25 April 2015

Annie Ernaux: La Place | A Man's Place (1983)

La Place (translated as A Man's Place) is Annie Ernaux's livre de mon père, a biographical (and autobiographical) novel about her father. Intentionally, she writes without sentiment, without poetry, in a flat style which comes naturally to her: she reveals this after stating that her father died two months after she passed the CAPES, qualifying her to teach in secondary schools and colleges, and she then describes her father's funeral and the reception that followed.

She begins the story proper with her grandparents, who like her parents came from the working classes: the novel is very much concerned with the class conflict with her life at home as she educates herself into the middle class. Her grandfather was an illiterate carter who worked on a farm and who expressed his resistance to his condition – and his perception of his masculinity – by unleashing his anger on any family member with their head stuck in a book or newspaper.

At the age of twelve her grandfather took his son out of school to work on the same farm, and after the war her father worked in a rope factory. Their daughter was born in L...' (Lillebonne) in Seine-Maritime, and the family later moved to 'Y...' (Yvetot) in the same département, which is where Ernaux (then surnamed Duchesne) grew up. Her parents moved a little up the social ladder by running a café-cum-grocer's shop.

Unlike her grandfather her father is not illiterate, although his reading is restricted to Paris-Normandie, and he continues to eat as before – with an Opinel, a knife which he cleans after eating on his bleu, unless he's eaten herring, in which case he cleans it in the soil to get rid of the smell. Small wonder, perhaps, that there could never be any real mix between the narrator's family and that of her bourgeois husband's, in which – if anyone broke a glass – someone was certain to say 'Don't touch it, it's broken!' ('N'y touchez pas, il est brisé'): a line from Sully Prudhomme's poetry.

But her father was proud of her academic achievements.

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