Excavating one’s life

Vasiliki Poula

Across her twenty books, Annie Ernaux has deliberately put the specificity of autobiography and fiction on trial, interrogating traditional notions about the possibilities and limits of those modes. Throughout her career, she has wagered on a rare simplicity of style, an expressive austerity that has become her writerly signature. This stylistic strategy is epitomised in La Place – or A Man’s Place, as translated by Tanya Leslie to English. In La Place she turns to her father and narrates the story of a woman's attempts to come to terms with her father's death, and with their life together, as well as with the concept of class in society, and the literary craft itself.

Revisiting painful periods is hardly new territory for writers, but Ernaux distils a particular power from the exercise. The memoir begins with a death, observing the body of Ernaux's father with the neutral eye of a camera before the exorcism of remembrance begins. Guilt, the author tells us, is her spur. Quoting Jean Genet, she offers the explanation that ‘writing is the ultimate recourse for those who have betrayed.’ The act of contrition is to allow herself no stylistic indulgence, no chance to sensationalize the facts – ‘No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony.’ The narrative witnesses a triumph of style over sentiment, which in turn, reveals the universal in the particular. The death of her father is conveyed with a simple ‘C’est fini’ from her mother – ‘It finished’. Her controlled writing, pitch perfect, nevertheless reveals the deep emotional currents raging underneath. Early in the text, she announces her narrative strategy openly and frankly. The shape of her writing will be ‘flat’, unembellished, without the sort of flourish that normally characterizes elegy. The notion of the ‘natural’ is important here, as is that of the ‘essential’; Ernaux intimates that she can account for the essential only through the natural, eschewing artifice and transcendence.

Writing cannot, of course, entirely escape artifice, but the rigid control that Ernaux exercises gives her portrait of an ordinary, unassuming man an air of truth – the same air of truth that makes us trust, for example, the lovely English landscape shown in Constable's ‘Wivenhoe Park.’ Painted in 1816, it is a work often used to demonstrate the line between truth and verisimilitude. (It looks effortless and representative, but the preliminary sketches show that it was a masterpiece of scientific calculation.) Ernaux's portrait of her father is in the same deceptive category. Truth can only be represented: the medium, be it of paint and canvas or ink and paper, dictates what we shall see. Memory too must play its part. I say this not to diminish a remarkable book but to honor something that seems so direct; we need to remind ourselves how difficult it is for art to attain such simplicity. And Ernaux is an unusual memoirist: she distrusts her memory. She does not so much reveal the past. She does not pretend to have any authoritative access to it. She unpacks it.

Ernaux's father is shown as a decent, hard-working man, his status carefully defined by the fact that his sisters, who are housemaids, look down on him for having married a factory worker. Brought up in the early years of the century in a Norman farming village where religion and hygiene are the twin emblems of dignity, he brings these priorities to his life as a small-town grocer. Later, in another town, where he has opened a shop that doubles as a cafe, he has himself photographed alongside the lavatory in the backyard; he aspires to send his daughter to school with just as complete a wardrobe as the chemist's daughter has. His social carefulness is precisely recorded: the habit of eating a meal so thoroughly that the plate can go straight back in the cupboard, the fear of using the wrong word so strong it sometimes drives him into silence. So too is the slow process of alienation as his schoolgirl daughter starts to see him as the character the adult writer now portrays, ‘a humble man, a simple man.’ Her learning threatens him and cuts him off. Work, for the father, will always be a manual process; study is an indulgence. He is a man loved as a parent, admired as an individual but, because of habits and education, is situated heartbreakingly apart.

Her father is a man who is remembered for childhood outings to the circus and beach, but also a figure, from whom, she grew irrevocably apart. ‘Books and music are all right for you. I don't need them to live,’ he told her – yet at the end his ‘greatest satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’ être of his existence, was the fact that I belonged to the world that had scorned him.’

There is a noticeable increase in tension in the last part of the book. The narrator has gone to a university, married a middle-class intellectual and now lives far from her parents. The emotional rift is absolute, the incomprehension total. The father admires his son-in-law for his nice manners; the son-in-law will have nothing to do with his new relatives. Away from her father, the daughter mythologizes, turning him into a heroic peasant, the salt of the earth; in his presence, she is conscious only of the social divisions that separate them. Coolly noting how much he seems to be enjoying his retirement, she puts it down to his pleasure in sticking his pension stamps on a sheet of paper.

Just as we flinch at this evidence of patronizing indifference, she exposes her own pretensions, the pride she feels in her red plush armchairs and reproduction Louis-Philippe writing desk. Ultimately, one might conclude that the victim turns out to be the author herself, viewed with a hard, unsparing eye as she fails to bridge the gap between two worlds. It is this bleak honesty, this refusal to let herself off the hook of guilt, that gives Ernaux's book its uncommon strength.

Ernaux has also managed to become the chronicler to a generation. The title La Place is particularly well-chosen in my opinion since the book is consistently concerned with the idea of social space, that is to say, about the positions that individuals occupy within the social topography, within the hierarchies and divisions operative within our society. More specifically though, it is a book about the changing and contradictory social positions individuals occupy in their lives and the changing relationships they have with others. Now, if this all sounds terribly abstract and theoretical, let me reassure you that La Place is a book about how changing and contradictory social positions are concretely experienced and lived by individuals.

The story the narrator tells begins in 1899 with her father's birth and ends with his death in 1967. The text of La Place however, neither begins nor concludes at those two points (i.e. the father's birth and death) but is 'framed', as it were, by scenes from the daughter's own life. One of the functions of these framing scenes is to introduce us to the different social positions (places) that both father and daughter occupy.

When the daughter returns home to attend her father's funeral, she becomes acutely aware of the privileged social position she occupies (she has recently qualified as a teacher, has an impeccably middle-class husband, all the trappings of social success etc.) and of the distance that separates her from her father. Throughout the book the narrator seeks to interpret the differences that separate them, to analyse their respective social positions.

After all, what we think of as private or personal is inevitably shaped by historical, social, cultural and economic factors. To do justice to the complexities of her father's life, Ernaux places him as a particular product of historically specific practices of social regulation, as formed within the domain of a particular social milieu, geographic location, family background, educational experience etc.

La Place is a text that attempts to describe a life, not in a simple nostalgic or anecdotal manner but in social and historical terms – terms that transcend individual reminiscence. La Place is more generally a book about the changes that took place within the social fabric of post-war France and affected many lives, and it traces France's transition from a rural, peasant society to a bourgeois, urban culture.

Most people's idea of the France of the turn of the century – of what is called la Belle Époque – is one, above all, of modernity. In the realm of art (think of Cézanne and Matisse), of music (think of Debussy), of literature (think of Proust) and of philosophy (think of Bergson) the image of France that is conjured up is of an affluent and technologically advanced nation. Such a vision belies the social and economic realities of a France that was at that time both technologically backward and economically retarded. The époque was not quite so belle as it might have seemed.

Because there was never really an industrial revolution in France on the scale that took place in Great Britain during the 19th century, it was at the turn of the century still a largely peasant society whose economy relied heavily on agriculture. In 1891, for example, some 17.5 million people (46% of the total population) were dependent on agriculture for their living. Although in the first half of the 19th century there was growth in the textile industry, and in the mid- to late-nineteenth century significant development in its transport infrastructure (railways and canals) industrialization in France was, relative to Britain, Germany and Belgium, both late and patchy. Industrial and urban development were uneven in terms of intensity and geographical distribution, and whole areas of France remained untouched by progress.

It is to this, economically backward France – la France profonde – that the father in La Place is born in 1899. He belongs to the world of rural, peasant France: his mother was a cottage weaver, his father a carter. Typical for the early years of the century, the father's education was limited and inadequate. The narrator's description of his schooling illustrates the ideological function of the state school system to reproduce good little citizens who will know their place and buckle under. The narrator also describes the sense of community and communal culture in which the father lived: the importance of the church within the village social life, the village fêtes or assemblées attended by all the villagers, the home-made cider, roasted chestnuts and pancakes consumed on feast days etc. Yet the narrator refuses to reinforce any reassuring myth of the beauty and charm of such a life, refuses to either sanitize or sentimentalize it. Instead, some of the harsh conditions of peasant life are briefly evoked: long working hours, poor pay and conditions and constant hunger.

The onset of the First World War revolutionizes the lives of thousands in the countryside and profoundly transforms rural France. Around 700,000 peasants were killed and over 500,000 wounded. The aftermath of the Great War however, brought positive changes. Food prices rose steadily, and peasants enjoyed greater prosperity. Moreover, the post-war period was one of rapid industrial growth and greater mechanisation. Many left the farm for new factories such as Renault, Citroën, Peugeot and the railways. There was a steady increase in capital investment and significant gains in productivity were also achieved. Although advances were made in new industries such as chemicals, electricity and car manufacturing, much of France's industry remained traditional – textiles, clothing and leather. There was also growth in the service sector, particularly in the retail sector, as large department stores as well as small shops opened up all over the country.

The most significant change to take place after the First World War was the internal migration of workers from the countryside to the towns, giving rise to an increase in the proportion of the urbanized population and to the separation of family and work, home and workplace. The father is affected by the changes that took place after the war and leaves the farm – and thus his own family and community – for a job in a rope factory. It is here that he meets his wife. After an accident at work as a roofer, he considers taking over a small business and duly looks for a suitable one. He forms part of the steady growth of the service sector to which I have just referred.

