Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938

Annie Ernaux 1940–

Illustration of PDF document

Download Annie Ernaux Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

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
Une femme [A Woman's Story] (memoir) 1988
Passion simple [Simple Passion] (memoir) 1991
Journal du dehors (journal) 1993

Dominic Di Bernardi (review date Fall 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898

SOURCE: A review of La Place and Une Femme, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 163-64.

[In the review below, Di Bernardi offers a laudatory assessment of A Woman's Story and A Man's Place, praising Ernaux's focus on class, guilt, identity, and personal history in these works.]

Annie Ernaux, a novelist concentrating on autobiographical themes, offers in La Place and Une Femme an account of the lives of her father and mother, respectively. The story of her father centers on his social ambition—"the place" he wished to make for himself and that he was fiercely conscious of keeping when faced with his social superiors, among whom is his university-educated daughter. On the other hand, her mother is examined as the affective link with the world the writer left, whose very physical presence, "words, hands, gestures, her way of walking and laughing are what united the woman I am to the child I was." Small shopkeepers who had risen from the peasantry in the social upheavals following World War I, they retained a sense of their own inferiority even as they allowed their daughter to pursue her upward path into the teaching establishment. Yet this success is tormented for the daughter; what works upon her is a sense of betrayal, perhaps one that marks most intellectuals who have progressed beyond their parents' level of education. Annie Ernaux unflinchingly examines the peculiar network of guilt that marks her even as a successful writer, seeing this success as a function of the very ambitions of members of a class whose narrowness she learned—quite literally—to despise. This heavy self-consciousness pervades language itself: she remembers her father's obsession with not using the wrong words, or her own fear about using words that were above her parents. Perhaps the most poignant episode on this theme is the single visit she and her father paid to the city library, which ended in embarrassment for both since they had no titles in mind to request from the librarian (French stacks being closed). These concerns also explain her style: bare, unadorned, a series of short passages, almost as if she continued to perceive her own parents as the ultimate readers, who, she tells us, would have seen any stylistic efforts in the letters she sent home to them from university as "an attempt to keep them at a distance."

The author notes that she was reading Les Mandarins while watching over her father in his final hours, and that her mother died "eight days after Simone de Beauvoir." Indeed, her two works inevitably recall Simone de Beauvoir's Une Mort Tres Douce (the merciless depiction of her mother's death agony), not only in apparent subject but also in that we are given a "real life" document to counteract, amend, expand, a pre-existing oeuvre, especially Ernaux's first novel, the ferocious, bilious Les Armoires Vides.

Ernaux, however, is not interested in a phenomenological description of the last hours but rather in the shape of the lives that have shaped hers: "This way of writing … strikes me as moving in the direction of truth, helps me out of the loneliness and obscurity of individual memory, through the discovery of a more general meaning." Yet she finds herself constantly struggling against this goal since there is "something" within her that seeks to preserve "purely emotional images" of the woman she is depicting. Her "desire to remain, in a certain way, on the underside of literature" is a rather peculiar goal: after all, it is the emotional intensity she brings to her task, as well as her sharply observed portraits of her parents from youth to old age, and in death, that distinguish these texts. Perhaps we should see her undertaking not so much as anti-autobiography as anti-Proust. In La Place, she tells us that she could not count on "reminiscence"—"the tinkling of the bell of an old store, the smell of an over-ripe melon"—for such would merely lead her to herself. Rather "it is in the way people sit and are bored in waiting rooms, call out to their children, say good-bye on train platforms that I sought the figure of my father." Indeed, within the space of these two texts we observe a rapidly changing France: in 1967 her father is shown dying in his own bed to which a priest had been summoned, and his body is left there the three days until his burial; in 1986 her mother dies in an old-age home, from Alzheimer's disease, and her funeral mass is held in a church across from a supermarket, with organ music provided by a cassette the priest pops into a player.

On the last page of Une Femme Annie Ernaux states: "This is not a biography, nor a novel naturally, perhaps a cross between literature, sociology and history. It was necessary that my mother become history, born as she was in a dominated milieu, one she wanted to leave, so that I would feel less alone and factitious in the dominant world of words and ideas to which, according to her desire, I acceded." As provocative as the texts themselves is their implicit challenge—namely, that we all recount the "history" made up by our parents' lives, in the same way that the next generation will only be able to grasp our own lives as stories they tell themselves about us.

Carol Sanders (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112

SOURCE: An afterword to Cleaned Out by Annie Ernaux, translated by Carol Sanders, Dalkey Archive Press, 1990, pp. 124-27.

[In the following excerpt, which was taken from the translator's afterword to the English-language version of Les armoires vides, Sanders provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Cleaned Out, briefly examining Ernaux's aims and discussing the volume's themes, style, and place within the context of her other works.]

"The plan to write Les Armoires vides matured in me for five years," Annie Ernaux recently wrote me concerning Cleaned Out, "until I became certain of one thing: the book would be a quest, as well as an explanation of the social and cultural divide that I had experienced. Born of working-class parents who became small shopkeepers, I had gradually changed in my tastes, my habits, my interests, and my whole outlook on the world, as a result of an education which took me away from my original background. For a long time I refused to admit this divide; no one spoke about it, said what it was like, or how it came about. I had no intention of writing a theoretical treatise; rather I wanted to re-create the way in which the divide worked by describing a life in all its aspects, including the affective and sensual, the taste of food, the smell of summer Sundays—for I remain convinced that being is first and foremost sensation. In other words, I wanted to challenge the notion of high culture as representing the supreme Good and Truth, while in reality it is inseparable from people's economic status and the work they do. But I wanted to do this through the medium of a novel and its main character, Denise Lesur, who, though she is very close to one of my former egos, is nevertheless a fictitious character. It is Denise's voice, her interior monologue, that is the vehicle for everything in the novel: feelings, the evocation of working-class life, and the social comment.

"From the very first line—this is something that I can see more clearly now—there is in Les Armoires vides a desire to transgress all boundaries. In its content: saying the unsayable, feeling ashamed of one's parents, humiliated, wanting to be like everyone else; speaking about the female body, menstruation, erotic pleasure, abortion. Above all, I wanted to use not the refined style that I use as a teacher of literature, but an idiom that, by being brutally direct, working-class and sometimes obscene, would take issue with the French tradition of the polished sentence, of 'good taste' in literature.

"Later on, just before writing La Place, I realized that such verbal violence probably seemed 'exotic' to intellectuals and middle-class readers. My provocative language perhaps did no more than reconfirm the existence of an established and entrenched social and cultural order. But in Les Armoires vides, I felt that the only voice available to me was one in which I denounced that order in terms both coarse and violent, and with the mockery that is the natural weapon of the aggrieved and underprivileged who want to assert themselves.

"When I look through Les Armoires vides again, I know full well that the novel represents an act, undertaken rashly and without heed for the consequences for myself, but one which meant that henceforth for me writing would be a deciphering of real life, something which is far removed from the lyrical, ahistorical and asocial literature which I had thought I wanted to engage in when I was twenty years old."

If in her later novels, Ernaux's style will appear more controlled, her sentences more "polished," this, her first novel, presents the outpourings, the exploratory delights and the pent-up anger of a young woman split between two worlds. On the one hand, there is the world of home, dominated by the "café-alimentation," bar and grocery store, run in a poor part of town by Denise's parents and frequented by workmen and old people who live on credit and pepper their speech with obscenities and the patois of Normandy. On the other, the middle-class world of a private Catholic school, with its confident and cultured children, with modes of comportment that are at first quite alien to Denise. In France of the 1950s it was unusual for someone of a working-class background to pass the "baccalauréat" (the final secondary school exam needed for university entrance and any professional career), and even rarer for her to aim for the "agrégation" (the highly competitive exam which still represents a pinnacle of achievement in the French university system). In showing how the two languages used at home and school—far from being two ways of saying "the same thing"—encapsulate two different value systems and worldviews, Ernaux is telling us in novel form what would be said in a more theoretical fashion a few years later by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

This consciousness of the difference between her childhood background and the circles into which she moves as a young woman remains a recurring motif in all her novels. Indeed, Cleaned Out contains in germ the central themes of her subsequent writing: the passage from adolescence to womanhood in Ce qu'ils disent ou rien (1977), the frustrations of the housewife-mother in La Femme gelée (1981), the death of her father in La Place (1983), for which she won the Prix Renaudot, her relationship with her mother and her death in Une Femme (1987).

In the same year as Ernaux's first novel, there appeared an impassioned plea by another woman novelist (Annie Leclerc in Parole de femme, 1974) for women to have a voice, to have their own language free from male domination and male definitions of logic and linearity. Ernaux is trying to give women a new voice, both in what she speaks about and in the form of her novel. It is not surprising that woman writers, who are describing "private" things whose public expression has until recently been suppressed, frequently choose to use an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical form. A process of honest questioning leads Ernaux in her later novels to describe her writing as part fiction, part autobiography, and part social history.

If Cleaned Out contains a powerful evocation of working-class life in France in the 1950s, this is less due to documentary interest than because it represents an essential part of the rigorous self-analysis undertaken by a young woman determined to work out what has led her to her present situation and what has made her who she is. Her sifting through the past in the light of the present is thus both an exorcising, a cleaning out, and an attempt to come to terms with that past.

Loraine Day (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5877

SOURCE: "Class, Sexuality, and Subjectivity in Annie Ernaux's Les Armoires vides," in Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, Manchester University Press, 1990, pp. 41-55.

[In the essay below, Day examines Ernaux's treatment of social stature, sexuality, feminine subjectivity, women's rights, and personal identity in Cleaned Out.]

The construction of female subjectivity within the network of social relations has been of prime concern to feminists working from a variety of different theoretical perspectives: psychoanalytical, sociological, historical, Marxist and anthropological. The privileged place accorded to issues relating to sexuality within feminist theoretical investigations of female subjectivity is scarcely surprising, given the role that this has played in the oppression of women. However, it is important to remember that female subjectivity is not a monolithic structure: women live their sexuality differently according to their nationality, race, class and generation, and relations of class, race and generation may well be as important, or in some cases more important than sexuality in the construction of female subjectivity. As in recent feminist theoretical analysis, problems relating to sexuality are often prominent in female-authored imaginative works (particularly novels) which explore feminine identity, but other aspects of social relations frequently assume considerable importance as crucial formative influences. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that literary works which represent the interlocking network of social relations through which subjectivity is formed may illuminate areas of feminist enquiry which have proved resistant to theoretical analysis, for example the articulation of class and gender oppression, of women's collusion in their oppression. Despite the problematical nature of the relationship between literature and reality (even the most resolutely 'realistic' literature can only be a subjective version of reality), imaginative writing is of interest to feminism because it is one of the major domains of cultural representation. It is through representation that we interpret our experience and construct meaning (words and images allow us to recount or picture our relationship to the world), and we are constructed as subjects partly through our exposure to the cultural representations which surround us. Feminists have understood that there is an essential connection between the representational practices and the power structures of a given society: representational practices may reinforce or challenge the status quo, but are never 'innocent' or neutral. Literary and other representations are of special interest if they are produced by women, not because this guarantees their feminist credentials, which it clearly does not, but because they reveal some of the ways in which women submit to, collude in or refuse the definitions and norms of feminine existence which have currency in their society.

This study will examine Les Armoires vides, a novel by Annie Ernaux which focuses on the social construction of subjectivity and the articulation between sexuality and class. The narrative has a fundamentally interrogative function and form: the female narrator, speaking from a position of near despair, seeks to untie the knot which constitutes her subjectivity, to elucidate for herself the processes and experiences which have made her what she is. Problems of psychosexual development are foregrounded, as the crisis which, within the fiction, motivates the enquiry is an unplanned pregnancy and the back-street abortion to which the narrator has recourse. Relations of class and generation also figure prominently in the text, through the representation of the narrator's struggle for autonomy and independence from her parents, a struggle which is embittered by the narrator's determination to escape from the lower-class environment to which her parents belong. The precise historical setting is carefully established, with the main focus falling on France in the 1950s and early 1960s. Les Armoires vides draws attention to the vulnerability of women in a society which sanctions male dominance and denies women the right to control their sexuality, and highlights the class hierarchy which structured French society in those decades, as indeed it has continued to do, with modifications, through the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s. The novel was in preparation in 1972 and 1973, and was published in 1974, at a time when the campaign to legalise abortion and to enhance the accessibility of contraception (legalised in 1967 but still not widely and easily available in 1974) had achieved a high level of momentum, but when its success was by no means guaranteed (the Loi Veil on reform of the 1920 abortion law became operative on a provisional basis in January 1975, but was not ratified until five years later).

