Negative Capability

Anglophone readers are belatedly becoming acquainted with the writing of Annie Ernaux, who turned eighty this year. A Man’s Place is the fifth work of hers to be published in English in the last two years, with a sixth scheduled for the spring. The uniform cream covers of this growing set of volumes – drawn from the two dozen she has produced over the last half century – recall the chalky landscape of the Pays de Caux where Ernaux was raised, and which has been home territory of her oeuvre. At some distance aesthetically from the seascapes of Monet and Courbet, or socially from the Rouen of Flaubert and Maupassant, in disposition her work though shares something with Flaubert’s anticipation that former classmates would blush, scandalized, at his precise rendering of ‘la couleur normande’. Ernaux’s forensic approach has likewise elicited shock and disapproval. Today a grande dame of French letters, her current English reception – cordial, at times ardent – has tended to emphasize kinship with a range of semi-fictionalized autobiographies by women that are currently in vogue, carrying appeals to the work’s universal applicability. A Girl’s Story, published earlier this year, was praised by one critic for instance as ‘a story that belongs to any number of self-consciously clever girls with appetite and no nous’.

Such critical interest is to be welcomed, but the effect has been rather to denude Ernaux’s work of its specificity. Typically occluded has been the wider shape of her oeuvre, as well as its political ethos. The macro-narrative uniting the individual texts is her own progress from rural, poverty-stricken origins; the distinctive, torqued shape of each the result of a writing life taking the measure of the social conditions in which she found herself – what she calls ‘taking possession of the legacy with which I had to part’ – and negotiating the distance travelled since. This personal history is inseparable from the shifting coordinates of post-war France, its class structure, its political, social and cultural developments, and from a critique of the country’s social divisions. Her work has been categorized as ‘auto-socio-biography’; at once deeply personal, transfixed by the detail of her life, the workings of memory and trauma, but also sociological. These are texts that are deeply embedded both in the wider history of France – Algeria, ’68, Poujade, Mitterrand et al – but also the local pigments and textures of a specific region, period, class and culture.

Two principal influences laid the ground for this project. Ernaux has described the ontological shock she experienced upon encountering the work of Pierre Bourdieu – the pain of recognition she felt at his analysis of social domination – and how, in the wake of ’68, this provided a ‘secret injunction’ to explore the wrenching nature of upward social mobility. His influence is discernible in some local habits of Ernaux’s prose. Her cataloguing of social and cultural phenomena, with its satirical after-taste, appears at times straight out of the pages of Distinction (1979). What Bourdieu elucidated for the social world, Simone de Beauvoir had done a decade earlier for the condition of women. Her autobiographical writing, which began with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), provided a formal antecedent. Ernaux’s affectless style – described by her as ‘écriture plate’ – owes a clear debt to Beauvoir; I Remain in Darkness (2019) is a recognizable progeny of Beauvoir’s own account of her mother’s last days, A Very Easy Death (1964), published when Ernaux was twenty-four. This kind of acerbic tonal mixture is also a feature of Ernaux’s style, channelled into her own now caustic, now genuine, never less than self-aware use of adjectives like ‘easy’.

The autobiographical trajectory which Ernaux’s work records, however, occurred at a different social stratum to the glittering inevitability of success and familiar grands-écoles narrative of Beauvoir, or indeed the rapid ascension detailed in Bourdieu’s Esquisse pour une auto-analyse (2004). Hers was a less assured and more ordinary one. A Girl’s Story details her early departure from Rouen’s École Normale, Happening her later pursuit of a literature degree. Taking the vocational ‘Capes’ exam, Ernaux eventually qualified as a schoolteacher, and since publishing her first literary work, Les Armoires Vides, in 1974, has maintained a certain distance from the centres of cultural and intellectual life. Long-time resident of the ‘new town’ of Cergy, surveyed in her Journal du Dehors (1993), she taught at the Centre for Long Distance Learning until her retirement.

It was her fourth work, A Man’s Place – the original title is the less specific La Place – which established her reputation in France, after it won the 1984 Prix Renaudot. A stark reflection on her father’s life, this also marked an aesthetic turning point: it was the first of her writing to shed the cover of semi-fictionalization. What followed was a growing taste for writing as an unflinching exercise in self-revelation; books that treat either one episode in her life or a single topic over a more extended period. Of the recently published tranche: Happening (2019/2000) tells of a kitchen table abortion in her early twenties; I Remain in Darkness (2019/1997) her mother’s time on a geriatric ward; A Girl’s Story (2020/2016) of painful formative experiences, both sexual and social, the year she left home. Others, as yet untranslated, address her marriage, an affair, the time her father almost killed her mother, the death of a sister before her birth and its legacy. The Years (2018/2008), widely considered her magnum opus, is an outlier in this regard. A grander work of ‘impersonal autobiography’ published in 2008, it pairs her life story more explicitly with the communal movement of a generation, in an attempt to capture what she describes as ‘the lived dimension of History’.

The lineaments of A Man’s Place are dictated by moral constraints, outlined at its outset. Attempts to make the work ‘moving’ or ‘gripping’, ‘lyrical reminiscences’, ‘triumphant displays of irony’, would all be inappropriate, she notes, for relating ‘the story of a life governed by necessity’. Instead, Ernaux endeavours to simply ‘collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared’. Collation then over narration; sociology or ethnography before narrative. The approach is often one of assemblage; methodologically Ernaux is drawn to examining particular details from her memory or objets trouvés that conjure them, including the contents of her father’s pockets after his death. The undertaking is framed as a process of recovering suppressed memories: ‘I surrendered to the will of the world in which I live, where memories of a lowly existence are seen as a sign of bad taste.’ Throughout she grapples with how to write without betrayal; elsewhere she has written of wanting to avoid ‘complicity with the cultivated reader’. There is also an oscillation of tone, as she attempts to do justice to the multivalency of her family’s experience. ‘This was the way we lived and so of course we were happy although we realized the humiliating limitations of our class.’

