Annie Ernaux: at the age of 78 one of France’s great writers is finally wowing the English-speaking world



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Booker-listed Annie Ernaux.
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Elise Hugueny-Léger, University of St Andrews

It was 1974 when the French writer Annie Ernaux published her first book, Les Armoires Vides (Cleaned Out). It is a fictionalised account of her illegal abortion ten years earlier, as a student gradually moving away from a working-class upbringing in Normandy. The book came out 25 years after Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist text The Second Sex, yet French society remained judgemental – and often hypocritical – about women’s reproductive rights. Cleaned Out acknowledged the many working-class women who had to resort to clandestine, often life-threatening procedures before the laws were changed in 1975.

From the beginning, Ernaux’s stark prose helped establish her as an uncompromisingly honest writer. In the 1980s and 1990s, she would rise to greater prominence through autobiographical works such as La Place (A Man’s Place), an account of her father’s life, which won her the Renaudot Prize in 1984. She is now seen as one of France’s major writers and her texts are widely taught in schools and universities.

But, until very recently, she was unknown to most of the English-speaking world. That is changing thanks to two recent translations. Les Années (The Years, 2008) is a “collective autobiography” spanning six decades of personal and collective history, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. In L’Événement (Happening, 2000), Ernaux returns to the subject of illegal abortion, but this time tells her own non-fictionalised story.

Two memoirs

The Years gained almost unanimous recognition when it was published. It sits at the junction between autobiography, sociology and collective memoir, highlighting the profound socio-cultural changes that Ernaux witnessed from her childhood in the 1940s to the end of the century. The book was praised for its original narrative form, using “she” or “we” instead of “I” to tell Ernaux’s story.

The Years, 2008.

To trace the inescapable passing of time, The Years draws in everything from popular phrases to songs to advertisements, from iconic objects to historical events to personal anecdotes. Along the way, the book tells the evolution of women’s place in French society and their fights for sexual freedom and independence.

When Happening was published in 2000, the French media reacted much more cautiously. It is likely that some critics were not comfortable with the subject matter and the raw style of writing. Here’s an extract, for example, about the woman carrying out the abortion:

Only now can I visualise the room. It defies analysis. All I can do is sink into it. I feel that the woman who is busying herself between my legs, inserting the speculum, is giving birth to me. At that point I killed my own mother inside me.

Ernaux has said that part of her intention with the book was to lift the lid on what the French abortion laws had meant in practice:

Although abortion was mentioned in many novels, no details were given about what actually took place. There was a sort of void between the moment the girl learns she is pregnant and the moment it’s all over.

Happening, 2000.
Wikimedia

With precision, but without pathos, Happening details the prevailing atmosphere of moral judgement of 1960s France – and Ernaux’s isolation and despair at a time when the word abortion “had no place in language”. She describes the gruesome conditions in which she nearly died: after finally finding a back-street abortionist, Ernaux had a probe inserted and was told it would cause her to miscarry in a few days. This then happened at her student residence and she was taken to hospital with a haemorrhage.

Happening is not only an account of this intrinsically physical, traumatic and personal experience. It is also about society’s attitudes to women at the time – particularly working-class women – explored through the reactions of various men to her predicament. The father of the unborn child, a middle-class student at the Sciences Po university in Bordeaux, leaves her to her own devices. Doctors show her little sympathy for fear of the laws of the time.

Ernaux in the 1960s.
Inventoire

Male students that she talks to are fascinated by her “condition”, and one even tries to take advantage in the knowledge that there’s no danger of getting her pregnant. Having been admitted to hospital, Ernaux is humiliated by a junior doctor, who on seeing her bleeding shouts that he’s “no plumber”. When he discovers that she is a university student, he becomes much more sympathetic.

Nearly 20 years after it was originally published, Happening has come to be seen as a landmark piece of writing about abortion. The text is now often mentioned during debates on the subject. Last year, for instance, on the day of the Irish abortion referendum, the radio station France Culture devoted a feature to Ernaux.

Distasteful truths

Ernaux acknowledges in Happening that “this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful”. The same could be said of much of her other work. Ernaux has written from the same direct perspective about numerous issues not deemed “literary”, including sex, stains, illness, the ageing body, dementia and drunkenness.

