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.

33 thoughts on “Annie Ernaux: Une Femme – A Woman’s Story (1987)

  1. She’s a writer I’ve never read because she always always talks about her and about depressing topics (death, shame, Alzeihmer, breast cancer…) I tend to shy away from books about illness and death and self-centred writers.

    That’s just me. She’s very praised by critics and is said to be a wonderful writer. I can tell you really liked this book, your emotion is in all your words.

    I’ve read the shame and the gap she describes in other books but I can’t find a title, except Portnoy’s Complaint. I’ve seen it in French books too.

    PS: A book left in an apartment, that’s how I discovered Romain Gary.

    • Really, Gary in an apartment as well. I love book finds. There is something so special about it.
      I like memoir and what I liked about her writing is that she also explores how to write it and why. She isn’t very central in this book. I suppose she will be more present in “La honte” as that focuses on her feelings towards her mother when she was younger.
      My mother died two years ago, so naturally, this speaks to me more. I lost all my grandparents before I was 5 years old. Many of my friends and cousins also died at a young age. Some of cancer, some in accidents or… well, you can imagine. If I would shy away from these topics I would have to shy away from my life as these are constant topics.
      The writing is very subtle, yes, I liked it a lot and will read other books.

      • I’m with Emma on this one. I too tend to avoid books that focus on death, dying and disease. I can remember reading one a few years ago about a young man whose mother was dying of cancer. The vomiting, smell of decay etc was all there in exquisite detail. So depressing. I’m not saying that books on death and dying aren’t valuable and shouldn’t be read, it’s just that I find them a hard slog, and naturally, not very enjoyable.

        • This book isn’t like this at all but her mother died of Alzheimer, not cancer. I know what you mean about books on cancer. That’s not easy to read and most certainly not enjoyable.

          • I’ve lost a number of close friends in the past few years. Various reasons. A couple of suicides. Too much death lately all things considered. No wonder I’m reading an Anthony Trollope novel.

            • In my case there isn’t so much dying going on anymore. There were many people, suicides as well but that has calmed down until my mother died very suddenly two years ago. I’m ashamed to say I have never read Trollope. I always meant to read “Can You Forgive Her” (I always wondered if The Pet Shop Boys’ song was inspired by it?) Is he on the lighter side? I thought not?

            • I don’t see what’s wrong with that if it’ s well written. Maybe you read something about her that put you off. I had absolutely no experinece with her writing so far. Very possible that I will not like any other books.
              Thanks for the link.

      • I don’t know, Caroline, it’s far from my experience for now. But from what I know of myself, I’d look for oblivion in books and would probably shy away from this kind of novels to read crime fiction or anything far from my life.

        What also bothers me is a writer who has no other theme than herself or her family and who writes novels without inventing characters and at the same time doesn’t want to say she writes memoirs. That’s what I meant by self-centred. Is she able to create a world of her own?

        • I’m the opposite. I hardly ever look for oblivion. When something hurts, I will explore why and not stop until it ends. But that’s something I learned the hard way.
          I was surprised to see she writes memoir for one reason or the other, I thought she was a novelist. She isn’t a novelist and doesn’t invent a world of her own. But I like all sorts of “life writing”, letters, diaries, anything. I also like to see different approaches and in this context I would say, yes, he approach is quite unique. She shapes what she has been through. I have read a few memoirs of grief now, and this one stands out.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! I liked very much the fascinating way in which you discovered the book. Sometimes the most wonderful books and treasures are found in the most unlikely places, aren’t they? This book reminds me of Jeannette Walls’ ‘Half Broke Horses’ in which Walls wrote about her grandmother in the form of a novel. I liked your comment – “a few passages…explode like little bombs containing pain” – so beautifully put. Hope you enjoy other books by Annie Ernaux.

    • Thanks Vishy and also for the reminder. I got that book by Walls. I also enjyoed her memoir a great deal. People sometimes bring me books they find because they know I love books. Quite amazing what you can find on trains, in bars… Very unlikely places.

  3. The way you found the book is wonderful and then it’s as if you lost it for a little bit, found it, read a few lines and got hooked. i suppose somebody has written a book about how or why they read some of the books they read but it’s an interesting idea.

    Anyway, maybe Ernaux was trying to understand her mother or compensate for having felt embarassed by her at one time. I always feel badly when children are embarassed by their parents because of their job or lack of education and meanwhile the parent is working hard to provide more for their child than they had growing up. Ernaux’s mother made it possible for her to go to university which is wonderful and quite a sacrifice. I wonder why Ernaux didn’t find it inspiring that her mother had her own busibess although your review sys Ernaux was also grateful. It’s sad that she felt estranged from her mother. I wonder if her mother was quiet, didn’t talk to Ernaux much.

    I don’t mind books written about illness or death but I wish Ernaux’s tone wasn’t sober and detached…I wonder if she was afraid she would become too emotional thinking and writing about her mother or maybe its a reflection of their relationship? But the book sounds touching to me…just Ernaux writing it about her mother is touching as you said. You definitely got me intereted in this book! I’m going to look into it moire! Thank you for such a wonderful review.
    (Sorry for writing so much, I didn’t realize I had!)