In 1929 the Depression began, leading to a decline in exports and a consequent fall in investment and industrial production, reduced food prices, and a huge balance of payments deficit. The peasantry were the worst hit and suffered a steep drop in the prices of their goods. They were driven back down to a more or less subsistence economy. Despite the deprivation around them the father and mother manage - by the skin of their teeth - to keep their business going - mainly through the father working full-time on a building-site in the Basse-Seine and at an oil refinery.

The years of the ‘Front populaire’ led by Léon Blum from 1936 – very much a new dawn for the urban working-class – were good ones for the father: business prospered and working conditions improved. This was soon eclipsed however by the onset of the Second World War which brought further hardships. Although the father was not called up and did not join the Resistance, he was nonetheless active in securing food supplies for large families and the elderly who could not afford black market prices. The narrator stresses the father's simple, ordinary acts of heroism.

The post-war years were those of massive economic modernisation: the economy was opened up to greater foreign competition and greater rationalization and efficiency were imposed on French economic life. The importance of agriculture declined (by 1958 the percentage of the workforce on the land had fallen from 35% in 1945 to 23% in 1958). The other main victim of France's modernization was ‘la petite bourgeoisie’, that it to say, small craftsmen and small shopkeepers squeezed out by the growth of co-operatives and supermarkets and who found the new tax rates difficult to pay. The 1950's saw the rise of Poujade, a small shopkeeper from Lot whose denunciation of ‘les gros’ mobilized the opposition of the ‘petits commerçants’ (small businessmen, peasant farmers, the self-employed etc.) against a government whose policy of economic restructuring had alienated them. The father is very much one of those alienated by France's new direction. Despite a certain prosperity immediately after the war the business begins to go into decline due to both the reconstruction and modernization of France's aged and damaged infrastructure and to the different patterns of consumption and lifestyle that were beginning to emerge.

Still, it should be (hopefully) fairly clear from the summary of the text so far, that the father in La Place is a beneficiary of the historical changes that occurred in France over the first fifty years of the century – at least prima facie. Through both his own efforts and the new opportunities available to him due to the changing social fabric of France (urbanization and industrialization), the father leaves the poverty of the French peasantry for the greater affluence of the petite bourgeoisie (lower middle-class). However, this social mobility creates its own problems, most significantly, leading to uncertainty and insecurity regarding the father's social position. Both parents are on the edge of both working-class and middle-class culture and community, and that is why a sense of social displacement is evoked. At the beginning of their lives as shopkeepers they are acutely aware of this: they are sympathetic to their poorer working-class customers to whom they give credit yet conscious of the need to maintain a distance and a feeling of superiority. Relations with their family and in-laws become fraught as they become the object of envy and resentment, considered as class traitors. Post-war the father's life as a worker in someone else's business stops definitively. He becomes fully self-employed and a property owner – the first in his family. However, despite the increased economic resources or capital the father commands, he still feels an acute sense of cultural inferiority. He is deeply insecure, for example, about matters of taste, letting the decorators choose the colour schemes for the café. There is, moreover, a constant obsession with or fear of committing a social gaffe of some sort and thus revealing his true social origins.

The father's acute sense of social insecurity manifests itself most clearly in his attitude to language. He prides himself on his distance from his peasant and working-class background and has attempted to abolish all traces of it from his language. He despises for example the ‘patois’ spoken by his parents. However, the father sometimes disguises the sense of linguistic inferiority he feels through silence. And silence does not so much reject the norms of bourgeois language as reinforce it by recognising its validity and legitimacy. The father also suffers from a tense and anxious concern with grammatical and lexical correctness, a symptom of a class divided against itself, whose members are seeking, at the expense of a constant anxiety, to produce linguistic expressions that bear the mark of bourgeois ease and confidence, and deny their real origins. And through his words the meanings the father attached to his life may be understood.

There is a recognition in La Place that it is important that the father too becomes history, by having his story told and heard. Nevertheless, having set herself the task of telling her father's life, Ernaux comes progressively to realize that his life resists telling. For just as her father cannot really write – he contributes nothing apart from his signature to the mother's letters – so too he cannot truly be written. Early on in La Place, Ernaux speaks of trying to write a novel in which her father is the principal figure; she abandoned that project, she says, in failure and disgust. Armed with a set of literary norms and conventions that cannot account for her father's life, Ernaux discovers that, in writing that life as carefully as she may, she is nonetheless writing her father out of the story. There is then a strange and massive phenomenon of displacement at work in La Place. What Ernaux tells in that text is not the story of her father she comes to see the impossibility of that project, based on the sober realization that words, even during their life together, have failed them miserably.

Vasiliki Poula

Vasiliki Poula is interested in human relations, memory and the significance of place. She enjoys reading and writing on these themes, as well as embarking on improvised photography projects.

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