Annie Ernaux: Une Femme – A Woman’s Story (1987)

Upon her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s, Ernaux embarks on a daunting journey back through time, as she seeks to “capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me, born on the outskirts of a small Normandy town, and who died in the geriatric ward of a hospital in the suburbs of Paris.

I found this book on a shelf in the cellar of an apartment building in which I used to live. People left the books they didn’t want anymore on that shelf and you could always find an interesting choice. I have never read anything by Annie Ernaux and so I took it and forgot about it. The other day I detected it, read the first few lines and was hooked.

In A Woman’s Story – Une femme Annie Ernaux writes about her mother’s life and death. It’s a memoir but she doesn’t call it a memoir which is interesting. She writes that the book was neither a biography nor a novel but that it was a mix. I found this odd at first but then I understood that this had something to do with the year in which it was written. It seems that in 1987 there wasn’t such a wave of memoirs and autobiographies yet and she didn’t even see the book as belonging to one of these categories.

I wonder what was the ultimate reason for Ernaux to write about her mother. She asks herself this question all through the book a few times. I think she wanted to stay close to her. She started writing right after her mother died. Although her mother had been suffering of Alzheimer’s and was living in a nursing home, she didn’t want to lose her. The book read like a long eulogy. I was surprised how sober the tone was. Sober and detached. The life of Ernaux’ mother unfolds in a sequence of short sentences, statements. It’s quite unemotional with the exception of a few passages that explode like little bombs containing pain.

All this made me think a lot. The choice to write about her mother, her death and how she wrote about it. It’s been on my mind to write about my own mother but the reasons are very different and the approach would be as well.

What Ernaux wrote about her mother’s life is thought-provoking. Her mother was a simple country girl from a rather poor family, from the Normandy. It was her dream to have her own business and in 1931, ten years before Ernaux was born, she opened a café/shop that flourished all through the war. It made her feel important. Not only was she in charge but she could help others who were less fortunate. Many years later, after the death of her husband, she would have to close that café and would go and live with her daughter and her family in Annecy. Thanks to her mother’s efforts her daughter went to university and got married to a man who also had a degree. It’s very hard for me to understand what this must have felt like, when your cultural background is so different from that of your parents. It was difficult for Ernaux. From a young age on she felt completely estranged from her mother, at times ashamed of her, at the same time grateful. She later wrote a book called La honte  (shame) in which she explores these feelings.

I liked the final pages best in which she looks back on her mother’s last years, starting from the moment she begins to act strange until she has to live in the nursing home. The memories are like descriptions of photos. Little moments, frozen in time. It’s touching to see how she tries to be close to a mother who hardly recognizes her. She starts something, she has never done before, she combs her mother’s hair, brings her sweets and cleans her face, after she has finished eating.

Annie Ernaux says that she wrote the book because she wanted to recapture the woman her mother was before the illness but she also wanted to write about her because she thought the life of her mother was typical for the generation of French women born in the first decade of the last century. The hardships they knew were different, the dreams -“being someone” – were different and so were the fears – dying in poverty, shame or criminality.

As sober as the tone of this book is, it touched me. I think it would touch everyone. We all have or had mothers. We can’t help comparing and thinking about our own mothers and our relationship with them.

Unfortunately the book I found was very old. I saw that the newer French editions contain an interview and an annex in which the writing is analysed and texts by Stendhal, Rousseau and Sarraute are included for comparison. It also seems that Ernaux went on writing other memoirs on her mother and also on her father.

I will read more of her. I like how she seems to approach her parents and her own life, slowly groping, feeling along for meaning, reflecting on each step as she takes it.