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Challenging autobiography: lost object and aesthetic object in Ernaux's 'Une femme.' (author Annie Ernaux)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness...

(Keats, Endymion)

On the last page of Une femme Ernaux pronounces on the generic status of her text with the sort of authorial self-consciousness familiar to readers of her work:[1]

Ceci n'est pas une biographie, ni un roman naturellement, peut-etre quelque chose entre la litterature, la sociologie et l'histoire. (p.106)

Neither tentatively acknowledged nor invoked by negation, but simply passed over in silence, one genre is conspicuous by its absence from this list, and that is autobiography. To the reader, such an omission may seem curious, for although Une femme ostensibly charts the life of the author's mother, it is Ernaux herself who emerges most powerfully as the text's subject. Yet the absence of any reference to autobiography is symptomatic, for this is a work in which what is unsaid, omitted, elided, plays a crucial part. As we shall see, the emotive charge which gives us such a powerful sense of Ernaux's presence and subjectivity is, paradoxically, supplied not by the author herself but by the reader. Ernaux's decision to situate her work between genres - 'entre la litterature, la sociologie et l'histoire' is equally telling, for Une femme is a text marked by slippage, a text in which the boundaries between categories more usually thought of as discrete, or indeed antithetical, become blurred: autobiography and biography; self and other; subject(ive) and object(ive); the individual and the collective; process and stasis.

The problematic nature of the generic status of Une femme emerges clearly in a recent critical study by Savean, who hesitates in her attempts to slot the text into a tidy category. On the one hand, she seems to feel compelled to acknowledge an autobiographical dimension:

Ses lecteurs ne songent pas a une ceuvre de fiction puisque la priere d'inserer, ainsi que ses observations sur ses problemes d'ecrivain, conduisent a une assimilation de l'auteur et du narrateur. On peut donc parler a son propos d'une autobiographie decalee.[2]

At the same time, however, Savean indicates the text's departure from a familiar set of criteria: 'ni La Place ni Une femme ne repondent aux criteres definis par Lejeune puisque le personnage principal de ce recit n'est pas l'auteur-narrateur et qu'il ne s'agit pas de l'histoire d'une personnalite.'[3]

We might do well to question Savean's decision to seek out a genetic definition in Lejeune's Le Pacte autobiographique, a work which after all was written more than three decades ago, and which has been superseded by a generation of feminist theory on autobiography. Lejeune's guidelines reinforce a prescriptive or at least normative male tradition of the genre. The autobiography, he informs us, can be defined as: 'un recit en prose qu'une personne reelle fait de sa propre existence, lorsqu'elle met l'accent sur sa vie individuelle' (my emphasis).[4] Feminist theory has challenged what is now recognized as a male tradition of the genre which favours a particular concept of selfhood based on individualism and autonomy, an oppositional rather than a relational self:

In privileging the autonomous or metaphysical self as the agent of its own achievement and in frequently situating that self in an adversarial stance toward the world, 'autobiography' promotes a conception of the human being that valorises individual integrity and separateness and devalues personal and communal interdependency.[5]

Those theorists who seek to challenge the oppositional, individualist paradigm look typically to the psychoanalytic writings of Nancy Chodorow, who emphasizes the different socializing processes at work in the construction of male and female identity. Girls, she suggests, continue to define themselves in relation to their mother. Furthermore, for women, the prototypic mother-infant relationship, characterized by connection and a blurring of the self/other distinction, carries over into adulthood. Boys, on the other hand, defining themselves in opposition to the maternal figure and all that she represents, develop into adult malehood precisely by denying or devaluing the maternal world of infancy.

Such a relational model of identity, used as a theoretical framework around which to conceptualize a female tradition of autobiography, may prove more fruitful than Lejeune's individualist paradigm. It does of course call into question the first component of the autobiography: a text about the self is also a text about the other, and vice versa. Positing a relational self, we can state that a text such as Ernaux's Une femme, which concerns itself overtly with the author's mother, is necessarily also a text about the author herself. Indeed, the ambiguous nature of the title - which woman is referred to? - raises just this issue. And if identity is called into question, then so is the definition of the autobiography. The blurring of self and other is isomorphic with the blurring of genre categories. One of Ernaux's later works, Journal du dehors, comprises a series of short descriptions of the author's everyday surroundings (the R.E.R., supermarkets, newspaper articles, etc.) based on journal entries covering a period between 1985 and 1992.[6] The text closes on a note which reinforces the idea of a necessary interrelation between self and other, inside and outside, (auto)biography and objective sociological recit:

