, la pièce manquante à votre échiquier de femme.

I am not that man without a soul, without words, without dreams of you, palpable but inaudible, that man so close yet latent, a man of spectacular insignificance, a love slave, the missing piece to your woman's chessboard.


Furthermore, Gérard is dismayed that Ernaux should now imply, by this impoverished portrait of her lover, that she wanted more than she got from the relationship. He appears to ask the traditional Freudian question “What does a woman want?” for he goes on to insist that the role of boy toy had nothing to do with him as a person and everything to do with the situation Ernaux created:

J'ai très tôt pensé que vous ne vouliez pas m'aimer, plûtot m'avoir. J'ai eu envie de vous parler de moi, de vous livrer mes lieux d'enfance, la couleur de mes jouets, l'histoire du cerf-volant. … Les mots de ma vie ne vous concernaient pas, vous vouliez autre chose.

Very early on I thought that you didn't want to love me, but rather to have me. I had the urge to talk to you about me, to reveal my childhood hiding places, the color of my toys, the story about my kite. … Words about my life didn't concern you; you wanted something else.


But Gérard takes his reproach one step further: he sees in Ernaux's portrait of A. the lover's total emasculation. He claims that first Ernaux reduces the lover to pure sex and then she deprives him of his sex organ: “Choisissant d'oublier qu'un homme ne se réduit pas, même s'il le craint parfois, à la protubérance oblongue qui orne les statues, taisant la part la plus crue de notre vérité, vous l'avez affaiblie” ‘Choosing to forget that a man isn't reduced, even if he sometimes fears it, to that oblong protuberance that adorns statues, silencing the crudest part of our true nature, you weakened it’ (63).

This points the way to what ultimately disturbs Gérard most in Ernaux's narrative. He understands that she can do without her lover (men's worst fear) and protests, “Je cherchais une histoire, la nôtre. J'ai trouvé l'onanisme de l'attente” ‘I was looking for a story, ours. I found the masturbatory exercise of waiting’ (17). And it is this fixation on waiting that the male author finds most intolerable, asking Ernaux if this is all that is worth talking about: “Ces moments de rencontre seraient-ils ineffables, seule l'attente serait-elle dicible?” ‘Would these encounters be unutterable and would only waiting be speakable?’ (18). The result is that Gérard himself comes back to this focus time and again, using the words attendre ‘to wait’ or attente ‘wait’ forty-five times in the course of his eighty-page text, almost twice the number of times Ernaux uses these same words. He accuses Ernaux of hiding herself, as well as the real story, behind the act of waiting and, of course, of making her lover essentially invisible. But his strongest criticism is reserved for what he sees as Ernaux's desexualization of waiting and, consequently, her desexualization of desire:

De cette attente dont vous faites un livre, vous ne dévoilez qu'une face. Vous décrivez ses temps, ses mécanismes, et vous omettez le corps même de l'attente, la force intérieure énorme, violente, accumulée au cours des heures qui précédaient nos rendez-vous, la sensualité sourde, profonde, progressive, jusqu'au moment de la rencontre.

You only expose one side of this wait which comprises your book. You describe its stages, its mechanisms, yet you omit the very body of waiting, the enormous and violent internal force accumulated over the course of the hours that preceded our encounters, the silent, deep, and progressive sensuality until the moment of meeting.


Thus, it appears that at the center of this dispute is a disagreement over the definition of desire. In fact, it appears that to Gérard's mind Ernaux's real breach of trust is to speak openly about female sexuality, a candor much more audacious than the revelation of a secret relationship with a married man and all the more compelling because of the straightforward oral quality of her “écriture plate.” As Michelle Bacholle points out, “Si la femme a le droit au plaisir, elle doit se le procurer dans certaines limites si elle ne veut pas subir le blâme, si elle veut se faire respecter, et surtout elle ne doit pas l'ébruiter” ‘If a woman has a right to pleasure, she must obtain it within certain limits if she doesn't want to be subjected to blame, if she wants to be respected, and she must especially not let word get out about it’ (“Passion simple d'Annie Ernaux” 125-26; emphasis added). And because women have so long been silent, it is no surprise that Ernaux, who as early as her first novel Les armoires vides (Cleaned Out) wanted to speak the unspeakable (Morris 102), depicts a female desire that does not meet male expectations—an outcome foreseen by Luce Irigaray in her essay “Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un” (“This Sex Which Is Not One” [25]). The key reason is that Irigaray's text does not focus on the phallus, around which desire has traditionally revolved (“L'attention quasi-exclusive—et combien angoissé …—portée sur l'érection dans la sexualité occidentale prouve à quel point l'imaginaire qui la commande est étranger au féminin” ‘The quasi-exclusive—and very anxiety ridden …—attention focused on erection in Western sexuality proves to what degree the imaginary that orders it is foreign to the feminine’ [Irigaray 24]). Nothing makes this disappearing act clearer than the contrast between the book's opening pages and what follows. Ernaux is hypnotized by an X-rated film on Canal +, the image all the more compelling because, without a “décodeur” ‘decoder,’ she cannot make out the words. She describes a tight camera shot which privileges the penis, first moving back and forth in a vagina, but then reappearing “entre la main de l'homme, et le sperme s'est répandu sur le ventre de la femme” ‘in the man's hand, and the sperm spilled onto the woman's stomach’ (12). Subsequently, the male sex organ vanishes from the text, and in this way, Ernaux subtly announces a different discourse of desire, one which appears initially similar to the “bruitage étrange, grésillements, clapotis, une sorte d'autre langage, doux et ininterrompu” ‘strange sound effects, crackling, lapping, a sort of other language, soft and uninterrupted’ (11; emphasis added) that accompanies the X-rated sex scene.

