Challenging Autobiography: Lost Object and Aesthetic Object in Ernaux's 'Une Femme.' (Author Annie Ernaux)

By Hutton, M. -A. | Journal of European Studies, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Challenging Autobiography: Lost Object and Aesthetic Object in Ernaux's 'Une Femme.' (Author Annie Ernaux)


Hutton, M. -A., Journal of European Studies


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. …

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