Les Armoires vides, the first of Annie Ernaux's novels to be published, is written in the form of an uninterrupted interior monologue tracing the thoughts of the narrator (Denise Lesur, a second-year university student) as she waits for an abortion to take its course. She is anxious, bitter and a prey to conflicting emotions, alternatively blaming herself and others for her situation, despising her parents yet consumed with guilt for the way she has failed and rejected them. The motivation for the narrative is her desperate need to understand more clearly the downward trajectory her life has taken: how did the proud, contented little girl, 'happy from head to toes to be Denise Lesur', become the divided, humiliated young woman whose future and even survival now hang in the balance? As she looks back on her development as a child, adolescent and young woman, sexuality and class emerge as major preoccupations: sexuality because of the nature of the crisis which generates the account, and class because the obsessive desire to escape from her class background retrospectively appears to the narrator to be the fundamental trope of her psyche from early adolescence until the present time of the unfolding narration. She is confident of the link between her present situation as a victim of her own sexuality and her feelings towards her parents and their world: this link is apparent not just because she is frequently tempted to lay the blame for her situation at the feet of her parents, but also because the process of self-analysis through which she hopes to arrive at greater self-understanding invests massively in the attempt to untangle the knot of conflicting emotions which ties her to her parents and to her home environment. Thus Denise's account of herself is rooted in the perception that class awareness and psychosexual development are fundamentally imbricated, feeding into each other in ways that are complex and shifting. In childhood and early adolescence, Denise feared and despised her sexuality, which seemed to fix her firmly in her home environment, to weld her to everything she sought to leave behind; later, sexuality seemed to promise escape from her background and to offer the purity of a freely chosen and self-determined identity. It is this changing and seemingly paradoxical relationship between sexuality and class that I shall examine first. To facilitate subsequent analysis, I shall begin by establishing the essential lines of the story she tells.

Denise Lesur is born to parents who run a small grocery store and bar. In early childhood, she is more than content with her lot, happily installed at the centre of a world that she finds harmonious, infinitely pleasurable, protectively all-enveloping. This sense of unity and well-being is rapidly and devastatingly undermined when Denise begins to attend the fee-paying Roman Catholic school which her parents, anxious that she should receive a good education, select in preference to the neighbourhood state school. At school, Denise is immediately projected into an alien world, a world where the habits, behaviour and above all language of her home environment have no currency. The refinement and style which Denise perceives in the existence of her class-mates, and which figure in the books which she increasingly loves to read, exert an irresistible appeal, and she grows more and more contemptuous of her parents' humble existence. Denise learns to hide her shameful 'difference': she maintains a strict silence about her home life, earns the respect of her class-mates for the consistently high marks which she achieves, and above all, she trains herself to speak as the teachers and other girls do, to adopt the language of the books she reads, a discourse retrospectively perceived as 'a system of passwords to gain access to another milieu'. As a teenager, Denise develops a new strategy: a series of intimate relationships with middle-class boys consolidates her growing sense of belonging in the bourgeois world. At university, she has an extended affair with Marc, an impeccably bourgeois student; she becomes pregnant, and although initially this generates a sense of triumph ('I've swallowed the lot, him, the middle-class kid, the good upbringing, the other milieu. Almost one better than first-year exams'), disillusionment follows rapidly: Marc fails to rally round and provide a solution (whether marriage or an abortion in a private clinic); Denise is left to seek out a back-street abortionist, and to reflect on her unhappy situation.

Looking back over her experience, the narrator identifies her first confession, a normal part of school routine, as the incident which more than any other confirmed her sense of isolation at school and definitively closed the door on childhood happiness and unreflecting acceptance of her home environment. The priest's condemnation of the onanistic sexual activity to which she confesses is severe, and it is hardly surprising if the little girl is traumatised by his stern and frightening denunciation of the early stirrings of sexuality. Yet the crushing sense of sin provoked by this incident attaches not so much to the child's sexuality as to her home existence in its entirety. In condemning her embryonic sexuality, for the child the most private and least understood part of her experience, the priest confirms and ratifies the judgment passed on Denise's habits, speech and assumptions by teachers and class-mates. The fundamental sense of impurity which continues to afflict Denise is certainly associated with her inability to repress her sexuality (a particularly violent attack of self-loathing is occasioned by the spontaneous orgasm which she experiences as she sits at home doing her Latin homework!); its centre however does not lie in her sexuality, but in the ever-increasing mortification she feels in belonging to a class which she despises:

I'm left with my old sin which defies classification, neither mortal nor venial, unnamable, a mixture of dirty girl, don't touch that, stolen sweets, stew scraped up from the workmen's serving bowls, lethargic dreams at school and above all, my parents, my background of grotty shopkeepers.

In darker moments, it seems to the narrator that her background is a malediction, a mark of Cain which dooms her to ignominy and failure. The pregnancy and abortion signal the triumphant return of everything she had sought to repress, the inevitable punishment for her pride, her self-confidence, her naive belief that she could escape the condition into which she was born.

This early negative assessment of sexuality, when it is identified with the milieu which she despises, is dramatically inverted in Denise's middle teenage years, when she starts to go out with boys. However, in the preliminary stages of this new phase, sexuality remains repressed, precisely because it is associated with the self which the narrator seeks to leave behind: 'a rounded thigh hurriedly concealed, that mustn't come into my plans, only chaste embraces'. However, despite the low priority initially given to sexuality in this new venture, Denise is far from indifferent to the sensual pleasure which she soon experiences. The shame and self-loathing associated with her solitary experiences of sexual arousal in the Rue Clopart (where her parents' business is located) give way to triumphant self-assertion and a sense of purification. The exhilaration she experiences in a series of relationships and encounters draws on a cluster of interconnected emotions. Most importantly perhaps, the novelty and intensity of the world of sensation opened up by these relationships restore her to the centre of her own experience and suppress (if only temporarily) the obsessive comparisons which usually bedevil her existence. She rediscovers the capacity for spontaneous pleasure in her own experience, the untroubled sense of self-coincidence which has eluded her since she first learnt to measure her own existence against that of her class-mates. On a more reflective level, sexual pleasure forges an identity which owes nothing to her parents and family, not only because it defies the maternal interdiction on sexuality, but also because it seems to be self-determined in a way that her academic persona, which she owed to her parents' toil, and perhaps to talents inherited from a clever grandmother, is not. For these reasons, sexual pleasure has a strongly redemptive value, an almost magical power to transform the narrator's subjectivity: 'I feel renewed, weak, stripped of my old sins. As a couple, down the little path, it wasn't dirty'. This reflection implicitly contrasts two modes of specifically sexual pleasure (the solitary pleasure of the Rue Clopart, and the shared pleasure Denise finds in couple relationships), but in reality a much wider field of experience is in question. The sense of purification and grace which illuminates the narrator's existence in this phase of her development derives from her increasingly confident conviction that she is successfully breaking away from the social world inhabited by her parents, and finding her 'true' place in the charmed world of the bourgeoisie. The use of vocabulary and imagery with religious connotations serves to underline the dramatic nature of the shift in Denise's self-perceptions, but also draws attention to the associations and assumptions which inform her fundamental project (to overcome her sense of difference and inferiority): the original sin of inferior social status has as its counterpoint the grace which inevitably accompanies bourgeois existence.

In the preceding analysis, we have seen that Denise is concerned to work out the connections between her obsession with class difference and her sexual development. However, it is her experience of class which consistently emerges as the dominant factor in the construction of her subjectivity, and which largely determines how she lives her sexuality. With the benefit of hindsight, Denise is able to perceive the array of mutually supportive pressures and influences which lead her to internalise the norms and values of the dominant class in her society, and hence to reject the milieu into which she was born. The story documents the ways in which Denise learns to recognise and value the ideal life style: it is considered the norm by teachers and class-mates, it is represented in textbooks, storybooks and magazines, it is on display in shop windows, in smart restaurants and bars, and in the houses of the well-to-do. She develops a personal barometer for the measurement of social status: families come up to standard if they are genteel (polite in speech, reserved in manner), value privacy and hygiene, accept conventional gender roles and take extended holidays; individuals are judged on their appearance (hairstyle, bearing, dress), mannerisms (way of laughing, eating habits), cultural tastes (choice of newspapers and magazines, preferred authors, sophistication of musical tastes) and above all on their speech (confidence, articulateness, use of irony). On one side of the barrier lie humiliation and defeat, the marginal existence of people like her parents; on the other side, privilege and power crown the magical existence of people like Marc, at ease everywhere, knowing no fear, infinitely free. In submitting to the appeal of the dominant milieu, Denise responds in a fundamentally compliant way: she acts in accordance with her parents' desire for her to better herself, she remodels herself in the pattern of the ideal which is held out to her at school, and which is reinforced by the dominant representational practices of the time and by the distribution of power and prestige which she observes in her society. Her rejection of her home environment is in the logic of the society in which she lives; it is deeply ironic, as Denise herself bitterly recognises, that her teachers should stress her parents' self-sacrifice, and exhort her to show her appreciation, when with their every word and mannerism, these same teachers condemn the world her parents inhabit. A major achievement of Denise's self-analysis is that she comes to understand the difficulty of the situation in which she was placed: 'I've been split in two, that's it, my parents, my family of farmhands and manual workers, and school, books (…). When you're caught between two stools, it drives you to hate. I had to choose'. To the child and the young teenager, social differences seemed to be innate, or else freely chosen; she did not then appreciate (as by implication she now does) the material basis of the refinement she admired, the force of circumstances which largely determines the expectations and norms adopted by people of different social classes:

It never occurred to me that social differences might come from money, I thought it was all innate (…). I thought they'd chosen it, that they were happy. It needs a lot of thought, years of reading and study, not to think like that, especially when you're just a kid, and the system is in full swing.

The gradual advance of intellectual understanding which is here evoked has been reinforced by the more visceral awakening imposed upon Denise by Marc's failure to act with integrity, or even with decency, when he learns of her pregnancy. The galloping disenchantment with the bourgeois world which sweeps through Denise in the wake of her affair with Marc leaves her in limbo, since it nullifies the project (integration into the bourgeoisie) which has occupied her for so long. Profoundly alienated from everything she has tried to achieve, Denise no longer knows who she is or where she is going, and she looks in vain for role models, whether literary or living, to which she might turn for guidance and support.

In 'narrating herself', Denise hopes to organise and structure her perceptions, to understand, and thereby control and contain, experiences which threaten to overwhelm her. This does not mean that with hindsight, Denise is able to resolve contradictions and heal the divisions within her subjectivity. On the contrary, her account involves the confrontation of conflict and ambivalence, and leaves the narrator with a heightened awareness of her instability, fragmentation and loss. The resulting sense of emptiness and dispersion is foregrounded in the title of the novel: having the social and cultural norms of her family to accommodate the cultural baggage of the bourgeoisie, she now perceives the worthlessness of her adopted values [as noted in the epigraph to the novel from a poem by Paul Eluard which states: 'I've stored up false treasures in empty cupboards'].