Indeed, Ernaux examines an elsewhere, an ailleurs, that is both more consistent with female speech—it is useless to pin women down because “elles sont déjà ailleurs que dans cette machinerie discursive où vous prétendiez les surprendre” ‘they are already somewhere other than in this discursive machinery where you were claiming to surprise them’ (Irigaray 28)—and with what Irigaray sees as the plurality of female desire: “Sa sexualité, toujours au moins double, est encore plurielle” ‘Her sexuality, always at least double, is, what is more, plural (27). Stylistically, she creates an elsewhere by fusing traditionalist and progressive elements and by using romantic clichés to create a text diametrically opposed to romance (Thirty Voices 203-04). Moreover, this explains a narrator who is both sex object and sexual subject, caught somewhere between woman as victim, seduced then abandoned, and the woman who affirms pleasure as a luxury, and perfectly illustrates Irigaray's fundamental notion that woman resists definitive characterization. As Claire Marrone points out:

Ernaux … grapples with the revisionary task of granting the modern-day heroine a new narrative role. Just as Ernaux situates her protagonist somewhere in between our dependent foremothers and our sexually liberated sisters, she endeavors to express through narrative a moment between past and present. Likewise, she recounts not a life story from beginning to end, but a lyrical moment “somewhere in the middle.”


More important, this elsewhere is evident in the exclusive female space of Ernaux's apartment where all her encounters with A. take place. There, time as well as space are abolished: once her lover arrives, she immediately takes off her watch and her home becomes a “territoire exigu de leurs ébats passionnés … le lieu clos par excellence” ‘restricted territory of their passionate reveling … the quintessential self-contained world’ (Thirty Voices 201). Rather, Ernaux creates “le temps de la passion” ‘passion time,’ a time which embodies and expresses amorous desire and which is beyond both past and present (Ernaux 66).

Furthermore, this ailleurs privileges the female imaginary—and demonstrates that women are as libidinous as men. Ernaux is no longer living in the world of the real but rather in a dream world: the lover becomes a screen on which desire is projected and reality is nothing more than the triumph of the imaginary (Thirty Voices 202). That is why Ernaux makes a point of citing a Marie-Claire interview in which the daughter of a spouseless parent says that her mother's lovers only serve to make her dream. Ernaux comments, “Quel meilleur service?” ‘What better favor?’ (26). For her part, Ernaux sees it as her god-given right to avoid whatever prevents her from giving herself up unreservedly to the imaginary sensations and narratives of her passion:

Dans le R.E.R., le métro, les salles d'attente, tous les lieux où il est autorisé de ne se livrer à aucune occupation, sitôt assise, j'entrais dans une rêverie de A. A la seconde juste où je tombais dans cet état, il se produisait dans ma tête un spasme de bonheur. J'avais l'impression de m'abandonner à un plaisir physique, comme si le cerveau, sous l'afflux répété des mêmes images, des mêmes souvenirs, pouvait jour, qu'il soit un organe sexuel pareil aux autres.

On the commuter train, the subway, in waiting rooms, all the places where it's permissible, once seated, to do nothing, I began dreaming about A. Right at the second that I fell into this state, a flash of happiness came over me. I had the impression that I was giving myself over to a physical pleasure, as if the brain, under the repeated rush of the same images, the same memories, could reach orgasm, were a sex organ similar to the others.


Ernaux also has a remarkable ability to conjure up the details of A.'s body from head to toe, whether the lock of hair which falls on his forehead or the slope of his shoulders. Interestingly enough, in view of the importance of touch in female sexuality (“La femme jouit plus du toucher que du regard …” ‘Woman takes more pleasure in touching than in looking’ [Irigaray 25]), she is also able to feel her lover: “Je sentais ses dents, l'intérieur de sa bouche, la forme de ses cuisses, le grain de sa peau” ‘I felt his teeth, the inside of his mouth, the shape of his thighs, the texture of his skin.’ Most noteworthy is the way in which this activity leads her to the onanism of Gérard's complaint: “Une fois, à plat ventre, je me suis fait jouir, il m'a semblé que c'était sa jouissance à lui” ‘Once, flat on my stomach, I made myself come; it seemed to me that it was his orgasm’ (54).

