Annie Ernaux 1940–
French novelist and memoirist.
The following entry provides an overview of Ernaux's career through 1995.
A critically acclaimed best-selling author in France, Ernaux is recognized for highly personal works in which she blends elements of biography, autobiography, and fiction. Her writing typically focuses on familial relationships, sexuality, death and loss, the class structure and social mores of post-World War II France, and the nature of memory and writing.
Born in Lillebonne, Normandy, Ernaux was raised as an only child—her older sister died before Ernaux was born—in the area surrounding Yvetot, a small town northwest of Rouen. Ernaux's parents came from working-class backgrounds and owned a small grocery store which housed a café—a setting figuring prominently in many of Ernaux's works. A teacher as well as a writer, Ernaux attended Rouen University where she earned a degree in lettres modernes.
Les armoires vides (1974; Cleaned Out) concerns Denise Lesur, a young college woman suffering the effects of a back-street abortion. Doubled over with pain on the floor of her dorm room, the protagonist reflects on the course of her life: her relationship with her largely uneducated, working-class parents; her attempts to rise above their station in life; and the shame she associates with her pregnancy. A young woman's attempts to balance the demands of marriage and parenthood without compromising her own identity, goals, or desires are central to La femme gelée (1981; A Frozen Woman). Having grown up in a middle-class family much like the one Ernaux would later describe in La place (1983; A Man's Place) and Une femme (1988; A Woman's Story), the protagonist of A Frozen Woman betters herself through education and becomes estranged from her parents' world. Fully aware of the potentially oppressive aspects of marriage, she nevertheless weds a fellow student. Although she and her husband agree to share household duties, parenting eventually becomes her responsibility. Thus, her life becomes closer to the traditional female standard against which she has rebelled and begins to parallel that of her unschooled mother. Education, personal identity, social status, and family ties are also central to A Man's Place and A Woman's Story, which were written, respectively, following the deaths of Ernaux's father and mother. Noting the relation-ship between writing and memory, Ernaux combines elements of fiction with personal detail in these works; she claims in A Woman's Story that "[the] more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction. This book can be seen as a literary venture as its purpose is to find out the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words. (Neither photographs, nor my own memories, nor even the reminiscences of my family can bring me this truth.) And yet, in a sense, I would like to remain a cut below literature." Elegiac in nature, A Man's Place and A Woman's Story delineate her parents' backgrounds and hopes, particularly their desire to be respected in the community. These works also examine the generation gap and feelings of cultural dislocation which developed as Ernaux outgrew the small-town, working-class environs of Yvetot, attended private school and college, acquired a knowledge of art and literature, and began a family of her own. Ernaux's blending of genres is similarly employed in Passion simple (1991; Simple Passion). Set in the months after her lover's departure, Simple Passion is a first-person account of a Frenchwoman's affair with an Eastern European. In an attempt to document her obsession, resume her life, and comprehend the nature of her desire, the unnamed protagonist, whom many critics assume to be Ernaux, observes: "I am not giving an account of a liaison, I am not telling a story (half of which escapes me) based on a precise—he came on 11 November—or an approximate chronology—weeks went by…. I am merely listing the signs of a passion, wavering between 'one day' and 'every day', as if this inventory could allow me to grasp the reality of my passion. Naturally, in the listing and description of these facts, there is no irony or derision, which are ways of telling things to people or to oneself after the event, and not experiencing them at the time." Simple Passion, which generated controversy in France due to its adult subject matter, is noted for its cool, detached portrayal of the emotions associated with physical and emotional desire. Although largely devoid of lengthy descriptions of sexual intercourse, the work is considered a highly artistic example of erotic literature.
Ernaux has met with critical and popular acclaim in her homeland as well as abroad. She was awarded the coveted Prix Renaudot for A Man's Place, and her works, consistently praised for their evocative descriptions of loss and betrayal, are often considered "contemporary classics" in France. In the United States both A Woman's Story and A Man's Place have been listed as a "New York Times Notable Book of the Year," while A Woman's Story was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Award. Recognized for their moving, albeit at times disturbing, portraits of parent-child relationships, Cleaned Out, A Frozen Woman, and the memoirs dedicated to Ernaux's parents have been lauded for their depictions of contemporary French history and society. For example, Cleaned Out was written when the legalization of abortion was a hotly contested issue in France, and A Frozen Woman concentrates on women's rights. Commentators have similarly extolled A Woman's Story and A Man's Place as documents detailing the rise of the French middle class in the twentieth century and the ensuing problems associated with social mobility.