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Book Review: A Man's Place (La Place) by Annie Ernaux

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

Until now, I've written mostly about French cinema and television for the website - and that will continue, especially in this current climate - but the idea of FrancoFiles was always to cover the various aspects of French art and culture, including its literature, so you can expect more of that as well. Which brings me to a relatively new discovery in the form of renowned French author, Annie Ernaux.

It pains me that I only discovered her work last year, but then I'd only just discovered Patrick Modiano the year before, so I guess this journey is all about stumbling across new things that are well-established and have a rich pedigree. It's therefore no surprise to find that some people compare Ernaux's work to Modiano's, such as in the case of Sarah Elizabeth Cant's thesis, which is referenced in the Further Reading section of Ernaux's Wikipedia entry. Sadly the link doesn't take you to the thesis itself, but I'm keen to track it down as she references another author who is new to me: Daniel Pennac.

As it turns out, I discovered Ernaux by way of another French writer, Virginie Despentes, when I read about her book, King Kong Theory, mid last year. It was coming out through a relatively local, boutique publisher called Fitzcarraldo Editions, and when I looked at purchasing a copy from them, I noticed they offered a subscription service where you could opt in for four, eight or twelve books. I thought I'd start with a four book subscription - beginning with King Kong Theory - which I quickly re-upped for a further twelve books, and A Man's Place was the first title in that second run.

Speaking of titles, I'm always fascinated by their translation, and what is gained or lost in the process. On the surface, A Man's Place works perfectly well as a title to reflect what the book is about, but coming back to the original French it feels somewhat reductive. While the use of gender in French grammar makes it both difficult, and potentially quite problematic, it also adds something - especially in situations like this where more can be read into it. The original French title, La Place, means quite literally 'the place', but it also cleverly adds the feminine element to what is ostensibly the story of a man. More than that, it acknowledges how much her father (and perhaps Ernaux herself) are influenced by place, and the roots they both come from.

Nonetheless, a title is a title, and when we get deeper into the actual translation of this book, it's remarkably well done. It's no surprise that Tanya Leslie was the first person to translate Ernaux's work into English - first for Seven Stories Press in the US - and that she went on to translate six of her books, starting with A Girl's Story (whose title probably influenced the English version of A Man's Place). It reminds me of the way Mark Polizzotti has translated a large number of the Patrick Modiano novels that I've read. These two authors do so much with deceptively simple language that it takes a skilled translator to capture and reflect that clever simplicity. You can read a little more about Tanya Leslie on the excellent Translating Women blog.

As for the book itself, A Man's Place, which won the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 1984, is a fascinating overview of Annie Ernaux's complex relationship with her father. In many ways it brings to mind the rather complex relationship I had with my own father, and how that relationship differs from the one we often have with our mothers. My friend and I were talking about this in relation to another topic recently, and discussing how the mother/child bond is quite natural and innate - she carries you for nine months, then feeds and nurtures you from birth - whereas the bond with our fathers is forged (or perhaps forced) over time and through circumstances. It's difficult to explain, but it's almost like nature vs. nurture in the roles of mother and father.

What Ernaux does particularly well is to capture the class struggle within French society as she looks at her father and how he reacts to the people around him. There's a desire to rise above and transcend his own roots, as well as to impress those of a 'higher class' with his decorum and manners. He feels perpetually inferior, and overcompensates for that with a stoic and 'proper' outward persona. It's the ability to take all those factors into account which makes Ernaux such an astute observer of history and memory, context and class. In their 2019 interview with the author, The Guardian referred to her as "perhaps the greatest chronicler of French society in the last 50 years – a kind of guardian of collective memory."

Despite the obvious influence (and indeed nature) of history and memory in her books, Ernaux does not like to be considered a memoirist or have her work referred to as autobiography. According to her, she writes novels, fiction. In the course of the aforementioned interview with The Guardian to celebrate the release of I Remain In Darkness, she says: “It’s the work of a novelist to tell the truth. Sometimes I don’t know what truth I’m looking for, but it’s always a truth that I’m seeking.” Regardless of her wishes, most publishers and critics (especially English-speaking ones) tend to file her under memoir or autobiography, although Fitzcarraldo have cleverly placed her in their Essays category which possibly manages to sidestep that.

What we're left with is 'the truth' about her father - in so much as she experienced it, or it was recounted to her for the time she wasn't around. Even with her claims of fiction, Ernaux is determined to only include the things she recalls - there's nothing added, and she doesn't fill in the blanks. As such A Man's Place is more a series of vignettes and flashbacks, combined with later insights from her own life, which add context and clarity without fabricating the details. The truth is, it's difficult to unpack our parents and our relationships with them because it also requires tapping back into a version of ourselves who may be quite different from the one we've now become.

Referring once again to Angelique Chrisafis' excellent interview with Ernaux in 2019, she recalls a story when some of her relatives came to visit:

“You’ve read all this?” gasped one relative on a visit to her book-filled house on the outskirts of a 1970s commuter town north of Paris.

“It’s terrible to play yourself down,” says the 78-year-old Ernaux. But it was that “experience of limitation”, that unwritten rule “not to venture above your station in life”, that defined the tough world of factories and farm-workers she grew up in, she says ... Ernaux was pushed on by her mother, who had left school aged 12 but was a voracious reader and believed books and learning were the ticket to a different future. “My mother always washed her hands before opening a book,” she recalls.

But A Man's Place is the story of Ernaux's father. A simple man with simple pleasures, who didn't really embrace or enjoy his life until later years. He was influenced greatly by his own meagre, working-class origins, with a father who didn't value education because he could neither read nor write. Despite this upbringing, he worked hard to provide for his family (as did Ernaux's mother) - first as a farm and factory worker, then eventually as a local grocery and café proprietor - and was proud to see Annie continue her studies into her 20s, something which was otherwise unheard of in the area. Ernaux could only achieve this through a State scholarship she had received, but his pride led them to keep those details quiet.

Ultimately the book serves as a snapshot of rural France (particularly the Normandy region), highlighting the various changes taking place in the first half of the 20th century, while also providing a window into Ernaux's relationship with her father, and therefore into the author herself. It's not flashy or showy or boastful but, as I said in the opening paragraphs, the style of writing is deceptively simple. There's a lot to unpack here, which makes you reflect on your own attitudes to society and class, and the impact your parents have had on it all - at least through your eyes. In this way, Annie Ernaux's work proves to be both uniquely French and yet undeniably universal, and I can't wait to read more.

Ernaux is likely to be discovered by even more people this year with the English translation of her book Simple Passion being reprinted next month by Fitzcarraldo Editions, to accompany the film version directed by Danielle Arbid which is available now through Curzon Home Cinema. You can watch an excellent discussion with Annie Ernaux, which was recorded at the historic Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, over on their YouTube channel.

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