Book Review

Some Women

The principal strategy of Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux’s writing is quickly articulated in this passage from Look at the Lights, My Love,[1] recently translated and published by Yale University Press:

not a systematic investigation or exploration but a journal, the form most in keeping with my temperament, which is partial to the impressionistic recording of things, people, and atmospheres. A free statement of observations and sensations, aimed at capturing something of the life of the place.

The strategy has served her well, particularly in works like The Years (Les années, 2008), considered her best book, a record of a lifetime of experiences—social, cultural, sexual, literary, political, aesthetic, feminist, and philosophical (in the French manner)—lived en passant as it were. The goal was to “represent the passage of historical time, the changing of things, ideas, and manners, and the private life,” also “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation.” Although she writes of herself in the third person, it is important to imagine her experiences as being both individual and universal, albeit within a certain historical context.
Loosely, we may think of her work as what is now called autofiction and think of the Nobel committee’s choice as both timely and aware. We may also want to acknowledge the way in which it challenges traditional notions of genre: indicated by Yale’s wisdom in classifying Look at the Lights, My Love not as “fiction,” but rather under the label “Memoir/Literary Studies.” Also, it makes sense that the book includes an epigraph from Aftermath by Rachel Cusk, another prominent practitioner of the autofiction subgenre.
Thus, Look at the Lights, My Love seeks to provide “observations and sensations” about big-box superstores—an unusual subject—those enclosed celebrations of commerce that exist now on the outskirts of most urban centers, places which include “all the shops and payable services that a given population is likely to need.” In this case, the place is “Auchan,”a shopping center in Cergy outside Paris where Ernaux lives. And when she goes there, she engages in a new type of flânerie: wandering the aisles and commenting on shoppers (youngsters, housewives, people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, the temporarily home­less); all manner of displays (books vs. “literature”); and mechanisms (whereby automatic checkouts are convenient but induce a kind of “moral indifference” since “With a machine, we do not feel we are stealing”). Still, one asks what causes a celebrated personality like Ernaux to write about such an ordinary feature of suburban life, a depiction you might find in a Sunday magazine. She says she “often fled to the shopping center to forget the dissatisfactions of writing” though also on occasion, “feeling contented” with her writing, she went instead “to fill the void” and to “take a walk around to see what’s going on” (italics in the original). Her business, she says, is to “distinguish objects, individuals, and mechanisms . . . to give their existence value.” But is this significant or merely something any shopper might wish to do? Or is the message really about her, her needs, and is it art? Like most autofiction, it seems to be about not only what the writer experiences, but also who the writer is, an exercise not only in perception, but also in the creation of self-identity for the sake of self-display.
As it turns out, another recently translated work by Ernaux, Getting Lost,[2] originally from 2001, also illustrates the perils of such a strategy. What happens, for example, when the original material recorded in a writer’s journal turns out to be repetitive, nonspecific, a day-to-day record of doubts, fears, recriminations, uncertainties, and inexplicable (and unexplained) yearning? That is to say Getting Lost is, or purports to be, a more or less exact transcription of journal entries resulting from a yearlong love affair between Ernaux and a Russian diplomat in 1988–89, a record from which she says she “neither altered nor removed any part of the original text while typing it into the computer,” only the names changed or replaced by initials, also from which “The outside world is almost totally absent.” At times she even admits that documenting the affair in such a fashion seems pointless:

Considering all that she wrote about being and freedom, how strange it is that this woman should have had this desire—so flat and pointless—as if filming, recording, all the acts and words of a lifetime would be revelatory of something, but that’s not at all the way things go.

