Published 20 September 2023
French paperback with flaps, 88 pages
My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon. I had been to Mass at a quarter to twelve as usual. I must have brought back some cakes from the baker in the new shopping precinct – a cluster of temporary buildings erected after the war while reconstruction was under way. When I got home, I took off my Sunday clothes and slipped on a dress that washed easily. After the customers had left and the shutters had been pinned down over the shop window, we had lunch, probably with the radio on, because at that hour there was a funny programme called Le tribunal, in which Yves Deniaud played some wretched subordinate continually charged with the most preposterous offences and condemned to ridiculous sentences by a judge with a quavering voice. My mother was in a bad temper. The argument she started with my father as soon as she sat down lasted throughout the meal. After the table was cleared and the oilcloth wiped clean, she continued to fire criticism at my father, turning round and round in the tiny kitchen – squeezed in between the café, the store and the steps leading upstairs – as she always did when she was upset. My father was still seated at the table, saying nothing, his head turned towards the window. Suddenly he began to wheeze and was seized with convulsive shaking. He stood up and I saw him grab hold of my mother and drag her through the café, shouting in a hoarse, unfamiliar voice. I rushed upstairs and threw myself on to the bed, my face buried in a cushion. Then I heard my mother scream: ‘My daughter!’ Her voice came from the cellar adjoining the café. I rushed downstairs, shouting ‘Help!’ as loud as I could. In the poorly-lit cellar, my father had grabbed my mother by the shoulders, or maybe the neck. In his other hand, he was holding the scythe for cutting firewood which he had wrenched away from the block where it belonged. At this point all I can remember are sobs and screams. Then the three of us are back in the kitchen again. My father is sitting by the window, my mother is standing near the cooker and I am crouching at the foot of the stairs. I can’t stop crying. My father wasn’t yet his normal self; his hands were still trembling and he had that unfamiliar voice. He kept on repeating, ‘Why are you crying? I didn’t do anything to you.’ I can recall saying this sentence, ‘You’ll breathe disaster on me.’ My mother was saying, ‘Come on, it’s over.’ Afterwards the three of us went for a bicycle ride in the countryside nearby. When they got back, my parents opened the café like they did every Sunday evening. That was the end of it. It was 15 June, 1952. The first date I remember with unerring accuracy from my childhood. Before that, the days and dates inscribed on the blackboard and in my workbooks seemed just to drift by.
Later on, I would say to certain men: ‘My father tried to kill my mother just before I turned twelve.’ The fact that I wanted to tell them this meant that I was crazy about them. All were quiet after hearing the sentence. I realized that I had made a mistake, that they were not able to accept such a thing.
This is the first time I am writing about what happened. Until now, I have found it impossible to do so, even in my diary. I considered writing about it to be a forbidden act that would call for punishment. Not being able to write anything else afterwards, for instance. (I felt a kind of relief just now when I saw that I could go on writing, that nothing terrible had happened.) In fact, now that I have finally committed it to paper, I feel that it is an ordinary incident, far more common among families than I had originally thought. It may be that narrative, any kind of narrative, lends normality to people’s deeds, including the most dramatic ones. But because this scene has remained frozen inside me, an image empty of language – except for the sentence I told my lovers – the words which I have used to describe it seem strange, almost incongruous. It has become a scene destined for other people.
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2022
‘My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.’ Thus begins Shame, the probing story of the twelve-year-old girl who will become the author herself, and the traumatic memory that will echo and resonate throughout her life. With the emotionally rich voice of great fiction and the analytical eye of a scientist, Annie Ernaux provides a powerful reflection on experience and the power of violent memory to endure through time, to determine the course of a life.
‘[E]xceptionally deft and precise, the very epitome of all that language can do…a surprisingly tender evocation of a bright, passionate and self-aware young girl growing up in her parents’ “cafe-haberdashery-grocery” in a small town in Normandy.’
— Julie Myerson, Observer
‘Annie Ernaux writes memoir with such generosity and vulnerable power that I find it difficult to separate my own memories from hers long after I’ve finished reading.’
— Catherine Lacey, author of Biography of X
‘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, hardly mentioning others.’
— Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books
‘Annie Ernaux is one of my favourite contemporary writers, original and true. Always after reading one of her books, I walk around in her world for months.’
— Sheila Heti, author of Pure Colour
‘I find her work extraordinary.’
— Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
‘Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman
‘Across the ample particularities of over forty years and twenty-one books, almost all short, subject-driven memoirs, Ernaux has fundamentally destabilized and reinvented the genre in French literature.’
— Audrey Wollen, The Nation
‘It’s hard to fault a book that so elegantly and engagingly shows how… past horrors of varying scale can consciously and subconsciously affect someone…. [A] prescient and eminently readable book, as well as a great introduction to a giant of French literature.’
— India Lewis, The Arts Desk
Praise for A Man's Place
‘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 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
‘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
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.
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