Critical Overview

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Critics often preface their remarks about particular works by Ernaux by first stating that her writing reads like a confessional of personal experience and of the emotions that were derived from it, and that it is difficult to distinguish between her novels and her memoir, as she blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Her ability to bare her soul and the language that she uses to do so are usually highly complimented. For instance, Donna Seaman, writing for Booklist, calls Shame ‘‘a terse and powerful memoir.’’ Seaman compares Ernaux’s ability to investigate her emotions to the ‘‘precision of a scientist.’’ She commends the author’s ‘‘beautifully crafted and unsettling narrative’’ for its descriptions of the intimate details of living in a small town in France in the 1950s.

Ernaux’s writing follows a minimalist style, which on a grammatical level eliminates most adjectives and adverbs and on a meaningful level strips away redundancy and gets right to the point of her topic. Phoebe-Lou Adams in Atlantic Monthly praises Ernaux’s style for its precision, its detachment, and its lack of ‘‘ornament.’’ She describes Shame as a ‘‘cool, factual, ironic study of life . . .’’

In a review for Publishers Weekly, Jeff Zaleski also commends Ernaux’s simplistic style. He states that other writers might brood ‘‘endlessly over the personal significance’’ of the focal event of Ernaux’s memoir—her father’s assault on her mother—but ‘‘Ernaux is much too cool-headed for that.’’ Zaleski then points out details of Ernaux’s style, noting the various lists she employs in the book, thus stripping ‘‘herself and her memories of any comforting myth.’’ Due to this objective view of her childhood, Zaleski finds that Ernaux’s essay makes the reader ‘‘face the jarring facts of being human.’’

Ernaux’s writing tends to read like journal entries, whether it is based on truth or on her imagination. Robert Buckeye praises this technique in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. ‘‘It has been the particular strength and virtue of her writing,’’ Buckeye writes, ‘‘to refuse to make this story a story; to make it literature would be to falsify it, distance ourselves from it, give it a drama it does not have.’’ Claire Messud in the New York Times also focuses on Ernaux’s refusal to tell her story in conventional form. She ‘‘defies the contemporary demands of her genre,’’ Messud observes, refusing to satisfy the ‘‘desire for melodramatic intimate revelation and the smoothness of fictional taletelling.’’ The results of Ernaux’s diary-like writing gives Shame ‘‘a searing authenticity and reveals the slipperiness of much that we call memoir,’’ Messud states.

Ernaux, in her attempt to remain objective, offers little analysis of her experiences. She presents the events much as a reporter might, with only the facts of her experience offered. However, most critics approve of this style. As E. Nicole Meyer notes in World Literature Today, ‘‘Ernaux’s talent lies in her distinctive style, characterized by its simplicity. . . . In the space of a few pages, she captures the reader, who is seduced by the economy of her prose.’’ Or as Julia Abramson, also writing for World Literature Today, states, Ernaux’s simplistic and honest style represents her ‘‘yearning toward perfection.’’

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Essays and Criticism