So, apart from what might be considered its biographic or bibliographic interest to people wanting to know more about Ernaux’s career, perhaps Getting Lost is meant to portray some kind of great negative adventure, very French, the kind of thing Beckett was talking about when he spoke of that “desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call love.” Or is it rather like the understanding, attributed to La Rochefoucauld, that people wouldn’t know what love is if they first hadn’t read about it in books? One thing, however, is clear: the very absence of the things fiction usually relies on—narrative scenes, characterizations, and concrete descriptions—makes actually reading Getting Lost a chore. And except for a side trip to Venice and Ernaux’s admission to having engaged in one or two exceptionable, but pornographically well-known physical practices, not much happens. One moody passage follows another unredeemed by an occasional unexplored reference to Marcel and Albertine or Anna and Vronsky. So, while I have not read the novel Simple Passion (Passion simple, 1992), which also resulted from the affair, I hope it provides more interest and a more “existentially evaluative” experience. And, as usual, autofiction raises more questions than it answers.
Another only recently translated work, The Easy Life[3] by Marguerite Duras, holds more appeal and fills in a number of gaps in our appreciation of the late novelist’s work (she died in 1996). Published in 1944 during the war while her husband Robert Antelme was a prisoner in Buchenwald, a year also after the death of a beloved younger brother, and two years after her child was stillborn, it is rife with lessons about how one goes about turning personal tragedy into arresting prose, expanding more traditional techniques of the novel into the realm of introspection and personal need. Unlike her more famous novel The Lover (L’Amant, 1984), which was set in colonial Vietnam, The Easy Life emerges from Duras’s youth in rural southwest France where her father owned an estate and where, as an adolescent, she suffered years of boredom and family melodrama. In the novel, she turns these possibilities into a carefully measured portrait of perfidiousness and innocence lurking behind a phlegmatic mask of self-deception.
Three men die—one beaten to death, one by suicide, one by drowning —and it’s hard to decide who or what is complicit: the unconscious motives of the narrator Françoise or the manners and mores of rural village and family life. Or perhaps it owes something to many love triangles among its characters or the salacious gossip of villagers or the inhabitants of small-town boarding houses by the sea. In any case, somewhere beneath it all lurk the universal necessities of desire.
In the midst of all this, however, I confess that I’m less interested in the actions themselves than in the relentless interiority of Françoise’s self-examination: more deceitfully self-exculpatory than a character in Highsmith, more multi-layered than Joycean interior monologue because so personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal all at the same time:

What a hypocrite I am! You can’t see the abyss that’s there, between my legs. Anyone who discovered it would think it had just opened beneath him, through him. It is perfidious and innocent. It is a thing that always waits for someone to come, someone who is nothing but a culmination of something else. And yet the bottom of this abyss is also a refuge, the only refuge from the sky and one of the last walls on earth. Nothing I can do. I am nothing next to it. But it is within me, clinging inside me, evident on my face.