Significantly, Passion simple appears to be a superb example of what Peter Michelson, in Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity, calls pornorotica, a term that combines pornography and erotica to describe works which are sexually explicit but which examine the female libido for a female audience—in other words, yet another elsewhere.4 In fact, the text quickly becomes an epistemological tool for the investigation of female nature. Ernaux's emphasis on the female imaginary demonstrates how “to acknowledge one's fantasies—whether it is telling one's lover or neighbor or publishing them in a book—is for women not only to assert their sexual will but to help present their terms for the continuing sexual dialectic” (Michelson 190; emphasis added). This dialectic has an ontological focus that explores the nature of female being and a political focus that explores power relations between (or within) genders. Ernaux exploits her role as sex object to explore her sexual identity. Thus, she never feels her metamorphosis as submission but, instead, as a means of exploring her sexual identity, contradicting the notion—held by many feminists—that a sex object necessarily cannot be a subject.5 Ernaux seems to agree with a frequent lesbian feminist position that power is neither bad nor good but instead an existential reality demonstrating that conscious and consensual submission is not weakness but, instead, part of a cyclic rather than one-directional flow of power (226). For her part, Ernaux notes, “grâce à lui, je me suis approchée de la limite qui me sépare de l'autre, au point d'imaginer parfois la franchir” ‘thanks to him, I approached the boundary that separates me from the other, so as to imagine sometimes crossing it’ (76). Indeed, as Irigaray notes (and as Ernaux asserts from the beginning): “Le propre, la propriété sont assez étrangers au féminin. Du moins sexuellement. Mais non le proche. Le si proche que toute discrimination d'identité en devient impossible” ‘Ownership and property are quite foreign to the feminine. At least sexually. But not closeness. It is a closeness that makes all identity distinctions impossible’ (30). Finally, because it is a narrative that portrays masturbation alone (Ernaux seems to flaunt her onanism as the perfect, and symmetrical, response to the X-rated actor holding his penis to ejaculate), it boldly underscores female sexual autonomy, re-establishing for women a sexual identity that Irigaray notes as their birthright: “son sexe qui fait qu'il se re-touche indéfiniment lui-même, cette jouissance est déniée par une civilisation qui privilégie le phallomorphisme” ‘her sex which allows her to touch herself indefinitely, this orgasm is denied by a civilization which privileges phallomorphism’ (26). Ultimately it is a feminist narrative which empowers women through the medium that Irigaray calls upon women to use—la parole, the word (32).

Suddenly, in this “he said, she said” debate, the stakes are much higher than the simple telling of the other side of the story, or for that matter, the challenge by Gérard's two female friends to create such a response. That is why Gérard addresses himself not just to Ernaux but to all the lovers in the world, saying, as the promotional red band folded onto Madame c'est à vous que j'écris defiantly cries out, that this simple passion is not so simple—“Pas si simple!” He reacts to Ernaux's pornorotica, finding it hard to believe that a woman might describe the female libido in a way that no longer places it at the service of the male. He refuses to believe that a woman could forego love in a sexual relationship, that she could enjoy sex in and of itself and, furthermore, that masturbation should play such an essential role. Ironically, he must convince this woman willing to do without love that A.'s lovemaking, seen by Ernaux as strictly physical (“Sans doute rien d'autre que cela justement, faire l'amour” ‘Undoubtedly nothing other than exactly that, to have sex’ [35]), was much more significant. Thus, there is a certain disingenuosness, not to mention presumption, in Gérard's claim that women want love first and foremost, and that is why he intends to return this missing emotion to the narrative of desire: “Il fallut à votre amant, pour vous aimer ainsi, bien d'autres sentiments intimes que ceux que vous prêtez à A.: Il fallait qu'il vous aime” ‘Your lover needed, in order to love you in this way, many other intimate feelings than those you ascribe to A.: he needed to love you’ (69). What he really wishes to do is use the paradigmatic love story to put women in their place. In short, Gérard, representing all men in this dialectic about desire, becomes the quintessential male reader and writes a querulous rejoinder to reinstate male power: “Ce que j'ai écrit ne vous plaira peut-être pas, tant pis” ‘What I wrote won't perhaps please you, too bad’ (70).