Denise finds no solution to her personal dilemma, no panacea for the sickness of her society. However, her account is all the more compelling because it avoids facile judgements: the narrator is aware of the heavy social pressures which led her to internalise bourgeois norms, and hence to despise her parents' life style, but she also recognises her own responsibility in giving free rein to elitism and pride, and realises that it was open to her to seek another way forward, to try to fulfil her intellectual potential without turning her back on her family; her parents have sacrificed their own advancement for Denise's benefit, but their ambitions for their daughter lie at the root of her dilemma. Denise's teachers, and the power of the printed word and image, are perhaps most heavily implicated in her apprenticeship to elitism, as she herself presents it, yet even in this sphere Denise recognises that some of her teachers, and some of her reading, have been instrumental in raising her awareness of social injustice. Painful as it is for Denise to turn her back on the ideals and convictions which have been her raison d'être, the process of radical questioning in which she is now engaged represents a step towards greater understanding of herself and her society; it effectively puts an end to the fundamental compliance and uncritical acceptance which have previously typified her attitude to dominant bourgeois ideologies: in deconstructing the experiences which led her to internalise bourgeois ways and values, the narrator lays the foundation for her own relative autonomy.

As Denise's account clearly demonstrates, she is aware that her sense of humiliation through class permeates the way she lives her sexuality; at the same time, she is very conscious of the way in which her attitudes to class have been socially constructed. To what extent are social and cultural factors also implicated in the construction of her sexuality? The high valuation which Denise places on sexual pleasure derives at least in part from her perception of it as a sign of defiance (it marks her rejection of her parents' values) and as a privileged area of experience capable of generating a new, self-determined identity. It is evident that these notions rest on the prior acceptance of a conception of sexuality as a transgressive experience which has special importance in the life of the individual. Michel Foucault has traced the history of these ideas, showing how they have come to permeate Western culture; they surface here in the messages about sexuality which Denise receives at school and at home. The cultural endorsement of heterosexuality, and indeed marriage, is so familiar that it can easily pass unnoticed (this is true even in the 1990s, when couple relationships and family structures are much more diverse than they were in the 1950s and 1960s); Denise's account mentions children's games and rhymes, schoolbooks, magazines and novels which contain representations of heterosexuality and portray marriage as the normal and desirable form of adult sexual relations. Denise's use of her sexuality as a strategy in the negotiation of an improved social situation follows a well-established pattern insofar as heterosexual relationships (especially marriage) are an accepted path to social elevation for women. In similar vein, as a young teenager, Denise was fascinated by stories of girls who turn to prostitution to escape the trap of a wretched existence.

What are the modalities of female desire in this insistently heterosexual context? Denise's account includes a cluster of references which associates female sexuality with pain and humiliation, and identifies women as objects to be used and abused by men. Denise has a clear recollection of sexual arousal at a young age (perhaps only five or six or a little older), triggered by the gossip which she overheard in the shop. In her reconstruction of these incidents, the stories which have such a profound effect on her focus on situations in which a woman has a sexual encounter with two or three men. The woman concerned would be heavily censured by Denise's mother and her interlocutor, but with mounting excitement, Denise would imagine the men's fingers and hands exploring the woman's body, relaxed and compliant as the illicit caresses multiply. She remembers Bouboule, a regular in the bar and a favourite of hers, taking her by the hair and pulling her towards him, holding her so tightly and closely that it hurt, and refusing to heed her (half-hearted?) protests until she gave him a kiss. A game which she used to play with her best friend Monette has also left a lasting impression: they would act out a quarrel between a man and wife, with the man beating his wife and insulting her: 'dirty bitch, slag'. This pattern of female submission in the face of male assertiveness and aggression recurs in Denise's account of an illusionist's act which she witnessed at a local fair when she was five or six. The illusion in question is a variation on one which will be familiar to most, if not all, readers: a radiant lady was locked in a silver box by some men, who then proceeded to plunge sabres into the box. The narrator is unable to remember whether or not she saw the woman emerge from the box, but she does recall 'the clashing of knives, straight into her stomach, diagonally into the small of her back, all the points coming together just above the hairline'. The imagined terrible fate of this lady is played out again, in a very different vein, in the story of Maria Goretti, which is held forth as an example to Denise and her class-mates. Maria Goretti was an Italian girl who, at the age of twelve, was stabbed to death by a neighbour and would-be rapist of nineteen; she was canonised in 1950. The New Catholic Encyclopaedia offers the following account of her martyrdom:

Alessandro (…) sought in vain to seduce Maria and threatened her with death if she revealed his designs. On July 5, 1902, Alessandro entered the Goretti home with a dagger during the mother's absence. Maria repulsed his advances and told him: 'No, God does not wish it. It is a sin. You would go to hell for it.' The youth then stabbed the girl repeatedly. She died the next day (…) after forgiving her murderer.

Presumably, the figure of Maria Goretti was considered a suitable model for young girls because of her purity, maidenly honour and fortitude in the face of evil. The narrator remembers the distraught faces of her class-mates as the story unfolded, but recalls a very different reaction in herself: 'While the others listen (…) with horror, I dream of the wild, sinful boy the stupid girl wouldn't even kiss.' Significantly, the illusionist's trick and the story of Maria Goretti are brought together when Denise evokes another vivid childhood memory. One afternoon, Denise and Monette (now both about ten) tease their friend Michel by pulling down his shorts and holding him captive while they investigate intimate parts of his anatomy. The boy offers little if any resistance, but as his penis stiffens beneath their touch, he surprises them with a breathless 'Which one do I screw?' Further developments are prevented by the arrival of Monette's mother, but Denise has not forgotten the heavy-limbed torpor of the walk home, nor her instantaneous reaction to Michel's crudely suggestive remark: 'Swords crossed in all directions, Saint Maria Goretti.'

While it seems probable that these formulations express as much alarm as erotic excitement (of course the two are not mutually exclusive), they certainly suggest that Denise's childhood perception of the female role in sexual relationships with men involves pain and submission to masculine aggression. Indeed, it is by no means clear that this conception of female sexuality has been outgrown by the adult narrator, who on several occasions notes (without elaboration or special emphasis) the contiguity of sexual pleasure and pain, and whose most developed relationship, with Marc, is profoundly masochistic on her part. However, as she reconstructs her sexual and affective experience, Denise does not immediately identify masochism in herself. Indeed, the debagging of Michel, her active pursuit of boys, and her resentment of the male prerogative to initiate and pace a relationship, suggest an assertiveness which does not sit easily with the image of female docility and submission. It is only when she confronts the most painful area of her sexual history, the affair with Marc, that she comes to understand the intensely masochistic nature of her attachment to him, and to perceive the humiliation (at first verbal, later perhaps also physical) she had accepted, even sought, as a sign of his superiority over her. Why does this masochism surface only with Marc? By the time she meets Marc, Denise has behind her a string of relationships with middle-class boys, selected precisely for what she perceives to be their superiority over her. Although she experiences occasional feelings of inadequacy in comparing her own accomplishments with those of her boyfriends, Denise keeps these feelings under tight control, always maintaining her sense of purpose and autonomy, and nurturing her growing sense of self-esteem. Only with Marc does she abandon self-restraint and submit to the power which he holds by virtue of his class dominance. It is possible that Denise's subjection to Marc may be explained by her perception of him as superlatively bourgeois ('so superior that I won't resist him'), or indeed by a sadistic streak in Marc; but it is tempting to speculate that once Denise allows her sexuality free rein, as she does only with Marc, an internalised model of female humiliation overcomes the assertive tendencies she has previously displayed. If this is the case, then Denise's submission to Marc may be seen as a manifestation of internalised oppression through class and gender. The two kinds of oppression coexist and reinforce each other, and Denise is doubly handicapped in relation to Marc and others of his sex and class.

Despite the many difficulties attaching to the subject of masochism, it is clear that female masochism in heterosexual relationships is problematical insofar as it is complicit with male dominance in other spheres, and insofar as it is the sign and product of a cultural imbalance: it may well be the case, as psychoanalysis suggests, that both sexes have an infantile history of aggression and passivity, sadism and masochism, but the gradual internalisation of cultural norms militates against the possibility that these different positions will remain equally accessible to men and to women. Women need to be aware of the force of cultural representations of sexuality, and aware of the ease with which an oppressive model of female sexuality may be internalised. Denise successfully deconstructs the processes leading to the internalisation of class hierarchy, but the social construction of sexuality and gender is not the specific focus of her attention. However, as readers we are free to make the connections which the narrator has yet to discover (and which the author might not have consciously confronted, at the time of writing), we are free to extend Denise's analysis by applying her insights regarding the social construction of attitudes to class to the rich material on sexuality and gender which her account also features.

In what ways might Les Armoires vides be said to illuminate feminist enquiry? Firstly, it may be seen to provide a useful corrective to the tendency, in popular feminism, to privilege sexuality over other aspects of social relations. In Les Armoires vides, it is clear that the experience of class is the base line of the narrator's identity, a crucially important element in the construction of her subjectivity; here, at least from the time of Denise's schooldays, sexuality flows in a channel laid down by class awareness. Ultimately, however, in the case of the narrator, oppression through class and oppression through gender are cumulative and mutually reinforcing. Secondly, the novel draws attention to the social construction of subjectivity; it traces (whether explicitly or by implication) the social and cultural factors which lead the narrator to internalise an oppressive model of class and gender relations. Although Les Armoires vides offers no recommendations for the struggle against oppression, the position which it establishes for the reader is one of contestation. As a cultural representation of female subjectivity, it has a part to play in the construction of the reader's own subjective awareness: if the novel enhances the reader's sensitivity to the multi-faceted nature of social oppression, and her capacity to resist the pervasive influence of oppressive ideologies of class and gender, then its value to feminism seems clear.

Ruth Caldwell (review date March 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

SOURCE: "A Life Cut Short," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 6, March, 1991, p. 14.

[In the following favorable assessment, Caldwell offers a thematic discussion of Cleaned Out, noting Ernaux's emphasis on loss and alienation.]

In the loneliness of her dorm room, a university student waits to expel the results of a back-alley abortion and simultaneously passes her life in review. This unconventional voice, speaking the unspeakable, comes from the first novel of Annie Ernaux, who is best known in France for a book written about her father (La Place, published … in 1984), which won the Prix Renaudot. She has also written a bestseller about her mother [Une Femme, 1988]. If Cleaned Out (originally published … in 1974 as Les Armoires vides) is the first of Ernaux's books to be published in English in the United States, it may be less for chronological reasons than because there is something in the narrator's experience that Americans can make their own.

Denise Lesur frames her story with the image of a ruined woman and all its associations of shame, filth, degradation and failure. The only child of two shopkeepers struggling to rise from a blue-collar background, Denise has been an adored daughter and luminary hope for a better future. Sifting through her childhood memories, in between contractions, Denise acknowledges her parents' sacrifices, their amazement at her natural academic talent, and her mother's admonitions to beware the worst of all fates to befall a woman: pregnancy outside of marriage. She remembers scandals whispered by customers in her mother's grocery, and the day Denise's mother exploded at her and hit her because a neighbor reported seeing her walk with a boy along a country lane. This powerful mother counts on education as her daughter's ticket to a better existence.

The image of education as salvation also dominates the American psyche; but there are few novels by women that concentrate on the way in which education inevitably means loss. Denise is sent to private school, partly because of her parents' desire for social betterment, partly because the school is close by, which makes it easier for them, as two working parents, to adjust. But at school, Denise enters a world that devalues her family's manners and language. She learns that certain of her expressions are "vulgar," that her parents, aunts and uncles are very far from the elegance that is such a major French cultural value. Denise distances herself from her parents, partly out of typical adolescent rebellion and partly by her academic success, which enables her to learn the language of the dominant culture and to view her milieu through its perspective. In her school-book English, she writes in her diary the judgment her snoopy mother will not be able to understand: "My mother is dirty, mad, they are pigs!"

In the end, the dominant culture which alienates her from her background is inaccessible to Denise as well. No matter how well she succeeds at school, she is an outsider, unaware of the social codes that control sexuality, uncomfortable when she meets her well-to-do boyfriend's mother, who "has no need of degrees or anything to boost her confidence." She feels tongue-tied and incompetent, and lets her pre-law student lover explain to her the reasons for her self-induced oppression. "Undressed layer by layer by the force of his words," she falls in love with her educator and possible white knight—only to be left to pay for her own abortion out of her scholarship money. The real loss here is not so much the child in the womb as the child that Denise no longer can be.

