flapped paperback

A Woman's Story

Annie Ernaux

Translated by Tanya Leslie

Published 10 April 2024
French paperback with flaps, 72 pages

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My mother died on Monday 7 April in the old people’s home attached to the hospital at Pontoise, where I had installed her two years previously. The nurse said over the phone: ‘Your mother passed away this morning, after breakfast.’ It was around ten o’clock.

 

For the first time the door of her room was closed. The body had already been washed and a strip of gauze had been wrapped around her head and under her chin, pushing all the skin up around her eyes and mouth. A sheet covered her body up to her shoulders, hiding her hands. She looked like a small mummy. The cot sides had been taken down and left on either side of the bed. I wanted to slip her into the white nightdress with a crochet border that she had once bought for her own funeral. The nurse told me one of the staff would see to this and would also take the crucifix my mother kept in her bedside drawer and place it on her chest. The two screws that pinned the copper arms on to the cross were missing. The nurse wasn’t sure they could be replaced. It didn’t matter, I wanted her to have her crucifix all the same. On the trolley stood the bunch of forsythia I had brought the day before. The nurse suggested I go straight to the administration office while they drew up an inventory of my mother’s personal belongings. She had very few things of her own left – a suit, a pair of blue summer shoes, an electric shaver.
     At the administration office, a young woman asked me what I wanted. ‘My mother died this morning.’ ‘Was she registered at the hospital or as a long-term patient? What was her name?’ She consulted a sheet of paper and gave a faint smile: she had already been informed. She went and fetched my mother’s record and asked a few questions about her, where she was born, her last address before being admitted as a long-term patient. These details were probably in the file.
     In my mother’s room, a plastic bag with her belongings had been set aside on the bedside table. The nurse asked me to sign the inventory. I decided not to keep the clothes and other possessions she’d had at the hospital. All I took was a small Savoyard chimney sweep from Annecy and a statuette she and my father had bought when they made the pilgrimage to Lisieux. Now that I was there, my mother could be taken to the hospital morgue (it was customary for the body of the deceased to remain in its room for a period of two hours following the time of death). As I was leaving, I caught sight of the woman who shared my mother’s room. She was sitting in the sister’s office, behind the glass partition, with her handbag in her lap. She had been asked to wait there until my mother’s body wasmoved to the morgue.


     My ex-husband went with me to the funeral director’s. Behind the wreaths of artificial flowers, a few armchairs were arranged around a coffee table with some magazines. An assistant took us into a room and asked us questions about when she had died, where the burial was to take place and whether or not we wanted a service. He wrote everything down on an order form, occasionally jabbing at a pocket calculator. Then he led us into a dark room with no windows and switched on the light. A dozen coffins were standing against the wall. The assistant explained: ‘All our prices include tax.’ Three of the coffins were open so that customers could also choose the colour of the lining. I settled for oak because it had been her favourite tree and because she had always wanted to know whether the furniture she bought was made of oak. My ex-husband suggested mauve for the lining. He was proud, almost happy to remember that she often wore blouses of the same colour. I wrote out a cheque for the assistant. The firm took care of everything, except the supplying of flowers. I got home around midday and had a glass of port with my ex-husband. My head and my stomach started to ache.
     Around five o’clock I called the hospital to ask if I could go and see my mother at the morgue with my two sons. The girl on the switchboard told me it was too late, the morgue closed at half past four. I got out of the car and drove around the new part of town near the hospital, trying to find a flower shop open on a Monday. I asked for white lilies, but the florist advised against them: they were suitable only for children, possibly for young girls.


     The burial took place on the following Wednesday. I arrived at the hospital with my two sons and my ex-husband. The morgue wasn’t signposted, and we lost our way before discovering the low, concrete building which lay on the edge of the fields. An assistant in a white coat was talking on the phone. He signalled to us to sit down in a corridor. We sat on chairs lined up against the wall, opposite the lavatories. Someone had left the door open. I wanted to see my mother once more and place on her breast the two twigs of japonica blossom I had brought with me. We didn’t know whether they intended to show us the body one last time before closing the coffin. The funeral director’s assistant we had seen in the shop emerged from an adjoining room and graciously asked us to follow him. My mother was lying in the coffin, her head thrown back, her hands clasped together on the crucifix. The white gauze had been removed and she was wearing the nightdress with the crochet border. The satin shroud reached up to her chest. It was in a large, bare room with concrete walls. I don’t know where the faint light came from.
     The assistant informed us that the visit was over and he led us back into the corridor. I felt that he had shown us my mother simply to prove that his firm had carried out its duties satisfactorily. We drove through the new part of town until we reached the church, which had been built next to the arts centre. The hearse hadn’t arrived, so we waited in front of the church. Across the street, someone had smeared with tar, ‘Money, consumer goods, and the State are the three pillars of apartheid’, on the façade of the supermarket. A priest stepped forward. He addressed me in affable tones – ‘Was she your mother?’ – and asked my sons where they went to university and what they were studying.
     A curious little empty bed, edged with red velvet, had been laid down on the bare cement floor in front of the altar. Later on, the funeral directors placed my mother’s coffin on top of it. The priest switched on a cassette player that played organ music. We were the only people present at the service, nobody around here knew my mother. The priest sang canticles and spoke of ‘eternal life’ and ‘the resurrection of our sister’. I wanted the ceremony to last forever, I wanted more to be done for my mother, more songs, more rituals. The organ music started up again and the priest extinguished the candles on either side of the coffin.
     Immediately after the service, the funeral director’s hearse left for Yvetot, in Normandy, where my mother was to be buried beside my father. I travelled in my own car with my sons. It rained during the whole journey, with the wind blowing in sharp gusts outside. The boys questioned me about the service because it was their first experience and they hadn’t known how to behave during the ceremony.

