A prize-winning author recalls her parents’ lives in Normandy before and after World War II
A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Ballantine, 103 pp., varied prices, paperback. A Woman’s Story. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories, 96 pp., $8.95, paperback. Both translated from the French by Tanya Leslie.
By Janice Harayda
Annie Ernaux’s spare autobiographical books are remarkable for many things. One of them is their brevity. They typically have fewer than 100 pages, yet are so rich in perception that they have earned the status of modern classics in France.
In the U.S. Ernaux’s reputation rests largely on two books about her parents that are often described as autobiographical novels but resemble high stylized memoirs. Both are partly about how sex roles and social class shaped the lives of residents of a village in Normandy in the decades before and after World War II. They are also about how Ernaux, at once grateful for and alienated from her background, felt “torn between two identities” after she received the university education that her parents lacked.
A Man’s Place is about the life and sudden death of her father, a shopkeeper and café owner whom people called “simple” or “humble” but who had a complexity suggested by a telling incident: “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.” The sequel, A Woman’s Story, is similarly brief and evocative but, because of its subject, may hold more appeal for Americans.
After her husband’s death, Ernaux’s mother developed the disease the French call la maladie d’Alzheimer and suffered alternately from confusion and a terrified comprehension of her plight. She remembered that she had to turn off the light when she left a room but forgot how to do it, so “she climbed onto a chair and tried to unscrew the bulb.”
Ernaux describes all of this with an austere restraint reminiscent of the best work of Muriel Spark, always providing just enough detail to suggest greater depths. She tells us that her mother, as her Alzheimer’s become worse, wrote to a friend, “Dear Paulette, I am still lost in my world of darkness.”
Best line: From A Woman’s Story: “Books were the only things she handled with care,” Ernaux says of her mother. “She washed her hands before touching them.”
Worst line: Tanya Leslie’s translations capture well the stylistic purity of Ernaux’s prose. But her use of a conspicuously British English at times results in sentences that break the French mood, such as this line from A Man’s Place: “Ah here comes the lass.”
Published: 1993 (Ballantine paperback of A Man’s Place). 2003 (Seven Stories paperback of A Woman’s Story www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100333250).
Furthermore: A Man’s Place won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer. Ernaux lives in France. A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved