Friday, 4 March 2016

Book Review: A Man's Place by Annie Ernaux
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

No matter when it comes, if out of the blue or dragging on painfully, the death of a dear parent almost always arrives too soon and is the source of great grief. Those who are left behind follow very different strategies to cope with the loss… and writing about the departed is one of them. Without doubt the greater part of such works of sorrow ends unread, maybe even forgotten somewhere on the bottom of a drawer, not so the award-winning French book titled A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux, the author's literary homage to her late father written more than ten years after his death. In it she resurrects her relationship with the man who was her father and who never really managed to shake off his humble origins as the son of an illiterate farm labourer in Normandy although together with his wife he started a small café and grocery shop.

Annie Ernaux was born Annie Duchesne in Lillebonne, Seine-Maritime, France, in September 1940 and grew up in the small town of Yvetot in Normandy. She studied at the universities of Rouen and Bordeaux qualifying as a teacher of modern languages. In 1974 she made her literary debut with the autobiographical novel Cleaned out (Les Armoires vides: 1974). A considerable number of other autobiographical works followed, many of them translated into English by Seven Stories Press of which the author is a founding member. Her most notable novels are award-winning A Man's Place (La Place: 1984; also published in English under the original title), A Woman's Story (Une Femme: 1989), I Remain in Darkness (Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit: 1997), and much acclaimed Les Années (2008) that isn’t yet available in English. Mémoire de fille is forthcoming in spring 2016. Since 2003 the Prix Annie Ernaux is awarded every year. Annie Ernaux lives near Paris, France.

In June 1967, two months after the narrating author of A Man's Place qualified as full professor in senior high school, her father died within just a few days. His death prevented him from closing the small café-grocery in the small town of Y… (Yvetot) in Normandy and to enjoy his well-deserved retirement. As soon as she learnt that her father was ill, she rushed with her little son to assist her mother and stayed on until after the funeral. Already during the summer she felt the urge to immortalise her beloved father in a novel, but she wasn’t ready. More than ten years later Annie Ernaux still remembers vividly the events surrounding the final days of his life and at last she sets out to pay her tribute to him. She retraces his life that began a few months before the twentieth century in a small village about twenty-five kilometres off the coast of the Channel near Le Havre in Normandy. He grows up in poverty and leaves school to support the family as a farm labourer like his father when he is twelve years old. The obligatory military service opens the world to him, but he returns to Normandy taking a better paid and more respected job in a factory. He gets married, he has a daughter and together with his wife he makes plans for a better future. He takes a loan to buy a café-grocery in L… (Lillebonne), but it yields little and requires him to work in the factory again. Then the daughter dies from diphtheria, the war breaks out, another daughter is born. After the war he moves back to Y… with the family and opens a new café-grocery. The daughter grows up, becomes a teacher, marries into a bourgeois family and has a son.

The first-person narrative titled A Man's Place is neither a novel, nor a character study, nor a biography, nor a memoir, nor a socio-historical analysis, but it combines or rather interweaves all of them in only one non-fiction and yet manifestly literary work. The author went about her task to bring back to life her father as she always knew him, i.e. as a hard-working man who climbed the social ladder and then felt kind of out of place in his new position, with great skill and intelligence which both show also in the very personal and informal style that she chose for her homage. Moreover, she mirrors and juxtaposes her father’s life with her own experience of social status as a child, as a teenager and as a grown-up married woman and mother. The tone of the slim volume is tender often bordering on the nostalgic, but dispassionate throughout. The clear and unpretentious language used by the author includes many vivid images originating from the author’s own memory as well as matter-of-factual background information and quotations from books. I read the French original and although French isn't my native language, I found it pleasant and easy to follow.

For me A Man's Place by Annie Ernaux has been an unusual choice because it isn’t literary fiction, but an autobiographical work including aspects of so many other genres that it actually defies more precise classification. In spite or because of this I enjoyed the read very much. Moreover, it gave me an idea of small-town life in France during the greater part of the twentieth century and the considerable changes as well as challenges that society has faced after World War II. Of course, it’s a quiet read, but definitely one that deserves attention.

»»» read also my short review of A Woman’s Story by Annie Ernaux on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion.

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