Ernaux, Annie 1940–

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Ernaux, Annie 1940–

PERSONAL: Born September 1, 1940, in Lillebonne, France; daughter of Alphonse (a grocer) and Blanche (a grocer; maiden name, Dumenil) Duchesne; married Philippe Ernaux, 1964 (divorced, 1985); children: Eric, David. Education: Rouen University, Agregation of (French) Modern Literature, 1971.

ADDRESSES: Home—La Favola, 23 Allee des Lozeres, 95000 Cergy, France. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts St., New York, NY 10013.

CAREER: Novelist and memoirist. Has worked as a secondary school teacher of French in Haute-Savoie and the Paris region, 1966–77; Centre National d'Enseignement par Correspondance, professor, 1977–2000.

AWARDS, HONORS: Renaudot prize, 1984, for La place.

WRITINGS:

Les armoires vides, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1974, translation by Carol Sanders published as Cleaned Out, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1990.

Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1977.

La femme gelée, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1981, translation by Linda Coverdale published as A Frozen Woman, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1995.

La place, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1984, translation by Tanya Leslie published as A Man's Place, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1992.

Une femme, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1987, translation by Tanya Leslie published as A Woman's Story, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1991.

Passion simple, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1991, translation by Tanya Leslie published as Simple Passion, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1993.

Journal du dehors, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1993, translation by Tanya Leslie published as Exteriors, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 1996.

La Honte, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1997, translation by Tanya Leslie published as Shame, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1997, translation by Tanya Leslie published as I Remain in Darkness, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 1999.

L'evenement, Gallimard (Paris, France), 2000, translation by Tanya Leslie published as Happening,, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 2001.

La vie exterieure: 1993–1999, Gallimard (Paris, France), 2000.

Se perdre (title means "Losing Oneself"), Gallimard (Paris, France), 2001.

L'occupation, Gallimard (Paris, France), 2002.

(With Frédéric Yves Jeannet) L'écriture comme un couteau, Stock (Paris, France), 2003.

SIDELIGHTS: French writer Annie Ernaux creates work that "is remarkably of a piece," according to James Sallis, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, "each book circling back to paraphrase, correct, emendate, and reinvest earlier ones." Sallis went on to note that Ernaux's work, "with its blurring of fictional, autobiographical, and confessional elements, of the discursive and the representational, leads us virtually with each sentence to question supposed borders between finding and making, re-creation and reinvention; to question the notion of literature itself."

Ernaux is the author of a number of short autobiographical novels that have been praised for their compellingly honest exploration of human emotions as well as their spare, well-wrought prose style. As Sonja Bolle commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "When Annie Ernaux sits down to write, it is as if she has carefully washed her hands, switched on a brilliant desk lamp, and is examining a rare artifact under a magnifying glass." And Maria Simson observed in Publishers Weekly, "All writers draw on their own lives in their work, but few subject their past to the kind of unflinching examination that Annie Ernaux does." Kathryn Harrison, meanwhile, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Ernaux "the sort of writer who practices vivisection. With words, she lays open a life … she has dismantled and coolly examined her early youth and her strivings to escape the humiliations of her parents' blue-collar world for the seemingly rarified realm of academia, dissecting the consolations and disappointments of transcending her parents' social class as well as the agonies of self-loathing that ensued." Simson quoted Ernaux as describing her approach to writing in this fashion: "I'm not trying to write a real autobiography. I don't believe that feelings, experiences, encounters that happen to me are interesting because they happen to me. Rather they are things that happen to a person, who happens to be me."

In Ernaux's first novel, Les armoires vides, translated as Cleaned Out, a young female college student recovering from an illegal abortion recalls the pain of her childhood, seeking to understand how she has come to be in such a state of desperation and lamenting the fact that circumstances have resulted in her alienation from her working-class parents, who sacrificed themselves for her well-being. "Cleaned Out … describes a childhood and youth in Normandy that paralleled Ernaux's," Simson related. "The novel is a raw, often angry depiction of a young girl's burgeoning sexuality; of her distance from, and her disdain for, her uncouth parents."

With the appearance of Une femme (A Woman's Story), the second of Ernaux's books to be translated into English, the author began to be compared to Simone de Beauvoir for her insights into women's lives, and to Albert Camus for her spare prose and harsh, simply-told truths. A Woman's Story, based on Ernaux's relationship with her mother, portrays the death of a rural, working-class woman through the eyes of her estranged, university-educated daughter. Through the elder woman's life story—in which she and her husband save enough money to buy a small grocery-café that enables them to send their daughter to university, where she becomes alienated from them—Ernaux examines class, age, and gender issues. Lillian S. Robinson wrote in the Nation that "Ernaux does not attempt to put words into her mother's mouth and tell her full story but rather to use the medium of literary language to show why her mother could never tell her own story." Despite the peculiarly French nature of some of the mother-daughter conflicts depicted in A Woman's Story, several American critics found a universal message in the book. Ginger Danto commented in the New York Times Book Review that A Woman's Story "is every woman's story, the story of every daughter who loses a mother, every matriarch whose power ebbs with time and every widow who surreptitiously loosens her fierce grip on life." Miranda Seymour, also writing in the New York Times Book Review, judged A Woman's Story "extraordinarily evocative literature."

