Annie Ernaux 1940-
French novelist, autobiographer, memoirist, critic, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Ernaux's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 88.
A critically acclaimed and best-selling author in France, Ernaux is recognized for her highly personal works in which she blends elements of biography, autobiography, and fiction. Through her skillful depictions of often painful memories and emotions, Ernaux creates compelling portraits of past events, while placing them within the larger context of such issues as familial relationships, sexuality, death and loss, class structure, and the social mores of post-World War II France. In 1984 Ernaux was awarded the Prix Renaudot, one of France's top literary honors, for her memoir of her father's life, La place (1983; A Man's Place).
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.
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.
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.