(...)

On 7 April 1986, Annie Ernaux’s mother, after years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, died in a retirement home in the suburbs of Paris. Shocked by this loss which, despite her mother’s condition, she had refused to fathom, Ernaux embarks on a daunting journey back through time in an effort to recover the different facets of a woman whose openness to the world and appetite for reading created the conditions for the author’s own social ascent.
     Mirroring A Man’s Place, in which she narrates her father’s slow rise to material comfort, A Woman’s Story explores the ambiguous and unshakeable bond between mother and daughter, its fluctuation over the course of their lives, the alienating worlds that separate them and the inescapable truth that we must lose the ones we love. In this quietly powerful tribute to the last thread connecting her to the world out of which she was born, Ernaux attempts to do her mother the greatest justice she can: to portray her as the individual she was.

Praise for A Man’s Place

‘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 Peirson-Hagger, New Statesman

Praise for I Remain In Darkness

‘Acute and immediate, I Remain in Darkness is an unforgettable exploration of love, memory and the journey to loss.’
— Eimear McBride, author of Strange Hotel

‘In this work of shocking honesty and intimacy, Ernaux bears witness to her mother’s final years of living and dying with dementia.... Sometimes the diary entries are little more than notes. They are often inconsistent, but this is part of the author’s point: the self is not coherent; an ‘I’ is full of contradictions; you can hate what you adore. The result is a meditation on the gradual loss of agency and identity. Ernaux writes of memory, of love, of loathing, of disgust, of tenderness; she writes about the frail, leaking, helpless, horrifying body, about the porous self. The narrative was always death. Writing was always an act of betrayal.’
— Nicci Gerrard, Spectator

‘Ernaux’s mother died of Alzheimer’s disease; like John Bayley’s memoir Elegy for Iris, Ernaux’s memoir catalogues the deterioration of a once powerful, almost totemic presence, a fall so cataclysmic that it cannot be analyzed or contextualized, only reported. In I Remain in Darkness (its title taken from the last coherent sentence her mother ever wrote) Ernaux abandons her search for a larger truth because, in the face of a loss as profound as that of her mother, all attempts to make sense of it have the feel of artifice.’
— Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Book Review

‘A testament to the persistent, haunting, and melancholy quality of memory.’
— Richard Bernstein, New York Times

Praise for Simple Passion

‘I devoured – not once, but twice – Fitzcarraldo’s new English edition of Simple Passion, in which the great Annie Ernaux describes the suspended animation of a love affair with a man who is not free. Every paragraph, every word, brought me closer to a state of purest yearning...’
— Rachel Cooke, Observer

‘What mesmerises here, as elsewhere in Ernaux’s oeuvre, is the interplay between the solipsistic intensity of the material and its documentary, disinterested, almost egoless presentation. Reminiscent of the poet Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, a study of how grief mangles chronology, Simple Passion is a riveting investigation, in a less tragic key, into what happens to one’s experience of time in the throes of romantic obsession.’
— Lola Seaton, New Statesman

‘The triumph of Ernaux’s approach... is to cherish commonplace emotions while elevating the banal expression of them ... A monument to passions that defy simple explanations.’
— Caryn James, New York Times

‘A work of lyrical precision and diamond-hard clarity.’
New Yorker

‘All this – the suffering and anxiety of waiting, the brief soulagement of lovemaking, the lethargy and fatigue that follow, the renewal of desire, the little indignities and abjections of both obsession and abandonment – Ernaux tells with calm, almost tranquillized matter-of-factness [that] feels like determination, truth to self, clarity of purpose.’
Washington Post

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. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work. In 2022, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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), all for Seven Stories Press in the US.