Annie Ernaux: La Place Writing and Betrayal


Lecture 3: écriture e(s)t trahison

[Introduction] [Writing and Betrayal] [Betrayal and La Place] [Writing as Betrayal] [Writing as Righting] [Transgression of Genre Boundries] [The Problems of Writing] [Multi-Vocal Reality] [Conclusion]


This lecture is a discussion of the theme of betrayal. Its title, playing on 'is' & 'and' - 'Écriture e(s)t trahison' - contains an ambiguity that is pertinent to our understanding of Ernaux's work and it is this ambiguity that I want to discuss in some detail.

Writing and Betrayal

Ernaux's work has, of course, always been about the theme of betrayal. To a greater or lesser degree she has always written about betrayal. Typically, since Ernaux's work has been consistently preoccupied with class, the theme of betrayal has always been linked to the theme of class transition. The young female characters of Ernaux's books all travel across social boundaries. More importantly, such social mobility generates complex feelings of anger, confusion and - most important of all - guilt at having betrayed.

As I discussed in lecture 1, the principal means by which Ernaux's heroines move up the social hierarchy is education. For all of the characters in Ernaux's work, education is the means by which social mobility is attained. It is through success at school that the various characters move away from their milieu d'origine. Far from being a wholly positive liberation, their experience of education is more a matter of accumulating and reproducing what Pierre Bourdieu has called `le capital culturel' (cultural capital) and of erasing or effacing all traces of their own culture. In order to make progress at school, the various female characters of Ernaux's works must betray the class of their parents and learn to despise their values. It is not so much the case that the young heroines move away from their parents because of their educational success. Rather, in order to achieve that success they must actively strive to distance themselves. Hence the emotional damage and the complex feelings of guilt and self-disgust at colluding, of being a good little swot and being rewarded for it that Ernaux's heroines feel in all the works.

Betrayal and La Place

The theme of betrayal then, has been one of the themes about which Ernaux has written in all of her books. With La Place however, the theme becomes central. Indeed, La Place is the book which offers the fullest exploration of the theme of betrayal.

The recognition of having committed an act of betrayal, an injustice is at the forefront of La Place. The text takes as its epigraph a statement made by the writer Jean Genet in a television interview:

"Je hasarde une explication: écrire, c'est le dernier recours quand on a trahi." (La Place Routledge p.49/Folio p.9)
Now, an epigraph is a short quotation placed at the beginning of a book or poem or sometimes of a chapter of a book which is suggestive of that book's, poem's or chapter's main theme. The epigraph functions as a sort of signpost pointing to the direction we, as readers, should take in our encounter with the text. The quotation from Genet - `Writing is sole recourse for those who have betrayed' - immediately sensitizes us to the theme of betrayal and injustice. We, as readers, are invited to consider the whole text in relation to or in the light of the sentiments expressed in the epigraph.

Now, we can interpret the betrayal suggested by the epigraph in terms of one woman's rejection of the class from which she has originated and who is no longer concerned with the lives she has left behind on the `other side'. We can also interpret the theme of betrayal in more personal terms - in terms of a daughter's rejection of her own father and of his way of life.

Briefly summarized, La Place as a book about one woman's reflexion on her father's life and obliquely through it on her own life. The story the narrator tells begins in 1899 with her father's birth and ends with his death in 1967. The text of La Place neither starts nor ends at those two points but is `framed' as it were by scenes from the narrator's own life. The discrepancies between the order of events in real life and the order of events as they are arranged or sequenced in the text are significant.

It is interesting to note that the scenes that `frame' the story pertain to the professional status of the narrator. At the beginning of La Place, in or near 1967, the narrator passes her CAPES - a competitive teaching exam - which marks the beginning of her career as a professional. At the end of La Place in October 1982 the narrator relates her encounter with a former pupil working as a check- out girl in a supermarket. The narrator is unable to remember why she had been sent to technical school nor what stream she was put in. She reveals an attitude of what we could describe - not unfairly I think - as indifference to the life opportunities of a young woman from a less privileged background. A background not dissimilar to her own in fact. The narrator has become an accomplice in a system which perpetuates social divisions and inequalities. She has made it but does nothing to help those who are disadvantaged within the school system. She has become a traitor.

