Home > 1980, 20th Century, Ernaux Annie, French Literature, Récit > A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux – where the author owns her working-class background

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux – where the author owns her working-class background

February 23, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux (1983) Original French title: La place.

I’ve read A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux in one sitting, drinking hot chocolate in a café in Lyon after spending my first afternoon of holiday in bookstores. Because where else would a bookworm rush to on her first glorious day of leisure? A splendid afternoon.

I had never read Annie Ernaux despite everyone’s raving about her.

She’s known for her autofiction and I’m ill-at-ease with this concept. Either it’s an autobiography or it’s fiction, the blend of the two seem to me a way to either skive off the obligation of relative accuracy in a biography or broadcast the origins of one’s fiction. Plus, it means navel-observing books, which is not a trend I love in literature. All this deterred me from picking a book by Annie Ernaux. And then, A Man’s Place was on display tables, I thought “Why not?” and here I am.

A Man’s Place was written in 1983. The author comes back to 1966, when her father died. She was 26 then and she’s 43 when she writes her book. Dates matter because she’s matured since this funeral took place and the passing of years brings a serenity to her writing. Distance helps with calm analysis too. Literature will be a way to explore the complexity of her feelings towards her father, her family background and her change of social class.

Her father was born in 1899, in the countryside in Normandy. He was hired as farmhand when he was twelve. After his military service, he left the country to work in a factory and met his wife.

Au retour, il n’a plus voulu retourner dans la culture. Il a toujours appelé ainsi le travail de la terre, l’autre sens de culture, le spirituel, lui était inutile.When he came back, he never wanted to go back to “culture”. That’s how he called farming. The other meaning of culture, the spiritual one, did no good to him.

He climbed to a middle-management position and then bought his café-grocer’s shop in a small town. All his life, he struggled with money, to pay for the shop, to keep it afloat, always scraping by and worrying about money.

When she tells her father’s story, Annie Ernaux pictures the peasant and blue-collar social classes from 1900 to the mid-sixties. Her parents were one couple in millions, living through WWI as teenagers, the 1929 economic crisis, WWII and the Post-war economic boom. She gives a voice to the masses, the ones that are rarely in literature.

Her narration reaches a universal nature in the description of her social background. She gives life to a way of thinking, a way of speaking and an attitude towards life. Even she keeps an analytical tone, it is very moving and I could hear my blue-collar grandmother’s mentality in her words.

Annie Ernaux climbed up the social ladder and landed in the academic middle-class world through school. Classic. She became a teacher of French literature and met cultured people in school. She left the world of manual labor for the world of intellectual work.

She describes the rift between her parents and her. It happens as soon as she keeps going to school and it widens with time. She doesn’t despise them but they can’t understand each other anymore. They don’t live in the same world, that’s all.

Coming from her blue-collar household, Ernaux has also a hard time reconciling her family story with her reading. For example, she doesn’t hide how squalid her father’s childhood had been and she muses:

Quand je lis Proust ou Mauriac, je ne crois pas qu’ils évoquent le temps où mon père était enfant. Son cadre à lui, c’était le Moyen Age.When I read Proust or Mauriac, I don’t think that they write about the time when my father was a child. His background, it was the Middle Ages.

She has to make her own metamorphosis from blue-collar to intellectual bourgeoisie and it is not easy as people in her new world look down on people from her old world. Her husband doesn’t go to her parents’ house, which is something I find shocking. I get that he has nothing in common with them but it’s like denying part of your partner’s identity. When you love someone, you don’t carve out of them the parts that bother you. In this case, it must have contributed to drill into her that she needed to cut ties with this humiliating world. The attitude of her new milieu makes her ashamed of her background:

Il se trouve des gens pour apprécier le « pittoresque du patois » et du parler populaire. Ainsi Proust relevait avec ravissement les incorrections et les mots anciens de Françoise. Seule l’esthétique lui importe parce que Françoise est sa bonne et non sa mère. Que lui-même n’a jamais senti ces tournures lui venir aux lèvres spontanément.Some people relishes “the picturesque of patois” and of vernacular language. Like Proust, who raved about Françoise’s mistakes and old words. Only the aesthetics matters because Françoise is his servant and not his mother. Because himself has never felt these turns of phrase spontaneously come to his lips.

