The Heart Turns
Someone recommended Annie Ernaux to me; she is considered one of the most important writers in contemporary France. I picked up A Man’s Place at the Library from the slew of books she’s written, because it won the prestigious Prix Renaudot. Ninety nine pages, I read it that afternoon. A stomach punch that has you reeling, the memoir quasi documentary is about her family life with a focus on Dad. Annie’s family were hardscrabble people, but Dad was frugal and they were able to keep their heads above water. The book starts with father in bed dying. Afterward Annie tries to write a novel about the man but it won’t work. No she states, no literary flourishes, she cannot produce an artistic oeuvre for a man whose life was controlled by necessity.
He starts his career as a cowherd on a farmer’s plantation as did his father before him and ends up marrying a factory girl for which his sisters, both housemaids, look down on him for his bridal choice. The factory girl has married him because he saves his money and is responsible, a man with a plan for his future. Their home is typical working class atmosphere, petty arguments, name calling and shame, embarrassment at their poverty. They never show their affection, are careful not to embarrass themselves by speaking out of turn, drawing attention to themselves. When Dad comes back from the war he decides to open a café with a small grocery store. It does not relieve their financial situation and the bickering about money, but they get by and are free of overseers.
As a young girl, Annie’s father rides her to school on his bike every day and takes her to the circus and the movies. He sends her, a smart girl, to private school, and the middle class world where she thrives. Most of her time is now spent in her room studying, or listening to music while family life with its niggling exchanges unfolds downstairs. She has middleclass friends from school whose parents are kind and earnest in their exchanges with her. This is baffling until she realizes she is not being singled out, it is their way with everyone. When these same friends visit her home father is obsequious with them.
She is moving away from the shame-filled life, she is moving away from Dad. Annie marries well. The man is courteous with her family but he will not spend time with them because they have nothing in common. They have moved a ways from the family and Annie hardly sees them anymore.
As mother and daughter are preparing for the funeral, cleaning up the sick room, putting his things away, Annie finds his billfold in a jacket pocket. In it hidden under a flap is a picture of him with a group of his buddies and a newspaper clipping with the announcement that Annie had come in second in her graduating class.
A Man’s Place is a stark portrayal by a gifted writer of family alienation, and by extension the alienation one comes to feel when bonds of shared beliefs and interests dissipate. Love persists but the connecting link no longer holds.