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“No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony…” #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds

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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!

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.” #WITMonth #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds

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A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Annie Ernaux is an award-winning French author whose works have been making their way into the Anglophone world over recent years, most notably in the UK via the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions. Originally pitching her literary talents towards fiction, she switched to autobiographical works and these are the ones which most British readers would recognise – books like “I Remain in Darkness” and “The Years” have garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. Her most recent release via Fitzcarraldo is “A Girl’s Story” and, as an Ernaux virgin, I was very happy to be offered a copy by the publisher to cover for #WITmonth.

From what I’ve read about Ernaux’s books, they don’t mince their words; and “A Girl’s Story” is no exception. It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognise how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

The effects of the summer of 1958 are devastating, and Annie D. (Duschesne, as she was then) loses contact with H. at the end of the summer, and is rejected by the camp when she applies to be an instructor the following year. Instead, she spends time as an au pair in London, where her behaviour is still off-kiltre. She’s a self-obsessed young person, as so many are, with little knowledge of what’s happening in real life and a kind of blindness when it comes to major world events; she’s locked inside her head, fixated on her own emotions.

The cover of the US edition from Seven Stories Press

In itself, “A Girl’s Story” is an important book; in many ways, it could every woman’s story, as most of us have at some point faced abuse from men, whether verbal, physical, emotional or simply derision. As Ernaux comments at one point in the story (when both male and female instructors are mocking a letter of Annie’s which has been found and displayed on a noticeboard):

When I go back over the corridor scene, little by little, the girl in the middle becomes depersonalized, is no longer me or even Annie D. What happened in the corridor at the camp takes us back to time immemorial, all over the planet. Everywhere on earth, with every day that dawns, a woman stands surrounded by men ready to throw stones at her.

And how many naive young women have become obsessed by an older man who seems to be some kind of ideal, yet has little interest in them and casts them off when they’ve got what they want? But there’s something deeper at work in Ernaux’s writing as she tackles her past. Her narrative form is unusual; she distances herself from her past self, telling Annie D.’s story in the third person as if they were two separate people (which I suppose, in some ways, they are). It seems as if she’s conflicted, unable or unwilling to get into the mindset of the girl of summer 1958, yet trying to do just that. As she wrestles with herself, it’s as if she’s spent the intervening years trying to completely bury her memories and that part of her past and move on. However, the experience has marked her and stayed with her and she’s still unable to let go of it.

I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over fifty years earlier, to which her memory can add nothing new at all. What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?

Knowledge is control, I suppose; and by writing about her past and exploring the way memory works, Ernaux is trying to take back control over herself and the way she was perceived, control which she certainly didn’t have at the time. In retrospect, a young girl from a repressed household with a controlling mother, no wordly knowledge and no experience of men was a lamb to the slaughter and never should have been sent to the summer camp. But she was, and she had these vile experiences which had tainted her life, and this is, I suppose, Ernaux’s reckoning with them.

How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, the ways of being, even their acts? There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.

The things which happen to us when we’re young and impressionable *do* stay with us; and traumatic events like those which were inflicted on Annie D. couldn’t help but have a lasting effect. Fascinatingly, Ernaux traces the start of her writing life back to these events, as if they made her the woman she is – which seems to be a powerful, honest and confessional writer. She also captures the attitudes of the times quite brilliantly; the double standards applied to women, the expectations of their behaviour, and the casual misogyny which existed. “A Girl’s Story” is a vivid, often harrowing and yet inspiring book, as Annie D. suvived the events of the summer of 1958 and moved on to become the author which Annie Ernaux is. “A Girl’s Story” is a multi-layered read, looking not only at the events of the summer of 1958 and how they affected her; it also looks at issues around memory, trauma, blinkered perceptions and how we can totally submit our willpower to another human. It’s a compelling and unforgettable book, a chronicle of its era in many ways, and Ernaux is obviously an author I will need to explore further…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Clare Bogen, for which many thanks!

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