Paris Framed - Twentieth-Century French Writers Crossing the City

Paris skyline photo: C. Mansfield

Twentieth-century writers frame Paris as a locus of desire for their characters, whether working in fiction or in the more contemporary ethnographic journaling exemplified by the writing of Annie Ernaux in La Vie extérieure (2000) and Journal du dehors (1993). This article draws on the critical approaches taken by Christopher Thompson (1992) and Richard Burton (1988) in their respective works on French nineteenth-century literature and uses their critical frameworks as a starting point with which to explore this later work of Ernaux.

Annie Ernaux is better known for her biographical writing on her parents' working-class lives and her own relationship with bourgeois life in France. Her work is studied on undergraduate programmes across the UK and is the subject of at least two book-length studies (1). She was born at Lillebonne in September 1940 but now lives near Paris. During the 1990s she published two collections of what appear to be diaries of everyday life. They are documents of her daily commuting on the RER and metro from a suburb of Paris, Val d'Oise in Cergy, into the city centre. The two books in this series are Journal du dehors (2), which is the main focus of this study, and La Vie extérieure (3). Both titles suggest an act of framing, written from the point of view of those outside the frame.

Many twentieth-century Paris novels depict a narrator or main character crossing into the city space and thereby establishing a frame around Paris so that their protagonists may be inside or outside the city, the locus of desire. This article will draw on two such texts, both to act as comparisons and to contextualise Ernaux's work; these are Zazie dans le métro by Raymond Queneau, and the novel Le Feu follet by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle (4).

1. See, amongst others, Siobhán McIlvanney, Annie Ernaux - The Return to Origins (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), and Lyn Thomas, Annie Ernaux, à la première personne: essai (Paris: Stock, 2005).
2. Annie Ernaux, Journal du dehors (Paris: Gallimard, 1993).
3. Annie Ernaux, La Vie extérieure (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).
4. Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le métro (Paris: Gallimard, 1959) and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Le Feu follet (Paris: Gallimard, 1931).

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To Cite:
Mansfield, C. (2007) 'Paris Framed: Twentieth-Century French Writers Crossing the City' pp.175-186 in Bolton, Lucy, Kimber, Gerri, Lewis, Ann and Seabrook, Michael (eds) (2007) Framed - Essays in French Studies (Modern French Identities 61) Oxford & Bern, Peter Lang.