"My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon." You'd expect a book that begins with these words to be a raw, anguished account of childhood trauma, but prize-winning French author Ernaux disdains such American-style obviousness. In order to explain why "that Sunday was like a veil that came between me and everything I did," Ernaux focuses not on individual psychology, but on "the codes and conventions of the circles in which I lived, [which determined] the vision I had of myself and the outside world." In a town where a street address reveals social class, where "showing off" is a mortal sin, where even the proper choice of words to describe feelings is rigidly circumscribed, 12-year-old Ernaux was devastated by her father's attack because "I had seen the unseeable ... we had stopped being decent people." To petit-bourgeois shopkeepers like her parents, for whom appearances were everything, such an incident was literally unspeakable--the family never discussed it. Ernaux fills that void with a pitiless portrait of provincial France circa 1952, nailing everything from its penny-pinching economies to its mean-spirited gossip and casual hypocrisies, all governed by the all-important question, "What would people think?" This is a memoir in the classic Gallic tradition: lucid, spare, impeccably reasoned and written, completely devoid of self-pity. There's not an excess word or a facile emotion anywhere in her elegant text, which compels readers' sympathy all the more forcefully by never asking for it. --Wendy Smith
Ernaux's last book, Exteriors, was a collection of incisive observations drawn from anonymous, momentary encounters, but now, Ernaux returns to her provincial French childhood, the world of her autobiographical novels Cleaned Out, A Woman's Story and the Prix Renaudot-winning A Man's Place. In each of those books, Ernaux portrayed her metamorphosis from the child of her petit bourgeois parents to a young woman embarrassed by them. Here, she traces that transformation back to June 15, 1952, the day "[m]y father tried to kill my mother." Another writer might brood endlessly over the personal significance of the event, but Ernaux is much too coolheaded for that. Having forgotten most of the details of the event itself, she refuses to make up something potentially bathetic. Instead she recalls and researches the details of the world outside the event, exposing the accepted code that governed language, behavior and even a young girl's aspirations. There are many lists: rules at private school ("we must make sure we never touch the handrail"); polite phrases ("It's a pleasure!"); what is good form ("to say that 'the whole family joins in the evening prayers' and that one wants to take the veil"). None of which makes any accommodation for a shop woman's loud tirade or her husband's subsequent attack with a scythe. With unsparing lucidity, Ernaux strips herself and her memories of any comforting myth and in the process, she forces us to face the jarring facts of being human.
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