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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Rey

Where do we write from ?


Annie Ernaux
Annie Ernaux

Text published in the online journal Secousse #26 (06/2023) as part of the survey "Is the style right-wing ? " proposed following the award of the 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature to Annie Ernaux. Is the style right ? The question is quite amusing. In truth, the style is no more right-wing than foie gras is right-wing and rillettes are left-wing. A writer's style reflects neither his social condition nor his political opinions. For what ? Because there is nothing spontaneous about style. It is the fruit of a reflection. The style obeys the codes of good language conduct learned in the family, at school and then at university. It is the passport to the country of good writing that will allow once the border crossed to be accepted in the category of true authors, those who know how to write well precisely because they have style. In addition, writers have generally studied, often literary studies - and if they have not studied literature, they are great readers, a quality that all diplomas deserve. It therefore seems unlikely that a writer worthy of the name has never considered the question of style.


If the style is only a surface element, the writer expresses himself on the other hand from an intimate core, a kind of DNA which is his true identity and whose manifestations emerge from time to time in his style, and which sometimes betray it. In this genetic code are combined many elements where not only the influence of the authors who formed his thought can be found, but also his milieu of origin, the language spoken there (classical French, bad French, patois , Creole , etc…), his place of birth (Paris, French province, foreign country, etc…), the job he exercises, the place where he is when he writes (Paris, Cergy, French province, foreign country, prison, detention camp, etc.), his class prejudices, his 1 Machine Translated by Google place, that is to say his position in society, his place in the literary milieu, his age, if he witnessed the great historical turning points of the last century (Second World War, Algerian War, May 68, etc…), his gender (woman or man), his disposition or not to the spiritual life, his religion, and I will add his sexual orientation. This aggregate of elements, the list of which is far from being exhaustive, constitutes the original core from which the thought of an author is expressed because the writer is certainly a solitary animal, but he is also a human being who does not is only a small part of a big whole. He comes from somewhere, that is to say he writes from a specific place even if he is not aware of it.


The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Annie Ernaux has been the subject of controversy. The author is criticized for his “flat writing”. Such criticism comes from those who obviously have not read it. The mastery of his style, the holding of his subject, the choice and the precision of his vocabulary, the construction of his books where there is never a downtime; everything is perfect there. It was said of this controversy - which broke out in France - that it was sexist. What if it was nothing more than a class feud? Which I readily believe. The Literature citadel has traditionally been inhabited by aristocrats and bourgeois who had enough income to take the time to think and write. It goes without saying that this beautiful world, almost exclusively Parisian, was male. Women were the exception until very recently. These authors therefore wrote from a position of "overhanging" - to use Marie-Hélène Lafon's expression - when it was a question of describing not only women, but also the working or peasant class, the world of day laborers, unemployed, street people, marginalized or immigrants.


However, it so happens that for a few decades, a battalion of little people, often small provincials, many of whom still live in the province, have entered the Literature citadel. These are the women and men who today are called class defectors, let's say survivors of the world below. Neither their father nor their mother was Cultural Advisor at the Elysée Palace or factory boss. They come from a background of peasants, immigrants, political refugees, factory workers, small traders, teachers or professors. These authors developed their intellectual curiosity - and consequently became writers, thanks to school and thanks to reading. They are unable to speak of an “overhanging position” because they simply never occupied that position.


What do these authors tell us ? They tell us that we have entered a new “age of suspicion”. In 1956, Nathalie Sarraute suspected authors who were striving to write like Balzac because times had changed. It was now impossible to ignore the influence of Joyce, Proust or Freud. In turn, new writers tell us that times have changed. We have entered a second era of suspicion thanks to thinkers of modernity like Susan Sontag, Judith Butler, Pierre Bourdieu or Michel Serres. This new literature, a non-fictional narrative based on the author's life, casts a new light on society by telling us about “tiny lives” as Pierre Michon calls them. We discover the daily life of a farm boy or a café owner. We can imagine the difficulties encountered by a young homosexual in an environment that rejects him. We learn how passionate love can make us grow or degrade us. We are reminded of the difficulties a woman encountered when she wanted an abortion. We are reminded of the class prejudices that stigmatized a divorcee, the obstacles that a woman had to overcome when she wanted to free herself from her environment where she was condemned to be a stay-at-home mother or destined to work in a factory like her mother and grandmother before her. We are told the story of all those who have been marginalized or ridiculed by the literary world because they were only women. These works adopt new narrative devices: the fragment, the diary, the brief story, the description of photos. Their authors use the tools of sociology. It is a literature of the self without navel-gazing because it speaks to everyone and its aim is universal.


The author no longer denies anything that formed him; it draws directly from its original nucleus, this genetic code which constitutes it.


There are certainly many authors who still enjoy concealing their origin out of modesty, or to escape jeers; and indeed, nothing beats the beautiful style of a decorative language to gain acceptance in the seraglio. When one disapproves of the weakening of the style of certain contemporary novels written in a poor language, one is right. The new literature I'm talking about is different. It voluntarily adopts the style of a language which claims its social and geographical origin by employing its words, its expressions, its regionalisms, its registers of language, because it says the world from below with the words from below. In La place, for example, the expressions of Annie Ernaux's father are printed in italics, without commentary. The author refuses to "take the side of art" in a style that would betray the class to which his father belonged. She writes without frills. Without folklore. And without the famous little music that is the hallmark of traditional fiction.


Fortunately, contemporary literature that mocks the standards of fine style speaks to us because it acts of humility and humanity in order to look at its neighbor without contempt, without hatred and without sexism. If she has a sense of humor, she is never cynical. She comes from the margin and is written in the margin. She will probably never be worthy of the French Academy. Never mind ! It speaks to us, because it rings true. The book is no longer an empty shell whose elegant style hides the misery of the subject. It will be objected that it is nothing other than the fruit of an era! It's wrong. It reflects the adequacy of a style to its time: it is often collected, stripped, rhythmic. His ancestor was certainly Marguerite Duras. And then came Albertine Sarrazin, Violette Leduc, Christiane Rochefort, Pierre Michon, Jean Rouaud, Annie Ernaux, Lydie Salvayre, Catherine Poulain, Marie-Hélène Lafon, and so many other excellent authors. Lots of women on my list, you might say. Yes, it's true. I love women's literature. She is cheeky, different, authentic. She assumes what she writes.

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