The redneck bashing isn’t new, of course and I think that the metamorphosis is never complete. No one cannot fully deny their roots. I believe that changing of social class can be as violent as emigrating to a new country. New codes to learn, a chasm between the old world and the new one and the impossibility to make the old world and the new one mesh properly because they have no common ground.

Annie Ernaux chose literature to explore her ambivalent feelings towards her father and her background. A Man’s Place is also a vibrant homage to her parents, to her hardworking father and a priceless testimony of a social class ways.

The philosopher and sociologist Didier Eribon partly explores the same topic in his essay Returning to Reims (2009). Eribon is gay and his father was homophobic, which cut him from his family. I haven’t read his essay but I’ve heard radio programs about it and I’ve seen the brilliant theatre play directed by Thomas Ostermeier and based upon it. When Eribon wrote his essay, he was already successful and he was 56. He influenced Edouard Louis for his book The End of Eddy, in French, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule. The main difference between Louis and his predecessors is that his book is angrier, maybe because he was only 22 when he wrote it.

A Man’s Place is an excellent book, I was taken by Ernaux’s simple but spot-on style. Her voice is clear and pleasant to hear. Her parents’ expressions are stated in italic, to point out a way of speaking that was theirs and representative of their social class.

The original French title is La place and I wonder why they changed it in English for A Man’s Place. The meaning is broader in French and saying a man’s place discards Ernaux’s struggles with finding her own place in her new world. Maybe One’s Place would have been better?

Discover Claire’s thoughts about this book here. It was also her first Ernaux.

PS: The clumsy translations are my own.

  1. February 23, 2022 at 12:46 pm

    I think there was quite a lot of this kind of social dislocation when postwar reforms gave educational opportunities to people who had never had them before. Particularly when they moved into the professions (e.g. medicine, law) and were moving in different social circles, there could be painful breaches between the old class and the new. Even when they did their best not to emphasise the social gulf, sometimes there was resentment from parents who (equally hard-working and intelligent) had not had those opportunities.

    Like

    • February 23, 2022 at 9:01 pm

      Thank you for this very interesting comment. Totally spot on.

      The big change post-war is that intelligent people from lower social classes had more opportunities than they would have had in the previous generation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Vishy
    February 23, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! Was looking forward to your review 😊 I loved A Man’s Place. It is sad that they changed the title in English and didn’t retain the original French title. It was amazing to read about Ernaux’ father and how hard his childhood was. I loved what you said about how moving across social classes is like migrating to a new country. What you’ve said is very true. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

    Like

    • February 23, 2022 at 9:05 pm

      Thank you, Vishy.

      I think that movin into an upper social class is easier when it’s making money through trade and being richer than your family was. Your change is more that you can afford more things/services.

      What is hard is to move into intellectual/cultured circles when you don’t come from the same background.

      Like

  3. February 23, 2022 at 4:33 pm

    I read this one when the French was just a little bit too hard, so it was a lot of work, but worthwhile. It is an easy book to recommend to anyone trying to learn about French culture. The sociology is good. Americans from similar backgrounds will recognize it – similar, but different in interesting ways.

    Like

    • February 23, 2022 at 10:05 pm

      I think that it’s a hard one to read when your French isn’t completely solid. There are a lot of expressions and cultural references.

      What would be the American equivalent to this book?

      Like

      • February 23, 2022 at 11:31 pm

        That is a good question. The theme is common in books written by children of immigrants. An author who comes to mind is Richard Rodriguez, who is Mexican-American and gay, and writes about the way his education alienated him from his parents and culture in Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) and Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father (1992)

        He’s quite a good writer, too, and he writes some things about learning English that I think you would find interesting, so if see one of these in an American bookstore, pick it up.

        Like

        • February 24, 2022 at 9:21 am

          Thanks for the recommendation and I’m grateful for ebooks, Hunger of Memory is available and I get it for almost nothing.
          Your recommendation conforts what I wrote in my billet : changing of social class can be a similar experience to immigration.