The 'framing scenes' then, placed at the beginning and at the end of La Place position the narrator as a kind of traitor to her own class. The function of both the opening and the closing scenes of the text is to stress the narrator's difference or distance from her originating milieu. She has passed, as the narrator claims on p.106 of a later book, Une Femme, from 'un milieu dominé' to 'le monde dominant des mots et des idées' (Une Femme p.106). She is now in a position of dominance and authority, able to wield power over those with none. The narrator's new position engenders feelings of guilt - a guilt connected with her indifference toward a class of which she once belonged. The very structure of La Place then, serves to emphasize the narrator's separation from and betrayal of the milieu from which she had originated.

Writing as Betrayal

There is another important dimension to the epigraph placed at the beginning of La Place that I have not mentioned so far. In the quotation from Genet writing is conceived as 'le dernier recours quand on a trahi/the ultimate recourse for those who have betrayed'. Writing in short is not simply about exploring the theme of betrayal it is also about making amends for betrayal. It is possible to read La Place as a book about a writer whose earlier works have committed an injustice and which seeks to make good that past wrong. It is possible to read La Place as a book which Ernaux seeks to correct or redress the injustices committed in her earlier works.

Let me explain. Ernaux's first three works - all of them novels - focused on the narrator-protagonists' movement away from their background and the conflict between it and their new milieu. The first three works are fictions of escape and flight which fail to engage with the continuing conditions of adult working-class life. Despite Ernaux's preoccupation with a working-class experience which has been condemned to neglect or secondariness, her early work actually colludes with its marginalization.

Descriptions of the parents' lives are focalized via the dominant subjectivities of the young female narrators. The depiction of the parents' lives tends to be fragmentary and reductive and the figures of both the mother and of the father are only ever seen as figures in the landscape of the young women's subjectivity and never accorded any complex subjectivity or emotional life of their own. The mother and father are denied emotional complexity - they are static, objectified figures in a frozen landscape.

La Place attempts to do justice to the complexities of the lives of the parents - recovering forgotten voices. This idea is particularly important in La Place since it was the father's life which was subject to the greater neglect. As Ernaux claimed in an interview reproduced in part in P.M. Wetherill's introduction to the La Place:

L'image du père dans La Place est très positive. Alors que mes trois premiers livres sont écrits `contre'. La Place n'est plus un monologue intérieur. (La Place p.37)
The first three works were all interior monologues as Ernaux put it and were all characterized by an ironic complicity between narrator and reader. The narrator provided the implied and presumably middle- class reader with stereotypical and negative negative images of working-class life over the head of her father. In the early novels there is an unpleasant, sneering tone to descriptions of the father's life. Compare for example these descriptions of the father from, respectively Ce qu'ils disent ou rien, Les Armoires vides and La Place:
I: La lecture, c'est pas son fort, juste Paris-Normandie, un peu France-Soir. Quelquefois, quand il ne fait pas attention, ses lèvres bougent en lisant. (Ce qu'ils disent ou rien p.11)

Il a réussi à savoir lire et écrire sans faute. Il aimait apprendre. (...) Dessiner aussi, des têtes, les animaux. A douze ans, il se trouvait dans la classe du certificat. Mon grand-père l'a retiré de l'école pour le placer dans la même ferme que lui. On ne pouvait plus le nourrir à rien faire. (La Place Routledge p.60/Folio pp.29-30)

II: ... un tableau du livre d'histoire, on dirait mon père (Les Armoires vides p.115)