The language that has liberated her from her milieu is of no help to her now. Her assigned literary texts become mute: they have nothing to say about her situation, unknowable and unspeakable. Like immigrants or colonized peoples everywhere, Denise, a foreigner in her own culture, must face the problem of expressing herself in the language of her conqueror. In her most recent books, Emaux has abandoned story, since she sees this cultural form as inadequate for the rendering of her class experience. But in Cleaned Out, Ernaux has Denise tell her story in her mind, searching to comprehend it.

Carol Sanders' translation is faithful to the original, maintaining the flow of the speaker's stream of consciousness as well as the levels of language that reflect her conflicting worlds. For the reader in English, Sanders is also successful in making many specific cultural references come alive. This last point is essential, for Annie Ernaux's greatest stylistic accomplishment is her wealth of concrete detail: sights, smells and names which almost miraculously transform themselves into universal experience.

Ann Fortune (review date 26 April 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681

SOURCE: "Upwardly Mobile Norman," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4595, April 26, 1991, p. 23.

[Here, Fortune lauds Ernaux's ability to evoke French experiences and an intimate portrait of family life for a universal audience in A Man's Place, which was published in England as Positions.]

This exceptionally small book [Positions] is not only a moving personal memorial, but also one of much wider resonance. Annie Ernaux is writing about the life of her working-class father, who came of Normandy peasant stock; and at the same time to a lesser degree—because her focus is on him—recalls her own estrangement from him as a middle-class convent-school education took her to university, and teaching, and a middle-class marriage. She charts, in brilliant, bleached detail, a specifically French experience, though one which can be universally acknowledged.

Her father left school at twelve to work on the farm. Following service in the First World War he moved on, into the new local factory. After marriage to a bright girl there, he bought, with the help of a loan, a modest café-commerce and thus became the first member of his family ever to own property. Annie was born in 1940 when he was forty; he died in 1967.

All his life he slept in his vest and underpants, and ate with a clasp-knife, which he cleaned on his overalls or, after herring, by sticking it in the ground. He knew the song of every bird, and kept an exemplary vegetable garden, as much to observe the seasons as from self-respect. In the Second World War, he hitched a small cart to his bicycle and cycled thirty kilometres through the Normandy bombings to fetch goods for his customers who were unable to patronize the black market; for this he became a local hero, and "looking back felt he had contributed something and lived the war to the full".

It was a beleaguered, gingerly, inhibited life, though, for all its apparent contentment. "He realized we were inferior and refused to accept this, while at the same time doing everything he could to conceal the fact." (No politics, for instance; they were impolitic, in trade.) "He never asked questions which might betray envy or curiosity, so as not to give people a hold over us"; nor did he say anything which might invite envy or curiosity. He had enjoyed "learning", as a child ("In those days one just said learning, like eating and drinking"), and wanted his daughter to be "better than himself", but shunned her school, and grew embarrassed when she stayed there so long. Materially, the family fended off poverty by giving credit to needy customers, who would otherwise have been lured by larger stores and, ultimately, supermarkets. They discreetly exchanged their bicycles for a small Renault, and were called rich (one imagines richards) by the rest of the family, "which was the ultimate insult".

All this is recreated with a quite ferocious economy. "Irony, pathos and nostalgia are something I have always rejected", the author says; and if these seem a dangerously large and mixed bag to throw overboard, she is as good as her word. Difficulties come only from her very proper insistence on language as she recalls it from her youth. "Anything to do with language was a source of resentment and distress", she says, but the book is "an undertaking in which I must remain close to the words and sentences I have heard"; these define the nature and limits of her parent's world.

This places a heavy charge on her otherwise impeccably poised translator, Tanya Leslie, by introducing italics into the text. Ernaux's mother, for instance, "constantly battled with him to go to church"—which presumably conceals se bagarrer—but "mate" and "squire", as parts of demotic speech, chime unhappily with mon vieux or mon pote or patron, which must have been the original. But these are only small moments of unease, in a narrative of otherwise immaculate simplicity. This tiny book conveys a brilliantly delineated microcosm of a family life "governed by necessity". It is also a very poignant labour of "fractured love".

Ginger Danto (review date 19 May 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

SOURCE: "'When Mother Became History,'" in The New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1991, p. 13.

[In the review below, Danto discusses thematic aspects of A Woman's Story, lauding the volume's originality and tender portrait of Ernaux's mother.]

In her 1964 novella, A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir wrought from the charged theme of a dying mother a portrait of a daughter's own emotional trial. Moreover, because the story concerned the author's mother, readers had the option of considering it as literature or life.

The trend encouraged by de Beauvoir garnered an enthusiastic response in France, which may explain the success of more recent practitioners of this genre, notably Annie Ernaux, a professor of literature whose last two novels, La Place and Une Femme, describing the deaths of her father and mother, respectively, became best sellers. Like de Beauvoir, with whom she has been compared, Ms. Ernaux all but relinquishes any pretense of fiction, annotating the deaths of her protagonists with the exquisite intimacy of one who knew them in life. But it is in tempering the poignancy of this knowledge with a spare, almost coded prose style that Ms. Ernaux makes of her generic topics infinitely original books.

Thus A Woman's Story, which has been effectively translated by Tanya Leslie, offers a selective memoir of a mother's incremental deterioration due to Alzheimer's disease and her subsequent death. Though from the outset we are told dates and places—the mother dies on April 7 in a nursing home in the Parisian suburb of Pontoise—and reality elsewhere intrudes in footnotes for newspaper citations, we are spared proper names. Even the ghosts of a once-large farming family remain anonymous, though we learn that attrition caused by alcoholism and other afflictions left few witnesses at this woman's grave. Among them, however, is the stricken narrator, who decides that a life distilled to an inventory of belongings assembled in a plastic bag, courtesy of the nursing home, must, through a form of fiction, be brought back.

So from the broad facts of her birthplace in the small, wind-swept town of Yvetot, in Normandy, to such details as her dress size, which expands unabashedly with age, or the shade of makeup worn to conceal the passage of the years, the mother comes systematically into focus. From a youth lost to factory work and an early marriage, she was determined to use her limited intellect and lesser means to realize "the only ambition which lay within her reach: running a grocery business." The shop she kept, on and off, until her health failed became the secure setting from which she experienced the world—the neighbors who brought more gossip than business, the war remembered fondly for generating both.

But it is the book's gracious anonymity—we will not recognize its characters' names on tombstones—that gives this work its ultimate leverage as fiction. It suggests that A Woman's Story is every woman's story, the story of every daughter who loses a mother, every matriarch whose power ebbs with time and every widow who surreptitiously loosens her fierce grip on life.

Indeed, all three themes unfold in this brief book, whose power rests not in the drama of its main event but in moments that might escape unnoticed, if not for a writer desperate to recapture every last image that her memory reluctantly yields of a lost loved one. For, just as it is in the meeting of glances or in words left unsaid that the deepest communication can occur, so a person's essence can become apparent in unguarded moments when enacting the odd, idiosyncratic rituals that reveal the most private self: thus the mother ceremoniously washes her hands before touching books or stows sugar lumps in her apron while on a diet. These are the things a daughter sees, a tender witness to half-mad acts who wonders if, when she reaches her mother's age, she will act the same way herself.

Ms. Ernaux's quest for truth is evident not just in such details but also in their arrangement. Her narrative mimics the nature of mourning that rocks the conscience back and forth between awareness and denial. As such, this book about the mourned reveals much about the mourner, who writes, "It was only when my mother … became history that I started to feel less alone and out of place in a world ruled by words and ideas, the world where she had wanted me to live."

It is a world from which a once-ungrateful daughter can make amends by infusing the notion of literature into a most ordinary life.

Jessica Neely (review date Summer 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 928

SOURCE: "Divided by Language," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. VI, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 18-19.

[In the following review of Cleaned Out and A Woman's Story, Neely notes Ernaux's focus on language, literacy, alienation, and class.]

Lying in her dorm room after a backstreet abortion, alone and terrified of hemorrhaging to death, twenty-year-old Denise Lesur recalls the circumstances that brought her to this point of absolute vulnerability. Her intention is to "figure it out, get to the bottom of it all between contractions." What Denise attempts to understand is the divide between herself and her working-class parents, a rift that began when Denise was enrolled in a private school and that widened each year as she acquired the language, desires, and manners of the dominant culture.

Set in postwar France, Cleaned Out (originally published in 1974 as Les Armoires vides …) is the first semiautobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, winner of the Prix Renaudot for La place (1983), a memorial to her father. The English translation of A Woman's Story rounds out a trilogy of Ernaux's novels that explores the recurring motif of an educated woman's exclusion from her family and cultural roots.

Denise Lesur's narrative is a fluid stream of consciousness, at one moment brash, enraged, and at another rich with exquisitely phrased sentiments. The only child of two shopkeepers, Denise is invested with her parents' best hopes for a life filled with the opportunity, culture, and sophistication they cannot themselves have. Denise is spoiled, encouraged to read as many books as she can while her parents work downstairs in the family shop and cafe. All these parents ask of their daughter is that she succeed in school and stay out of trouble with the neighborhood boys.

With admirable attention to tangible detail, Ernaux evokes a childhood grounded in the world of the senses. Denise loves her mother, a vibrant, powerful woman, and recalls: "What seemed beautiful to me was that explosion of flesh, buttocks, breasts, arms and legs bursting out of brightly colored dresses that showed the contours, rode up, flattened, and came apart under the arms."

But it is the very physicality, the roughness of her bluecollar family that Denise rebels against when she compares herself with the daughters of dentists and doctors in her private convent school. Ashamed of her parents, of the drunks who frequent the cafe, Denise retreats into a "world, purer, richer than mine. A world of words." She is praised by her teachers, taught to speak "grammatically," and quickly rises to the top of her class. With pride, Mrs. Lesur buys Denise endless books, carrying them with two hands "as though they were the Holy Sacrament." And thus begins the divide. "What she didn't realize," Denise comments, "was that these same books were shutting me off from her."

As a university student, Denise thrives briefly in this world filled with nothing but studies. Soon, however, she meets a wealthy law student with a patronizing disdain for the working class. Impressed with his privileged background and the language he uses to intellectualize oppression, Denise allows herself to be "undressed layer by layer by the force of his words," willingly dismissing the legitimacy of her objections to him. When Denise becomes pregnant, her lover rebukes her, leaving Denise to pay for the abortion with her scholarship money. The final image in Cleaned Out is of a young woman, betrayed by a culture toward which she has aspired and cut off from parents who nurtured that ambition.

In Norman French, the word "ambition," Ernaux explains in A Woman's Story, "refers to the trauma of separation." In this best-selling novel, a requiem for Ernaux's mother, the author has exchanged the dramatic storyline for a form that is "a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction." Whereas the metaphor of abortion or expulsion shapes the narrative in Cleaned Out, A Woman's Story is a creative act, a reconstruction of one woman's life, located historically and shaped by words. "I am writing about my mother," Ernaux explains, "because it is my turn to bring her into the world."

This beautifully written book is thus the chronicle of one woman's struggle to escape the conditions of poverty, as she works her way from the small-town factories in Normandy to become, with her husband, proprietor of a family store. For Ernaux's unnamed mother, physical accomplishment has served as the measure of self-worth. The author recounts her mother's gregarious nature and the fervor with which she builds a life of sacrifice around the desire for her daughter's advancement.

Ernaux, as family archivist, achieves unflinching objectivity, for example, in relating her mother's awkward determination to improve her vocabulary. Yet this loving attention is also filtered through the author's perspective. The educated daughter looks on, painfully aware of her mother's difference and how these efforts to "improve one's position" are rooted always in economic fact. In her later years, Ernaux's mother comes to live with the author's family. Here Ernaux examines the inevitable conflict on many levels: personal, economic, cultural, Ill-at-ease in her daughter's fine home, "the mother who refused to be helped" rebels against a middle-class lifestyle that simultaneously welcomes and rejects her.