D'autres fois, j'ai retrouve des gestes et des phrases de ma mere dans une femme attendant a la caisse du supermarch,. C'est donc au-dehors, dans les passagers du metro ou du R.E.R., les gens qui empruntent l'escalier des Galeries Lafayette et d'Auchan, qu'est deposee mon existence passee. (pp.106-7, my italics)

Chodorow's by now well-rehearsed concept of fluid or permeable ego boundaries and a sense of self which is continuous with others is useful, but it is the work of Melanie Klein, one of the first psychoanalysts to focus attention on the pre-oedipal period and the interrelational nature of identity which I intend to focus upon here.[7] In a recent critical study of autobiography Gilmore points out that the relational concept of the self, which characterizes a whole generation of feminist criticism, may have its limitations. Such criticism, she states, seeks to impose coherence upon womens' autobiographical writing by emphasizing difference (from the male tradition).[8] Whilst this might be true of critics who focus upon Chodorow's ideas, Kleinian theory, although it too concentrates on the pre-oedipal mother/child phase, cuts across gender divisions. The mechanisms of defence and the developmental stages which I shall be referring to are not particular to the female sex. Furthermore, Kleinian theory is of particular interest with respect to Une femme, for it allows us to consider not only the first, but also the second term of the autobiography. Une femme may well centre on a life-story, but it is death which lies behind its conception and production: Ernaux began writing the work on 20 April 1986, 13 days after the death of her mother. Although the text is a mere 106 pages long, it took some ten months to complete, a period which we might assume coincided with the mourning process. The texts which precede and follow Une femme follow a similar pattern: both La Place and Passion simple centre on death or loss; of Ernaux's father and lover respectively.[9] In all cases the impetus to write about the other, and thus about the self, is intimately linked to thanatos, the death-drive.

The link between the (auto)biographical writing act and the death-drive is explicable only if we accept the premise of a relational self, for working within this framework we can assert that the loss of a significant other or object necessarily threatens the author's ego. The operations of what I believe to be the death-drive in Une femme will become clearer if we first consider some central Kleinian ideas. Klein, like Freud, believed that the life-instinct and death-instinct are operative in the human organism from birth. She further believed that in the earliest months of human life the infant's primitive ego projects both life- and death-instincts, leading to the creation of phantasized part-objects (prototypically, the breast):

At the behest of the life instinct the ego splits off and projects the death instinct outwards. At the same time the life instinct is partly projected to create an ideal object. In that way, out of chaos a primitive organization appears. The ego splits into a libidinal and a destructive part and relates to a similarly split object.[10]

The child's first relation to objects - which Klein named the paranoid-schizoid position - is thus characterized by splitting and projection. The destructiveness born of the death-instinct, projected onto the object, creates the prototype of the hostile object relationship, whilst primitive sources of life, also projected, set up the prototype of the loving object relationship. In the paranoid-schizoid position the object is split in order to keep persecutory and loving relations as separate as possible:

The object [...] is viewed as excessively good or extremely bad. States of persecution and idealization tend to alternate [...]. Together with the split in the object the ego is similarly split and a bad self is kept as separate as possible from a good self.[11]

In normal development the paranoid-schizoid position is succeeded by the depressive position. Now whole objects are recognized, and ambivalent feelings of both hatred and love are directed at the object: 'The infant comes to recognise that the breast which frustrates him is the same as the one which gratifies him and the result of such integration over time is that ambivalence - that is, both hatred and love for the same object - is felt.'[12]

It is at this point that we can begin to read Une femme in the light of Kleinian theory, for Klein claims that close parallels exist between the processes of mourning and the depressive position, indeed she suggests that the actual loss of a significant object precipitates a reactivation of the depressive position. Significantly, the death of a loved object represents a threat to the ego of the bereaved:

The poignancy of the actual loss of a loved person is, in my view, greatly increased by the mourner's unconscious phantasy of having lost his internal 'good' objects as well. He then feels that his internal 'bad' objects predominate and his inner world is in danger of disruption.[13]

The death of (in this case) the mother, threatens the ego (in this case the author's) with the type of fragmentation and dispersion of the ego associated with the death-instinct. Successful mourning requires that the mourner go through a process of reality-testing, a review of past associations and memories which link mourner and mourned: 'each single one of the memories and situations of expectancy which demonstrate the libido's attachment to the lost object is met by the verdict of reality that the object no longer exists.'[14] With these points in mind we can go on to suggest that Une femme represents its author's attempt to come to terms with both the ambivalence which characterizes the depressive position - the mourner must review and relinquish both good and bad memories, the love and hatred directed at the lost object - and concomitantly must seek to restore or repair her own ego. Negative emotions directed towards the lost object may be particularly difficult to relinquish.[15] Une femme, in other words, represents an attempt to reinstate the integrity of both the author's mother and the author's own sense of self.

Steiner develops the Kleinian parallel between mourning and the depressive position and suggests that the mourner may initially seek to possess and preserve the lost object via a process of identification which aims to deny the reality of the loss:

First, in the early phases of mourning the patient attempts to deny the loss by trying to possess and preserve the object, and one of the ways he does this [...] is by identification with the object. Every interest is abandoned by the mourner except that connected with the lost person, and this total preoccupation is designed to deny the separation and to ensure that the fate of the subject and the object is inextricably linked. Because of the identification with the object the mourner believes that if the object dies then he must die with it and, conversely, if he is to survive then the reality of the loss has to be denied.[16]

We can detect this process of total preoccupation, the apparent inability to engage in any activity which does not have a direct bearing on the loss, early on in Une femme:

Peut-etre ferais-je mieux d'attendre que sa maladie et sa mort soient fondues dans le cours passe de ma vie [...] afin d'avoir la distance qui facilite l'analyse des souvenirs. Mais je ne suis pas capable en ce moment de faire autre chose. (p.22)

Objectivity and distance are deemed to be impossible; the author's self is inextricably bound in with that of her mother, and the early stages of the text are marked by a sense of urgency and a necessity to write. Well-meaning friends' observations that the mother's death was 'for the best' are thus met with an incredulity born of inter-dependence, a need to preserve the mother in order to preserve the self: 'Pour tous, il etait mieux qu'elle soit morte. C'est une phrase, une certitude, que je ne comprends pas' (p.19). Ernaux sets out intending to adopt an objective, distanced stance and to write about the other - 'je vais continuer d'ecrire sur ma mere' (p.22) - but this project proves to be untenable: 'je n'ecris pas sur elle, j'ai plutot l'impression de vivre avec elle dans un temps, des lieux, ou elle est vivante' (p.68). Once again we see the self/other, subject(ive)/object(ive) dualism broken down.

Denial marks one common step in the mourning process, but for mourning to progress the mourner must, as we have suggested, review then let go of memories of the lost object which are strongly cathected with affect. What is immediately striking about Une femme, however, is its apparent total lack of affective response of the sort which characterize the depressive position. The work is written in the 'ecriture plate' or neutral reportage style familiar to readers of La Place.[17] And yet, though there is indeed no explicit subjective response, a powerful emotive charge clearly does remain, as critical responses to the text reveal: 'Une femme est un livre qui fait mal et qui provoque. On n'en sort pas vraiment indemne.' Ernaux may employ 'une phrase' which is 'deshydratee, lyophilisee', but 'avec l'emotion qu'elle suscite (c'est poignant de bout en bout!) elle gonfle, la phrase, elle vous enfle le coeur!'; 'Les images sont dans les blancs, entre les mots, dans les respirations entre les phrases.'[18]

If affect emerges from the unsaid, what stylistic features of Une femme bring forth this sort of response? Firstly, we can identify straight-forward statements the content or subject-matter of which quite simply jars with the tone of the narration. Although the reader expects an emotive response on the part of the author, none is supplied. Thus Ernaux's observations about her mother's attitude or her own - 'elle n'a pas aime me voir grandir' (p.61); 'Quelquefois, je m'imaginais que sa mort ne m'aurait rien fait' (p.62) - are narrated in the sort of flat, 'dead' tone which any psychoanalyst would be quick to seize upon; the expected emotional response, of anger, guilt or resentment, is absent, the subjective masked by, but paradoxically inferred from, the apparent objectivity. Affective responses may also emerge from shifts in narrative style. The review of scenes which are clearly linked to moments when the author experienced shame and anger is frequently cut short, a blank space in the text separating the first narrative segment from a more neutral subsequent segment. Thus Ernaux's account of her mother's drunkenness at a local 'fete' - 'ensuite, je surveillais son bras allonge sur la table, tenant le verre, en desirant de toutes mes forces qu'elle ne le leve pas' - shifts, after some five lines of blank text, to a reprise of linear chronology and a less charged, more factual, tone: 'Elle etait devenue tres forte, quatrevingts-neuf kilos. Elle mangeair beaucoup, gardait toujours des morceaux de sucre dans la poche de sa blouse' (p.50). The contrast brings both segments into clashing relief. The apparently biographical second segment is undercut by the understatement of the first; objective distance is revealed as untenable, factitious.

On several occasions an objective, socio-historical style is abruptly interrupted by an aside:

Yvetot est une ville froide, construite sur un plateau vente, entre Rouen et Le Havre. Au debut du siecle, elle etait le centre marchand et administratif d'une region entierement agricole, aux mains de grands proprietaires. [...]. Ma mere est nee la, en 1906, quatrieme de six enfants. (Sa fierte quand elle disair: 'Je ne suis pas nee a la campagne.'). (p.24)

Once again we witness a clash of tones and discourses, and equally, a collision of genres. The parenthetical segment, mark of a sudden influx of subjectivity, represents an intrusion of memory which disrupts the author's attempts to maintain a distanced objective stance. The stasis of subjective memory breaks into the linearity of the socio-historical, and indeed the biographical discourses. Ernaux, the reader feels, simply cannot separate her mother's life from her own. The use of ellipsis, which occurs with great frequency in the text, may well remove the first-person subject at the level of the written word - we have to infer the missing 'je me souviens' - but such an omission merely precipitates a return of the subjective during the reading act. Often, the reader has the powerful sensation that the author passes judgement on her mother, yet refrains from openly expressing any emotional response:

Ma mere a montre de bonne heure un gout tres vif pour la religion. Le catechisme est la seule matiere qu'elle ait apprise avec passion, en connaissant par coeur toutes les reponses. (Plus tard, encore, cette facon haletante, joyeuse, de repondre aux prieres a l'eglise, comme pour montrer qu'elle savait.)'. (p.29)

The qualifying word 'seule' already seems to introduce a judgemental note: unlike the author, who benefited from a rigorous private education, the mother's schooling remained extremely limited. The parenthetical segment, again characterized by ellipsis, and indicative of an upsurge of affect which disrupts the chronological account, is marked by an even stronger sense of condemnation: the author is clearly uncomfortable in the face of her mother's naive, over-anxious faith. Ernaux judges her mother, and judgement will almost certainly be accompanied by a certain measure of guilt. Emotion, in other words, returns to the text, or rather is returned by the reader.

With all of these examples we see that anger, even hatred, and thereby guilt, are present, but that these subjective responses, marks of the author's own identity, emerge in the silences, and are released only via the relational act of reading. This raises further questions about the autobiographical genre. In Savean's opinion, Ernaux's use of understatement (indeed non-statement) is contrary to the 'rules' of the genre: 'On y trouve [the reference is to Une femme] de nombreux points de rencontre avec une autobiographie, mais il y a [...] un art de l'implicite qui limite la sincerite'.[19] Intentionality, for Savean, is a one-way street. In the case of Une femme, however, it is the reader's intentionality which brings forth the author's subjectivity. This, indeed, is precisely why the text strikes the reader as an autobiographical work. Paradoxically, it is not the explicit first-person interjections - those of the author commenting on her craft - which create such a strong sense of subjective presence, but rather the unspoken but inferred affective responses of Ernaux as a subject whose identity is bound in with that of her mother.

By now, all three terms of the auto-bio-graphy are problematized: the self is relational; the death-drive is woven into the fabric of the text; the author as subject is communicated via that which is unwritten. Criticism and literary texts can, and should, inform each other, and Une femme, as well as giving us the opportunity to review our concepts of the self as it relates to a specific other (here, the mother), also raises the issue of the self as it relates to a broader collective, that of class. Gilmore has criticized relational theoretical models which posit a self which remains resolutely 'white, heterosexual, and educated'.[20] From her first novel, Les Armoires vides, Ernaux has explored identity as it relates to a wider social group, revealing the tensions resulting from a self-consciousness born of class-consciousness. The author's work up to and including Une femme expresses the problems which arose when she migrated, thanks to her education in a private middle-class school, from her working-class origins to the bourgeoisie. In all of these works Ernaux has tried to negotiate a way between the sociological and the personal, seeking to tell her parents' story, but also to represent both mother and father as typical members of the 'classe dominee'. Commenting on La Place, Garaud points out that the biographical in Ernaux's work (which, as we have seen, is also necessarily the autobiographical) is interwoven with the sociological. Ernaux's father is portrayed both as a unique individual (the author's father), and as a type or class-representative:

Comment presenter le pere a la fois comme un individu dont on se souvient et comme un type representatif d'un groupe social? La narratrice a conscience d'etre sans cesse tentee de sacrifier 'la trame significative' au plaisir de revivre le passe evoque.[21]

A similar scenario can be detected in Une femme. The title, which we saw could refer to both mother and author, could equally represent a short-hand reference to a whole group of women: 'une femme comme beaucoup d'autres'. Ernaux's insistence that Une femme is not a simple biography, but rather a work which partakes of the sociological, becomes clearer when we realize that she wishes to present her mother as a type:

J'essaie ne pas considerer la violence, les debordements de tendresse, les reproches de ma mere comme seulement des traits personnels de caractere, mais de les situer aussi dans son histoire et sa condition sociale. Cette facon d'ecrire, qui me semble aller dans le sens de la verite, m'aide a sortir de la solitude et de l'obscurite du souvenir individuel, par la decouverte d'une signification plus generale. Mais je sens que quelque chose en moi resiste, voudrait conserver de ma mere des images purement affectives, chaleur ou larmes, sans leur donner de sens. (p.52)

The author's experience of resistance ('je sens que quelque chose en moi resiste') is explicable in terms of the personal agenda at work in the text, the author's need to review and relinquish her affective memories of her mother. Garaud refers above to the pleasure of indulging in such recollection - 'le plaisir de revivre le passe' - but it would be more appropriate to see the review of memories as a necessary, life-giving process required in order to shore up the author's own threatened sense of self. Indeed, given the inevitably ambivalent nature of the author's feelings, the process is unlikely to be a wholly pleasurable one. More significantly, we should be aware that in the case of most of the examples in Une femme, the unwritten but inferred affect, brought forth in the intentional act of reading, can be closely linked to class. Anger and guilt are tied to social differences; they represent the gap which separates the middle-class Ernaux from her working-class mother whose origins, habits and attitudes serve to heighten the author's class-consciousness. This should in turn lead us to conceptualize the self in more complex terms. Identity is not merely relational in the sense of intersecting with another self or significant other (the mother, in this case); it must also be regarded as intersecting with a larger social collective. Une femme reveals the tripartite intersection between self / (m)other / class, and, correlatively, the breaking or blurring of boundaries between autobiographical, biographical, and sociological discourses.

One final issue has still to be discussed in the light of Ernaux's definition of Une femme - 'quelque chose entre la litterature, la sociologie et l'histoire' - and that is the text's status as a work of art, and correspondingly, Ernaux's status as craftswoman, the self who produces the aesthetic object. At intervals throughout the work its author breaks off her account in order to articulate her current thoughts about the creative process. Repeatedly, she focuses upon her desire to 'get it right', to create the ideal object:

Au debut je croyais que j'ecrirais vite. En fait je passe beaucoup de temps a m'interroger sur l'ordre des choses a dire, le choix et l'agencement des mots, comme s'il existait un ordre ideal, seul capable de rendre une verite concernant ma mere - mais je ne sais pas en quoi elle consiste - et rien d' autre ne compte pour moi, au moment ou j'ecris, que la decouverte de cet ordre-la. (pp.43-4, my italics)

Similarly, when Ernaux's account reaches the chronological stage of her father's death she points out that she has already produced the unique ideally-structured work on this subject (La Place), and that consequently there is quite simply no more to be said: 'Je ne peux pas decrire ces moments parce que je l'ai deja fait dans un autre livre, c'est-a-dire qu'il n'y aura jamais aucun autre livre possible, avec d'autres mots, un autre ordre des phrases' (p.73, my italics). How are we to understand this drive to 'get it right', to produce the ideal and perfect aesthetic object?

Klein suggests that the depressive position, whose role, as we have seen, is central to the conception and production of Une femme, is closely linked to the processes of sublimation and creative endeavour:

The attempts to save the loved object, to repair and restore it, attempts which in the state of depression are coupled with despair, since the ego doubts its capacity to achieve this restoration, are determining factors for all sublimations. [...]. It is a 'perfect' object which is in pieces; thus the effort to undo the state of disintegration to which it has been reduced presupposes the necessity to make it beautiful and 'perfect'. The idea of perfection is, moreover, so compelling because it disproves the idea of disintegration.[22]

The loss of the object and the subsequent reactivation of the death-drive which threatens the mourner's own self with disintegration is met with a desire to create a whole and perfect sublimated substitute. The lost integrity of Ernaux's mother, and Ernaux's own self, in other words, stimulates a desire, indeed a need, to produce the integral work of art. The lost object will be replaced by the aesthetic object. Kristeva, whose work provides a useful complement to Klein's views, also points to the links between the operations of the death-drive and creativity. Initially a powerful affect may serve to hold together the ego threatened by disintegration: 'the depressive affect can be interpreted as a defence against parcelling. Indeed sadness reconstitutes an affective cohesion of the self, which restores its unity within the framework of the affect.'[23] Such affective non-verbal cohesion is regarded by Kristeva as the necessary precondition for symbolic production: 'Literary creation is that adventure of the body and signs that bear witness to the affect.'[24] Like Klein, Kristeva associates the desire to create the perfect, beautiful, object with the threat posed by the death-drive:

Might the beautiful be the ideal object that never disappoints the libido? Or might the beautiful object appear as the absolute and indestructible restorer of the deserting object? [...]. In the place of death and so as not to die the other's death, I bring forth - or at least I rate highly - an artifice, an ideal, a 'beyond' that my psyche produces in order to take up a position outside itself - ek-stasis. How beautiful to be able to replace all perishable psychic values.[25]

'So as not to die the other's death': in a powerful statement Ernaux indicates that the ability to restore wholeness, to unite the various aspects of her mother's identity, is vital to her own survival: 'je sais que je ne peux pas vivre sans unir par l'ecriture la femme demente qu'elle est devenue, a celle forte et lumineuse qu'elle avait ete' (p.89, my italics). Paradoxically, the author must produce an artifice, an artefact, in order to counter her own sense of facticity:

Il fallait que ma mere, nee dans un milieu domine, dont elle a voulu sortir, devienne histoire, pour que je me sente moins seule et factice dans le monde dominant des mots et des idees ou, selon son desir, je suis passee. (p.106, my italics)

Ironically, the very restoration of integrity signals the ultimate psychic death of the mother. Ernaux states, 'il fallait que ma mere [...] devienne histoire'. As colloquial usage has it: 'she's history'. If Ernaux emerges during the reading act as the living, autobiographical presence whose affective life is realized in the reading act, the mother, by contrast, is devoid of life; she is the object, not the subject of the work. Whereas process and the author's lived subjectivity are restored via the reader's inference of affect, precipitated by the very silences of the text, the mother's life is subject to closure at both syntactic and structural levels. Her words are cited throughout the text - 'on "allait en ville", pour la messe, la viande, les mandats a envoyer' (p.24); 'c'etait une belle blonde assez forte ("on m'aurait acheter ma sante!"), aux yeux gris' (p.32) - but these words remain framed within the written text, becoming artefacts rather than living speech. Similarly, we can say that process, the linearity of history, is certainly present in the work. Une femme is full of dates which trace the stages of Ernaux's mother's life: her birth in 1906 (p.24); her early childhood, 1916 (p.28); her wedding in 1928 (p.37); the purchase of her first shop in 1931 (p.39); the death of her first child in 1938 (p.42); the author's own birth in 1940 (p.43); the 1945 move to Yvetot (p.46); her adolescence, 1952 (p.59); the death of her husband in 1967 (p.37); her move to live with her daughter and son-in-law in 1970 (p.75); the 1979 road accident (p.84); her collapse in 1983 (p.88). But like the framed living words, this process remains framed within a static, closed circular structure, the mother's death both opening and closing the text.

Ernaux herself seems to have been aware of the fact that her creation of a closed 'perfect' structure would put the psychic seal on her mother's life and death. It is this realization which explains the terror she experiences as she first puts pen to paper: 'Avant-hier seulement, j'ai surmonte la terreur d'ecrire dans le haut d'une feuille blanche, comme un debut de livre, non de lettre a quelqu'un, "ma mere est morte"' (p.21). The writing of the text, the transcription of memory and story to paper, may represent the literary (re)birth of the mother - 'il me semble maintenant que j'ecris sur ma mere pour, a mon tour, la mettre au monde' (p.43) - but is also represents a loosening of ties and an acceptance of the reality of death: 'Dans ces conditions, "sortir" un livre n'a pas de signification, sinon celle de la mort definitive de ma mere' (p.69).