This is why instinctively, and ironically, he, too, wishes to place the lovers' story elsewhere: “Notre histoire fut ailleurs” ‘Our story was elsewhere’ (34). Of course this elsewhere is in direct opposition to the ailleurs that Ernaux describes. The first thing that Gérard must do is reappropriate for A. what is, to his mind, the lover's rightful role. To do this he must make the lover an active agent and re-establish his primacy in the sexual economy, making the woman “que support, plus ou moins complaisant, à la mise en acte des fantasmes de l'homme” ‘only a support, more or less accommodating, for the realization of man's fantasies’ (Irigaray 25). He must make the lover attractive enough to divert female attention from the masturbatory pleasure that is, as Irigaray notes, the very essence of femaleness simply because “La femme se touche” ‘Woman touches herself’ (24). Thus, he speaks, in particular, to “Les jeunes filles … repliées sur ce creux délicieux qu'elles espèrent et redoutent ouvrir, le moment venu, à l'homme” ‘Young girls … folded up on this delightful valley that they hope and fear to open, at the right moment, to a man’ (65). To this end, A. must also be made whole once again, and not simply by reassuming his genitalia. His demotion to playing second fiddle to female desire limits his masculinity, dichotomizing him in the same way fictional females have been traditionally bifurcated and making him erotically meaningful while intellectually meaningless.6 He puts A. back together again and the result is a lover who is both sexually powerful—“fais-le-moi encore, fais-le-moi fort” ‘do it to me again, do it harder’ cries his lover (43)—and spiritually enriching—“Je voudrais, Madame, poémiser, non pas l'attente, mais la présence du désir” ‘I would like, Madam, to poetize, not waiting, but desire’ (27). Furthermore, he recounts moments the lovers spend together beyond her apartment walls, resulting in a space where the body returns to the body of this text—“le corps hermaphrodite que nous formions” ‘the hermaphroditic body that we comprised’ (44)—and where the male imaginary usurps the female. “Jouissiez-vous, ce jour-là, de l'idée de déchirure, de violence subie, d'assauts imposés?” ‘Did you take pleasure that day in the idea of ripping, of violence sustained, assaults imposed?’ (39), he asks—imposing on her the female degradation so essential to male pornography.

Indeed, Gérard must rectify the situation forcefully, so to speak, because he understands the power of this space which he labels Ernaux's “royaume” ‘kingdom’ (31) and where she is in charge of the “mise en scène” ‘staging’ (33) for each encounter: “Rien ni personne ne pouvait empêcher le libre déroulement de cet événement que vous aviez décidé” ‘Nothing nor no one could prevent the smooth unfolding of this event that you had decided’ (32-33). He concedes that it took him a long time to understand the pleasure that she took in waiting but then realized that “L'attente, en occupant vos pensées, irriguait votre ventre d'une passion simple” ‘Occupying your thoughts, waiting supplied your loins with a simple passion’ (34), and that the certainty of his arrival because he wanted her, and her alone, made her “maîtresse du monde” ‘master of the world’ (32). And in contrast to past lovers whom he had to “vaincre” ‘vanquish’ (35), Ernaux welcomed him and wanted him immediately. Not surprisingly, then, Gérard suggests a spiderweb when describing desire within this female space: “Pris dans la toile soyeuse du désir que vous provoquiez, je fus sans doute pour le coup quelque peu étranger” ‘Caught in the silky web of desire, that you set up, this time I was undoubtedly somewhat a stranger’ (51; emphasis added). Clearly the female defines desire in this economy and because this is the case, the lover is in unfamiliar territory, a woven maze with no exit. He even hints through homonymy that within this space the lover is female himself, supporting the psychoanalytic notion that men and women alike look for the mother in the lover: “Dans l'amour vous jouiez comme une enfant avec la mer, plaisir de prendre en vous mes mouvements et mes vagues, de les retourner, de vous en remplir” ‘In love you played like a child in the sea, taking pleasure in welcoming within you my motion and my waves, returning them, filling yourself up with them’ (41; emphasis added).7 Finally, Gérard even seems to understand that, hoping to elicit a reaction, Ernaux explicitly addresses herself to other women in Passion simple, “comme si vous attendiez que d'autres parlent de l'attente” ‘as if you were expecting others to talk about waiting’ (71). And in fact, many women have reacted differently than men to Ernaux's work, seeing it not as a simple confession but rather as an exculpatory text (Marrone 84).

Consequently, Madame, c'est à vous que j'écris quickly emerges as a settling of accounts in which each partner wishes to lay claim to desire. It gives the lie to Gérard's claim that while together the lovers had spoken a common language of desire: “Nous avions, du désir, fait langue commune, sans rien en dire” ‘We had made desire our common langauge, without saying anything about it’ (56). That Ernaux and A. are incapable of real communication is not because his French is poor and she does not speak his native language but rather because Ernaux is speaking a new, feminine language of desire. As the text's epigraph from Barthes suggests, Passion simple questions the terms in which passion can be represented, in particular by a woman (Fallaize 72). Ernaux underscores the circularity of female desire by her complete rejection of the passé simple and her determined use of the imperfect to sidestep any closure to her erotic narrative. Hence a privileging of waiting that even Gérard appears to understand: “Faire l'amour, c'est déjà se quitter. C'est pour cela, peut-être, qu'à l'acte vous préfériez l'attente” ‘To make love is already to leave one another. It's for that reason perhaps that you preferred the wait to the act itself’ (53). Furthermore, when he admits that waiting also privileges “le souvenir intemporel de tous les possibles, de toutes les promesses, l'espoir que nulle séparation n'existera jamais” ‘the timeless memory of all the possibilities, all the promises, the hope that no separation will ever take place’ (64-65), he inadvertently discloses another characteristic of the female sexual economy. Women desire both/and (consequently the narrator is both sex object and sexual subject), refuse to choose between either/or. This undoes linearity, explodes polarization, and undermines fidelity to a single discourse (Irigaray 29). He concedes that “L'un n'existe pas sans l'autre” ‘One doesn't exist without the other’ (53), but for his part, Gérard makes an either/or choice, privileging physical pleasure. Thus, it is no accident that Gérard closes his narrative with “Je vous ai aimée” ‘I loved you’ (80). In this way, he both underscores the linearity of the activity that he prefers and a desire that ultimately must end: the passé composé marks this finality as well as the passé simple (pas si simple!) used throughout his narrative. Simply put, although Gérard pretends to take a certain satisfaction in “l'union de nos mots différents” ‘the union of our different words’ (73), in this “he said, she said” dialectic on desire Gérard wants to have the last word.