Language has served to divide the pair of women in these two important novels by Ernaux, but it is the author's hope that through writing she may also forge some kind of reconciliation. In A Woman's Story, Ernaux lends her mother's life historical form and so accompanies her into the "world of words and ideas, the world where she had wanted me to live."

Diann Blakely Shoaf (review date July-August 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890

SOURCE: A review of A Woman's Story, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 11, No. 5, July-August, 1991, p. 6.

[In the following, Shoaf offers praise for A Woman's Story, classifying the volume as a "fictional memoir."]

Though little known in the U.S., the fiction of Annie Ernaux frequently makes the bestseller list in her native France. A Woman's Story, a biographical novel about Ernaux's mother, and its companion work, La Place, a portrait of her father, are both taught to French schoolchildren as contemporary classics. The former, first published in the U.S. this past Mother's Day, appropriately enough, begins with Ernaux's account of her visit to the convalescent home—where Mme. Ernaux had resided for several years—immediately after being notified of her mother's death. In terse, elegant prose, she describes the minutiae surrounding the event—the facility's custom of having "the body of the deceased remain in its room for two hours following the time of death"; the inventory of personal belongings Ernaux must sign for; the choosing among several models of caskets—the prices of which, she is told, include tax. Ernaux presents these details with a realism and detachment reminiscent of Flaubert, with whom she shares a Norman birthplace. This strategy of distance allows Ernaux both to write about her mother in the midst of the numbness and confusion that accompany grief and to tell the truth, without distortion or sentimentality, about the woman who gave her life.

The scope of A Woman's Story, however, extends beyond the history of a single person, presenting as it does a deftly factual account of what it was like to come of age in rural France during the early part of this century. Ernaux's mother left school at the age of twelve to work in a margarine factory, scarcely an uncommon fate in those days. The hardships and privations of day-to-day existence for her and other members of her family later resulted in an equally common affliction, as Ernaux relates:

Unless [the members of her mother's family] had had a certain amount to drink, they remained sullen and taciturn. They slogged through their work in silence, "a good employee," or "a charwoman who never gave any cause for complaint." Over the years they got used to being judged solely in terms of how much they had drunk, they were "tipsy" or they were "sloshed." One year, on Whit Saturday, I met my aunt M. … on the way back from school. It was her day off and as usual she was going into town with a shopping bag full of empty bottles. She kissed me on both cheeks, swaying slightly, incapable of uttering a single word. My writing would never have been what it is had I not met my aunt that day.

Her aunt was not the only formative influence on the young Ernaux. Her mother, who through relentless work achieved far greater material success for herself, her husband, and her small daughter than did her brothers and sisters, was also dedicated to the notion of "self-improvement," believing that it "was first and foremost a question of learning and [that] nothing was more precious than knowledge." Indeed, we are told that books were the only objects Mme. Ernaux handled with any care or delicacy—"she washed her hands before touching them." The same gesture is seen in a heartbreakingly different context several years later, after Ernaux has left home to attend university, then to marry and raise a family of her own. After her father died of a coronary, Ernaux writes, she watched her mother tenderly washing his face, then:

easing his arms into the sleeves of a freshly-laundered shirt and slipping him into his Sunday best. As she dressed him, she lulled him with soft, gentle words, as if he were a child one bathes and sends to sleep. When I saw her neat, simple movements, I realized she had always known he would die first. The first night following his death, she would lay down beside him in bed. Until the undertakers removed his body, she popped upstairs to see him between customers, just as she had done during his four-day illness.

Ernaux performs similar functions for her mother when she begins slipping into the later stages of Alzheimer's disease. The author discusses with candor and directness the pain and resentment that are the natural concomitants of such duties. For we want, and in some ways, expect, our mothers to take care of us—lovingly, sternly, with unquestionable devotion—always; anyone who has assumed the care of an aging parent will immediately understand the anguished truth behind Ernaux's protest that she didn't want her mother "to become a little girl again, somehow she didn't have the right."

This "fictional memoir" was written in part, Ernaux says, to give her the peace of mind she felt would come when she found a way to unite the Alzheimer's victim with the strong-willed, energetic woman her mother had once been. It was surely also written to bring about the birth of the fully adult self: "I believe I am writing about my mother," Ernaux states, "because it is my turn to bring her into the world." A Woman's Story is thus an act of great love and of great pain, and there could be no better introduction of its author to this country.

Patricia Laurence (review date Fall 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067

SOURCE: A review of A Woman's Story, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 270-71.

[In the review below, Laurence praises the narrative structure and stylistic features of A Woman's Story.]

"Mother died" are two words that reverberate in French literature ever since Camus's L'Etranger. In Annie Ernaux's A Woman's Story, the same spare words evoke an intimacy with the reader never achieved in Camus's description of Mersault's alienated relationship. "We think back through our mothers if we are women," observes Virginia Woolf, and Annie Ernaux also thinks back: "It was only when my mother—born in an oppressed world from which she wanted to escape—became history that I started to feel less alone and out of place in a world ruled by words and ideas, the world where she had wanted me to live." And so the mother's life of giving passes into the life of the writing daughter.

For this is not only a story about mothers and daughters, but also a story about class. Everything about Ernaux's hard-working mother, born in a small, windswept town of Yvetot, in Normandy—her escape from poverty and the threat of alcoholism, her youth as a factory worker, her early marriage, her life as a shopkeeper—was geared to her daughter's education. Sent away to a privileged boarding school, Ernaux was "both certain of her love for me and aware of one blatant injustice: she spent all day selling milk and potatoes so that I could sit in a lecture hall and learn about Plato." This daughter, writing a book after her mother's death, never forgets that having the time and the ability to write is "a form of luxury." The book then becomes a giving back through giving literary birth: "I believe I am writing about my mother because it is my turn to bring her into the world."

The word empty reverberates in the lyrical descriptions of Ernaux's own feelings and her mother's last days as she slowly "slipped into a world without seasons" suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It is at the sparsely attended funeral that Ernaux vows: "I wanted the ceremony to last forever, I wanted more to be done for my mother, more songs, more rituals." The writing about her mother is a ritual of "doing more" and reexperiencing her again: the times and pleasures shared when she was alive—a continued conversation.

Ernaux describes her book as a literary venture, and the genre as a cross between family history, sociology, reality, and fiction. For the reader, the tension of the crossing resides in both the objective approach in which she "searches for an explanation" of her mother's life in a glancing way, and in the emotional terms—"the affection and the tears"—delivered in bare sentences and stark images, the strongest part of this book.

Miranda Seymour (review date 10 May 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894

SOURCE: "Leaving Father Behind," in The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1992, pp. 5-6.

[Seymour is an English novelist, biographer, editor, and journalist. In the following, she favorably reviews A Man's Place, lauding it as an "exorcism of remembrance" devoid of artifice.]

A rewarding experiment for a writer is to take powerfully felt events and try to describe them in way that mixes genres. The results can be seen at their best in the autobiographical novels of Annie Ernaux, a teacher who grew up in postwar Normandy and now lives near Paris.

In Une Femme, which was published in the United States last year as A Woman's Story, Ms. Ernaux wrote of her mother in an almost painfully spare fashion that turned personal loss into extraordinarily evocative literature. But if the book's success had much to do with a triumph of style over sentiment, it owed as much to Ms. Ernaux's skill at discovering the universal in the particular. The mother she portrayed in her novel stood for a generation of undemanding, hard-working women who saw their daughters "better" themselves and, through that process, become estranged, members of a different cultural class.

La Place, which won the Prix Renaudot in 1984, faultlessly completes the diptych. Appearing in English as A Man's Place, it comes to us, as did the first volume, in a very capable translation by Tanya Leslie. Again the memoir begins with a death, observing the body of Ms. Ernaux's father with the neutral eye of a camera before the exorcism of remembrance begins. Guilt, the author tells us, is her spur. Quoting Jean Genet, she offers the explanation that "writing is the ultimate recourse for those who have betrayed." The act of contrition is to allow herself no stylistic indulgence, no chance to sensationalize the facts—"No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony."

Writing cannot, of course, entirely escape artifice, but the rigid control that Ms. Ernaux exercises gives her portrait of an ordinary, unassuming man an air of truth—the same air of truth that makes us trust, for example, the lovely English landscape shown in Constable's Wivenhoe Park. Painted in 1816, it is a work that art historians often use to demonstrate the line between truth and verisimilitude. (It looks effortless and representative, but the preliminary sketches show that it was a masterpiece of scientific calculation.) Ms. Ernaux's portrait of her father is in the same deceptive category. Truth can only be represented: the medium, be it of paint and canvas or ink and paper, dictates what we shall see. Memory too must play its part. I say this not to diminish a remarkable book but to honor something that seems so direct; we need to remind ourselves how difficult it is for art to attain such simplicity.

Ms. Ernaux's father is shown as a decent, hardworking man, his status carefully defined by the fact that his sisters, who are housemaids, look down on him for having married a factory worker. Brought up in the early years of the century in a Norman farming village where religion and hygiene are the twin emblems of dignity, he brings these priorities to his life as a small-town grocer. Later, in another town, where he has opened a shop that doubles as a cafe, he has himself photographed alongside the lavatory in the backyard; he aspires to send his daughter to school with just as complete a wardrobe as the chemist's daughter has. His social carefulness is precisely recorded: the habit of eating a meal so thoroughly that the plate can go straight back in the cupboard, the fear of using the wrong word that is so strong it sometimes drives him into silence. So too is the slow process of alienation as his schoolgirl daughter starts to see him as the character the adult writer now portrays, "a humble man, a simple man." Her learning threatens him and cuts him off. Work, for the father, will always be a manual process; study is an indulgence.

There is a noticeable increase in tension in the last part of the book. The narrator has gone to a university, married a middle-class intellectual and now lives far from her parents. The emotional rift is absolute, the incomprehension total. The father admires his son-in-law for his nice manners; the son-in-law will have nothing to do with his new relatives. Away from her father, the daughter mythologizes, turning him into a heroic peasant, the salt of the earth; in his presence, she is conscious only of the social divisions that separate them. Coolly noting how much he seems to be enjoying his retirement, she puts it down to his pleasure in sticking his pension stamps on a sheet of paper. Just as we flinch at this evidence of patronizing indifference, she exposes her own pretensions, the pride she feels in her red plush armchairs and reproduction Louis-Philippe writing desk.

The victim, as in A Woman's Story, turns out to be the author herself, viewed with a hard, unsparing eye as she fails to bridge the gap between two worlds. It is this bleak honesty, this refusal to let herself off the hook of guilt, that gives Ms. Ernaux's two books their uncommon strength. Some critics have compared her to Simone de Beauvoir, but the reasonable, balanced voice I hear echoing behind her is that of Albert Camus.

Patricia Laurence (review date Summer 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050

SOURCE: A review of A Man's Place, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 228-29.

[In the following laudatory review, Laurence discusses stylistic aspects of A Man's Place.]

Reading Annie Ernaux's spare biography/autobiography A Man's Place, one gets the feeling as in her earlier work, A Woman's Story (1991), that writing is a "luxury." Torn between two identities, Ernaux takes possession of the harsh working-class life and language of her parents and the distance that comes between her and her father as the "legacy" of an educated woman writer in a bourgeois world. "Although," she says, "it had something to do with class, it was different, indefinable. Like fractured love." She opens with the fracture of two moments in her life: "that windy April in Lyon when I stood waiting at the Vroix-Rousse bus stop" after passing the CAPES examination to take her place as a secondary school teacher in the lycée, and "that stifling month in June," the month of her father's death at the age of sixty-seven in a quiet area of Seine-Maritime.

