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Monday, April 22, 2024

Annie Ernaux Breaks Formal French Literary Traditions

The little girl, the daughter of a Yvetot’s café cum grocery owner is today the Nobel Laureate 2022. Ernaux, as one of France’s most important contemporary writers, daringly breaks with formal French literary tradition in this moving novel about abortion, growing up, and coming to terms with one’s childhood. Her novels from Cleaned Out to A woman’s Story are always more than a powerful evocation of the class system in France in the 1950s and of one woman’s struggle to move up in the class hierarchy and forget her past. They serve as a haunting contribution, both in subject matter and literary form, to the project of the culturally disenfranchised speaking in their voice.

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By: Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

The little girl, the daughter of a Yvetot’s café cum grocery owner is today the Nobel Laureate 2022. Ernaux, as one of France’s most important contemporary writers, daringly breaks with formal French literary tradition in this moving novel about abortion, growing up, and coming to terms with one’s childhood. Her novels from Cleaned Out to A woman’s Story are always more than a powerful evocation of the class system in France in the 1950s and of one woman’s struggle to move up in the class hierarchy and forget her past. They serve as a haunting contribution, both in subject matter and literary form, to the project of the culturally disenfranchised speaking in their voice. Even the working-class part of the town is proud today to see their daughter giving world literature its best harvest. With sixteen laureates to date, France is the country with the highest number of Nobel Prizes in Literature. Yet, Annie Ernaux is the first French woman to win the prestigious prize, succeeding Patrick Modiano (2014) and JMG Le Clézio (2008).

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The French Ambassador writes on Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux: “Her stories could be anyone’s stories” Ernaux had her literary debut in 1974 with Les Armoires vides (Cleaned Out), an autobiographical novel. Cleaned Out tells the story of Denise Lesur, a 20-year-old woman suffering the after-effects of a back-alley abortion. Annie Ernaux says the ‘unsayable’ as she confronts the experience of growing up in the post-World War II generation all in a fresh, original voice. Without romanticizing or moralizing, Ernaux imaginatively and artfully presents a universal theme: the hopefulness and hopelessness of life. Cleaned Out is more than a powerful evocation of the class system in France in the 1950s and of one woman’s struggle to move up in the class hierarchy and forget her past. It is also a novel that serves as a haunting contribution, both in subject matter and literary form, to the project of the culturally disenfranchised speaking in their voice. It raises social and cultural issues that are addressed with uncompromising gut-level emotion.

In 1984, she won the Renaudot Prize for another of her works La Place (A Man’s Place), an autobiographical narrative focusing on her relationship with her father and her experiences growing up in a small town in France, and her subsequent process of moving into adulthood and away from her parents’ place of origin. What a fabulous collage of life – Ernaux melds history, feminism, and pop culture with snippets from her own experience since the 1940s, casting her life into sharp relief through a combination of imagery and analysis. Ernaux explains the magi o her writing in Happening “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”

A Woman’s Story, A Man’s Place, and Simple Passion were recognized as The New York Times Notable Books and A Woman’s Story was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Shame was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998. A New York Times Notable Book A Woman’s Story is Annie Ernaux’s “deeply affecting account of mothers and daughters, youth and age, and dreams and reality”. She explores the bond between mother and daughter, tenuous and unshakable at once, the alienating worlds that separate them, and the inescapable truth that we must lose the ones we love. She writes, “I believe I am writing about my mother because it is my turn to bring her into the world.” Her works combine historic and individual experiences. She charts her parents’ social progression (La place, La honte) her teenage years (Ce qu’ils disent ou rien), her marriage (La femme gelée), her passionate affair with an Eastern European man (Passion simple), her abortion (L’événement Alzheimer’s disease (Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit)  the death of her mother (Une femme), and breast cancer (L’usage de la photo). Ernaux also wrote L’écriture comme un couteau (Writing as Sharp as a Knife) with Frédéric-Yves Jeannet.

Ernaux turns her penetrating focus on those points in life where every day and the extraordinary intersect, where “things are seen” reflect a private life meeting the larger world. From the war crimes tribunal in Bosnia to social issues such as poverty and AIDS; from the state of Iraq to the world’s contrasting reactions to Princess Diana’s death and the starkly brutal political murders that occurred at the same time; from a tear-gas attack on the subway to minute interactions with a clerk in a store: Ernaux’s thought-provoking observations map the world’s fleeting and lasting impressions on the shape of inner life. The Years, a translated memoir, was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. It starts in the year 1940 and until Annie Ernaus’s sixty-sixth year. The Years stimulated about memories, aging, family stories from one generation to the next – the culture in which Annie grew up – the depths and influence the world wars had on Annie associated with family members who lived through those horrors of war… It is irresistible not to like the narrative – the dinner conversations especially hearing about her early childhood and teen experiences. Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, and grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countryside of France and other parts of Europe: a heritage unseen in the photos, lying beyond individual differences and the gaps between the goodness of some and the wickedness of others. United family members, neighbours, and all. The women of twenty years from now are an idea, a ghost. She will never live to be that age. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby asked Daisy “Can you repeat the past?” This helpless nostalgia prevails in this book too. The narrator, her parents, and friends talked about the hardships in their early lives and the world wars. They told stories of distant cousins, ancestors, and long-ago neighbours. The narrator says at this generation, that of the parents and earlier: There were also many descriptions of photos – black-and-white – or home movies from different times of the narrator’s life. I’m not French savvy…. not anything savvy…. but this short read A Man’s Place – about 150 pages – kept me company during the dark sleepy hours – I felt a warmth of connectedness to Annie, her family, and the horrors of the world wars. I enjoyed this enough to want to read a novel by Annie Ernaux, she scrutinizes the importance he attributed to manners and language that came so unnaturally to him as he struggled to provide for his family with a grocery store and cafe in rural France. Throughout the book, Ernaux grows up to become the uncompromising observer now familiar to the world, while her father matures into old age with a staid appreciation for life as it is and for a daughter he cautiously, even reluctantly admires. A Man’s Place is the companion book to her critically acclaimed memoir about her mother, A Woman’s Story. In Shame, she explained, “I realize that I have left part of myself in a place where I shall probably never come back.” (The author a senior academician and trilingual columnist can be reached at profratanbhattacharjee@gmail.com)

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The Hills Times, a largely circulated English daily published from Diphu and printed in Guwahati, having vast readership in hills districts of Assam, and neighbouring Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.
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