A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux tr. Tanya Leslie

A book that can be read in an afternoon, this is my first read of Annie Ernaux’s work, one I enjoyed and appreciated. I did find myself wondering why the French title La place was changed to A Man’s Place. I find the change in title unnecessarily provocative and limiting.

La Place autofiction memoir French literature women in translationAt only 76 pages, it is a brief recollection that begins in quiet, dramatic form as she recalls the day her father, at the age of 67, unexpectedly, quite suddenly dies.

Other memories arise as she recalls this shocking one and it is this same recollection she will end the book with, albeit alongside a few other now restored memories, once she has written her way through many others as she attempts to create a tableau of anecdotes that describe the man her father was, their family, social status and surroundings.

A child who will rise into and feel comfortable within a middle class environment, marrying into it, she then tries to look back, remember and understand the characteristics and desires of her family – her father in particular – now that she dwells on the other side, among the petite bourgeoisie.

Having decided she has no right to adopt an artistic approach to write about him (the novel), she embarks on a more neutral tone.

I shall collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.
No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally, it is the very same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.

Neither fiction or nonfiction, this work has  been described as an autosociobiographical text, one that explores their lives and the social milieu within which they are surrounded, dwell and evolve.

Though she only met her grandfather once, she sketches him through overheard comments, a hard man that no one dared quarrel with, a carter for wealthy landowning farmers.

His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house. He hadn’t had time to learn how to read or write. He could certainly count.

French memoir autofiction nonfictionErnaux’s father was fortunate to remain in education until the age of 12, when he was hauled out to take up the role of milking cows. He didn’t mind working as a farmhand. Weekend mass, dancing at the village fetes, seeing his friends there. His horizons broadened through the army and after this experience he left farming for the factory and eventually they would buy a cafe/grocery store, a different lifestyle.

Ernaux shares memories, observing her father and her own growing awareness of the distance between his existence and way of being and that witnessed at the homes of friends she becomes acquainted with, as she straddles the divide, living in one world, familiar with the other, neither judging or sentimentalising the experiences as she notes them down.

In front of people whom he considered to be important, his manner was shy and gauche and he never asked any questions. In short, he behaved intelligently. Which consisted in grasping our inferiority and refusing to accept it by doing everything possible to conceal it.

They are a snapshot in time and of a place and way of life of a certain social class and milieu, one she is able to preserve by collecting these memories in a kind of obituary to both her father and the places he lived and worked, the people he loved, the mannerisms and behaviours he engendered.

His greatest satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’être of his existence, was the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.

Annie Ernaux, Author

Annie ErnauxBorn in 1940, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) was born in Lillebonne and grew up in Yvetot, Normandy, where her parents ran a café and grocery store. She was educated at a private Catholic secondary school, encountering girls from more middle-class backgrounds, and experiencing shame of her working-class parents and milieu for the first time. After studying at Rouen University she became a school teacher.

Her books, in particular A Man’s Place (La Place) and A Woman’s Story (Une femme) have become contemporary classics in France.

One of France’s most respected authors, she has won multiple awards for her books, including the Prix Renaudot (2008) for The Years (Les Années) and the Marguerite Yourcenar prize (2017) for her entire body of work. The English translation of The Years (2019) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize International and won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (2019).

The main themes threaded through her work over more than four decades are: the body and sexuality; intimate relationships; social inequality and the experience of changing class through education; time and memory; and the overarching question of how to write these life experiences.

Fitzcarrraldo Editions have now translated and published seven of her works into English.

18 thoughts on “A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux tr. Tanya Leslie

  1. Thanks very much for this review and the pointer to the change in title- potentially confusing. I do recommend The Years by Annie Ernaux, much longer than many of her other books but a breath taking chronicle of the changing 20th century as much as a personal account of the author’s own experience of those changes.

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  2. Loved your review, Claire! Glad you liked A Man’s Place. I love Annie Ernaux. She is one of my favourite writers. I loved A Man’s Place. It was beautiful and moving and brought back that era alive. Hope you get to read A Woman’s Story and like it too. I loved it even more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

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    • I remember when you read this Vishy and decided then that I’d like to start with this book and I will try and get a copy of Une Femme as well, I think they make a great pairing don’t they. Thanks for visiting Vishy, it’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts too.

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    • I think you’d call it one if those made up words that might exist in another language, that doesn’t exist in English, but can still be understood. A little like autofiction, another description of memoir used for Delphine de Vigan’s work.
      I found the word on Annie Ernaux’s website bio page and loved its boldness, it reminds me of the way sometimes people convert words from English to French or vice versa, without hesitation, so confident are they, the word must exist. When I learnt that words in French ending with ‘ment’ were the same as words in English ending in ‘ly’ I too boldy went forth making up words that didn’t exist and using them with confidence. I was disappointed to learned that ‘possiblement’ doesn’t exist. 🤔😂

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  3. Ha!…well if “possiblement” doesn’t exist…it should! Oh, I’ve been reading so much these last few months that I have no time to slow down and read French. I’m working hard to reduce my TBR by 100 books…and will not waver, falter or stumble before I’ve reached that goal! What’s your next book?

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    • Waver, falter or stumble reminds me of Sara Baume, is she in your TBR?
      Well I’ve just finished the delightful Marzhan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp translated from German, a wonderful novella particularly appreciated given I work in the well-being sector, it’s a snapshot of an Easy Berlin working class neighbourhood through the eyes of a 45 year newly trained chiropodist. Pure delight.
      Thinking of carrying on with Annie Ernaux’s Les Années next. Definitely mood reading at the moment though.

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  4. A very thoughtful and perceptive review as ever, Claire (you have such an engaging style). I’m very keen to read this book at some point, having read and admired The Years last summer. The quality of Ernaux’s prose really comes through in the quotes you’ve chosen. She manages to write about these difficult subjects in such a clear, emotionally truthful way while still maintaining a sense of distance (or objectivity), if that makes sense.

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  5. I “discovered” her one summer, wandering the stacks in the public library when I was in the middle of a reader’s block because it was just so humid and heavy, so I was looking for skinny little books to get me back into reading…Ernaux was perfect for that!

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    • Yes, French literature is also very much like that, there are so many slim volumes of note, a trend I think is beginning to finally arrive in english language books, although to make them look substantial, I’ve noticed they’ll increase the font and the white space, so that a very short book still looks like value for money.

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  6. Pingback: A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux – where the author owns her working-class background | Book Around the Corner

  7. Excellent review
    Like you it was my first Ernaux and I sure want to read more by her.
    I found her book sensible and sensitive, an excellent mix of souvenirs and analysis.

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