Annie Ernaux is known in her native France for her unflagging truth-telling, whether she is writing about her mother’s life in “A Woman’s Story” or a recollection of a love affair with a younger man, as in “Simple Passions.”
Her fans have come to expect from her prose a limpid perfection, an uncluttered Gallic grace, words arranged in harmony, just so, reminiscent of the flare of a perfect scarf, the pleasure of obscure greens, the lure of the Seine at the end of the day. Her most recent work, “A Frozen Woman,” translated by Linda Cloverdale, is no exception.
In this slim volume with its headlong rush of memory and meditation, she explores her place as a female in French society from birth on, weighing the expectations of her parents (high and refreshingly free of sexism) against the inevitable social pressures (intense) mingled with her own insecurities (massive).
Venting a feminist passion that seems almost dated in its intensity, the book begins with a litany of the women who populated the author’s childhood--her grandmother and her many aunts and great aunts. Ernaux lunges through the Rolodex of ancestors searching for the so-called perfect female model, the “good fairies of the home,” but instead finds women who disappoint with their too-loud voices, bodies “too fat or too flat, sandpapery fingers, faces without a trace of makeup or else slathered in it, with big blotches of color on the cheeks and lips.”
Her mother comes closest to serving as a beacon, not because she was perfect but precisely the opposite. She had only one true domestic obsession: an intolerance for unmade beds. She and Ernaux’s father were employed as equal partners and proprietors of a small grocery. It is her mother who tells Ernaux she must “be someone” and who insists on a good report card, offering praise for high grades in the academic subjects and easily forgiving the low marks in more traditionally female strong suits such as sewing and conduct.
“I know,” the author writes, “that I was spared at least one shadow over my youth, the idea that little girls are gentle and weak, inferior to boys and that they have different roles to play. For a long time the only world I know is the one where my father cooks and sings nursery rhymes to me, where my mother takes me out to a restaurant and keeps the family accounts.”
From such unusual egalitarian roots one would expect a daughter to be spared at least some of the gender expectations that can be so imprisoning.
Not so for Ernaux. Confirming our worst fears about biology being destiny, the author delineates a girlhood and adolescence at times crippled with the classic misgivings girls have about their place in a world where they are valued mostly for their looks, and the discomfort of feeling most alive when seen by boys, when viewed as objects of desire.
She is sidetracked by her sexual urges, the mystery of the flesh and its not-so-hidden power. She begins to long for her period so that one day she can be a girl who “struts about in a halo of red glory.”
Yet she also begins to experience dissatisfaction with her form, to long for the parts of others--her friend Roseline’s long, blond hair, Francoise’s pretty cheeks, Jeanne’s slim frame: “The body under constant surveillance and restraint, abruptly shattered into a heap of pieces--eyes, skin, hair--that must be dealt with one by one to reach perfection.”
The teachers at her school fill her with stories of the martyred female saints, urging on Ernaux and her schoolmates a life of renunciation. The author comes under the spell of a friend named Brigitte, who is so boy-crazy that “even star-gazing is turned to good use: if you count nine of them for nine days running, then you’ll dream of the man you’ll marry.”
She suffers under the burden of the double standard, in which boys are described as the victims of a “sudden, imperious impulse they cannot control” and girls--who are never expected to suffer such sudden, imperious impulses--must be on guard against the boys. She begins to resent her virginity, “that mute and tiresome scrap of skin.” When a boy happens to give Brigitte and the young Annie the compliment of a glance, they are humbled by their gratitude: “Flattered that he chose us, when there’s so much better around. The murmurs of slaves. . . .”
When she eventually marries, she finds herself often compromising, rising to quell the hiss on the stove: “I don’t kick, scream out coldly announce well today’s your turn. . . . Just some pointed allusions, some tart remarks . . . is it really worth jeopardizing our happy times together by fighting about peeling potatoes?”
She becomes pregnant, considers abortion, then affirms her desire to have a child. “Why choose yes,” she writes. As a couple, she supposes, they wanted to “ward off a breakup, to transform what was only chance into fate.” She surmises her husband must have liked to see his virility confirmed. For herself, the desire to live one’s femaleness to the hilt and, perhaps, for revenge, to draw him away from his Bach and his studies into the real world of diapers and developmental milestones.
Kiddo, as the child is called in the book, arrives, and soon follows a nice apartment, furnished fetchingly, and then the profound loneliness of a young mother, no longer out in the world, left behind to spend her hours “keeping a mayonnaise from separating, or turning Kiddo’s tears to smiles.” For two years, still young, she sees “all the freedom in my life hang by the head of a dozing child.”
The final pages of the book are a primer in domestic suffocation. The joy that might have been inspired by the birth of one son, then another, are swallowed up by the writer’s envy of her husband and her tendency to devalue anything female--the souffle, the stroller, the stove. She imagines that as time goes on she will become one of the brittle older women she sees from time to time, “a frozen woman.”
The basic message of Ernaux’s book seems to confirm the old French bromide: The more things change, the more they stay the same. The pitch and fever of her account is indeed retro, reminiscent of the “I was a runaway housewife” articles that sprouted up in American magazines in the late 1960s.
There is a curious contradiction at the heart of this book, a baffling irony: While lamenting her life as a wife and mother as shadowed and weak and filled with self-abnegation, she writes on these very subjects with a spunk and energy and intimacy that could only have been the product of a strong, self-assured woman.