  1. All translations are my own.

  2. In truth, it is impossible for Ernaux to avoid certain literary commonplaces. The most obvious is her depiction of “un amour-passion” ‘passionate love,’ a cliché in all romantic literature. Furthermore, although, ironically, she wishes to remain “au-dessous de la littérature des ‘beaux livres proustiens’” ‘beneath the literature of fine Proustian books’ (Golopentia 85), she portrays a passion which parallels Proust's “amour-maladie” ‘sick love,’ one marked by jealousy and obsession: “Je vivais le plaisir comme une future douleur” ‘I was living pleasure like a future pain’ (Passion simple 45).

  3. A translation of this comment does not expose the play on words. The verb livrer can mean “reveal” but because it contains the word livre, or “book,” Gérard is also suggesting that the revelation would never take this literary form.

  4. On the one hand, the pornography thematic is clear, not only in the hard core, X-rated film which opens Passion simple, but in references to soft core porn as well, whether it is Oshima's L'empire des sens (In the Realm of the Senses) or a Harlequin romance. Her own narrative displays the very rudimentary story line so typical of pornography (“J'accumule seulement les signes d'une passion” ‘I am only accumulating the signs of passion’ [31]); exhibits a certain degradation of the female (“j'étais heureuse d'être unie à lui dans un début d'abjection’ ‘I was happy to be linked with him on the edge of abjectness’ [34]); and includes a dream that is a pornographic commonplace: “On se retrouvait dans les toilettes d'un café, … il me prenait sans un mot” ‘We were in a café restroom … he entered me without a word’ (60). But on the other hand, because the act of lovemaking, and thus the male sex organ, never appear in Passion simple, Ernaux coopts pornography and circumscribes a sexual economy of her own design, bringing to mind a passage from Shere Hite's Sexual Honesty by Women for Women cited by Michelson: “Sex is intimate physical contact for pleasure, to share pleasure with another person (or just alone). … You are free to explore and discover your own sexuality, to learn or unlearn anything you want, and to make physical relations with other people, of either sex, anything you like” (187).

  5. Michelson notes that “there is now developing a feminist voice that finds pornography a viable genre for probing the nature of sexuality.” He goes on to cite a FACT (Feminists Against Censorship Taskforce) brief that states that even “pornography which is problematic for women can be experienced as affirming of women's desires and of women's equality” (186).

  6. In fact Gérard addresses this dichotomy directly:

    Les hommes souvent, pour survivre à leur enfance, ne cessent, leur vie durant, de dissocier la femme. Incapables de faire exister en une même Dame la mére de leurs enfants et la femme de plaisir, ils partagent leurs amours.

    Encombrée et ravie par le tumulte de vos sens, vous avez dû, impérativement, m'imaginer sans poésie, sans tact et sans amour: seul un rustre pouvait, quelques heures par semaine, régner sur votre alcôve. J'eusse aimé de vous, Madame, plus de perspicacité quant à la qualité exacte de ce qui vous a retenue.

    Men often, in order to survive their childhood, never stop bifurcating women their whole life. Incapable of creating in one Woman the mother of their children and a sex partner, they split their attractions.

    Hindered and thrilled by the turmoil of your senses, you, necessarily, had to imagine me without poetry, without tact and without love: only a boor could, a few hours a week, rule over your bedroom. I would have liked from you, Madam, more perspicacity as to the exact quality of what engaged you.


  7. Clearly the homonymy between mother and sea, between mère and mer, which works so beautifully in French is untranslatable into English.

Works Cited

Bacholle, Michelle. “Annie Ernaux: Lieux communs et lieu(x) de vérité.” Litté Réalité 1 (1995): 30-40.

———. “Passion simple d'Annie Ernaux: vers une désacralisation de la société française?” Dalhousie French Studies 36 (1996): 123-34.

Day, Loraine. “Class, Sexuality and Subjectivity in Annie Ernaux's Les armoires vides.Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives. Ed. Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie. New York: Manchester UP, 1990. 41-55.

Ernaux, Annie. Les armoires vides. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

———. Ce qu'ils disent ou rien. Paris: Gallimard, 1977.

———. La femme gelée. Paris: Gallimard, 1981.

———. Une femme. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

———. Passion simple. Paris: Gallimard, 1991.

Fallaize, Elizabeth. French Women's Writing: Recent Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.

Gérard, Alain. Madame, c'est à vous que j'écris. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

Golopentia, Sanda. “Annie Ernaux ou le don reversé.” Regards sur la France des années 1980: le roman. Ed. J. Brami, M. Hage and P. Verdaguer. Saratoga, CA: Amna Libri, 1994. 84-97.

