Dear friends and readers,
A brief blog to let you know about my other reading among women which is not 18th century (even conceived of as very long). And to recommend yet another author.
She may seem to emerge more from the Rousseau part of the 18th century, the subjective epistolary urge, but as a woman writer, especially in the way her art fits l’ecriture-femme, Annie Ernaux belongs to our terrain. Her predecessors include the French women memorists of the era, the letter writers — and I’ve fallen in love with her writing. I’ve been reading about women who write in this way all my life whenever I come across any; they tend to be European and English (Iris Origo, A.S. Byatt, in some moods Margaret Drabble, as a scholar and non-scholar Anita Brookner) more than American. And they are common in Italy (Elena Ferrante [see also James Wood], Elsa Morante, Natalie Ginzburg), and France, Annie Ernaux. Ernaux seems to me very like a previous favorite, Chantal Thomas.
I began reading Ernaux because I was attracted by a brief essays by Michael Sheringham on her Ecrire la Vie and L’Atelier Noir, which is (happily) online for the public. A friend on WWTTA wrote:
Annie Ernaux is a fascinating author, from a working class background. She wrote a lot about the cultural differences between her family and herself: her parents encouraged her to attend a private school, but she was very different from the other girls, what with parents who owned a café-épicerie in the poorer part of
their small town in Normandy… (esp. in La place).
I find that Annie Ernaux writes beautifully and expresses her inner struggles very well. She has been criticised for not concealing enough, for being too crude at times (in Passion simple, for instance), but I think that’s what makes her work so powerful. She writes about the shame she felt around her parents, the shame she felt about herself. In one of her books she writes about her
experience with abortion, back when it was against the law in France (in L’évènement). In another one, she travels back in time and in place to try and decipher her mother and their relationship (in Une femme which somewhat mirrors La Place which was written shortly after her father’s death and explores similar themes).
I carried on loving it because I’ve discovered she writes about being a girl with no shame, with vivid interest, with even pride. I find those who automatically nowadays praise a girl for being “a tomboy” deny women as such. Austen said of novelists: “we are an injured body,” who will speak up for us if not us. And all the above women write as women, look to the threads which came out of girlhood.
Here are just a few notes: The style is very plain and simple. The discontinuous nature of the utterances reminds me of Jelinek but Ernaux is comfortable with herself; on the other hand, she need not go on and on like Anais Nin; she need not shock for shock’s sake.
I enter into Arnaux’s tone, even her memories, books she read (presumably when young in French translations). I didn’t expect a French woman to react to US “tribal” events (9/11) the way UK and other English readers do, but she does. The books she likes I see I like; and the whole attitude of mind is congenial. I was chuffed to see references to Gone with the Wind and wondered if she had read the book in the French translation — available in a a 3 volume paperback with stills from the 1939 movie, Autant en emporte le vent …
One of the central themes of the book is how hard it is to get back to the past. How our memories are fake, not real, intermixed with what we have been told, and so the opening section is fragments of what comes into her mind purely as she thinks back to the past. What images especially. Among these
celle de Scarlett O’Hara trainant dans l’escalier le soldat yankee qu’elll vient du tuer — courant dans les ruses d’Atlanta a la rechercher d’un medicine pour Melanie qui va accoucher …
[that of Scarlett dragging along the stairs the Yankee soldier she has just killed -- running through the streets of Atlanta in search of a doctor for Melanie who is about to give birth ...]
Except it’s not Scarlet who drags the body; it’s Melanie. I wondered if she knew that she was misremembering and what other mis-memories that nonetheless are the meaningful ones for her. I have a still of Leigh as Scarlett on the stairs holding a gun looking a the soldier walking up. So the communal memory is of Scarlet’s actions not Melanie’s and we forget to attribute to Melanie her heroism.
I cannot find a still of Olivia di Havilland, all steel-grit dragging that body, telling Scarlett what to do next. I have to re-watch the film and snap a still. But like Nancy Drew in her 40s through 60s incarnations, Mitchell’s GWTW’s book crosses nationalities, races, ethnicities. I had students from Nigeria who had brought a copy of the book from Africa.
