A Memoir of a Mother: “A Woman’s Story,” by Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux, the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize, is famous for her lucid autobiographical writings. The boundaries between her autofiction and memoirs blur and overlap, so one is not sure which is which.  In her novella, Simple Passion, the story of an obsessive love affair based on her own obsessive love affair, she explains that what she is not quite writing a novel, but not a memoir either.   That is true of much of her work.
In her graceful memoir, A Woman’s Story, Ernaux tells the story of her mother. Her spare style underscores her painful examination of their relationship.  She begins with the bare fact of her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease.  “My mother died on Monday 7 April in the old people’s home attached to the hospital at Pontoise, where I had installed her two years previously.”  Ernaux had  seen her mother’s deterioration and expected her death, but is still disturbed and depressed.

Her mother was the only important woman in her life, Ernaux says. Devastated by her loss,  she is haunted by the knowledge that her mother will “never be alive anywhere in the world again.” Three weeks after the funeral, she is able to write the words, “My mother died,” knowing she is beginning a book. Through her research and musings on the past, she is able to  collect  pieces of the puzzle of her mother’s history. 

The book is part memoir, part sociology. Ernaux traces her grandparents’ history – her grandfather was a carter, her grandmother did home-weaving – and then turns to her mother, a smart, religious woman who was determined to be respected and not get pregnant before marriage.  She worked in a margarine factory, then in a rope factory, where she met her husband.  She was ambitious:  she persuaded her husband to take out a loan so they could buy a grocery store and cafe.  She ran the business.

As a child, Ernaux adored her mother, though she would slap Annie if she interrupted her while serving a customer.  At home, her mother cherished her and organized her education at a convent school. She saw that Annie went to college. 

Through her mother’s machinations, Ernaux rose into the middle class.  Ironically, her mother was uncomfortable when she briefly lived with Annie and her husband, because of their education:  they listened to classical music and read the latest books.  Later, she lived with her daughter again after Annie’s divorce, but she descended into Alzheimer’s and had to live in a nursing home.

Ernaux celebrates the reality of her mother’s life, describing her struggles and successes. There is no sentimentality in Ernaux’s spare prose, and the mother-daughter relationship is evocative because of her honesty.

A short, perfect, very sad read.

Annie Ernaux’s “The Years”

Annie Ernaux’s exquisite book, The Years, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, is a hybrid of memoir, autofiction, and history.  I learned about The Years when it was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.  There was a controversy about its eligibility:  it had been classified as a personal  narrative.  But Bettany Hughes, chairperson of the judges, told the Guardian it was a “much-needed riposte to the ever-narrowing trajectory of auto-fiction.”

Memoir or fiction, Ernaux’s book is breathtakingly elegiac. She begins with the sentence, “All the images will disappear,” followed by a list of abbreviated descriptions:   public lavatories built on a river, Scarlett O’Hara killing a soldier in Atlanta, photographs of people being deported to the camps, and “a house with an arbor of Virginia creeper, which was a hotel in the sixties, no. 90A, on the Zaterre in Venice.” But never fear, if lists are not your thing,  she soon segues into a chronological narrative, the  story of her life from 1940 to age 66.

This short personal narrative (240 pages) is intertwined with history, politics, and social history.  Much of the book is set at holiday dinners, as Annie navigates the years of childhood, adolescence, motherhood, middle age, and old age. At the dinners, the relatives look at photos and tell stories.  Ernaux describes the shortages  of commodities  after World War II, the national fascination with the  Tour de France and the race to the moon, the rise of Elvis Presley and rock and roll, the migrations of refugees from Algeria , and the materialism that coincides with the availability of appliances and other commodities.

We get to know Annie very well over the years.  She reads Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gone with the Wind, hopes to become a writer, but becomes a teacher.  She sympathizes with student protests and takes to the streets with them when she is a teacher in the late ’60s. She is too busy with work and raising children to write her book, but she thinks about how she will write it.

This is a bookish book, bearing the influence of many books:   Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Gone with the Wind (Annie wants to be Scarlett O’Hara, as did my own mother), and probably many other French memoirs and novels.  I also thought of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, particularly the last book, The Four-Gated City, which follows Martha Quest from age 30 in post-war London, through the upheavals of the ’60s and on to a dystopian future.

The Years won the 2018 French-American Foundation Translation Prize and the 2016 Strega European Prize.  I do think it should have won the Booker.   I look forward to reading her other books–and if you have suggestions let me know.