          Like

  4. February 23, 2022 at 6:54 pm

    Although Ernaux is always billed as autofiction, I read it as autobiography, particularly as the editions I have are white Fitzcarraldo ones which are supposed to be non-fiction. That’s by the by, really. I think she’s such an impressive writer – her prose is so deceptively simple yet conveys so much, and in short books. Such a good author.

    Like

    • February 23, 2022 at 10:08 pm

      On the French Wikipedia, La Place is a “roman à caractère autobiographique”. Way to avoid making a decision!
      I take it as non-fiction too but doing that, I read it with the assumption that she aimed at accuracy and didn’t invent anything that’s written.

      I agree with you, she’s an impressive writer and I understand the fuss around her. She’s good and I’ll explore her work further.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dorothy Willis
    February 23, 2022 at 8:01 pm

    As I read your review I thought about my own life growing up in the American south in the fifties. Although there were some class distinctions these were not so evident as those in this book. The closest I experienced was the difference between white and black cultures. I look forward to finding this book and reading it. I always enjoy your comments and am in awe of the breadth of your reading.

    Like

    • February 23, 2022 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks for your message and your personal take on this.

      I think that cultural elite tend to look down on people who don’t have the same cultural background. It’s another kind of aristocracy, linked to social codes and cultural habits (going to the museum, watching indie films, reading literary fiction…)

      And here, what Ernaux shows beautifully is the difference of attitude towards life and a total lack of entitlement on her parents’ part. I’ve heard what she explains: don’t make a fuss, don’t make anything that could turn the lights on you and a certain idea of what is done and what place you have in the world.
      It’s extremely well described, with precision.

      It’s a short book that I really recommend.

      Like

  6. February 24, 2022 at 4:48 am

    Je te conseille aussi Les Années : une superbe fresque de la première moitié du 20e siècle. Grande écriture pour sûr !

    Like

    • February 24, 2022 at 9:30 am

      Merci pour le conseil! Je le mets sur ma PAL virtuelle.

      Like

  7. February 24, 2022 at 12:03 pm

    Completely agree that moving into a new social class can be as much of a dislocation as migration. My parents were both from very poor rural families and were the first in their family to go to university and then make good careers for themselves in the city and abroad. My father was constantly looked down upon for his table manners and my mother’s self-taught attempts at ‘catching up with the elite’. I was certainly fully aware of my privilege at growing up with all the education and cultural capital available to me.

    Like

    • February 24, 2022 at 10:52 pm

      Whatever the country, the dislocation is the same, isn’t it?
      Your parents made the most difficult step, opening possibilties to you.

      Like

  8. February 24, 2022 at 5:23 pm

    When I come up against a term that doesn’t settle with me, but I appreciate or enjoy the work, I simply set aside the term, and tell myself that marketing departments make decisions differently than readers do! I hope you continue to enjoy the other books by Ernaux that lie ahead for you now!

    Like

    • February 24, 2022 at 10:53 pm

      I’m like you. I’m not good at putting books in little genre boxes.
      I plan on reading other books by her, that’s for sure.

      Like

  9. March 1, 2022 at 10:23 pm

    I’ve never read Ernaux but I do plan to, I think I’d really enjoy her. This sounds a powerful exploration of a painful family dynamic. I know a family with a similar situation, they clearly love one another but the parents feel alienated from their highly academic sons. It’s difficult.

    Like

    • March 5, 2022 at 9:40 pm

      I think you’ll like her too and this one has the length of a novelle, so…

      It’s a family dynamic based on silent love and the knowledge that they do not live in the same world anymore. There’s a bit of shame and guilt on Ernaux’s side and quiet acceptance and pride on her parents’ side.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. May 8, 2022 at 2:16 pm

    In British English (I can’t speak to others) ‘one’ has class connotations, so that’s probably why that wasn’t used. It sounds upper class. That might have been the concern.

    Nice review. I’ve read three Ernaux so far – A Girl’s Story, Happening, and The Years of which Years is probably most praised but the one that impacted me least. In a way though I wonder if The Years is a summation of all these previous books. A broadening out even more from the particular to the general.

    Lovely way to read it, outdoors in a cafe with a hot chocolate.

    Like

    • May 8, 2022 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks for the explanation about “one” vs the title.
      I’ll read other books by her, that’s for sure and I’m glad I finally read something by her.

      Like

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