What makes this intentionally "neutral" description of the growing distance between the bright, achieving daughter and the rough-hewn working father so intriguing is that it is both a story of her father and the story of the daughter's struggle for language as a writer writing. As she drifts into middle-class circles, her attempt to come to terms with the life of "necessity" of her parents causes pain, guilt, and alienation: "As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a life-style generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it." What is new is Ernaux's self-conscious marking of the two languages that are her legacy, and her effort to find one that will honestly tell the story of a life governed by "necessity." Rejecting the genre of the novel she asserts: "I have no right to adopt an artistic approach … I shall collate my father's words, tastes and mannerisms, as well as the main events of his life…. No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally. It was the same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news." Developing this style of "necessity"—stripped to the bone of fact—almost a ritual of language to honor her father, she delivers direct, brief, social observations: "The land my father worked belonged to others." Such sentences are like gray stones between the flowering language and vision of her subjective terror in looking at him in death: "He was no longer my father. His sunken features seemed to have developed into one large nose. In his dark blue suit, which hung loosely around his body, he looked like a bird lying on its back." Here language is somehow flattened with compressed emotion, and the emotional spaces between the sentences as between the characters yawn wide as the distances between people in a Balthus painting.

Ernaux's seeming dilemma between two languages, two realities in this novel becomes the source of her style and strength as a writer. The strength emerges from a conscious stance of self-division. Her ability to simply limn and balance a stark, neutral language, "legacy" of her parents, with her own nuanced subjectivity grows from her emotional negotiation of the worlds of the working class and the middle class, and, most importantly, from having learned not to mix what goes on inside with what goes on outside.

Judith Levine (review date September 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871

SOURCE: "Theory of Relativity," in VLS, No. 30, September, 1992, p. 17.

[Levine is an American journalist and nonfiction writer. In the following excerpt, she lauds Ernaux's focus on language, class, and familial relationships in A Man's Place.]

The class mobility of a family's first educated child is a story of hope and betrayal, pride and uneasy rivalry, and often filial guilt. Annie Ernaux's A Man's Place tells this story in the spare and uninflected language that characterizes the writer's work—here felicitously translated from the French by Tanya Leslie. Ernaux's narrative-splintering self-interrogations admit to the memoirist's intrinsic unreliability; they solidify, rather than undermine, the reader's trust, making A Man's Place a work of ruthless authenticity.

A Man's Place (La Place, 1983) is the second half of Ernaux's memoir of her parents, the maternal side of which was published in English as A Woman's Story last year. Like the previous memoir, this deceptively cool narrative, of her father, eschews nostalgia and "art." "If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something 'moving' or 'gripping.' I shall collate … the external evidence of his existence," she writes—and creates a portrait that is, in spite of itself, moving and gripping. Ernaux's father is the son of farmhands. He hires on as a factory worker, marries another factory worker, and eventually manages to buy his own poor grocery cum café in a small Norman town, becoming the first in his family to own property.

But the petit bourgeois maintains his peasant's ways. He sleeps in his shirt and vest, spits vigorously in the courtyard, eats with his knife and wipes it clean on his overalls. He drinks moderately and keeps a tidy garden, and judges others' morality on sobriety and cleanliness. Ernaux describes him in his old age, home from the health clinic, happily arranging his pensioner's stickers on a sheet of paper. These "words, tastes, and mannerisms" she catalogues with almost wincing precision.

At his funeral, the priest eulogizes him as "a man who had never done any harm." Yet the adolescent Annie did feel harmed by her father and, as an adult, understands she has harmed him. A Man's Place seeks, if not to heal, to measure "the distance which had come between us during my adolescence," a distance of class, Ernaux says, but also of something "different, indefinable. Like fractured love."

Throughout his life, the father simultaneously defends and is ashamed of his class ("My husband never looked working-class," his wife says). He knows "his place," his expectations having been straitened since childhood. From her parents, Annie receives the promise of a better future spiked with punitive fatalism. When she mentions that a school chum has visited the chateaux of the Loire, the parents scold: "You can go later on in life. Be happy with what you've got." The child's enthusiasm is not dwarfed, however; she is left with "[a] continual wanting, never satisfied."

Although her father does not consider studying to be real work (to him labor is manual), "every time I did well in composition, and later in my exams, he saw it as an achievement and the hope that one day I might be better than him." Whose hope? Ernaux says "this dream came to replace his own dream … to run a smart café in town." But his anxiety for her success is tinged with ambivalence. "He constantly feared—or maybe hoped—that I would never make it."

A Man's Place, which avoids employing language to manipulate emotion, is also about the power of language to reward and wound, to define and marginalize. The world of her childhood was "a world in which language was the very expression of reality," Ernaux reflects. Speech, even more than language, was a signifier of social position, and "anything to do with language was a source of resentment and distress, far more than the subject of money." Annie the teenage scholar brutally chastises her father for the "incorrectness" of his French, a language he is proud to speak because it's not dialect. She learns English; when she converses with a hitchhiker, her father is baffled that she could have acquired a foreign language without leaving the country. As an adult visiting home, Ernaux recognizes the loudness and Norman pronunciation in her parents' voices—echoes of her younger self. "I felt torn between two identities."

A college degree and a middle-class professional husband move Ernaux farther from her family. At her wedding, her father puts on cuff links for the first time in his life. But it is by seizing language, becoming a writer, that Ernaux makes the irrevocable break. "Maybe I am writing," she wonders, "because we no longer had anything to say to each other."

Ernaux, who begins A Man's Place with contrition—a quote from Genet that "writing is the ultimate recourse for those who have betrayed"—appears to regret not the education she has acquired but the costs accrued in its getting: incomprehension and estrangement between parent and child, class alienation, and the shame of a daughter who has humiliated the man who once said proudly, "I have never given you cause for shame."

Bettina L. Knapp (review date Winter 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

SOURCE: A review of Passion simple, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 152-53.

[Specializing in French and comparative literature studies, Knapp is an American critic, educator, and the author of several critical books, including studies of Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, Anaïs Nin, and Emile Zola. In the following, she provides a favorable assessment of Passion simple.]

Minute and interestingly objective is [Passion simple,] the detailed account of the feelings, sensations, and thoughts a woman experiences as she awaits her lover's call or visit. Unlike Marguerite Duras, whose prose is imagistic, cadenced, meaningfully repetitious, and haunting in its verbal recordings and rerecordings of her protagonist's affects. Annie Ernaux's sojourn into sex is straightforward and classical, stylistically speaking. Rather than dealing with the mysteries surrounding the notion of passion, we are invited to share in the iteration of its harsh realities. In this regard, Passion simple is somewhat reminiscent of Cocteau's monologue written for Edith Piaf, Le bel indifférent.

Ernaux involves her reader in a barometric depiction of the gamut of erotic feelings the protagonist feels for her lover. Neither career, nor friends, nor intellectual concerns are of import; only those moments spent in lovemaking matter. Her life revolves around the hours spent sitting by the telephone waiting for a call from her man, refusing to run the vacuum cleaner or hair dryer for fear of drowning out the longed-for sound of the bell; or she rushes to return home from work or shopping, hoping to hear that very special voice, et cetera. The protagonist is also very careful not to leave any telltale signs of her presence—such as a strand of hair—on her paramour's clothing, for fear his wife might discover their relationship. Although sexual encounters are not depicted in detail, Ernaux's explicit vocabulary lends just the right touch to her enticing and deeply poignant confession.

Honi Haber (review date January-February 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869

SOURCE: A review of Cleaned Out, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, January-February, 1993, pp. 4, 18.

[Haber is a teacher of philosophy and women's studies. In the following review, she discusses Cleaned Out as a book about the "culturally disenfranchised."]

Annie Ernaux's novel Cleaned Out is more than a powerful evocation of the class system in France in the 1950s and of one woman's struggle to move up in the class hierarchy and forget her past. It is also a novel that serves as a haunting contribution, both in subject matter and literary form, to the project of the culturally disenfranchised speaking in their own voice.

The novel is an extended interior monologue in which 20-year-old Denise Lesur looks back at her childhood hoping to exorcise her demons and to gain some insight into the woman she has become, a woman who, despite her extraordinary academic achievements, has still not learned to love or even respect herself. Despite the fact that this daughter of a small-town grocer and café owner has succeeded in fighting the odds that face a woman member of the working class in gaining the ranks of France's academic elite, her successes are not enough to assuage the ever-present doubt she feels about her self-worth. However much she achieves, it remains the case that:

Everything still needs to be done. How can I ever get through enough exams to make up for the skeletons in the family closet, for the crazy laughter of the drunks, for the vulgar manners and language of the oaf who used to be me? All the education and exams in the world won't be enough to cover up the Lesur girl of five years, six months ago. I'll always despise her.

Achieving the obliteration of her class heritage proves a Sisyphean task.

Her desire to understand and make peace with herself is given urgency by the fact that she is not sure she will survive the back-street abortion she has just endured. This uncertainty provides a powerful frame for the reflections on her past that make up the bulk of the novel. It also provides a fitting backdrop for its more general philosophical concern: The lives of those who allow their values to be determined for them are just as uncertain as Denise Lesur's.

As a young child Lesur believes herself to lead a privileged existence. Being the only child of a grocer/cafe proprietor gives her unlimited access to cream cakes and succulent herrings. Everything seems edible to the girl. Even her charity visits with her mother to the poor and sick are seen through a devouring (and deliciously humorous) eye: "So I felt pleased … pleased with the leg with the gaping hole, like a toffee peeping out of its wrapper." "Rajol's aged mother has lost her thumb … a chewed stump of a thumb, green like a copper cooking pot, unbelievable." Her first teacher, too, is seen through the familiar frame of food and is identified as "the teacher with lips like a drooping croissant." The novel is peppered with images like these that stay with the reader long after the book has been read.

Education opens up Lesur's future to unlimited possibilities at the same time as it damns her to her past. When Lesur is sent to a private school, she is ridiculed for her working-class upbringing; she is taught humiliation. From that time on she becomes a "rotten girl," and her world, indeed her self, is divided in two. Her education, which marks her success in the outside world and, ironically, also makes her people so proud, takes her away from the world of her parents and shows her "just how awful that world is." Like Eve, the taste of knowledge leads to her downfall.

What Ernaux describes in Cleaned Out is the brutal process of a socialization where one is made to choose between the authority of the dominant culture, whose values ridicule the tastes, values, and habits of her people, and the self that is loved. Lesur learns to live in horror at the prospect of looking in the mirror and seeing her mother, her village, looking back. In learning to hate her past she also learns to hate her former self, a self she must always carry with her. She will never be able to escape her history, and she will never break the cycle of what Sartre called "bad faith" until she is able to choose her past. She lives out the existentialist's condemnation of the life not chosen: In fatally accepting the upper class' deprecation of her birthright, in accepting society's story of who she is, she loses her self. The adult Lesur's hope is that her self will be regained and empowered by the telling of her own story.

Ernaux's complex narrative speaks brilliantly to the need of the disenfranchised (whether oppressed because of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, health, or class or economic status) to find their own voice, and also to the difficulties those engaging in the project of self-creation face in their attempt to break free from the values of the dominant culture. Her book speaks to everyone who has been afraid of what they might find in the mirror.

Barbara Hoffert (review date 15 September 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 188

SOURCE: A review of Simple Passion, in Library Journal, Vol. 118, No. 15, September 15, 1993, p. 103.

[In the following review, Hoffert comments on the narrative structure and popular appeal of Simple Passion.]

In books like A Woman's Story and Cleaned Out bestselling French novelist Ernaux takes apparently autobiographical facts and constructs perfect little novels in almost unimaginably distilled prose. Here [in Simple Passion] she continues in the same vein. The narrator of her newest work, whom we are persuaded to believe is the author herself, details her passion for a married man. Actually, this is more the story of passionate waiting, and we see how the woman's single-minded attachment to her somewhat careless lover colors everything in her life. The book caused a sensation in France, with many parents refusing to let their children read it. One suspects that the real problem was not the details of love making but the coolly clinical approach, which is almost antierotic and tends to deglamorize something that most of us like to pretend is a big mystery. This is an original work, certainly not for everyone, but worth including in collections for adventuresome readers.

Caryn James (review date 24 October 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180

SOURCE: "Who Can Explain It? Who Can Tell You Why?" in The New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1993, p. 9.