Within us, too, we are tempted to say.
Most writers, of course, center their interest less obviously on themselves and develop characters in more traditionally realistic ways. In the short novel Foster[4] by Irish writer Claire Keegan, for instance, a child is taken by her father to be fostered by relatives on a farm away from her own parents who—mired in difficulties and indifference, with too many offspring, a pregnant mother, and a ne’er-do-well father blighted by bitterness and drink—seem unfit to raise an offspring anyway. Dysfunctional, they give up their daughter, temporarily perhaps, and we expect things will not go well. Yet the Kinsellas, distant relatives to whom she is sent, prove to be anything but the cliché that foster care usually represents. Not mercenary, abusive, or indifferent, they turn out to be a loving portrait of conscientiousness and care. Perhaps the tragic accident which took away their own child has taught them to listen and made them concerned about how the girl develops, that made them think how to house and clothe her, and how best to defend her from small-town gossips and nosey naysayers that populate the small village where they shop. In any case, what emerges is something much more satisfying than “public service,” rather a depiction of what parenting should be about.
In terms of method, the story—told by the girl herself—proceeds as a series of revelations in which every lesson she receives, every courtesy and judgment she witnesses, is welcomed as a surprise, allowing readers to participate in the girl’s emerging maturity. Childhood has its hard lessons and its dangers of course, and Ireland has its meanness still, but a different “Daddy,” one not so indifferent, but one who “puts his arms around me and gathers me into them as though I were his own,” will make a difference in the person she eventually becomes. Building on this optimistic and instructive message, and since Foster in the present volume is only 92 pages long, the book is supplemented with two chapters of Keegan’s Small Things Like These, also published by Grove Press, equally positive and nurturing in their outlook, pleasingly written, affecting, and thoughtfully conceived.
Quite a different picture of youthful innocence, along with debilitating seniority, appears in Lee Smith’s Silver Alert,[5] whose subject matter, like Smith herself, is timely, new, and has already been there. The author of fourteen novels, Smith has, of course, been writing for years and is justly appreciated, though typecast, as an “Appalachian” writer, whose books are more apt to be about mountain music or generational sagas about mountain life. Now, of course, because of MAGA, J. D. Vance, the opioid crisis, and “whose lives matter,” the people she writes about have renewed interest and notionally seem to require our fuller attention.
So, here’s a nouveau riche couple, originally from Buffalo, living in dubious splendor in a gated corner of Key West who are getting old (like the rest of us) and are sliding into dementia, are suspicious of their hovering children (especially their son-in-law), and are reluctant to give up their playthings, particularly their paintings and their yellow Porsche. Fortunately, they are attended by Renee, real name Dee Dee, a self-styled “aesthetician,” who comes in to comfort mother, does her nails, and helps to situate her wheelchair somewhere out in the garden in the soothing sunshine among the bougainvillea, roses, and hibiscus. And, of course, we are aware how Key West, and especially Duval Street—where vacationers gather to party, juggle cats, and watch the sunset—has become a potent symbol of what America is, wants to be, or possibly has been. Indeed, it’s almost as potent as that other cultural emblem “Main Street, USA” just a few miles away in Orlando.
Renee, nee Dee Dee, aka “Miss Deirdre June Mullins from North Carolina,” is also a part of a neglected branch of the American story now coming back into focus. As a figure in literature her origins may lie somewhere between Huckleberry Finn and Faulkner’s Lena Grove: American innocents whose simple and unassuming lives, away from the coasts and cities, tell a different tale about American values and identity. “My, my,” says Lena Grove at the end of Light in August, “A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.” Innocent, ignorant, and a little bit slow, nonetheless she exists, and, as Faulkner says, she endures. Similarly, Renee grew up in the mountains, ignorant, abused, stepdaughter of an opioid dealer, with a baby half-sister who froze to death from neglect, who, while surviving the only way she could, got into trouble, was locked up, and while incarcerated at a center for youthful offenders acquired the important life skill of doing nails. Now she has washed up in Key West and is carrying the child of a college boy who has left her to go off and finish his non-marketable PhD (but that’s another story) and is living in a trailer different from the one occupied by her closest friend because the latter and her boyfriend are selling drugs. She’s nonetheless positive, bless her heart, and a “good soul” whose only real desire is to go with her unborn baby to do what she’s always wanted, which is “to see the Princesses” up at Disney. What follows is a Silver Alert road trip with Herb, her employer, in his Porsche, the destination of which is easily imagined.
The tone and the temper of Lee Smith’s narrative is humorous but relies on that type of bleak and ironic Southern humor that carries its own weight of history, truth, and pain. Neither MAGA nor J. D. Vance has much to compare. And if, like Seymour Glass, we can’t learn to love the ignorant, overlooked woman sitting on a porch in Appalachia—along with the toys and dreams belonging to our place in Key West—what good are we anyway?
A recent, compelling Rust Belt version of American innocence and the failures of heart and understanding that lie near the center of the current malaise resides in newcomer Tess Gunty’s 2022 National Book Award-winning novel The Rabbit Hutch.[6] At first Gunty, who was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, and got a BA in English from Notre Dame, might remind you of another young writer, Patricia Lockwood also born in Indiana among “all the worst cities of the Midwest,” and it’s tempting to see both of them as part of an emerging literature of the Midwest—once the place Nick Carraway, for example, returned to for moral clarity and stability—now more likely to be considered the center of paralysis. The challenge is to understand how its failed manufacturing, inbred Eastern European ethnicities and Catholicism, bleak physical environment, abandonment of youth, aimless boosterism, and trashy commercial enterprises (not to mention climate change) all contribute to its depression. Vacca Vale, the city in The Rabbit Hutch, geographically, physically, historically, and ethnically, resembles South Bend, where Gunty was raised and attended Notre Dame. Among other things, it was the home of a now-defunct car company, Studebaker, called “Zorn” in the novel, the abandonment of which set the stage for its downfall.