Irigaray, Luce. Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. Paris: Minuit, 1977.

Marrone, Claire. “Past, Present and Passion Tense in Annie Ernaux's Passion simple.Women in French 2 (1994): 78-87.

Michelson, Peter. Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993.

Morris, Michèle. “Annie Ernaux: autrement dit/e.” Regards sur la France des années 1980: le roman. Ed. J. Brami, M. Hage and P. Verdaguer. Saratoga CA: Amna Libri, 1994. 101-09.

Motte, Warren. “Annie Ernaux's Understatement.” The French Review 69 (1995): 55-67.

Tondeur, Claire-Lise. “Entretien avec Annie Ernaux.” The French Review 69 (1995): 37-44.

———. “Erotica/Pornorotica: Passion simple d'Annie Ernaux.” Thirty Voices in the Feminine. Ed. Michael Bishop. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. 199-207.

Julie Abramson (review date winter 2002)

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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 of the Berlin Wall and the weakening of Soviet borders, S returned home from his post in Paris, putting an end to the liaison.

For Ernaux, S's attractiveness resides as much in his Soviet nationality, perceived as exotic, as in his unsuitability for her. He is nearly fifteen years her junior, a fonctionnaire whom Ernaux describes as unintellectual. He has a strong taste for ostentatious luxuries such as expensive cars and a decidedly unsensual proclivity for keeping his socks on in bed. She, of course, is a former professor whose current life as a writer is hermetic by comparison with that of her lover. While Passion simple was “about” the love affair, Se perdre, by contrast, consists of entries Ernaux wrote in her diary as the affair was taking place. In Ernaux's words, the diary therefore conveys another “truth” about the experience.

Ernaux explains that she gives us her diary unedited and unchanged, except for the use of initials to preserve anonymity. Short entries are identified by date, day of the week, even the time of day or evening: “Lundi 26 … 10 h 45. Il a appelé, mais il ne sait pas quand il viendra.” We follow the development of the affair from recollections of the first encounters, through a knowing exploration of eroticism and physical tenderness as well as emotional attachment, of a kind (“Je crois que ça s'appelle la passion maintenant”), as recounted from day to day. Ernaux's book faithfully records phone calls, rendezvous, short negotiations with the outside world. The reader may find this catalogue repetitive. At times, summary statements possibly meaningful to the writer may frustrate the reader by their general opacity. In bed, writes Ernaux somewhat confoundingly, “nous avons presque tout fait de ce qui peut se faire.”

On the banal scaffolding of the daily diary entry, Ernaux constructs an emotional façade whose contours evoke the sublime. Ernaux's “fusion” with her lover is felt metaphysically as a kind of transcendence of the self, as well as enacted physically. “Fusion” with S entails self-annihilation. Following a nocturnal encounter, Ernaux finds herself exhausted, enervated, practically unable to function. At moments, a lucid, although not ironic, perspective balances the tendency toward cliché as well as the pull of the sublime: “Pourtant,” writes Ernaux, “cela se résume à ceci: il baise, il boit de la vodka, il parle de Staline.”

If Se perdre adds another “truth” to the story told in Passion simple, the twin texts may be said to investigate the relationship between experience and its representation in writing. In Se perdre tension between writing and experience is an explicit theme. Indeed, to live and to write turns out to be a conundrum. On the one hand, Ernaux states, “Je ne fais pas l'amour comme un écrivain, c'est-à-dire en me disant que ‘ça servira’ ou avec distance” Living (rather than writing) excludes reflection in the moment of doing, whereas writing implies detachment, from living and the deformation of experience “used” for artistic purposes. On the other hand, the urge to write is as strong as that to live. Ten days (or four pages) later, there comes a point when “écrire, l'dée que je pourrais écrire sur ‘cette personne’, les rencontres, remplace l'idee de la mort.” To write experience is to betray it, but presumably the diary more closely approximates experience than do other types of writing, traducing it less. The yearning toward perfection, a recurring motif in Se perdre, thus characterizes both Ernaux's experience of the love affair and her esthetic in writing.

E. Nicole Meyer (review date winter 2002)

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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. Citing Vincent Van Gogh, she states, “Je cherche à exprimer le passage désespérément rapide des choses de la vie moderne.” The rapidity of her own prose [in La vie extérieure: 1993-1999] successfully achieves this goal and helps turn what may appear somewhat disjointed impersonal observations into universally shared experiences. In addition, American readers will find deep resonance after the events of 11 September 2001. Suddenly, Ernaux's extrapolations from the news, whether of the war crimes of Bosnia, the long life and late death of Jeanne Calment, or the terrorist acts on French soil, take on deeper meaning, especially in their juxtaposition with more common violence (the kidnapping and subsequent death of a young girl, or the angry jostling on an overcrowded subway train) of everyday life.

