Annie Ernaux Ernaux, Annie (Vol. 88) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Annie Ernaux 1940–

French novelist and memoirist.

The following entry provides an overview of Ernaux's career through 1995.

A critically acclaimed best-selling author in France, Ernaux is recognized for highly personal works in which she blends elements of biography, autobiography, and fiction. Her writing typically focuses on familial relationships, sexuality, death and loss, the class structure and social mores of post-World War II France, and the nature of memory and writing.

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol Sanders (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Loraine Day (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ruth Caldwell (review date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ann Fortune (review date 26 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ginger Danto (review date 19 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jessica Neely (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Diann Blakely Shoaf (review date July-August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia Laurence (review date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Miranda Seymour (review date 10 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Patricia Laurence (review date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judith Levine (review date September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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;...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (review date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Honi Haber (review date January-February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Barbara Hoffert (review date 15 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Caryn James (review date 24 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carolyn Kuebler (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary 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):...

(The entire section is 153 words.)