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

February 23, 2022 22 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.

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