Ernaux's talent lies in her distinctive style, characterized by its simplicity, truthful nature, and occasional brutal violence. In the space of a few pages, she captures the reader, who is seduced by the economy of her prose. As with many of her previous works—for instance, Journal du dehors, which La vie extérieure continues—the social dominates over the individual or personal. In a subtle way, Ernaux raises universal questions of injustice, racism, life and death. For instance, the public's emotional reaction to Princess Diana's accidental death, when contrasted with its indifference to the brutal murder of many Algerians, exemplifies our era. Ernaux's brief analysis of a 1998 news survey stating that 42٪ of the French respondents replied that “Il y a trop d'Arabes” serves as a caution to us all: “Ce sondage et la façon de le présenter légitiment insidieusement le racisme. Dans l'imaginaire, ce qui n'est qu'une opinion devient une vérité.” Let us hope that our world political leaders heed this warning with integrity, rather than manipulate it to more violent ends.

While the neutral tone, economy of style, and preponderance of political and social events may belie any intimacy, Annie Ernaux somehow succeeds in expressing the personal, whether it be her above-cited remark on truth, a description of her terror during a tear-gas attack in the subway, or her references to the importance of the role of writing in her own life. “La vie extérieure demande tout, la plupart des æuvres d'art, rien,” she states. This work manages to escape Ernaux's condemnation of most artistic production. Indeed, it successfully compels the reader to reflect critically on our current era. In this, Ernaux joins art and politics and produces an important work of art.

Nancy K. Miller (essay date March 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330

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 Life, where the heroine dies in a car crash on her way to finding an abortionist, to Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything. (Arguably the grimmest—and borderline implausible—representation of an abortion from this era appears in John Barth's The End of the Road, whose heroine ends up bleeding to death on the operating table, suffocated by her own vomit.) What's less common is for an abortion to constitute the entire substance of an autobiographical narrative. Such is the case of Annie Ernaux's extraordinary Happening, where the abortion is the story.

This sparse but powerful memoir focuses on four harrowing months in the author's life—from October 1963 to January 1964—when Ernaux, a 23-year-old graduate student, unmarried and living in a dormitory in Rouen, found out she was pregnant, desperately searched for an abortionist and underwent an abortion one night in a small Parisian apartment at the hands of a woman (a nurse) wearing an apron and slippers.

Ernaux's conviction that through the public act of writing her existence will “merge into the lives and heads of other people,” that whatever happens to her happens so that it be shared, provides the ethical force of her books. But if Happening is the detailed narrative of one woman's experience of illegal abortion—and for those reasons a precious historical or sociological document—it is also a meditation on the nature of memory. The act of remembering is no less the subject of Happening than the event itself. With exquisite care, Ernaux lays bare the process of uncovery as she returns to the traumatic past on its own terms. The form itself embodies the anguish of time in slow motion, the breakdown of a student life's ordinary flow.

How do you recall—bring to consciousness and language—an event forty years later? Ernaux has recourse to her diaries: “I am pregnant. It's a nightmare.” “I can't write. I can't work. Is there any way out of this mess?” But while diaries provide precious “material traces,” they don't tell everything, and the writer must embrace the work of retrieval that helps her visualize and recapture sensations. And yet necessarily whatever subjective memory produces, whatever emerges into language, belongs to the domain of what Ernaux calls “literary emotions.” Words bear witness, but how to prove what you felt lying on a bed with a probe up your vagina? Inevitably, a gap remains between bodily pain and its recollection.

Happening moves between the two modes of memorialization, a constant shifting often marked by parentheses of meditation or commentary which interrupt the flow of the narrative. If the past shapes the present, the present rereads the past. The brilliance of the memoir lies in the acute intelligence of the back-and-forth.

The culmination of the abortion is a riveting, almost hallucinatory scene, as the probe finally works: “I pushed with all my strength. It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord. … I took it in one hand. … and proceeded along the corridor, squeezing it between my thighs. I was a wild beast.” Her dormmate helps her cut the cord and flush the three-month-old foetus down the toilet in the hall. Ernaux begins to hemorrhage and is rushed to a hospital. The narrative deliberately blurs the border between abortion and birth. Ernaux awakens to the sound of babies crying and locates her body on a continuum with the mothers. “Although there was no cradle in my room, I too had delivered.” In retrospect, the event represents at once a break with the past and prelude to the girl's future: “this ordeal and this sacrifice were necessary for me to want to have children, to let the coming generations pass through me.”

The right to legal abortion is the condition for a freely chosen maternity. Writing The Second Sex in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir exposed the intimate connection between illegal abortion and the meaning of motherhood beyond its biological facts. Nothing in the chapter called “The Mother” that in France there are “as many abortions per year as there are births,” she called the refusal to legalize abortion the expression of bourgeois society's greatest hypocrisy. In 1971, 343 women in France (including Beauvoir) signed a manifesto declaring that they had had abortions (Beauvoir hadn't) in order to draw public attention to the need for changing the law. In France today abortion, along with other reproductive processes, is legal and reimbursed by Social Security.

