A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Tanya Leslie

My second read for Non-Fiction November is (whispers) actually a book I read in October, but as I’m still playing catch-up with reviews and as this one fits into the category nicely, I think we’ll turn a blind eye…. ;D

The book is “A Man’s Place” by Annie Ernaux; the most recent release of her work by the lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions, it’s translated by Tanya Leslie, and was originally published in 1983. Ernaux is a recent discovery for me; I read and was knocked out by “A Girl’s Story” back in August, so was very keen to read the new book, particularly as it springs from the same kind of place as my first read. In “Girl…” Ernaux looked back at dark and defining events from her formative years; here she stays in similar territory, travelling back to convey the life of her father in prose which is apparently simple yet is very revealing.

Ernaux’s father died at the age of 67, two months after his daughter had qualified as a teacher. The family came from peasant stock, with her father having started life as a lowly cowherd. Surviving the First World War, he began working in a factory where he met Ernaux’s mother. Together they managed to move into working class circles, setting themself up as shopkeepers and running a grocery store/cafe in rural France, struggling to make a living. However, the store managed to sustain them, despite the introduction of supermarkets encroaching on their territory, and also provided enough income for them to send their daughter to a good school – a move which would change her life irrevocably.

Maybe I am writing because we no longer had anything to say to each other.

Interestingly, “A Man’s Place” is as much about Annie Ernaux herself as it is about her father. Both parents came from a simple, rural background and inevitably Ernaux grew away from them as she attended school then university, mixing with contemporaries from very different settings. As well as the class issues which arose as Ernaux moved away physically and emotionally from her background, the intellectual gulf was huge and probably unbridgable. In the later parts of the book, when Ernaux visits her aging parents with her small son, it’s as if she’s travelling into the past, to a completely different world.

Ernaux is aware of much of what formed her father and his outlook; and she is also clear-eyed about her paternal grandfather and the influence he must have had, stating:

He was a hard man, nobody dared pick a quarrel with him. Life was not all roses for his wife. His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house.

She also resists adding any kind of gloss to her father’s story, understanding that his life on the land was no kind of idyll. The realities of a rural style of life are not swept under the carpet…

It would be easy to write something along those lines. The relentless passing of the seasons, the simple joys and quiet of the countryside. The land my father worked belonged to others. He saw no beauty in it, the magnificence of Mother Earth and other such myths were lost on him.

As with “A Girl’s Story”, Ernaux’s writing is of course superb. Her narrative is always detached, seemingly unemotional – for example, she relates the death of an earlier sibling in remote terms as if it was someone with no connection to her. Yet underneath the emotions are strong and it’s as if she has to tell her tale as if it was *not* hers, rather than autobiography, to be able to convey her story. Despite the vast differences between Ernaux and her father, there is the feeling that she appreciates his resilience and his simpler approach to life; and in return, despite his lack of understanding of what Ernaux is actually doing with her life, he *is* proud of her.

“A Man’s Place” is a short work – 76 pages to be exact – and yet packs in so much. Ernaux explores not only her father’s place in an ever-changing society, but also his place in her life. She’s quite brilliant at unpicking the nuances of the relationships within her family, while her narrative reflects the radical changes in French society which took place during her lifetime. At the start of the book, the world feels positively mediaeval; by the end of it, we’re in a very familiar landscape of modern trappings and shops and all of the changes the 1960s and 1970s would bring. To have captured all that in so short a book is just genius, I think.

So my second Ernaux book was just as good, and just as haunting and memorable, as my first. She really is a remarkable writer and commentator, able to distance herself from her own experiences and so bring to them a really intriguing perspective. Her books are not always the easiest of reads, in that she looks life and reality straight in the eye; but they’re always enriching, and here Ernaux paints a striking picture of her father and his life which acts as a powerful memorial to the man he was. A remarkable book!