In the light of the preceding discussion we must revise Ernaux's definition of her work, and broaden our view of genre categories. Une femme bears witness to the interrelational nature of identity. The self is bound in with, defined by, significant others whose life, and whose death, affect the very structures of identity. Beyond this, the self must be conceived of in relation to social collectives; of gender, of race, and, as is particularly the case here, of class. These conceptions of the self must affect our perceptions of genre: autobiographical, biographical, and socio-historical discourses can no longer be regarded as discrete categories. And finally, we must acknowledge that two selves are involved as soon as any text is opened. Emotive response, process, the very stuff of lived subjectivity, are restored to Une femme by the relational, intentional act of reading. Ernaux, whose identity is indissolubly linked to that of her mother, and to her own and her mother's class, is brought forth from the text as a living subject by another subjectivity - that of the reader. With these points in mind, we can suggest that Une femme is 'quelque chose entre la litterature, la sociologie, l'histoire, la biographie et l'autobiographie'.


1. Une femme (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1987). All references are to the 1990 Folio edition.

2. M.-F. Savean, La Place et Une femme d'Annie Ernaux (Paris: Foliotheque, Editions Gallimard, 1994), 20-1.

3. Ibid., 20.

4. P. Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (Paris: Editions Seuil, 1975), 14.

5. S. Smith, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1987), 39. See also S.S. Friedman, 'Women's autobiographical selves: theory and practice', in S. Benstock, The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings (London: Routledge, 1988), 34-62.

6. Journal du dehors (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1993).

7. The importance of the relational aspect of Klein's work is highlighted by J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis in their seminal The Language of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac Books, 1988). Under the heading 'Object-Relation(ship)' they state: '"Relationship" should be understood in the strong sense of the term - as an interrelationship, in fact, involving not only the way the subject constitutes his objects but also the way these objects shape his actions. An approach such as Melanie Klein's lends even more weight to this idea: objects (projected, introjected) actually act upon the subject - they persecute him, reassure him, etc.', 278.

8. L. Gilmore's Preface to Autobiographics: a Feminist Theory of Women's Self-representation (Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1994), ix-xvi.

9. La Place (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1984); all references are to the 1988 Folio edition; Passion simple (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1991).

10. H. Segal, Klein (London: Karnac, 1989), 115.

11. J. Steiner, 'The equilibrium between the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive positions', in Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion, ed. R. Anderson (London & New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1993), 47.

12. Ibid., 48.

13. Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation (London: Virago, 1988: first published by The Hogarth Press, 1975), 353.

14. Freud, 'Mourning and melancholia', in On Metapsychology and the Theory of Psychoanalysis (London: Penguin Freud Library, Vol. II, 1984), 265, (cited in Klein, 344).

15. Klein notes that the actual death may provoke a heightening of hatred as the bereaved fears that 'by dying the loved one was seeking to inflict punishment and deprivation upon him, just as in the past he felt that his mother, whenever she was away from him and he wanted her, had died in order to inflict punishment and deprivation upon him', Love, Guilt and Reparation, 355. B. Raphael makes a similar point: 'The bereaved may only be able to relinquish and mourn certain aspects of the lost person and not others, such as the positive but not the negative ones'; 'The more ambivalent and/or dependent was the relationship between the bereaved and the deceased, the more complex the mourning and the greater the probability of poor outcome', The Anatomy of Bereavement (Northvale New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1994), 60 and 63.

16. Steiner, op. cit., 54.

17. 'Aucune poesie du souvenir, pas de derision jubilante. L'ecriture plate me vient naturellement, celle-la meme que j'utilisais en ecrivant autrefois a mes parents pour leur dire les nouvelles essentielles', La Place, 24.

18. M. Verdussen, La Libre Belgique, 2-4 avril 1988; M. de Decker, Eure-interinformation, 4-2-1988; R. Balavoine, Paris-Normandie 4-2-1988: all cited in Savean op. cit., 195 and 199.

19. Savean, op. cit., 99.

20. Gilmore, op. cit., xiii.

21. C. Garaud, 'Ecrire la difference sociale: registres de vie et registres de langue dans La Place d'Annie Ernaux', French Forum, xix, no. 2, May 1994, 201.

22. Klein, op. cit., 270.

23. Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia UP, 1989), 19.

24. Ibid., 22.

25. Ibid., 99.
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Author:Hutton, M.-A.
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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