the French way
Sixteen years after her father's death, Annie Ernaux begins to write a novel about him. For some reason, "deciphering these memories is an urgent need for me..." she says.
"A Man's Place" (translated by Tanya Lesley - Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020) is shorter than a novel but it certainly has all the characteristic of the kind. The narration begins with the success of the French author in state exams for her appointment in public education. It goes on with her father's death and in the next 94 pages the author describes many short events of his life - being the son of a sharecropper in Normandy, he started work as a cowboy and then in a factory. After getting married, he decides to open his own little store. So he becomes the owner of a grocery-coffee shop. Together with his wife, they work hard and despite the many adversities, at a time when the advent of supermarkets puts their business at serious risk, they manage to get out of poverty and sent their daughter to university. Always keeping her distance from her aging father, she studies, gets appointed to public education as a philologist, gets married and has a child who is just as distant - on a visit to her parents' home for the holidays, mother and son are walking past the room of the sick grandfather, when the little body asks the author: "Mommy, why is the gentleman beddy-bye?"
It could be a highly melodramatic novel, even a tragic one – a daughter's memories of her father is quite good material. Especially when this father was born, raised and manned in primitive conditions. However, Ernaux chooses to keep a record of her family's ethnology with meticulous accuracy and objectivity. This neutral style has established her as one of the most important contemporary writers in France and the greatest registrar of truth. "It's the writer's job to tell the truth," she said in an interview. "Sometimes I don't know what exactly it is, but the truth is what I'm looking for."
I tried to discern the truth she is looking for in this book. It could just be the understanding of the ever winding maze of the father-daughter relationship, but that's not all. It is something deeper that oozes out - her father's inner strength and his (in fact, theirs - her parents') insistence on overcoming any hardships they came across and keep on progressing. And this, coming from people completely deprived of childhood and education, to say the least, is the definition of life. A life that you can rightly say has been worhtwhile - the exact point that makes the book contemporary.
There is, however, something even deeper that. I cannot identify it at once. I read the epigram on the front page again. It is a quotation by Jean Genet "May I venture an explanation: writing is the ultimate resource for those who have betrayed." And there lies her truth, the urgent need that led the author to "A Man's Place". It is the unacknowledged guilt about her own social development and, perhaps even more, the non-reactive, observational attitude she held towards her father as a child: "... I was repulsed, convinced (by the memories of her living with her parents) of their insignificance. And if they survived, it was only through humiliation. I gave in to the desire of the world I live in, of a world that forces you to forget the memories of a humble life as it is something that shows bad taste. "
"A Man's Place" was first published in 1983 (in France), causing sparking debates and criticism, but the following year won the Prix Renaudot. That was the beginning of many distinctions that followed for the author and the conquest of her personal style. With this distinctively still, emotionless way of writing, she composes here an eloquent portrait of her father and his time – no coincidence that she is also considered the most important chronicler of French society of the last 50 years. She even goes further than that: she extends her personal experience, as she did in "The Years", into universal matters – generation and class alienation, mourning for parents and their gradual erasure from memory. Even if it was generated by an unpleasant feeling, Annie Ernaux should be really proud of this portrait - an elegant, perfectly written narrative. Insightful, touching (against her efforts), memorable.
Notes: The photographes show the café épicerie of the author's parents and her father himself. They are drawn from "Quatro" (Gallimard, 2011). // The greek edition of the book was also published in 2020. You can read about it, in Greek, here. You can read about her novel "The Years", also in Greek, here.