French Book: La Place  by Annie Ernaux

Author Annie Ernaux’s 1983 book La Place explores her father’s life trajectory, from impoverished child to owner of a small épicerie, charting the social and historical changes that occurred throughout his lifetime and applying them to his personal experiences, attitudes and behaviour. The resulting piece of writing recounts the story of a man who searches constantly for his place (la place) within an ever shifting world. Within this tale, the author examines herself, and the incongruity between her attitudes as a modern young woman born into a relatively affluent household, and the comparative lack of refinement which she perceives in her father. The work is therefore just as much about her and her family life than it is about historical and social observation.

This mixture of the personal and the factual is related in a unique and evocative style, which Ernaux called her écriture plate (literally: ‘flat writing’). The simple story of a simple man is told with unembellished vocabulary, in sentences which are stripped back to their least elaborate sense. Although this technique may not seem to be conducive to an emotive expression of the author’s autobiographical account, in reality, the purity of each word’s meaning, and the subtle patterns of sound or imagery which are peppered across the text allow a whisper of true feeling to sigh through the writing. The result is a sense of ‘lived history’: a non-fiction account of the truths of the passing of time, which is dashed through with individual experience.

La Place won le Prix Renaudot in 1984, for its distinctive and thought-provoking style. Its simplicity and the honesty of the language which Ernaux employs make it a truly interesting and satisfying read, even for someone who does not speak French as well as they like to.

a picture of the author