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.