Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)
The release of A Man’s Place makes Annie Ernaux the most published author at Fitzcarraldo Editions: this is the fifth of Ernaux’s books to be published in translation by Fitzcarraldo, with another two scheduled to come next year. A chronicler of personal and historical detail, Ernaux looks back on pivotal moments or relationships with a detached observation that belies deep emotion, and offers a portrait of a particular time, place and milieu that shaped her. In A Man’s Place, the subject is Ernaux’s father, a working class countryman who had been taken out of school at the age of twelve to work on a farm and pay his way. Defined when people spoke of him by the fact that he could neither read nor write, he had always wanted his daughter to rise above the “humiliating barriers” of a social situation in which he felt trapped, forever striving for a better life and never quite attaining it. Ernaux’s relationship with him was complex, and A Man’s Place represents her attempt to document his life as she knew it.
The narrative opens with Ernaux announcing her father’s death, information that she imparts with characteristic understatement: “My father died exactly two months later, to the day … It was a Sunday, in the early afternoon”. The earlier event to which Ernaux refers here was her success in the entrance exams to the teacher training college in Rouen: it was a milestone in her life, but she had been unaware that her father was proud of her achievement. She discovers the significance of her success for her father when she looks through his wallet after his death and finds a newspaper clipping of the exam results: the names are listed in order of merit, and Ernaux’s was second on the list. The father’s unarticulated pride is, however, always coupled with a more palpable resentment that his daughter has been able to move “up”, to leave her parents behind, to notice their lack of refinement and in that silent observation to make them realise that she no longer accepts their ways without question.
This is a story of missed moments and painful silences, written in what Ernaux herself identifies as a neutral style and presented as an endeavour that brings her no joy. Yet the words she chooses to write her father’s story are perfectly pitched to offer both an insight into the hardships of her father’s life and an understanding of her experience of him as a daughter. Emotions were not easily expressed in the household, and this inflects Ernaux’s detached writing style: not only does she describe it as akin to the way she wrote to her parents after she moved away, but also she observes her younger self from a vantage point years later, struggling to recognise in that stranger the person she still harbours inside her (this is even more evident in the wonderful A Girl’s Story, published earlier this year by Fitzcarraldo in Alison L. Strayer’s translation). Even the decomposition of her father’s corpse is presented in a measured way (“Within a few hours, my father’s face had changed beyond all recognition … The smell set in on the Monday”). Indeed, the imperative to remain objective is explicitly voiced when Ernaux notes that she had originally thought of writing a novel about her father, but realised that this was out of the question as “in order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.”
Yet Ernaux creates a work that is artistic in an unconventional way: to write a man crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing, she chooses her words with great care and embeds simple refrains from her childhood household in beautifully crafted sentences. She places these phrases in italics, and so they stand out to allow insight into the way her parents thought and spoke. Her parents are “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty”, “always afraid they would eat into their capital”, and are haunted by “this fear of being ashamed, out of place.” Ernaux’s father is afraid of what other people will say, of using the wrong words (which would have been “as bad as breaking wind”), of being looked down on; the italicised phrases and the fear they contain are, as Ernaux explicitly notes, inseparably linked to her childhood. Tanya Leslie weaves them admirably into delicate sentences of her own, her careful and lucid translation respecting Ernaux’s understated eloquence. The only thing I’m less convinced about in the translation is the title: the French La Place is less specific, and so the translated title becomes less representative of the book itself. I had similar reservations about the translated title of Happening (though my quibble there was more that the title diluted the original), and I do think that Ernaux’s titles (with the possible exception of The Years) are particularly difficult to translate literally. I’m sure this won’t be a deal-breaker, anyway – fans of Ernaux will find much to enjoy in A Man’s Place, and for those new to her work it will give an excellent introduction to her writing style and preoccupations.
It’s twenty years since I first read La Place, and it was fascinating to read it in translation with a couple of decades of reading and living under my belt. I felt much more empathy towards Ernaux’s father than I remember feeling back then, and the carefully contained and articulated emotion struck me much more than they had twenty years ago – my over-riding memory had been the depiction of a suffocating home environment and Ernaux’s detachment towards her family. These things, of course, are only part of the story, but that’s how my memory had condensed it (“Memory resists”, writes Ernaux; personal reminiscence is unreliable). Above all, A Man’s Place is an emotive goodbye to a man who remained distant from his daughter, a homage born of silences and the inability to find a way to reach one another. Ernaux’s father’s greatest fear was giving his daughter cause for shame; his greatest satisfaction “the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.” In this touching tribute she creates in her “educated bourgeois world” a legacy for a man she will never fully know, giving him his place by carving it out in a world from which he always felt excluded.