A Man's Place, the translation of Ernaux's memoir of her father, La place, was equally enthusiastically reviewed. Like A Woman's Story, A Man's Place begins with the death of the parent as the catalyst for the reminiscences that follow: the peasant upbringing, the myriad ways in which his humble origins set the limits for his adult life, and the inevitable gulf that separates him from his daughter as she becomes more educated. This book marked the appearance of a "more streamlined" style in Ernaux's work, noted Simson in Publishers Weekly; the work is "not so much a narrative as an accretion of descriptive scenes." Simson quoted Ernaux as saying, "I had started to write about my father in the same style in which I'd written my first two novels, and I started to see this as a form of betrayal. If I wanted to be true to my father's life, to a life that was dictated by indignities, a life that did not lend itself to novelistic transformation, then the narrative had to be spare and factual." Several critics perceived this quality in the work; Ann Fortune, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, commented on the "ferocious economy" of the narrative, while Charles Solomon, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, commended the author's "unsparing honesty." Seymour, in her New York Times Book Review assessment of A Man's Place, concluded: "The victim, as in A Woman's Story, turns out to be the author herself, viewed with a hard, unsparing eye as she fails to bridge the gap between the two worlds. It is this bleak honesty, this refusal to let herself off the hook of guilt, that gives Ms. Ernaux's two books their uncommon strength."

Passion simple, which appeared in English as Simple Passion, is a record of a woman's obsessive two-year affair with a married man. Caryn James commented in the New York Times Book Review that the novel "embraces the crazed adolescent behavior that can crop up at any age, yet is intelligent enough to wrap those details in a taut literary shape and defiantly unemotional language." Other critics emphasized Ernaux's characteristic attention to the minutiae of her subject's emotional life, and the unabashed, not always flattering, manner in which she exposes her subject's sexual behavior and desires. "This memoir falls into the reader's lap like a steaming lump of truth, smelling of sexual hunger, indifferent to the shamelessness or the pathos of its cause," remarked Daphne Merkin in the New Yorker.

Ernaux continued her blend of memoir and novel in two further books during the 1990s: Exteriors and Shame. The former title is a "slim, deceptively slight paste-up of daily encounters," according to Nation's Joe Knowles. Reviewing that same novel, a contributor for Publishers Weekly acknowledged that "Ernaux's best subject is Ernaux." The same reviewer concluded that this "loose and largely unremarkable series of vignettes … [is] not yet literature," unlike earlier novels from Ernaux that "succeeded brilliantly." In Shame Ernaux reconstructs the day in 1952 when she watched her father try to kill her mother. For Booklist's Donna Seaman, this "beautifully crafted and unsettling narrative offers a telling glimpse," while a contributor for Publishers Weekly concluded that "Ernaux strips herself and her memories of any comforting myth and in the process, she forces us to face the jarring facts of being human."

I Remain in Darkness, published in French as Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit, is a journal that details the final years of Ernaux's mother's life, during which the older woman's mind and body deteriorated from Alzheimer's disease. Ernaux opened her home to her mother for a time, then had to place her in a nursing home, where the elderly woman died in 1986. Ernaux describes vividly the sights and smells of her mother's sickroom and offers observations of the other patients in the nursing home. She also examines the still-tortured mother-daughter relationship; she feels both love and hatred emanating from her mother and is aware of a "sadistic streak" in herself. This book "is a sequel in a way to A Woman's Story," related Richard Bernstein in the New York Times. As Harrison explained in the New York Times Book Review, "there is little inconsistency between the two works. Details and even scenes are repeated, sometimes almost word for word … but the sympathy between novel and memoir is not a matter of mere repetition. While I Remain in Darkness will not give readers new information, it serves as a more intimate revelation of the slow death that prompted her to bear witness of the life that was ebbing." Bernstein commented that the book has "flashes of genius" and that fans of Ernaux's work will desire it, "even though it is a less gripping work than her earlier works." This book "is so thin and undeveloped as to lack the quiet impact of her others," he remarked. Harrison, however, praised the book with less reservation, asserting that "as revealed by Ernaux, the details of a loved one's deterioration have such emblematic force and terror that the particular becomes universal…. Ernaux renders the plight of the dying with a seemingly effortless economy."

