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25 November 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 10:53am

Annie Ernaux and the brutal art of memoir

Ernaux understands that writing honestly about her parents is a form of betrayal – but she does it anyway. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Many writers write about writing. But Annie Ernaux goes further: each of her startling and vivid books deals with the recounting of memory, the mental process of remembering, and the moral quandaries intertwined with both.

The French author has for decades been lauded in her home country but has only grown prominent in the English-speaking world over the past couple of years, following the republication of many of her works by the independent press Fitzcarraldo Editions and the shortlisting of her collective history Les années, translated into English as The Years by Alison L Strayer, for the 2019 International Booker Prize.

In the final pages of A Man’s Place – which won the Prix Renaudot when it was published in 1983 and is now available in a new edition of Tanya Leslie’s 1992 English translation – Ernaux explains that it has taken her a long time to finish this narrative: “I find it is far more difficult to dig up forgotten memories than it is to invent them.” Ernaux’s first book, the 1974 novel Les Armoires vides, or Cleaned Out, was only thinly fictionalised, and since the Eighties she has focused on memoir, embedding truth into the form of her writing. I Remain in Darkness (1997) was based on journal entries, while for The Years she used family photographs to guide her narrative.

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In Happening, a stirring account of the illegal abortion she had in Paris in the early Sixties, Ernaux realised the power one wields in writing true stories that involve others. When she suffered a haemorrhage and was admitted to hospital, a young doctor treated her poorly. “If I had been told the name of the junior doctor who was on duty that night – 20-21 January, 1964 – and if I still remembered it, nothing would stop me from divulging it here,” she wrote.

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In A Man’s Place Ernaux writes not simply her own memoir but her father’s also, or some overlap of the two – the story of the man she understands him to have been, and how their relationship affected each other’s lives. Aware of the influence she holds in making this portrait public, she imposes rules upon her writing, rules she has followed for much of her life: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally, it is the very same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents my latest news.”

Ernaux’s father grew up in a poor farming family in Normandy and the book begins with his death, which came exactly two months after Ernaux passed her exams for a teaching certificate. The proximity of these two events makes her reflect on the gulf that had widened between Ernaux and her father as she grew up. As she progressed through school, attended university and entered the world of the highly educated, he, hardened by a life of physical labour, looked on her achievements with suspicion, if a quiet admiration too.

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Ernaux’s bare-boned, fragmented prose style is often harsh on her subject matter. She observes her parents’ hard work and dedication to support their family with sympathetic snobbishness. Her father mispronounced the name of her school teachers, “as if the normal pronunciation implied that he was intimate with the closed world that these words evoked, a liberty he was not prepared to take”.

Her parents ran a grocery shop in rural Normandy and steadily grew into a state of material comfort: “They only really longed for things for the sake of it, because in actual fact they didn’t know what was beautiful or what people were expected to admire.” She expresses these reasons for her parents’ ignorance plainly, as though trying not to pass judgement, but she doesn’t excuse them with fondness either.

There is a felt distance here, in how Ernaux’s father treats her as a girl, and how she writes of him from the vantage point of her own adulthood. But that doesn’t make the book cold. There are glimmers of intimacy in her accounts of her father’s precise shaving routine and the way in which his eating habits changed over the years. (When he “reluctantly” switched from eating soup in the morning to drinking café au lait, he still used a spoon.) Her parents are rarely referred to as “my father” and “my mother”, but simply “he” and “she”. It seems at first as though Ernaux is holding them at arm’s length. But quickly it feels like a descriptor of closeness. For who else, in this small world, could Ernaux be referring to?

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Ernaux understands that writing about her parents is a form of betrayal. That she writes about their struggle to understand the middle-class literary world into which she has moved makes that betrayal all the more painful.

But still she does it – and it is thrilling to read Ernaux working out, word by word, what she deems appropriate to include in each text. Now 80 years old, and having published more than 20 books, she continues to search for the perfect formula. In being willing to show her discomfort, her disdain and her honest, careful consideration of the dilemmas of writing about real, lived lives, Ernaux has struck upon a bold new way to write memoir. 

A Man’s Place
Annie Ernaux, trs Tanya Leslie
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 80pp, £8.99

This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump