13 November 2016

Claire Etcherelli: Élise ou la vie vie | Elise; or, The real life (1967)

Simone de Beauvoir was very impressed with Claire Etcherelli's Élise ou la vie vie (her first novel, which scooped the Prix Femina in the year of publication), particularly because it has long sections describing the exact nature of a working-class woman's experience of the work process itself. Consequently, Beauvoir asked for an interview, which Etcherelli gave Beauvoir for the magazine Le Nouvel observateur: it was called 'Écoutez cette femme...', published on 15 November 1967 (pp.26–28), and is available for anyone to read online here: to turn the pages, simply change the figure at the end of the URL from '6' to '7', then '8'.

Élise ou la vie vie, it probably goes without saying, is in part autobiographical. Élise follows her left-wing but irresponsible brother to Paris, where they both work in a car factory: Etcherelli used to work for Citroën. There, Élise works for long hours for little pay on assembly line production, checking the parts workers have installed in car bodies and recording anything missing or badly fitted.

The novel is set over nine months in 1957 and 1958, when France was at war with Algeria, although (like the failed 1968 revolution) the conflict was just referred to as 'événements'. The factory employs a large number of immigrants, who are quite routinely treated in a racist fashion by the French, who use such abusive expressions as 'bicots', 'ratons' and 'crouillats'.

And of course Algerians work in the factory too, to whom one Arezki – Élise finds herself attracted and they begin a necessarily coy relationship: they only have very brief exchanges of words at work when no one else is watching, they leave work separately and sit on the bus separately before they get off at places where they won't be known, just to have a cup of tea in a café or to go for a walk. At the beginning Élise is unaware of the depth of the problem, doesn't understand why they have to meet somewhere different all the time, doesn't understand why some areas are out of bounds, doesn't understand that some informers might notify the police.

But the first time they go to Arezki's lodgings, she understands how profound the problem is for Arezki and the police make one of their regular raids, forcing him to strip naked, treating her as a prostitute.

Élise ou la vie vie is of course written in a very realist fashion, with great attention paid to tiny details. But the reader can feel the wellspring of anger which engendered this novel, even though it is only tacitly expressed.

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