Like Liv Ullman in a recent Bergman film who sits with photos to remember the past, so then Ernaux turns to photos. She knows they are as misleading and these are intermixed with more fragmants.
She is collecting up her memories, as memories are what we can use to console and make up for our loss. Method: First photo of her as a child comes early; we return to it. It’s taken during WW2; she was born in 1940. She moves forward to talk about how no one wanted to remember much about the War and then deviated into her fragments and now is back with her photos.
I also to remark on the light ease with which she tells what were to me devastating sexual experiences. She says she felt guilt and she retreated but the feel is of acceptance of self. I’m talking about where she says (ever so lightly and impersonally) how she opted for fellatio in order to avoid worse (buggery) when she was with a guy. Neither risked pregnancy so they had that. We get an image of her with sperm in her mouth. Yuk but what happens. Naomi Wolf goes over the same kind of experiences in her Promiscuities, but cannot manage this savoir faire at all. Nor I. She only speaks of the melancholy of her spoiled girlhood.
I liked the device of the school picture for putting together her transition from girlhood to adolescence. How they were all looking out, looking alike, side-by-side but never telling one another who they were. She is unashamed to admit her loves, what a car means the freedom of it. How she took pride in her hair styles. She says that they were given impressions which made them suppose their lives were such as Marianne de ma jeunesse, but the point is this was false, a false imposition. I didn’t read that one but others like it I imagine.
I was again pleased on how she lit on an author I like. Rosamund Lehman for her listed with the (respected) likes of Milosz, Apollinaire. She names Poussiere by which I suppose she means Dusty Answer. I have written about Lehmann as one of the great powerful authors for women of the 20th century; this one is one of her earliest and I did not read it, but the one that so irritated Q.D. Leavis it became the focus of one of her hatchet jobs on women authors. I now long to read it. See my Post WW1 novls by women.
I found myself comparing her to Elfriede Jelinek who we have also tried to read on WWTTA. Like Wolf Jeninek cannot be light. Ernaux is so much less in a rage: Jelinek in comparison is harsh, jagged, with visercally ugly imagery and graphic sex that feels like an assault. And yet they are on about the same things, with Ernaux not mincing words deliberately.
I also keep thinking of Chantal Thomas’s La Vie Reelle des Petites Filles (Real life of Girls) I am wondering if parts 3 and 4 of Les Annees correspond to Thomas’s Comment supporter la liberte (badly Englished as Coping with Freedom), what decisions to make, how to live as a young man confronting life independently for the first time, and if Passion Simple corresponds to Souffrir, from which I quote: “Aussi triste qe soit un livre, it n’est jamais aussi triste que la vie”. I was exhilarated Chantal’s scholarly book on the cruel scandals heaped on Marie Antoinette and her novel, Farewell My Queen. It’s a sort of imitation of the fictional memoir-novel, which were written by women of the court close to Marie-Antoinette either before, during, or shortly after “the Terror.” In both the original French and Moishe Black’s lucid and elegant translation, the writer is enacting for her reader, providing a sense of what Talleyrand meant when he said “those who were born after the revolution could not know the sweetness of life”. (Well words to this effect in French). Thomas and Black’s texts both convey to the reader a deep-musing beauty and grace in the midst of stillness (the hierarchical world of distrust is there and it’s cold, keeps everyone in place and at a distance, at least from this subordinate woman reader’s position).
IF this is Thomas coping, she is more than a little anorexic; but I love the photo for its colors, the shadows, her smoking; it puts me in mind of Stephanie Audran as Lord Marchmain’s mistress in Brideshead
Ernaux is better, more full, containing more phases. As the above suggests, Thomas cannot resist a certain pomposity, OTOH, Thomas is more quotable, more Proustian (rich prose) and makes these axiomatic kinds of “pensees” in the French tradition. But Ernaux captures the kinds of thoughts that goes through one’s mind.
For those who can understand spoken French, here’s an audio adaptation of the first section of Les Annees.