Exteriors

Annie Ernaux

Translated by Tanya Leslie

Published 22 September 2021
French paperback with flaps, 80 pages

1985

On a wall in the covered car park at the RER station someone had written: INSANITY. Further along, on the same wall, I LOVE YOU ELSA and, in English, IF YOUR CHILDREN ARE HAPPY THEY ARE COMUNISTS.

Tonight, in the neighbourhood known as Les Linandes, a woman went by on a stretcher held by two firemen. She was propped up, almost sitting – calm, with grey hair, aged between fifty and sixty. A blanket concealed her legs and half her body. A little girl said to another, ‘there was blood on her sheet.’ But there was no sheet over the woman. She crossed the main square of Les Linandes in this fashion, a queen among people rushing to shop at Franprix and children playing, until she reached the ambulance in the car park. It was half past five, the air was crisp and cold. From the top of a building that gives onto the square, a voice yelled: ‘Rachid! Rachid!’ I put away the shopping in the boot of my car. The man who collects the trolleys was resting against the wall of the roofed-in passageway that connects the car park with the square. He was wearing a blue blazer and, as usual, grey trousers falling on to sturdy shoes. He has a striking expression. He came to retrieve my trolley when I had almost left the car park. To drive home, I took the road that runs along the gaping trench excavated to extend the RER. I felt I was riding towards the sun; it was setting beyond the criss-cross lines of pylons hurtling towards the centre of the New Town.

 

On the train going to Saint-Lazare, an old woman settles in a seat near the aisle; she is talking to a young boy – possibly her grandson – who is still standing: ‘Why are you so restless? What’s wrong with where you live? A rolling stone gathers no moss.’ His hands are thrust deep into his pockets, he doesn’t answer. After a moment, he says: ‘When you travel you meet people.’ The old woman laughs: ‘You’ll see thin and fat ones anywhere!’ Her face is beaming while she stares straight ahead, silent. The boy does not smile and examines his shoes, leaning against the wall of the carriage. Opposite them a handsome black woman is reading a Harlequin romance, Love in Jeopardy.

 

Super-M, in the Trois-Fontaines shopping centre, on a Saturday morning: a woman paces up and down the aisles of the ‘Household’ section, clutching a broom in her hands. She is muttering to herself, looking distraught: ‘Where have they gotten to? It’s not easy to get the shopping done when several people go together.’

At the checkout area, there’s a silent crowd. An Arab man keeps peering into his trolley at the few articles lying at the bottom. Satisfied that the things he craved will soon be his, or afraid that he might have ‘overspent’, maybe both. A woman in a brown coat, in her fifties, flings her shopping on to the moving counter, grabs the articles after they have been rung up and tosses them back into the trolley. She lets the checkout assistant fill in her cheque and slowly signs it.

In the indoor galleries of the shopping centre, people circulate with difficulty. Without even looking, we manage to avoid one another’s bodies, barely centimetres apart in the throng. By unerring instinct or by habit. Only trolleys and children bump occasionally into back or stomach. ‘Look where you’re going!’ a mother cries out to her little boy. A few women in harmony with the lights and the mannequins displayed in shop windows – red lips, red boots, jeans hugging narrow hips, wild manes – stride by purposefully.

(...)

Taking the form of random journal entries over the course of seven years, Exteriors concentrates on the ephemeral encounters that take place just on the periphery of a person’s lived environment. Ernaux captures the feeling of contemporary living on the outskirts of Paris: poignantly lyrical, chaotic, and strangely alive. Exteriors is in many ways the most ecstatic of Ernaux’s books – the first in which she appears largely free of the haunting personal relationships she has written about so powerfully elsewhere, and the first in which she is able to leave the past behind her.

‘I find her work extraordinary.’
Eimear McBride, author of Strange Hotel

‘Admirable for its quiet grace as well as its audacity in a willingness to note (and thus make noteworthy) the smallest parts of life. It’s a masterclass in understatement, a quality difficult to find nowadays, in literature or life.’
Lucy Sweeney-Byrne, Irish Times

‘Ernaux, in particular, feels unparalleled in its harnessing of memories. An acclaimed writer in her native country, her descriptions of human life are concise and they mediate our own opinions on these encounters with our own prejudices of the world.’
Billie Ingram Sofokleous, Buzz Magazine

‘Reading her is like getting to know a friend, the way they tell you about themselves over long conversations that sometimes take years, revealing things slowly, looping back to some parts of their life over and over’
Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books

‘The book is at once lyrical and unruly. It’s a story of fleeting encounters, overheard conversations and clear-sighted observations that will make you pay attention to the seemingly ephemeral details of ordinary life.’
— Monocle

Praise for Simple Passion

‘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.’
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

‘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 mesmerizes 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

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).