Writing is for Ernaux a matter of making lived experience visible, especially that of women – and not taking their rights for granted. As she writes in Happening:

If I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.

Giving a voice to those being silenced lies at the heart of Ernaux’s writings. She spoke of her support for the #MeToo movement in a recent interview, but has also expressed affinity with the gilets jaunes, which she sees as a manifestation of deep social injustice and the elite’s contempt towards the working class and unemployed. This makes her “arrival” in the English-speaking world particularly timely at the age of 78.

When French politician Simone Veil died in 2017, many “merci Simone” tags were left on walls, not least for the crucial role she played in shaping the country’s modern abortion laws. Many readers have written to Ernaux to say “merci Annie” in acknowledgement of her feminist writings. She deserves to be recognised in the international canon of great French writers, and hopefully we are now finally seeing this starting to take place.The Conversation

Elise Hugueny-Léger, Senior Lecturer, School of Modern Languages, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Five books on work by French authors that you should read on your commute



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Amy Wigelsworth, Sheffield Hallam University

An emerging genre of fiction in France is providing an unlikely brand of escapism. Growing numbers of French writers are choosing work as their subject matter – and it seems that readers can’t get enough of their novels.

The prix du roman d’entreprise et du travail, the French prize for the best business or work-related novel, is testament to the sustained popularity of workplace fiction across the Channel. The prize has been awarded annually since 2009, and this year’s winner will be announced at the Ministry of Employment in Paris on March 14.

Place de la Médiation, the body which set up the prize, is a training organisation specialising in mediation, the prevention of psychosocial risks, and quality of life at work. Co-organiser Technologia is a work-related risk prevention consultancy, which helps companies to evaluate health, safety and organisational issues.

The novels shortlisted for the prize in the past ten years reflect a broad range of jobs and sectors and a whole gamut of experiences. The texts clearly strike a chord with French readers, but English translations of these novels suggest many of the themes broached resonate in Anglo-Saxon culture too.

The prize certainly seeks to acknowledge a pre-existing literary interest in the theme of work. This is unsurprising in the wake of the global financial crisis and the changes and challenges this has brought. But the organisers also express a desire to actively mobilise fiction in a bid to help chart the often choppy waters of the modern workplace:

Through the power of fiction, [we] want to put the human back at the heart of business, to show the possibilities of a good quality professional life, and to relaunch social dialogue by bringing together in the [prize] jury all the social actors and specialists of the business world.

What better way to delve into this unusual genre than by reading some of the previous prize winners. Below are five books to get you started.

1. Underground Time

The first prize was awarded to Delphine de Vignan for Les heures souterraines. In this novel, the paths of a bullied marketing executive and a beleaguered on-call doctor converge and intersect as they traverse Paris over the course of a working day. A television adaptation followed, and an English translation was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. Work-related journeys and the underground as a symbol for the hidden or unseen side of working life have proved enduring themes, picked up by several subsequent winners.

2. The Man Who Risked It All

Laurent Gounelle’s Dieu voyage toujours incognito, winner of the 2011 prize, takes us from the depths of the underground to the top of the Eiffel Tour, where Alan Greenmor’s suicide attempt is interrupted by a mysterious stranger. Yves promises to teach him the secrets to happiness and success if Alan agrees to do whatever he asks. This intriguing premise caught the attention of self-help, inspirational and transformational book publisher Hay House, whose translation appeared in 2014.




Read more:
Five books by women, about women, for everyone


3. The Reader on the 6.27

Le liseur du 6h27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, the 2015 winner, tells the story of a reluctant book-pulping machine operative. Each day, Ghislain Vignolles rescues a few random pages from destruction, to read aloud to his fellow-commuters in the morning train. The novel crystallises the fraught relationship between intellectual life and manual work.

It also illustrates the tension between culture and commerce, arguably at its most pronounced in France, where cultural policy has traditionally insisted on the distinction between cultural artefacts and commercial products. The Independent review of the English translation describes the book as “a delightful tale about the kinship of reading”.

4. Undersea View

Slimane Kader took to the belly of a Caribbean cruise ship to research Avec vue sous la mer, which claimed the 2016 prize. His hilarious account of life as “joker”, or general dogsbody, is characterised by an amusing mishmash of cultural references: “I’m dreaming of The Love Boat, but getting a remake of Les Misérables” the narrator quips. The use of “verlan” – a suburban dialect in which syllables are reversed to create new words – underlines the topsy-turvy feel.

Unfortunately, there’s no English version as yet – I imagine the quickfire language play would challenge even the most adept of translators. But translation would help confirm the compelling literary voice Kader has given to an otherwise invisible group.

5. Woman at Sea

Catherine Poulain’s Le grand marin, the 2017 winner, is a rather more earnest account of work at sea. The author draws on her own experiences to recount narrator Lili’s travails in the male-dominated world of Alaskan fishing.

Le grand marin (the great sailor) is ostensibly the nickname Lili gives to her seafaring lover. The relationship is something of a red herring though, as the overriding passion in this novel is work. But the English title perhaps does Lili a disservice – she is less a floundering Woman at Sea, and more the true grand marin of the original.

This year’s shortlist includes the story of a forgotten employee left to his own devices when his company is restructured, a professional fall from grace in the wake of the Bataclan terrorist attack, and a second novel from Poulain, with seasonal work in Provence the backdrop this time.

The common draw, as in previous years –- and somewhat ironically, given the subject matter –- is escapism. We are afforded either a tantalising glimpse into the working lives of others, or else a fresh perspective on our own. English readers will be equally fascinated by French details and universal themes – and translators’ pens are sure to be poised.The Conversation

Amy Wigelsworth, Senior Lecturer in French, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Colette: writer, feminist, performer and #MeToo trail blazer



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Colette, photographed by Henri Manuel.
Wikimedia Commons

Diana Holmes, University of Leeds

The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.

Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.

The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.

But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.

The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.

When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.

She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.

In the 1907 pantomime which included a kiss with a woman.
Wikimedia Commons

Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.

She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.

The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)

Sex and sensuality

Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.

She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:

Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.

In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.

In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.

She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.

One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional – writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.

Diana Holmes is the author of:

Middlebrow Matters: Women’s reading and the literary canon in France since the Belle Époque.The Conversation

Liverpool University Press provides funding as a content partner of The Conversation UK

Diana Holmes, Professor of French, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Article: ‘Beauty and Beast,’ by Marcela Iacub not Banned


The link below is to an article concerning the book ‘Beauty and Beast’ by Marcela Iacub, about Dominique Strass-Kahn – it has not been banned by a French court, despite a bid to have it so by Dominique Strass-Kahn.

For more visit:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/26/dominique-strauss-kahn-book-ban-court-rules_n_2768578.html

Article: Latest on the Timbuktu Library


Recent news reports indicated that fleeing Islamists set the Timbuktu Library in Mali on fire as they fled the approaching French troops. However, the article linked to below indicates that not all has been lost.

For more visit:
http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2013/01/timbuktus-ancient-manuscripts-may-have-been-saved.phtml

Book Review: Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet


‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques BonnetThe introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.

Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).

I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.

The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.

The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.

Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.

Buy this book at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Phantoms-Bookshelves-Jacques-Bonnet/dp/1590207599/

Article: French Drop Lawsuit Against Google


The link below is to an article reporting on an agreement reached between French publishers and Google in the Google Books lawsuit.

For more visit:
http://www.mediabistro.com/appnewser/french-publishers-association-drops-lawsuit-against-google_b23664.

Life of George Washington – Washington Irving


I have been reading the five volume work of Washington Irving on the ‘Life of George Washington’ over the last little while. Currently I am in the middle of the second volume. Though I am only reading two to ten pages a day and don’t view this reading exercise as particularly pressing, I am enjoying my reading experience very much. It is an easy to read book, with chapters divided into very manageable portions. As a whole, the five volumes make up about 2000 pages.

This work by Washington Irving on the life of George Washington covers the life of the first president of the United States, shedding much light on the life and times of Washington. Thus far I have covered the period of Washington’s early life, through the war against the French and Indians (in which Washington played an important role) and into the American War Of Independence (in which Washington led the fledgling nation’s army against the British). This biographical work seems to be an excellent life of George Washington, but also provides an insight into the players and the history of the times.

In short, this five volume work on Washington is excellent and I would highly recommend reading the entire work on an important person in, and period of, American history. The work is available at the Internet Archive and I have links to the five volumes on my website at:

http://tracingourhistory.com/history.html