So, Gunty’s 18-year-old protagonist, Blandine Watkins, is the daughter of an addict and a thief who was placed in foster care but was sufficiently brilliant to win a place in a prestigious private high school. Then, abused by her music teacher, she left and has been serving coffee in a downtown diner. Underage and underemployed, she now lives with three marginally employed males in a building formerly used to house automobile factory laborers converted into low-income housing called La Lapinière, also known by its inhabitants as “The Rabbit Hutch.”
Like all the other characters living there, Blandine, formerly Tiffany, has been re-creating her identity, choosing her name from a book she was reading about female Catholic martyrs and mystics, all of whom appear to have suffered as she has. And from the first sentence we are asked to consider whether her sacrifice—her death or her transubstantiation?—is merely pathetic or something more beatific. At any rate, she is both “trash and cherub,” fond of quoting Hildegard von Bingen, maintaining her balance imaginatively in female and biblical terms. Nonetheless, she’s not sure she is a believer. So doubt and the death of spirituality are two of the questions The Rabbit Hutch aims to raise.
Ostensibly, the action takes place over a single day, the day of Blandine’s transfiguration, but the form of The Rabbit Hutch is, what?, eclectic—though one might just as easily say Gen Z: rich in characters whose own demons are fully explored, with multiple plots and subplots, chapters short and long, some of which could easily be turned into self-contained stories for publication in magazines, little magazines, or perhaps online, some containing self-enclosed arguments about the destructiveness of social media or adult predation, climate-assisted flooding and commercial and industrial destruction of the environ­ment, clusters of meaning with splendid metaphoric devices (like using the prolixity and vulnerability of rabbits as a stand-in for people), but all about the effects on a variety of damaged individuals, not just Blandine with her personal spiritual issues but also the other vulnerable creatures who inhabit The Rabbit Hutch with their sad histories. That said, Gunty (or is it only Blandine) is very forgiving of individual predators and perpetrators in the novel, for they are damaged too. And if there is a drawback to all this, it comes from being almost too rich, too much the complete MFA thesis, for the novel to withstand.
Finally, Margaret Atwood’s collection of fifteen short stories Old Babes in the Wood[7] displays a full range of the talents and interests that have made her famous. She is, of course, the author of more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and, except for the Nobel, has won virtually every important prize. This volume is her first collection of short fiction since 2014, and the first since the death of her longtime partner Graeme Gibson in 2019.
Framed by two sections of three and four stories respectively, entitled inversely “Tig & Nell” and “Nell & Tig,” much of the book explores love, life, memory, and loss, in their fuller meaning for a couple now in old age: Atwood is 83. The first three stories deal with subjects like learning about wellness by people who have experienced life’s disasters and are in little need of being patronized in turn, also with the memory of friends from the war and how life, in its contradictions, has worked out since then, and finally the death of a favorite pet memorialized in poetry modeled on Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur.” Stories in the later section focus on widowhood (Tig has died) and memories not only of him but also of his father—the Jolly Old Brigadier—and the impossibility of truly capturing or understanding the lives of those now gone: who they were, what they felt, or their secret thoughts or ambitions, also a story about mastering the language of widowhood, and figuring out what to do with the clutter of leftover objects, each with importance beyond its value, and finally, in the title story, how to go about surviving with your friend, a fellow widow, through loss of memory when the cabin is in need of repair. Clear-eyed, thoughtful, comical, and wise, no better stories exist that humanize the complexities of aging.
Between these bookend sections is a middle section entitled, “My Evil Mother,” of eight additional stories exploring similar themes but with a wider range of subject matter, imagination, and ironic intent while touching on most of the subject areas—intellectual, cultural, feminist, Canadian, apocalyptic, and scientific—she has dealt with in the past. “My Evil Mother,” the title story, deals with inheritance of a certain improbable style of motherly instruction, whereas “The Dead Interview” is an interview, as it happens, with Orwell post vitam. After that, Atwood borrows imaginatively from Boccaccio in “Impatient Griselda” and late-feminist backbiting in the comedic “Bad Teeth.” Next, “Death by Clamshell” reports on the martyrdom of Hypatia of Alexandria, c. AD 360–415, female “Martyr to philosophy” now speaking ad astra and happy not to “have to endure the indignities of extreme old age.”“Freeforall” indulges Atwood’s taste for speculative fiction in a story about a future when sexually transmitted diseases threaten to take over humanity and posit a need for an outlet for desire, followed by “Metempsychosis” about what happens when the reborn soul of a snail inhabits a human consciousness. Then there is “Airborne,” a snarky feminist gathering, over cocktails, about who is to inherit their work.
Altogether these stories instruct and entertain in the superlative manner we expect from Atwood, first among equals not to have won a Nobel Prize.
[1] LOOK AT THE LIGHTS, MY LOVE, by Annie Ernaux, trans. by Alison L. Strayer. Yale University Press. $16.00p. Original title: Regarde les lumières mon amour.
[2] GETTING LOST, by Annie Ernaux, trans. by Alison L. Strayer. Seven Stories Press. $18.95p. Original title: Se perdre.
[3] THE EASY LIFE, by Marguerite Duras, trans. by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan. Bloomsbury Publishing. $18.00p. Original title: La vie tranquille.
[4] FOSTER, by Claire Keegan. Grove Press. $20.00.
[5] SILVER ALERT, by Lee Smith. Algonquin Books. $27.00.
[6] THE RABBIT HUTCH, by Tess Gunty. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.00.
[7] OLD BABES IN THE WOOD, by Margaret Atwood. Doubleday. $30.00.