When she was twelve years old, Annie Ernaux witnessed her father threatening to kill her mother. This dramatic childhood experience changed Ernaux in ways that she could not fully comprehend. So she committed herself to fully analyzing all the circumstances of her life at the time of the incident, and the results of that examination is Ernaux’s eighth published work, the memoir La Honte (1997, Paris), translated into English as Shame (1998, New York). Shame was selected by Publishers Weekly as a best book of 1998.
In this book, Ernaux does not attempt to draw any conclusions. She simply gathers as many memories as she can about her town and her school, her extended family and their social standing in the community, her parents’ cafe and grocery store, and her mother and father. By searching through news stories and staring at old photographs, she recalls as closely as possible the emotions she experienced in the summer of 1952, when her father lifted a scythe in his hand and threatened her mother. Who she was before that incident and who she became after it are the driving forces behind this story.
However, the memoir is not just about the author. It is also about the small Normandy town in which she grew up and the social structure that was in place there. Ernaux explores the awkwardness of puberty, the inflexibility of the Roman Catholic Church, and the narrow-mindedness of the smalltown sentiment that decreed that everyone should strive to be like everyone else. Ernaux’s shame is that she felt she had to keep a secret. She believed that she must never reveal what she witnessed between her father and mother for fear of being ostracized. She must never reveal that she, or her family, was in any way different.
Ernaux opens her memoir Shame with the sentence ‘‘My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.’’ She then proceeds to recall the incidents around that particular day. She had just recently come home from church; her parents had an argument; her father threatened her mother with a scythe.
She next explains how she has often related the opening sentence from the book to several men in her life but later realized that was a mistake. This was her way of showing she was ‘‘crazy about them,’’ but her declaration only made them shy away from her.
After writing the memoir, Ernaux states that she realized her father’s threat was probably not so unique. These things happen, maybe in all families. However, before she fully explored the incident in words, she tells her readers, ‘‘that Sunday was like a veil that came between me and everything I did.’’
Ernaux has two photographs of herself that were taken around that same time period, one before the incident and one shortly after it. She looks at them as objectively as she can and describes what she sees. She states that if she had never seen the photographs before, she would ‘‘never believe that the little girl is me.’’ The first photograph was taken after she received her First Holy Communion, a time of innocent childhood. The second was taken with her father on their trip to Lourdes, a time, she states, that marked an era ‘‘when I shall never cease to feel ashamed.’’ To further stir her memories, she describes some mementoes she has saved, each imbued with fragments of her experiences as a young girl.
She visits the archives in Rouen, a small city outside Paris, to study old newspapers of 1952, and although the events are familiar, she knows them only as an adult who has read history, not as a child of that day, except for a cartoon she recognizes. She has subconsciously been searching for details of her own story, she confesses, for that is the only event of the day that is real to her.
In the beginning of part two, Ernaux describes the area around her hometown, a place from which in 1952 she had never ventured. She lived in northern France, which is referred to as Normandy, in a small town ‘‘squeezed in...
(The entire section is 1,785 words.)