thu 16/09/2021

Annie Ernaux: A Man's Place review - an intimate portrait, necessarily incomplete | reviews, news & interviews

Annie Ernaux: A Man's Place review - an intimate portrait, necessarily incomplete

Annie Ernaux: A Man's Place review - an intimate portrait, necessarily incomplete

In a memoir built on absence, France's leading writer inspects the life of her father

Sifting through the soil of her roots Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard

As much as we would like it to, writing can never fully recapture someone who is gone. This we learn all too effectively in A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux, arguably one of France’s most important living authors.

The text, released in an updated translation by Tanya Leslie, is a concise piece of autofiction: a portrait of Ernaux’s father’s life and death which stumbles, self-reflexively, at realising a complete conception of the man.

Ernaux’s writing marks a return to the real after the deconstructive emphasis of mid-20th century French fiction. But rather than picking up traditional realism in the style of Balzac or Flaubert, she elects for a sparse, factual prose, albeit one dealing with an intensely personal topic in A Man’s Place. This differentiates her from contemporaries like Amélie Nothomb, who writes about family life in a tongue-in-cheek, fantastical style, cleaving closely to literary theory. Ernaux eschews that kind of sophistication. Instead, she sifts through the soil of her roots.

A Man's Place coverAccordingly, the narrative of A Man’s Place is firmly grounded in rural Normandy. Ernaux inspects the divide between the working-class or lower-middle-class lives of her parents, who run a grocery store and café, and the increasingly middle-class world to which her education gives her access. Tanya Leslie’s translation adeptly preserves something of rural French life and language. At points, French idiom is retained, with footnotes only breaking up the reading experience where absolutely necessary. Elsewhere Leslie finds a casual English to replicate Ernaux’s memories of her family’s linguistic milieu. On a visit to Normandy, the narrator’s middle-class friends greet her father with, “How’s you?”, an implicit acknowledgement of his class. Ernaux’s father’s particular turns of phrase are rendered in italics, showing how firmly they are entrenched in his way of being: “these particular words and sentences define the nature and the limits of the world where my father lived.”

When her father’s body is undressed in front of the narrator, his penis is on show, and her mother quickly covers it up, joking, “Hide your misery, my poor man!” This euphemism, carried over from the French misère, binds suffering and manhood, linking to the shame and constant feeling of inadequacy held by Ernaux’s father on account of his working-class background. In this sense, maybe, translating “La Place”, the original French title, as “A Man’s Place”, was a good idea. While the narrator and her mother, both women, move with the times, adapting their speech and dress and slipping fluidly between social classes, her father remains embedded in the rural idiosyncrasies of his youth, at once too proud and too ashamed to move onwards. Thus, Ernaux comments on the resolute stoicism of manhood, one which prevents her father from broadening his mind.

Writing, too, proves itself a stoic yet inflexible medium. Late in A Man’s Place, Ernaux writes, “I remember the title of a book, L’Expérience des limites. I was so disappointed when I started reading it, it was only about metaphysics and literature.” She evinces a disappointment that language, so appealing, cannot reach beyond theory. In doing so, she reflects on its inadequacies in capturing her father’s provincial, simple, utterly unremarkable life. Engagement with real social and personal experience is, apparently, not to be found in the books for which Ernaux’s erudite narrator yearns.

Ernaux herself uses language reticently, wary of pushing words to their limit when they are ultimately incapable of conveying every last detail. Language cannot bring back the dead, Ernaux seems to say, so it is unwise to try too hard to make it do so.

When we get to the end of the book, we still do not feel like we fully know the man whose life it depicts. A Man’s Place marks its own reliance on absence by refusing to satisfy. Neither does it tell us much about Ernaux’s own life, despite the elements of autobiography. The years comprising her teacher training, her university degree and her marriage are blurred. Any emotional response to her father’s death – or even to his life – is largely absent.

The few outbursts Ernaux permits her teenage self are invariably to do with language: “How do you expect me to speak properly if you keep on making mistakes?” Language was Ernaux’s father’s embarrassment, but it’s Ernaux’s, too. A book cannot capture everything – it can only do its best. Slowly and with difficulty, Ernaux’s fiction sets out to tell the story of her father against this matter-of-fact adage.

@bunt_lydia 

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