    • Thanks, Amy, and please don’t apologize for writing a long comment. It is very welcome. A book about how people find books would be very fascinating. I found Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” on a train and lost it again. the only book I ever lost.
      I don’t know the feeling of being ashamed of your parents. But I could understand a bit why Ernaux felt like that. Her mother was not quiet at all but very loud and exuberant. It’s true though, she doesn’t seem to be very proud of her. It’s quite an acheivement to be a business woman. Her father helped but the biggest part wasdone by the mother. The didn’t talk about feelings and her mother seems to have been afraid all the time about what others thought. I think the feeling of shame was already in the mother.
      The sober and detached tone bothered me in the beginning but then in it was interspresed with tiny details that shoed how deep the pain was and I understood, she had to write like that. I think the death of her mother hit her very hard. Also that she felt ashamed of her. I’m not sure there will be many others of her books available in English. I hope you find the one with the additional material. I ordered it and am looking forward to it.

  4. Interesting that Emma points to the French term auto-fiction as what Ernaux’s doing as we used to teach it as ‘life writing’. I’m intrigued by the shift of emphasis, away from the navel-gazing at the self to a form of writing that seeks to explore life experiences in a way that might make them very direct, very present for the reader, who may then share the experience alongside the author. I really like Ernaux and have never found her a pornographer of pain. On the contrary, I found her books really readable because she takes quite a cool and distanced approach whilst giving you a good idea of what the reality of her life was. And she’s not obsessed by sickness in any way; just the death of her parents gives her a fixed term to look back over. But perhaps because I was reading her books in French, I also had a layer of detachment from them that helped. It can be hard to unpick these things ultimately.

    • I’m very glad for your comment. It’s is how I felt about her, no exhibitionism. The style is cool and detached. I found the way she described her mother’s illness very gentle and not in the least like an anlysis of illness per se as rather the description of someone’s disappearance.
      I think her contribution to the genre is very fascinating, I also like that she looks at the same themes again from other angles, exploring in how many different ways you can write about them. I’m glad I discovered her and surprised I didn’t read her earlier.

    • She’s really known to be an excellent writer.

      I have Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” on the shelf. I like the idea that she wrote a book about a difficult moment of her life. I respect that.
      What I find suspicious in Ernaux (and that puts me off her books, I’m afraid) is that she ONLY writes about herself. Only auto-fiction. About her adolescence, her breast cancer, her shame, her mother’s death, her abortion. Only cheerful topics, to top it off. I can’t help thinking there’s some arrogance in that literary path. me me me.

      Have you read Catherine Millet ? I haven’t, for the same reasons, but I’m interested in your opinion.

      • I am absoluetely not tempted by Millet because that sounds like sensationalism and exhibitionism both things I hate and absolutely opposite to what Ernaux writes. Seems a bit like the German writer Charlotte Roche. I also do not like people who are full of themselves. Ernaux is a very modest person and also interested in what is universal in her story. Childhood, parents, illnes, love, passion, sounds pretty universal to me. Sevenstories press which publish her in the US also publish books by Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-5 is based on Vonnegut’s experience. Her pproach is gentler, of course and closer to memoir, he is closer to fiction but there are parallels.
        I think in this case you are a bit prejudiced. 🙂
        Her books are very short btw.

  5. @ Emma – to be provocative – when you write a blog post it is also about you, about how you read a book, what you think it is about, your interpretation and reaction to it…
    Why is what Annie Ernaux does different? She picks a universal topic instead of a book and looks at it from different sides descrpes how she experienced it.

  6. Sorry to hear about your family…as you know I am also dealing with my mom’s cancer now.
    If I read the book I know I would think of her more than the writer’s mom. I rarely read memoirs not because I don’t like it but more because I like fiction more however this one sounds interesting, maybe because we can relate to our own mother by reading it.

    • Thanks, Novia. I know about your mom, it’s very sad. What you have to go through is maybe worse. My mother’s cancer was discovered and within a month she was dead. No surgery, no chemo.
      I did relate to my own mother a lot while reading. I still sometimes forget that she is dead and when I remember it it’s always a shock.

  7. I read a book by Annie Ernaux years ago–so many now I can’t recall what it was and of course the contents have faded from mind now. This sounds very good, though I think I am a little like Emma in that I don’t always like reading biographies about aging or painful topics. I read the Didion book she mentions, but I had to Force myself to keep reading. If a book is Too real I sometimes don’t pick them up (nonfiction anyway).

    • I haven’t read Didion yet. I will certainly read it. I do understand, life isn’t alaways cheeful and I also have to choose the moment I cannot always read about such topics. What gets to me more than death or illness is aging. I don’t enjoy reading that, I do anyway, i think it might help as some sort of preparation, but the idea of becoming frail and dependent is quite scary.

    • Thanks, Carole, how nice of you to say so. I don’t know how to write it yet. The truth has so many faces in my mother’s case.
      I just got a few other books by Ernaux and they all seem interesting. Especially the one called “La honte” (Shame).

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