Published 28 October 2020
French paperback with flaps, 80 pages
The practical test for my CAPES examination took place at a lycée in Lyon, in the Croix-Rousse area. A new lycée, with potted plants in the buildings for the teaching and administrative staff, and a library fitted with a sand-coloured carpet. I waited there until they came to fetch me for my practical, which involved giving a lesson in front of an inspector and two assessors, both distinguished lecturers in French. A woman was marking papers haughtily, without a flicker of hesitation. All I had to do was sail through the following hour and I would be allowed to do the same as she did for the rest of my life. I explained twenty-five lines – referenced by number – taken from Balzac’s novel Le Père Goriot to a class of sixth-formers from the maths stream. Afterwards, in the headmaster’s office, the inspector said to me disapprovingly: ‘You really dragged your pupils along, didn’t you.’ He was sitting between the two assessors, a man and a short-sighted woman with pink shoes. And me, opposite. For fifteen minutes he showered me with criticism, praise and advice, and I barely listened, wondering if all this meant I had passed. Suddenly, in unison, the three of them stood up, looking solemn. I too rose to my feet hurriedly. The inspector held out his hand to me. Then, looking straight at me, he said: ‘Congratulations, Madame.’ The others repeated ‘Congratulations’ and shook hands with me, but the woman did it with a smile.
I kept thinking about this scene while I was walking to the bus stop, with anger and something resembling shame. The same evening, I wrote to my parents telling them I was now a qualified teacher. My mother wrote back saying they were very happy for me.
My father died exactly two months later, to the day. He was sixty-seven years old and he and my mother had been running a grocery store and café in a quiet area of Y— (Seine-Maritime), not far from the train station. He had intended to retire the following year. Quite often, and just for a moment, I can’t recollect which came first: that windy April in Lyon when I stood waiting at the Croix-Rousse bus stop, or that stifling month of June, the month of his death.
It was a Sunday, in the early afternoon.
Annie Ernaux’s father died exactly two months after she passed her exams for a teaching certificate. Barely educated and valued since childhood strictly for his labour, Ernaux’s father had grown into a hard, practical man who showed his family little affection. Narrating his slow ascent towards material comfort, Ernaux’s cold observation in A Man’s Place reveals the shame that haunted her father throughout his life. She scrutinizes the importance he attributed to manners and language that came so unnaturally to him as he struggled to provide for his family with a grocery store and café in rural France. Over the course of the book, Ernaux grows up to become the uncompromising observer now familiar to the world, while her father matures into old age with a staid appreciation for life as it is and for a daughter he cautiously, even reluctantly admires.
‘Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman
‘A lesser writer would turn these experiences into misery memoirs, but Ernaux does not ask for our pity – or our admiration. It’s clear from the start that she doesn’t much care whether we like her or not, because she has no interest in herself as an individual entity. She is an emblematic daughter of emblematic French parents, part of an inevitable historical process, which includes breaking away. Her interest is in examining the breakage… Ernaux is the betrayer and her father the betrayed: this is the narrative undertow that makes A Man's Place so lacerating.’
— Frances Wilson, Telegraph
‘Not simply a short biography of man manacled to class assumptions, this is also, ironically, an exercise in the art of unsentimental writing… The biography is also self-reflexive in its inquiry and suggests the question: what does it mean to contain a life within a number of pages?’
— Mia Colleran, Irish Times
‘Ernaux understands that writing about her parents is a form of betrayal. That she writes about their struggle to understand the middle-class literary world into which she has moved makes that betrayal all the more painful. But still she does it – and it is thrilling to read Ernaux working out, word by word, what she deems appropriate to include in each text. In being willing to show her discomfort, her disdain and her honest, careful consideration of the dilemmas of writing about real, lived lives, Ernaux has struck upon a bold new way to write memoir.’
— Ellen Pierson-Hagger, New Statesman
‘Rather than picking up traditional realism in the style of Balzac or Flaubert, she elects for a sparse, factual prose, albeit one dealing with an intensely personal topic… she sifts through the soil of her roots.’
— Lydia Bunt, The Arts Desk
‘An unsentimental portrait of a man loved as a parent, admired as an individual but, because of habits and education, heartbreakingly apart. Moving and memorable.’
‘An affecting portrait of a man whose own peasant upbringing typified the adage that a child should never be better educated than his parents.’
— Publishers Weekly
‘No-one writes about family relationships with the nuance, both emotional and analytical, that Ernaux does, and such a reflective, self-critical perspective is even more precious. Her exploration of language in their household is sharp… It might initially be read as a cold portrait, but the emotions and passionate thought rage through the taut writing. Likened to Simone de Beauvoir for her astute chronicling of a generation, Ernaux’s prose is intimate and unforgettable.’
Praise for A Girl’s Story
‘Ernaux is an unusual memoirist: she distrusts her memory… Ernaux does not so much reveal the past – she does not pretend to have any authoritative access to it – as unpack it.’
— Madeleine Schwartz, New Yorker
‘An exquisite elegy’
— Irish Times
‘For all that A Girl’s Story is intoxicatingly specific about time and place, it is also a story that belongs to any number of selfconsciously clever girls with appetite and no nous, who must, like Ernaux, reckon with the entanglements of sexism and sexuality. But it is above all personal. In reclaiming the girl she was, Ernaux becomes her own Orpheus.’
‘Revisiting painful periods is hardly new territory for writers, but Ernaux distills a particular power from the exercise.’
— The New York Times
Born in 1940, Annie Ernaux grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. The Years won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008, the Premio Strega in Italy in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work.
Tanya Leslie was the first translator of Annie Ernaux into English and translated a number of her works, including A Woman’s Story (1991), A Man’s Place (1992), Simple Passion (1993), Shame (1998), I Remain in Darkness (1999) and Happening (2001).