Work is naturally a dominant feature of her account – Ernaux’s father’s childhood as a farm labourer, his work in factories and on building sites after the war, and then at the café-épicerie in Yvetot where his daughter was raised. We witness how being a child of the shop floor trained her in social discrimination, how she learnt to discern the contrasts between its clientele, those more or less ‘proletarian’, those who could afford to go elsewhere, those who would ask for credit. The presiding emotional tenor stems from this social stratification. Her father’s life is portrayed as ruled by the fear of being ashamed, humiliated, caught out of place. Such psychic contortion is often expressed by contorted syntax: ‘we were ashamed at not knowing what we would have known instinctively, had we not been what we were, in other words, inferior.’ This instance records the experience of a ‘we’, but the book charts the cleavage that emerges as she becomes educated. Her father’s self-consciousness about his Norman patois is inflamed by her learning to speak a different French at school; she recalls his habit of splitting up the syllables of vocabulary pertaining to her school, as if saying the words fluently would presume a familiarity from which he was structurally excluded. ‘I realize now’, she writes, ‘that anything to do with language was a source of resentment and distress’.

The book takes care to render the vocabulary and dialect of the Norman working-class life of her upbringing, though this carries a disclaimer against appreciation of the ‘picturesque charm’ of popular speech. Proust, she notes, was able to treat it purely aesthetically because it was the language of his maid; for her father patois was ‘something old and ugly, a sign of inferiority’. It is a challenge to render colloquialisms in another language; some of the finest moments of the translation involve leaving particular words or phrases intact rather than replacing them with an awkward anglicism or near equivalent. In broad terms, English readers are well served by this edition. Ernaux’s pithy but plain style is captured effectively, though the text does occasionally shade into literalism, foregoing more imaginative variants. This particular text is a republication of an existing translation; the freshly translated works such as A Girl’s Story are a little more supple. Some emendations have been made but these are not always to the good; a key articulation of Ernaux’s endeavour has been altered from ‘taking possession of the legacy with which I had to part’ to the technically more accurate, but undeniably clunky ‘unearthing the legacy which I had to leave at the door’.

The force of the book’s portrait of her father’s life as it was circumscribed by poverty and domination remains undiminished by the intervening decades. It has also been influential: we might in fact think of Ernaux as the inaugurator of a subgenre, ­one that details the writer’s poverty-stricken upbringing in Northern France, the wrench and alienation of embourgeoisement, anguished familial relations and lingering marks of deprived social circumstances. The vagaries of translation have meant the recent books of two notable descendants working in this vein have appeared in English during this same period: Returning to Reims (2018/2009) by Didier Eribon and three books by Édouard Louis, beginning with The End of Eddy (2018/2014). Both have cited Ernaux as a significant forebear, Eribon being deeply moved by her early pronouncement that she intended to avenge the world of the dominated. Collectively, their work might be said to present a diagnosis of the socio-geographic alienation brought to international attention by the revolt of the Gilet Jaunes – analysed by Christophe Guilluy as the exclusion of la France périphérique – and of the decline of the left in France and its ramifications.  

These three writers share intellectual and political allegiances: Louis’s first publication was an edited collection on Bourdieu to which both Ernaux and Eribon contributed. Some differences are indices of historical change. Louis for instance, much the youngest of the three, recounts how his family envied the workers, whose lives the books of Eribon and Ernaux relate, writing instead of the stigmatization of living off welfare. For Eribon and Louis, homosexuality takes the place of gender as another axis of discrimination. The central distinction between them though lies in their work’s wider orientation. Eribon, a sociologist and biographer of Foucault, describes his book as a work of theory that happens to be grounded in his own experience. Louis, by contrast, presents his work as expressly political. His latest work Who Killed My Father (2019/2018), is framed as an indictment of the ‘social violence’ inflicted on his father by the successive regimes of Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron. ‘I want to inscribe their names in history’, he writes, ‘as revenge’. Ernaux, by contrast, has more of a sense that her writing has the capacity to work or impress itself on us in more oblique ways – as literature, in other words. It stands simultaneously as a modern inheritor of Beauvoir, and as a counterpart to the formally experimental autobiography of Nathalie Sarraute or Christine Brooke-Rose.

While no less powerful, there is a prevailing indeterminacy to her project. Each book endeavours to put a corner of her life to rest or cajole it into a shape of some kind, but further questions, doubts and uncertainty always crowd back in. Even The Years, a text invested in ‘common time’ and therefore less troubled by the workings of personal memory, ends in a conditional tense that intimates the project remains unfinished. In this indeterminate space sits the arrangement of her mise-en-page as collocations of fragments, her record of dislocation from the past and the struggle to reinhabit it, her sense when she does of being ‘abducted’ by a former self which ‘overtakes her, stops the flow of breath, and for a moment makes me feel I no longer exist outside myself.’ If she is distinguished by the preservation of a sort of negative capability, then it is not that she is less sure of the history, personal or social she relates. The implication is instead that her abiding problematic – how to represent a life integrated with the social conditions that shaped it – will remain, perhaps forever, unsolved. The strange final sentence of A Girl’s Story enacts this in miniature. A transcribed note of intent from her diary, it stills the narrative’s motion into an imperative, carrying with it the latent suggestion that this is an ideal her writing has still yet to achieve: ‘Explore the gulf between the stupefying reality of things that happen, at the moment they happen, and, years later, the strange unreality in which the things that happened are enveloped.’

Read on: Perry Anderson on Macron’s leap-frog to the Élysée; Jane Jenson on varieties of French feminism.