Pour manger, il ne se servait que de son Opinel. Il coupait le pain en petits cubes, déposés près de son assiette pour y piquer des bouts de fromage, de charcuterie, et saucer. Me voir laisser de la nourriture dans l'assiette lui faisait deuil. On aurait pu ranger la sienne sans la laver. Le repas fini, il essuyait son couteau contre son bleu. S'il avait mangé du hareng, il l'enfouissait dans la terre pour lui enlever l'odeur. Jusqu'à la fin des années cinquante, il a mangé de la soupe le matin, après il s'est mis au café au lait avec réticence, comme s'il sacrifiait à une délicatesse féminine. Il le buvait cuillère par cuillère, en aspirant, comme de la soupe. A cinq heures, il se faisait sa collation, des oeufs, des radis, des pommes cuites et se contentait le soir d'un potage. La mayonnaise, les sauces compliquées, les gâteaux, le dégoûtaient.

Il dormait toujours avec sa chemise et son tricot de corps. Pour se raser, trois fois par semaine, dans l'évier de la cuisine surmonté d'une glace, il déboutonnait son col, je voyais sa peau très blanche à partir du cou. Les salles de bains, signe de richesse, commençaient à se répandre après la guerre, ma mère a fait installer un cabinet de toilette à l'étage, il ne s'en est jamais servi, continuant de se débarbouiller dans la cuisine.

Dans la cour, l'hiver, il crachait et il éternuait avec plaisir.

Ce portrait, j'aurais pu le faire autrefois, en rédaction, à l'école, si la description de ce que je connaissais n'avais pas été interdite. Un jour, une fille, en classe de CM2, a fait s'envoler son cahier par un splendide atchoum. La maîtresse au tableau s'est retournée: (La Place pp.80-81/pp.68-9)

In all four extracts, the father is described by his daughter. The first pair of quotations underline the father's lack of cultural credentials - in particular his lack of facility with the written word. In the first extract; `La lecture, c'est pas son fort, juste Paris-Normandie, un peu France-Soir ... quand il ne fait pas attention, ses lèvres bougent en lisant' the narrator establishes a complicity with the reader over the head of her father as it were. The later text however engages antagonistically with such a description. The description from La Place defines her father's behaviour and literacy in terms of class, region and educational experience. He is no longer abstracted from history but `placed' within a specific historical setting. His depiction is thus a fuller and more sympathetic one that in the earlier novel.

In the second pair of quotations the father's peasant habits are described. The first description both describes and dismisses the father in a single sentence; `, un tableau du livre d'histoire, on dirait mon père'. Once again, it is an ironic voice that characterizes the father. In the extract from La Place however, all traces of irony are studiously banished in favour of a more neutral and non- judgemental mode of description. P.M. Wetherill in his introduction (pages 16 and 26) has described the writing style of La Place as a "flat style" - the so-called `ton de constat' (La Place p.91/p.90) or `écriture plate' (La Place pp.57-8/p.24). It is a style which distances itself from the irony and thinly veiled contempt of her early fiction. [A

I quote these few examples because they illustrate well the ways in which Ernaux's later work is a critical re-writing of her past which corrects the reductive depiction of the parents and of working-class life and culture in general of the `early' works. Ernaux's later texts undertake a critical and corrective re-writing of the earlier novels' reductive and hostile depiction of the mother and father. Both La Place and the later Une Femme are books about restoring or recovering a sense of complexity to the parents' lives.

Writing as Righting

In Ernaux's later books, writing becomes a form of righting - a way of setting the record straight. There is a new scrupulousness as regards the depiction of the parents. The narrative is frequently interrupted by passages which comment explicitly on the act of writing itself. The narrator struggles to render the complexity of her father's life and to keep her distance from sentimental nostalgia or derision. This is expressed very clearly on page 69 of La Place p.69 (page 46 in the Folio edition):

Naturellement, aucun bonheur d'écrire, dans cette entreprise où je me tiens au plus près des mots et des phrases entendues, les soulignant parfois par des italiques. Non pour indiquer un double sens au lecteur et lui offrir le plaisir d'une complicité, que je refuse sous toutes ses formes, nostalgie, pathétique ou dérision. Simplement parce que ces mots et ces phrases disent les limites et la couleur du monde où vécut mon père, où j'ai vécu aussi. Et l'on n'y prenait jamais un mot pour un autre. (La Place Routledge p.69/Folio p.46)
Moreover, La Place attends to the problem of how to remember a class from the outside - from the now of a more privileged present. This difficulty is expressed towards the beginning of the text on pages 57-8 of La Place (page 24 in the Folio edition):
Par la suite, j'ai commencé un roman dont il [son père] était le personnage principal. Sensation de dégoût au milieu du récit.
Depuis peu, je sais que le roman est impossible. Pour rendre compte d'une vie soumise à la nécessité, je n'ai pas le droit de prendre d'abord le parti de l'art, ni de chercher à faire quelque chose de `passionant' ou d'`émouvant'. Je rassemblerai les paroles, les gestes, les goûts de mon père, les faits marquants de sa vie, tous les signes objectifs d'une existence que j'ai aussi partagée.
Aucune poésie du souvenir, pas de dérision jubilante. L'écriture plate me vient naturellement, celle-là même que j'utilisais en écrivant autrefois à mes parents pour leur dire les nouvelles essentielles. (La Place Routledge pp.57- 8/Folio p.24)
In Ernaux's later work writing is regarded as an act of recovery of ways of life not validated within dominant literary/cultural forms. It is an act of recovery for a particular social situation which is perceived to no longer exist. For example, on page 26 of Une Femme, the narrator describes herself as the archivist of now redundant knowledge and skills:
Elle tenait bien sa maison, c'est-à-dire qu'avec le minimum d'argent elle arrivait à nourrir et habiller sa famille, alignant à la messe des enfants sans trous ni taches, et ainsi s'approchait d'une dignité permettant de vivre sans se sentir des manants. Elle retournait les cols et les poignets de chemises pour qu'elles fassent double usage. Elle gardait tout, la peau du lait, le pain rassis, pour faire des gâteaux, la cendre de bois pour la lessive, la chaleur du poêle éteint pour sécher les prunes ou les torchons, l'eau du débarbouillage matinal pour se laver les mains dans la journée. Connaissant tous les gestes qui accomodent la pauvreté. Ce savoir, transmis de mère en fille pendant des siècles, s'arrête à moi qui n'en suis plus que l'archiviste." (Une Femme p.26)
Moreover, in an interview with Loraine Day and Tony Jones Ernaux claimed that:
Écrire, c'est un recours, c'est faire quelque chose dans le sens de la réparation ... A travers mon père, j'avais l'impression de parler pour d'autres gens aussi, (pour) tous ceux qui continuent de vivre au-dessous de la littérature et dont on parle très peu. Donc c'était une sorte de devoir, je n'en ai jamais douté, pas plus que pour ma mère ...
Annie Ernaux quoted in Loraine Day & Tony Jones, Ernaux: La Place/Une Femme 1990)
Writing is seen as a way of correcting the neglect to which certain experiences have been condemned. It is about reaffirming the importance of formerly suppressed or silenced knowledge and cultural practices. Writing becomes the place in which the record is finally put straight.

On pages 73 of La Place (page 54 in the Folio edition) the narrator uses the phrase:

... la réhabilitation d'un mode de vie considéré comme inférieur" (La Place Routledge p.73/Folio p.54)
This phrase is central to our understanding of the book since La Place is about the rehabilitation of the marginal, that is to say, to confering value on experience that has been derogated or condemned to secondariness. Ernaux is interested, in part, in redressing the neglect or secondariness to which both working-class and petit- bourgeois life has been condemned. Ernaux wants to reaffirm the importance of formerly marginalized or silenced ways of life. (`Réhabilitation = Le fait de restituer ou de regagner l'estime, la considération perdues' - Le Petit Robert and `Rehabilitation = To restore by formal act or declaration (a person degraded or attainted) to former privileges, rank and possessions; to re-establish the character or reputation' - Shorter OED)

The attention to the `paroles ordinaires' and `pratiques ordinaires' of the father's life seeks to render visible what Luce Giard has called `l'invisible quotidien' (quoted by Brian Rigby in Popular Culture in Modern France: A Study of Cultural Discourse, London, Routledge 1991 p.28) - reaffirming the importance of formerly suppressed or silenced knowledge and cultural practices. Ernaux speaks of `la réalité oubliée' (La Place Routledge p.97/Folio p.101) of her father's condition - a reality which she herself had once suppressed or denied.

Trangression of Genre Boundaries

Ernaux's later writing rejects the necessity of fitting into any neat pre- established category or genre of writing. Her later works are generic hybrids which hesitate between fiction, biography, autobiography, sociology, history, ethnography. Ernaux mixes narrative with analysis and sociological observation. She collapses the distinction between biography and the novel as well as the boundary between biography and autobiography. Writing of self involves writing of others. The narrator of Une Femme writes on page 23 of of her desire moreover, to remain below literature:

Ce que j'espère écrire de plus juste se situe sans doute à la jointure du familiale et du social, du mythe et de l'histoire. Mon projet est de nature littéraire, puisqu'il s'agit de chercher une vérité sur ma mère qui ne peut être atteinte que par des mots. (C'est-à-dire que ni les photos, ni mes souvenirs, ni les témoignages de la famille ne peuvent me donner cette vérité.) Mais je souhaite rester, d'une certaine façon au-dessous de la littérature. (Une Femme p.23)
Ernaux struggles to articulate an oppositional writing practice that does not ratify or endorse dominant definitions of what literary texts should be. She cannot or will not play the game of writing by the rules laid down by a dominant culture which she considers indifferent to the kind of experiences she wants to write about.
The Problems of Writing

Ernaux's later works are more reflexive and self-aware. There is a preoccupation with the problems of writing. The later works raise questions about the nature of writing: they adopt deliberately uncertain and self-exploratory mode of writing which both tells a story but also reflects on its telling, mixing fragments of narrative with passages of an analytical or metatextual character. When I use the term `metatextual' it is to describe all passages which refer not to anything outside the text but to the text itself - to the scene of writing as it were. A good example of this is found in Une Femme at the bottom of page 43 continuing at the top of page 44:

Au début, je croyais que j'écrirais vite. En fait je passe beaucoup de temps à m'intérroger sur l'ordre des choses à dire, le choix et l'agencement des mots, comme s'il existait un ordre idéal, seul capable de rendre une vérité concernant ma mère - mais je ne sais en quoi elle consiste - et rien d'autre ne compte pour moi, au moment où j'écris, que la découverte de cet ordre- là. (Une Femme p.43-44)
Questions about the accuracy of what has been written are constantly raised. The narrators frequently make clear their deeply ambivalent feelings towards both their parents and to the very act of writing about them. There are also constant references in both works to the unresolved tension the narrators experience when trying to describe both particular individuals and the social and historical context of which they are products. A nice example of this is found in Une Femme on page 52:
J'essaie de ne pas considérer la violence, les débordements de tendresse, les reproches de ma mère comme seulement des traits personnels de caractère, mais de les situer aussi dans son histoire et sa condition sociale. Cette façon d'écrire, qui me semble aller dans le sens de la vérité, m'aide à sortir de la solitude et de l'obscurité du souvenir individuel, par la découverte d'une signification plus générale. Mais je sens quelque chose en moi résiste, voudrait conserver de ma mère des images purement affectives, chaleur ou larmes, sans leur donner de sens. (Une Femme p.52)
There's another interesting one in La Place:
J'écris lentement. En m'efforçant de révéler la trame significative d'une vie dans un ensemble de faits et de choix, j'ai l'impression de perdre au fur et à mesure la figure particulière de mon père. L'épure tend à prendre toute la place, l'idée à courir toute seule. Si au contraire je laisse glisser les images du souvenir, je le revois tel qu'il était, son rire, sa démarche, il me conduit par la main à la foire et les manèges me terrifient, tous les signes d'une condition partagée avec d'autres me deviennent indifférents. A chaque fois, je m'arrache du piège de l'individuel. (La Place Routledge p.69/Folio p.45)
Moreover, there is a greater awareness in La Place and Une Femme of what Simon Denith and Philip Dodd have called the `rhetorical situation' within which her work is produced and received (`The Uses of Autobiography' in Literature and History, Vol.14 1988 pp.17-18). The later works negociate the problems of not just how to write but also with how the writings will be read. There is an awareness of the distance between social milieu she is writing about and the potential middle-class audience that will read the works, interested in them precisely because of their otherness. (See Philippe Lejeune, Je est un autre: l'autobiographie, de la littérature aux médias, Paris, Seuil 1980 pp.207-209). There is then, a concern with the potential meanings generated by the circumstances of its reception. Ernaux is aware of the dangers of a kind of cultural voyeurism by middle-class readership.

Multi-Vocal Reality

There is in La Place and Une Femme a new attempt to find a perspective on experience which expresses other voices. Ronald Frazer, the author of an interesting autobiographical work entitled In Search of a Past: The Manor House, Amnersfield, 1933-1945 describes such a perspective as "multi-vocal reality" (Ronald Fraser - `In Search of a Past: A Dialogue with Ronald Fraser' in History Workshop Journal No.20 p.182). Ernaux wants to avoid simple seeing - she wants complex seeing instead. There is an attention in La Place and Une Femme to other voices, to other stories. Whereas Ernaux's early fiction concentrated on the experiences and perceptions of the young female narrators which one may read, with a degree of justification, as thinly disguised doubles of Ernaux herself, La Place and Une Femme attempt to give voice to both the father and the mother respectively. Although in both texts the `je' of the narrator dominates, there is nonetheless a sensitivity towards the perspectives, emotions, and subjectivities of the parents. La Place and Une Femme are about writing her parents into history, a point made explicit at the end of Une Femme on page 106:

Il fallait que ma mère, née dans un milieu dominé, dont elle a voulu sortir, devienne histoire ... (Une Femme p.106)


I'd like to bring my lectures on Ernaux to a close by reading a poem by Tony Harrison, a Leeds poet whose own `parcours social' was close to that undertaken by Ernaux and whose own work often engages with similar issues:

A Good Read

That summer it was Ibsen, Marx and Gide

I got one of his you-stuck-up-bugger looks:

ah sometimes think you read too many books.
ah nivver 'ad much time for a good read.

Good read! I bet! Your programme at United!
The labels on your whisky or your beer!
You'd never get unbearably excited
poring over
Kafka or King Lear.
The only score you'd bother with's your darts,
or fucking football ...

(All this in my mind)

I've come round to your position on `the Arts'
but put it down in poems, that's the bind.

These poems about you, dad, should make good reads
for the bus you took from Beeston into town
for people with no time like you in Leeds -

once I'm writing I can't put you down!

There is, in the Harrison poem, a pun on the phrasal verb `put down' meaning: 1) to transcribe, to put down in writing; 2) to put aside, to discard like a book one has got bored of; and 3) to denigrate or talk disparagingly of. Now, it seems to me that the three meanings of this verb are applicable to Ernaux's work which is concerned with the difficulty of putting her parents down on paper, with her fascination with their lives and which seeks to produce a truthful but non- condescending portrait of them. There is in Ernaux's La Place and Une Femme, as well as in Tony Harrison's poem, a recognition of the richness of the lives of her parents, a richness hitherto absent from Literature with a capital `L', from the `high culture' both Harrison and Ernaux have acquired. Both La Place and Une Femme affirm this richness by turning the lives of her parents into books. But the final similarity between the Harrison poem and Ernaux's work is that both see writing as the locus of reconciliation, the site in which differences are resolved, broken ties are mended and penance paid for past betrayals.

If you would like some bibliographical references click on Selected Further Reading.

To cite:
McNeill, T. (1998) 'Writing and Betrayal' in Communiqué online [Accessed ]