Ernaux returns again to personal stories in Happening, and to the illegal abortion she had as a young woman in the 1960s that she first fictionalized in Cleaned Out. Writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Gregory Howard felt that in Happening Ernaux "succeeds in rendering the numbing grind of diurnal unhappiness, fearful accounts of her trips to the abortionist, and harrowing … [details of having] the miscarriage in her dorm room with beauty and riveting detail." Similarly, Mary Paumier Jones, writing in Library Journal, found Happening "deeply affecting." More praise came from Booklist's Donna Seaman who called the book an "important, moving testimony in the history of women's rights." In Publishers Weekly a contributor described Happening as an "important, resonant work."

In Se perdre Ernaux recounts an affair she had with a married Russian diplomat in the 1980s. A reviewer for the Economist found that Ernaux's "matter-of-fact account manages to avoid the pitfalls of exhibitionism, while forcefully demonstrating how self-awareness can be achieved through alienation." Julia Abramson, writing in World Literature Today, concluded that "the yearning for perfection, a recurring motif in Se perdre, thus characterizes both Ernaux's experience of the love affair and her esthetic in writing." And in the 2003 L'occupation, a novel of jealousy and remorse, Ernaux "continues her exploration of the psychic interior and the relation between emotional states and literature," according to Michele Levy in World Literature Today. Levy further praised all of Ernaux's books as "slim texts" that "blur the boundaries between autobiography and fiction," and commended L'occupation in particular, for enabling readers to "comprehend, confront, and thus resist our own 'occupations.'"

A contributor for the Complete Review Web site described Ernaux's novels as "powerful little reads. They are short fictions, based in her life, most only a hundred pages or so in length. Similar territory is revisited and reexamined from book to book as she tries to come to terms with her childhood, her parents, her love affairs, and still she manages to create something new each time." For her own part, Ernaux once explained that "The recurring motif in my books is the social and cultural divide that I myself have experienced. Born of small shopkeepers, I went to university and was taken away from my original background: I gradually changed in my tastes, my habits, and ultimately, in my whole outlook on the world. My literary goal, as I expressed it in A Woman's Story, is 'something between history, sociology, and literature.'"

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Atlantic, October 1, 1998, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Shame, p. 116.

Booklist, May 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of A Frozen Woman, p. 1551; July, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Shame, p. 1850; November 1, 1999, Ray Olson, review of I Remain in Darkness, p. 503; September 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Happening, p. 179.

Economist, July 14, 2001, review of Se perdre, p. 5.

French Forum, spring, 2002, p. 131; fall, 2002, p. 99.

Journal of European Studies, September, 1998, M.A. Hutton, "Challenging Autobiography," p. 231.

Library Journal, November 15, 1999, Wilda Williams, review of I Remain in Darkness, p. 90; November 1, 2001, Mary Paumier Jones, review of Happening, p. 90.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 29, 1993, p. 6; September 26, 1993, p. 8.

Nation, August 26, 1991, Lillian S. Robinson, review of A Woman's Story, pp. 234-236; December 16, 1996, Joe Knowles, review of Exteriors, p. 31.

New Yorker, December 27, 1993, Daphne Merkin, review of Simple Passion, pp. 154-159.

New York Times, November 22, 1999, Richard Bernstein, "When a Parent Becomes the Child."

New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1991, Ginger Danto, review of A Woman's Story, p. 13; May 10, 1992, Miranda Seymour, review of A Man's Place, pp. 5-6; October 24, 1993, Caryn James, review of Simple Passion; May 21, 1995, p. 13; November 28, 1999, Kathryn Harrison, "As She Lay Dying."

North American Review, May-June, 1993, Margaret Peller Feeley, review of A Woman's Story, p. 46.

Observer Review, December 30, 1984, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Cleaned Out, p. 112; March 8, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of A Woman's Story, p. 67; September 6, 1991; March 9, 1992, review of A Man's Place, p. 48; July 19, 1993, review of Simple Passion, p. 236; March 20, 1995, review of A Frozen Woman, p. 41; September 16, 1996, review of Exteriors, p. 69; December 9, 1996, Maria Simson, "Annie Ernaux: Diaries of Provincial Life," p. 49; June 15, 1998, review of Shame, p. 50; October 11, 1999, review of I Remain in Darkness, p. 54; August 20, 2001, review of Happening, p. 68.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1994, James DeRossitt, review of Simple Passion, p. 230; spring, 1997, review of Exteriors, p. 182; spring, 1999, Robert Buckeye, review of Shame, p. 175; spring, 2000, James Sallis, review of I Remain in Darkness, p. 193; summer, 2002, Gregory Howard, review of Happening, p. 246.

Times Literary Supplement, April 26, 1991, Ann Fortune, review of A Man's Place, p. 23.

World Literature Today, winter, 2002, Julia Abramson, review of Se perdre, p. 171, E. Nicole Meyer, review of La vie exterieurre: 1993–1999, p. 179; October-December, 2003, Michele Levy, review of L'occupation, p. 108.

ONLINE

Complete Review Web site, http://www.complete-review.com/ (August 10, 2004), "Annie Ernaux at the Complete Review."

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