Ernaux bears moving witness to the appalling conditions of clandestine abortion in the postwar France described by Beauvoir. She includes the text of a law from 1948, which enumerates the parties to an abortion guilty of a crime—from the woman herself, to those who aid in any way, to those “spreading propaganda advocating contraception.” In case this feels like a relic from another era, consider the recent report from Portugal (New York Times, January 19, 2002) about a nurse, Maria do Ceu Ribeiro, who was sentenced to eight and a half years for performing abortions.

Whatever the laws, access to abortion has always been, as Beauvoir puts it, a “class crime.” And Ernaux, an only child, the first in her family to pursue studies that moved her definitively away from her parents (factory workers and small shopkeepers), interprets her condition, the terror in which she perceived her situation, as tied to “the legacy of poverty”; away from home yet still alive to its values, part of the horror seems the “stigma of social failure.” Was this not the very destiny her parents had warned her about, the plot her education should have protected her from? But Annie Ernaux likes to live—and write—dangerously.

Happening opens on the scene of a different kind of bodily anxiety. Ernaux, now almost sixty, awaits the results of a test for AIDS. Just as she couldn't believe that intercourse could really lead to pregnancy, here she can't make the connection between “love-making, warm skin and sperm and my presence in the waiting room.” The tests were negative. Once again, Ernaux felt she had been saved. But saved for what? To put into words what she calls here and elsewhere “an extreme human experience” in order for that experience to become “something intelligible and universal.” In her panicked search for information, Ernaux had found references to abortions in literature, but at the same time, “a sort of void between the moment the girl learns she is pregnant and the moment it's all over.” The unforgettable pages of Happening fill that void.

With this latest work, Ernaux returns to her first published book, an autobiographical novel from 1990 called Cleaned Out, in which the heroine, Denise, has a less complete version of this abortion. When in Happening the abortionist inserts the speculum, Ernaux feels that the woman “is giving birth” to her—and at the same time that as a daughter she is killing her own mother within her. The death of the foetus (or the mother) is required for the birth of the author.

Ernaux subsequently had children and wrote books (and I do not wish to present babies and books as mutually exclusive—an old feminist dilemma). But at that historical juncture, at that critical moment in a woman's life, choosing death meant choosing life—giving birth, as we used to say, to ourselves. And to writing.

Gregory Howard (review date summer 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

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 beginning many sections with “Yesterday” or “Last night” Ernaux makes explicit the construction of this narrative in time. As such emotions veer, statements are made and contradicted. “Reality” in one section connotes the everyday world from which Ernaux in her condition has been exiled, and is the stark physicality and emotional landscape of that same condition in another. After seeing a documentary on Nazi death camps, she thinks, “the pain I was about to inflict on myself would be nothing compared to the suffering experienced in death camps,” yet goes on to describe delivery as “D-day.” Such contradictions not only convey the emotional complexities of the ordeal, but also prove successful her desire to “revisit every single image until I feel that I have physically bonded with it.” Written words are not revisited because it would obfuscate the truth of the experience—writing bred of memory and sensation. At times her approach proves frustrating. Some sections are written a bit clumsily for a writer of Ernaux's skill, some statements clichéd for someone of her intelligence. However, these problems are subordinated to the honesty and truth (is it not true that even great writers pen lousy sentences? And keen minds think in cliché?) Ernaux has set as her goal. Moreover, she succeeds in rendering the numbing grind of diurnal unhappiness, fearful accounts of her trips to the abortionist, and harrowing the miscarriage in her dorm room with beauty and riveting detail.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242


Bernstein, Richard. “When a Parent Becomes the Child.” New York Times (22 November 1999): section E, p. 7.

Bernstein compliments Ernaux's “almost brutal conciseness” in “I Remain in Darkness,” but notes that the book is “less gripping … than her earlier works.”

Blais, Madeleine. “Knowing Her Place.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 August 1995): 2, 8.

Blais praises Ernaux's honesty and insight in A Frozen Woman.

Day, Loraine, and Lyn Thomas. “Exploring the Interspace: Recent Dialogues around the Work of Annie Ernaux.” Feminist Review 74, no. 1 (2003): 98.

Day and Thomas discuss their experiences at two international conferences, which took place in October-November 2002, that focused on Ernaux's body of work.

Eakin, Emily. “The ‘Thing.’” New York Times Book Review (28 October 2001): section 7, p. 24.

Eakin commends Ernaux's compelling account of her illegal abortion in Happening, lauding the work “for being unabashedly philosophical rather than moral.”

Hutton, M. A. “Challenging Autobiography: Lost Object and Aesthetic Object in Ernaux's Une femme.Journal of European Studies 28, no. 3 (September 1998): 231-45.

Hutton asserts that the lines between biography and autobiography are blurred in Une femme and examines the nature of identity in the book.

McIlvanney, Siobhán. Annie Ernaux: The Return to Origins. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001, 239 p.

McIlvanney offers a critical and thematic analysis of Ernaux's oeuvre.

Additional coverage of Ernaux's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 147; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 93; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 88; Literature Resource Center; and Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vols. 3, 5.

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Ernaux, Annie (Vol. 88)