'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.
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Praise for A Man’s Place
‘Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman
‘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 I Remain in Darkness
‘Acute and immediate, I Remain in Darkness is an unforgettable exploration of love, memory and the journey to loss.’
— Eimear McBride, author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
‘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
‘In this work of shocking honesty and intimacy, Ernaux bears witness to her mother’s final years of living and dying with dementia…. Sometimes the diary entries are little more than notes. They are often inconsistent, but this is part of the author’s point: the self is not coherent; an ‘I’ is full of contradictions; you can hate what you adore. The result is a meditation on the gradual loss of agency and identity. Ernaux writes of memory, of love, of loathing, of disgust, of tenderness; she writes about the frail, leaking, helpless, horrifying body, about the porous self. The narrative was always death. Writing was always an act of betrayal.’
— Nicci Gerrard, The Spectator
‘Ernaux’s mother died of Alzheimer’s disease; like John Bayley’s memoir Elegy for Iris, Ernaux’s memoir catalogues the deterioration of a once powerful, almost totemic presence, a fall so cataclysmic that it cannot be analyzed or contextualized, only reported. In I Remain in Darkness (its title taken from the last coherent sentence her mother ever wrote) Ernaux abandons her search for a larger truth because, in the face of a loss as profound as that of her mother, all attempts to make sense of it have the feel of artifice.’
— Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Book Review
Praise for Simple Passion
‘Annie Ernaux is one of my favorite 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
‘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
‘What mesmerises 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
Translated by TANYA LESLIE
À Philippe V
Language is not truth.
It is the way we exist in the world.
— Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude
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.
Before starting, I thought I would be able to recall every single detail. It turns out I can remember only the general atmosphere, our respective places in the kitchen and a few words or expressions. I’ve forgotten how the argument actually started, what we had to eat and whether my mother was still wearing her white shopkeeper’s coat or whether she had taken it off in anticipation of the bicycle ride. I have no precise memory of that Sunday morning besides the usual routine – attending Mass, buying the cakes and so on – although I have often had to think back to the time before it happened, as I would do later on for other events in my life. Yet I am sure I was wearing my blue dress, the one with white spots, because during the two summers that followed, every time I put it on, I would think, ‘it’s the dress I wore that day.’ Of the weather too I am sure – a combination of sun, clouds and wind.
From then on, that Sunday was like a veil that came between me and everything I did. I would play, I would read, I would behave normally but somehow I wasn’t there. Everything had become artificial. I had trouble learning my lessons, when before I only needed to read them once to know them by heart. Acutely aware of everything around me and yet unable to concentrate, I lost my insouciance and natural ability to learn.
What had happened was not something that could be judged. My father, who loved me, had tried to kill my mother, who also loved me. Because my mother was more religious than my father and because she did the accounts and spoke to my schoolmistresses, I suppose I thought it normal for her to shout at him the same way she shouted at me. It was no one’s fault, no one was to blame. I just had to stop my father from killing my mother and going to prison.
I believe that for months, maybe even years, I waited for the scene to be repeated. I was positive it would happen again. I found the presence of customers comforting, dreading the moments when my parents and I were alone, in the evening and on Sunday afternoons. I was on the alert as soon as they raised their voices; I would scrutinize my father, his expression, his hands. In every sudden silence I would read the omens of disaster. Every day at school I wondered whether, on returning home, I would be faced with the aftermath of a tragedy.
When they did show signs of affection for each other – joking, sharing a laugh or a smile – I imagined I had gone back to the time before that day. It was just a ‘bad dream’. One hour later I realized that these signs only meant something at the time; they offered no guarantee for the future.
Around that time a strange song was often heard on the radio, mimicking a fight that suddenly breaks out in a saloon: there was a pause, a voice whispered, ‘you could have heard a pin drop’, followed by a cacophony of shouts and jumbled sentences. Every time I heard it I was seized with panic. One day my uncle handed me the detective story he was reading: ‘What would you do if your father was accused of murder but wasn’t guilty?’ The question sent a chill down my spine. I kept seeing the images of a tragedy which had never occurred.
The scene never did happen again. My father died fifteen years later, also on a Sunday in June.
It is only now that a thought occurs to me: my parents may have discussed both that Sunday afternoon and my father’s murderous gesture; they may have arrived at an explanation or even an excuse and decided to forget the whole thing. Maybe one night after making love. This thought, like all those that elude one at the time, comes too late. It can be of no help to me now; its absence only serves to measure the indescribable terror which that Sunday has always meant to me.
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