[James reviews films for The New York Times. In the following, she praises Ernaux's examination of obsession and emotion in Simple Passion, but laments her use of and focus on self-conscious language.]

Perhaps only in France—the country that made cultural icons of Roland Barthes and Jerry Lewis, Simone de Beauvoir and Coco Chanel—could the slender autobiographical fictions of Annie Ernaux have become best sellers. Simple Passion, a memoir of a writer's obsessive affair with a shadowy married man, is part semiotic treatise and part Harlequin romance, and all the better for the combination of high and low. One of the hottest books in France last year, it embraces the crazed adolescent behavior that can crop up at any age, yet is intelligent enough to wrap those details in a taut literary shape and defiantly unemotional language.

The unnamed narrator is, like Ms. Ernaux, a middle-aged writer and teacher who lives in a Paris suburb, who is divorced and has two almost-grown sons. The novel describes her two-year affair with a man she calls A, a businessman from Eastern Europe who looks vaguely like the actor Alain Delon. It hardly matters that he is not described beyond that, for he is almost beside the point. The obsession itself, not the object of the obsession, is what compels the character and intrigues Ms. Ernaux.

"From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man," the narrator recalls, and it is not much of an exaggeration. She walks through her everyday life in a fog formed by constant thoughts of her lover. During an ordinary conversation she perks up at a casual reference, not to him, but to a nightclub in a country he once visited. In the Metro she gives money to beggars and as she drops coins into their cups makes a wish that he will call that night. "I promised to send 200 francs to Unicef if he came to see me before a particular date," she writes. Waiting for his phone call seems as tantalizingly pleasurable as making love, and even when he is with her, she can't help counting the hours until the waiting will begin again. This tale of compulsion is irresistibly readable, as the narrator moves beyond desire and, she occasionally recognizes, nearly beyond sanity.

But Ms. Ernaux wants to do more than re-create the common, embarrassing details of obsession. She uses words to turn emotions and memories into an object made of language, an object the narrator describes but refuses to analyze. "I am merely listing the signs of a passion," she writes in one of many self-conscious asides, "as if this inventory could allow me to grasp the reality of my passion." To explain her behavior would be to judge it, she says. Instead, she presents her reconstructed affair to the reader as if it were a post-modern sculpture, a hybrid of knowingly self-indulgent sentiment and a wary glance at the act of creation itself.

Simple Passion, smoothly translated by Tanya Leslie, owes much to Marguerite Duras's pared-down, enigmatic tales of destructive love. It also extends the descriptive style Ms. Ernaux used in her stirring, elegiac memoirs of her father and mother. A Man's Place (1983) and A Woman's Story (1988), both of which became wildly popular in France and minor literary successes in the United States.

The triumph of Ms. Ernaux's approach in all these works is to cherish commonplace emotions while elevating the banal expression of them. In A Woman's Story, soon after her mother's death she thinks: "This is the first spring she will never see. (Now I can feel the power of ordinary sentences, or even clichés.)" She relishes the ordinary in Simple Passion too. "Sentimental songs," she writes, "moved me deeply," accepting both their power and their silliness.

Yet in the end, too much self-conscious attention to writing and language diminishes the impact of Simple Passion. As the narrator moves out of her obsession, she briefly announces its "true meaning" (the very meaninglessness of this "violent and unaccountable reality" is what she treasures). She also suggests it has brought her closer to shared human experience. Such bland observations prove she was wise not to analyze her emotions in the first place. This shrewdly wrought tale can stand on its own, a monument to passions that defy simple explanations.

Daphne Merkin (essay date 27 December 1993–3 January 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3380

SOURCE: "Eros Redux," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIX, No. 44, December 27, 1993–January 3, 1994, pp. 154-59.

[Merkin is an American novelist and editor. In the essay below, in which she offers a laudatory assessment of Simple Passion, Merkin addresses the popularity of the volume in France, discussing its status and uniqueness as an example of erotic literature.]

The possibility that we are all fated to inhabit sexual islands of our own idiosyncratic making was brought home to me at a small dinner party I attended several months ago, when the hostess mentioned that two once prominent couples—no longer together, owing to death in one case and divorce in the other—had enjoyed sex lives that were notably "kinky." Of course, I understood the term, in some purely literal sense, as I assume did the other guests—but then my imagination wandered off, in directions peculiar to my history, and I felt the draft of separateness enter the room. What, I wondered, were the other guests conjuring up to go with the word "kinky"? Was it anything like the stuff I had called to mind? One thing that stands out in the haze of confusion that surrounds the subject of sex is that there is no real consensus about what constitutes erotic pleasure. As the Village Voice columnist Richard Goldstein once mused, "If there's no great porn film—not even Last Tango in Paris, for all its value as dramatic tour de force—that's because there's no unity in people's fantasies; some of us will always think a stick of butter is for bread."

Clearly, erotic imaginations have always been as diverse as thumbprints. But sometime in the past three decades we seem to have lost our balance about things sexual. What is normal? What is off? Jeffrey Dahmer is surely everyone's idea of a sickie, and we are relieved to be able to identify him as such. What, however, is one to make of Prince Charles, longing to be Camilla Parker Bowles's tampon? Once you put the extremes aside, where do you draw the line? How, for that matter, do you locate the center? We know only that heterosexuality has ceded its automatic right-of-way; that the dark continent of sadomasochism has been domesticated into a household state of mind; and that the gender-true convention of the man on top and all it implies no longer holds sway even in Dubuque.

Indeed, many of us prefer, perversely, the anticipation of sex to the thing itself. Or we have the opposite wish—which is to prolong the aftermath of lovemaking, avidly seeking out its physical aspect in lingering smells and rumpled sheets. There's a whole literature of erotic longing, with overtones of bliss and undertones of pain-in-pleasure, that has sprung up to accommodate this predilection. It's a genre written by women for women—and for men intrigued by the inner life of women. (There's also a small cadre of male authors mining this territory: James Salter, Robert Coover, and, more recently, Nicholson Baker.) French writers—perhaps because they're schooled to appreciate the theoretical, perhaps because they're not burdened by a Puritan legacy—are particularly adept at evoking these blasted-out landscapes, less romance than romantic desperation. If Marguerite Duras's The Lover is the purest and most literarily gifted example, Pauline Réage's Story of O runs a close second, although the latter's reputation as a soft-core masterpiece has tended to obscure its psychological underpinnings.

Beneath their erotic feinting, these books—and the work of other (non-French) writers, such as Edna O'Brien and Jean Rhys—are about the embattled border where I leave off and you begin: the primal lure of symbiosis versus the rigorous claims of autonomy, set to a sexual beat. How much merging with the Other can one sustain without giving up the Self? The literature of longing exists on a continuum that seems to mirror the broad-ranging dynamics of this predicament: at one end is the lost-in-the-funhouse escapade, from which the two lovers emerge bruised but essentially intact; at the other the consigned-to-the-nuthouse drama, in which one of the players (usually the woman) is destroyed. Although Madame Bovarys have always existed in one form or another, the past decade or so has witnessed a florescence of interest in this self-immolating romantic type, both in literature and on film; 9 1/2 Weeks, Damage, Fatal Attraction, and Camille Claudel come to mind. The prevalence of the genre suggests, among other things, that as traditional means of defining ourselves—through gender, class, and geographical origins—become more fluid, our chances of resolving our anxieties about who we are decrease.

Annie Ernaux describes the condition of obsessive erotic longing with a lighter touch than most authors: she calls it "craving through absence." Ernaux, who is French, and has previously written short, grave, and deeply affecting memoirs about her mother (A Woman's Story) and her father (A Man's Place), has now written a memoir of a sexual paradise lost. (If the true paradises are lost paradises—as Proust wrote—can one further infer that every paradise is essentially erotic?) Ernaux demonstrates with an almost abjectly self-revealing candor (in contrast to the self-protective "confessional" writing of someone like Duras) that the elusiveness of the love object—the circumstantial and emotional hurdles that separate us from it—is its most powerful draw:

As he always called me from telephone boxes, whose functioning could prove erratic, quite often when I picked up the receiver there was no one on the line. After some time I realized that this 'fake' phone call would be followed by the real one, fifteen minutes later at the most, the time it took to find a phone booth in working order. That first silent call was a prelude to his voice, a (rare) promise of happiness, and the interval separating it from the second call—when he would say my name and 'can we meet?'—one of the most glorious moments ever.

Ernaux's book is called, with a graceful bow in the direction of irony, Simple Passion. It is tiny, only sixty-four wide-margined pages long, and contains the first-person account of one woman's love affair with a married man—she a divorced schoolteacher and writer, he an Eastern European stationed in Paris. The story is told in immediate flashback, several months after the affair has ended, in a habitual past tense: "I would be overcome," "He would dress slowly," "It would only last …" It's as if Ernaux had managed to wring a humane responsiveness out of the neutral conjugations of grammar.

The protagonist has "gotten over" the situation sufficiently to be able to recollect it in artistic tranquillity, but not enough so that we don't feel the sizzle, and the hurt. The affair, which lasted less than two years, has presumably ended because the man—A—has gone back to his native country. (Left unspoken is the fact that he doesn't feel strongly enough to pursue her from across the globe.) On a deeper level, the affair has ended because the protagonist has willed her "age of passion" to come a close, out of psychological exhaustion, but also out of a need to rage—on paper rather than in her life—against the inevitable dying of sexual fixation. "So the world is beginning to mean something again outside A? The cat trainer from the Moscow Circus, the towelling bathrobe, Barbizon, the entire text assembled in my head day after day since the first night with words, images and gestures, all the signs forming the unwritten novel of a passion are beginning to fall apart."

There is perhaps in all such literature a Swinburnian wish—implied rather than expressed—for the easeful cessation of consciousness that is the peace beyond longing, in which the disturbing vividness of carnal attraction is extinguished in the vast impersonality of time. And curled silently behind this is yet another recognition: that we are, writers and readers alike, temporary dwellers in the country of speech, of squawkings on the page, on our way to permanent residence in the universe of speechlessness—the "infinite emptiness," as Ernaux calls it, after passion.

What this slim, elliptical narrative captures better than anything else I've read regarding the nature of erotic reverie is its encased, nothing-further-to-be-said quality. "I would have liked," Ernaux writes, "to have done nothing else but wait for him." (So, too, Duras in The Lover: "I've … never loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.") The book's power lies in the micro-scopic intensity of its focus, a remembrance of desire past in which everything remotely associated with the loved one—all of life outside the obsession, that is—becomes a way back into the obsession, Proust's madeleine rendered into a whole lineup of madeleines, each more thoroughly steeped in erotic nostalgia than the next:

As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn't tidy up straight away: I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was—a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum. Naturally, I would never wash until the next day, to keep his sperm inside me.

Simple Passion is transparently autobiographical. But it refuses, or gives the impression of refusing, to take advantage of the fictional scrim that most autobiography, from Rousseau's Confessions onward, has helped itself to: the self-portraitist's crucial touchups, bespeaking artistic intention or, more likely, personal vanity. This memoir falls into the reader's lap like a steaming lump of truth, smelling of sexual hunger, indifferent to the shamelessness or the pathos of its cause. "Having to answer questions such as 'Is it an autobiography?,'" Ernaux muses parenthetically, "and having to justify this or that may have stopped many books from seeing the light of day, except in the form of a novel, which succeeds in saving appearances."

Simple Passion can be read in under an hour, which may help explain why it achieved best-seller status in France—just as the brevity of Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County has been adduced to explain its spectacular performance in this country. Although very different, the two books are not unrelated literary animals. Another factor that may help explain the impact of Ernaux's book is that—though it aches on the page like an exposed nerve—it is clearly the rumination of someone who has imbibed the work of Barthes, Blanchot, and the rest of the semiotic whiz kids. Her account abounds with references to absence and presence ("I experienced pleasure like a future pain"); to the limited province of authorship versus the unbounded terrain of the text ("Once I start typing out the text … I shall be through with innocence"); and to the ontological anxiety, so beloved of deconstructionists, that besets disparate but related activities, such as sex and writing ("Living in passion or writing: in each case one's perception of time is fundamentally different"). The lack of emotional sprawl here is entirely un-American, very much the product of a Gallic sensibility—wreathed in booze and cigarette smoke, more literate and world-weary than our Yankee one.

More shockable, too, evidently, for otherwise it is hard to figure out why this highly cerebral book caused a national controversy in France—the country of preëminent sophistication concerning affairs of the heart. Or so we've been led to believe: France, after all, is where Roman Polanski fled after romping with a girl barely old enough to babysit, and France is where the marriage of convenience and the ménage à trois were virtually invented. It is we Americans who are reputedly naïve when it comes to the realm of the senses—we who expect our Presidents to be faithful husbands as well as faithful citizens, with any evidence to the contrary likely to ignite a major contretemps. National tastes in reading are apparently as opaque as individual sexual preferences—once again the old conundrum of what your brain sees when it is shown a stick of butter. This is not to suggest that Simple Passion isn't memorable—it is, in fact, a work of lyrical precision and diamond-hard clarity—only that it would be inconceivable for such a contained, literarily self-conscious work to achieve a wide readership in America.

The French, on the evidence of their embrace of this book, have an admirably high tolerance for postmodern complexities, which make it difficult to tell a story—even as elemental a story as this—without an acute awareness on the storyteller's part of the creaky contraption of storytelling. That Simple Passion is a book—a "text"—about an affair is part and parcel of its self-perception; we are not for a moment to be fooled into thinking that this modest, hedged-in artifact is the Ding an sich, the affair in itself. A contemporary sensibility such as Ernaux's is defined in part by a refusal to treat her readers as unsophisticated latecomers to the literary dance: the illusion of verisimilitude that was once art's finest offering has been disavowed, and in its place is a general tentativeness about the larger reality that art is supposed to be imitating. Whether you like this kind of writing or not, it certainly isn't trying to give you the rush of immersion, the "you are there" feeling that much of American fiction still aims for. In other words, it certainly isn't The Bridges of Madison County, written to entertain the late-twentieth-century descendants of those cave dwellers who were lulled by the first storyteller into forgetting the howling wolves, in the darkness outside.

And yet, curiously, the shock value of the woman's predicament in Ernaux's book—its readerly seduction, if you will—is not, at its core, very different from the appeal of The Bridges of Madison County. Bridges, of course, was the publishing surprise of last year, catching even marketing-savvy Warner Books off guard. Waller writes like a mediocre balladeer—although when he tried to make like Willie Nelson, and issued a recording of songs, he struck out. Now he has written a second novel, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, with a print run of a million and a half copies. It is very nearly a clone of the first, and, given the sales record of Bridges—more than half a year as No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list—who can blame him? It is a chestnut of the book business that romance sells, that mass-market paperbacks of a specific sort—featuring a woman in décolletage, an Alec Baldwinish male, and prose that manages to convey tumescence while at the same time primly veiling any intrusion of the phallic—do well. But "literary" fiction has never sold on the basis of love triumphant. When Bridges performed spectacularly, the surprise was not that a romantic story sold at this stratospheric level but that a small-size, hardcover love story—packaged by its publishers to look serious in its intentions, the jacket done up in smudgy, greige colors—found so many readers. (Bridges has dropped to No. 2 on the list, edged out by—what else?—Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend.)

What both Waller's books have in common with Ernaux's book is that they reassert—in the face of AIDS, and the revival of the concept of marital fidelity, and even of premarital chastity—the perception that the heartland of eroticism lies outside the confines of marriage. In their puffed-up, clumsy, yet somehow canny way, Waller's novels sniff out the great valley of discontent between the sexes; his randy, unattached protagonists smugly observe the slow drip of calcification that occurs in even the best of domestic arrangements. Their author has figured out that at the heart of every long-suffering wife is an underappreciated wench, whose submerged glory is just waiting to be rediscovered. Here is Robert Kincaid, the peripatetic photographer in Bridges, on first spotting Francesca, the Iowa farm wife whose husband pays more attention to his prize steer than to her: "She came off the porch toward him. He stepped from the truck and looked at her, looked closer, and then closer still. She was lovely, or had been at one time, or could be again."

Waller's depiction of self-regarding loners with amatory talents (narcissists, if only they and he knew it) who pine for women already claimed by stalwart but unworthy spouses depends for its effect on the reader's tacit agreement—and there seem to be a lot of willing readers out there—that marriage is not good for your sex life. Possession, it seems, is nine-tenths of boredom, and the daily grind will do the rest. Just as the imperatives of domesticity are not conducive to passion, so the imperatives of passion are not conducive to domesticity. Affairs, by their very nature, preclude taking out the garbage. Most of us know this instinctively, and yet many of us spend our adult lives making an end run around this incontestable fact, trying to have it both ways. We marry for—among other things—the simple certitude of it; we have affairs because we crave the unexpected. No one has ever titled a movie "A Marriage to Remember," and for good reason: it would bomb at the box office. Marriages endure, but they're not, generally speaking, memorable except to the parties involved.

At the opening of Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, the leather-jacketed, motorcycle-gunning professor who is the novel's hero spots his married prey, the gray-eyed Jellie Braden, and spends "a restless night" agitating about "primal things versus rectitude." The conflict could apply just as well to the woman writing her way out of sexual obsession in Simple Passion. Ernaux's narrator would willingly drop everything and light out for amorous territory, if only her man would stay in her field of vision long enough: "I knew that nothing in my life (having children, passing exams, travelling to faraway countries) had ever meant as much to me as lying in bed with that man in the middle of the afternoon."

It's odd that Ernaux, who so scrupulously records the impact of an extra-marital relationship, says almost nothing about marriage. One can take this as an indictment—or, more simply, as a reflection of the postmodern view of connubial love. To live with a man or a woman on an ongoing, intimate basis is to grow jaded, weary of the imaginative possibilities; at some point, our husbands and wives fail to live up to a long-ago sensed potential. They become to us who they have become to themselves, and it is hard to envision them as promising more than they currently yield. An affair brings with it a reclaiming of one's own dimmed hope for oneself. Men look for the erect stalk of their youth, women for something more amorphous, something close to that moment when they first glimpsed sensual bliss.

The very form of Ernaux's book—the narrative as a revisiting of a passion eclipsed—suggests that all eros is redux: a magical reading backward against the inscribed flow of history, a temporary reversal of that infinite regress, of that long unfolding wherein the flesh softens, the teeth decay, and passion wanes. If paradise is but a memory of paradise, then perhaps we are wiser to stay in our own beds and leave it to other people—writers, that is—to have their messy or bittersweet affairs and come back and report on them to us. On the last page of her memoir, Ernaux presents us directly with the purpose of Simple Passion: "an offering of a sort, bequeathed to others." We should be grateful for the small, comforting indiscretions of her prose—even for Robert James Waller's ungainly, strutting croonings. They relieve us for a while of our unmet curiosity, articulate for us—in neatly packaged narrative—erotic byways we have thought about while feeding the cat or reading a bed time story to one of our children. When they're over, we can close the book, turn off the light, and dream.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 March 1995)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

SOURCE: A review of A Frozen Woman, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIII, No. 5, March 1, 1995, pp. 250-51.

[In the review below, the critic summarizes the plot of A Frozen Woman.]

French writer Ernaux (Simple Passion, 1993, etc.) continues her thinly disguised fictional autobiography [with A Frozen Woman], this time recalling with numbing intensity her passage to a womanhood trapped by convention and domesticity.

The unnamed narrator reworks some old ground as she describes growing up in a bourgeois but unconventional family. Her parents operated a small convenience store, a "landscape" where there were no "mute, submissive women." Her father peeled potatoes, her mother kept the books, and both encouraged their daughter to excel at school. "Dust doesn't exist for her [mother], or rather it's something natural, not a problem," and her mother teaches the narrator that "the world is made to be pounced on … enjoyed … that there is absolutely no reason at all to hold back." But as the protagonist grows up, even though her parents spare her "the idea that little girls are gentle and weak, and that they have different roles to play," she learns otherwise from her classmates. They boast of their mothers' domestic talents; then, as they grow older, it's fashion and boys. By high school, though tempted by their thinking, the narrator continues to aim for higher education and a career. In her final year of college, her resistance weakens when she falls in love and marries. Soon, she feels trapped by domesticity, and when pregnancy interrupts her finals she's desperate; even the furniture is an "insidious entrapment" demanding to be cared for. She completes her degree, starts teaching, then finds, like all women, that she has two jobs: Men are free after work; the supermarket is her reward "for going out." Finally, another pregnancy and unending housework lead to her admission that "pursuing a career" is best left to men. She teaches part-time, her husband is successful, she wears expensive clothes, but she's a "frozen woman."

Very Gallic, very rational, very true. But, still, of all Ernaux's writing: the most polemical and arid.

Carolyn Kuebler (review date Summer 1995)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

SOURCE: A review of A Frozen Woman, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 2, Summer, 1995, p. 215.

[In the review below, Kuebler favorably assesses A Frozen Woman.]

Annie Ernaux's unflinching, unabashed prose [in A Frozen Woman] flows with such seeming spontaneity and such unguarded honesty that language seems a natural extension of her fierce mind. Even in translation (which is the only way I know it) the words seem unstoppable as they pile upon each other, forming an always clearer, always deeper path into the psyche of the central character of the story. Similar to her other books (Cleaned Out, A Woman's Story), A Frozen Woman is the interior monologue of a woman who grew up in a small town in France, the daughter of two shopkeepers, a girl who moves away from her parents to an elite, more educated society. The narrator of A Frozen Woman presents the same glorious, chaotic childhood in the café, and the same fearless sexual and intellectual discoveries of her other novels but with a different, even more autobiographical emphasis. The despair of A Frozen Woman is more complete, more shattering, because now its presence seems inescapable, both the result of fate and of the author's own actions.

Here is a woman trapped in the exhausting routine of mothering, teaching, and a traditional marriage, despite the commitment she and her husband had made to equality and intellectual freedom. Despite their efforts to avoid the compromises men and women often make when they accept the responsibility of a family, the woman's aspirations are always sacrificed first. Similar to when she was a teenager discovering her sexuality, Ernaux realizes in adulthood that men enjoy more freedom than women do. As a teenager, sex soon became the "defensive game of dividing my body into territories from head to toe: permitted area; the uncertain field of current maneuvers; the forbidden zone. Cede territory only inch by inch. Each pleasure is labeled defeat for me, victory from him. I had not anticipated experiencing the discovery of the Other in terms of loss, and it isn't amusing."

In flawless detail Ernaux evokes from her own experience the common struggle of any person to remain creatively engaged with the world. Ernaux's passion for living, her intellectual capability, and her perspicuity remove layers of social and literary taboo and take language to a level of expression that supersedes jargon or literary affectation. A Frozen Woman, first published in France by Gallimard in 1981, is devastating and exhilarating at the same time. There are no answers but there is passion, linguistic power, and a vibrant voice coming through the pain and disappointment.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

Criticism

Brown, John L. Review of Une femme, by Annie Ernaux. World Literature Today 63, No. 1 (Winter 1989): 71-2.

Positive assessment of A Woman's Story. The critic asserts: "Ernaux has convincingly expressed the deep and enduring love she felt for her mother in a text of controlled emotion, of sensibility free of sentimentality, which is also, as she wished it to be, a sociological commentary on the situation of certain groups of the French working class in the middle of the twentieth century."

Robinson, Lillian S. "A Soup of Wild Herbs." The Nation 253, No. 6 (26 August-2 September 1991): 234-36.

Review of A Woman's Story and Emilie Carles's A Life of Her Own: A Countrywoman in Twentieth-Century France, in which Robinson discusses Ernaux's focus on womanhood, class conflict, prejudice, upward mobility, aging, and grief in contemporary French society.

Rose, Marilyn Gaddis. Review of La place, by Annie Ernaux. World Literature Today 60, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 67.

Favorably assesses A Man's Place.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Ernaux, Annie (Vol. 184)