“Exteriors is perhaps best enjoyed when leafed through at random.”
At the time of writing, Annie Ernaux is the favourite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Her dissections of memory, everyday life, and the interplay of personal insights and stories against a wider historical backdrop – recounted at a stylised distance across some twenty books – have seen her become arguably France’s foremost living author. Recognition in translation is a more recent development, however. In 1996, US independent publisher Seven Stories Press was sufficiently enthused about Ernaux to name her as one of the titular seven writers on the back of whose work the house was established. Nonetheless, it took the translation of The Years – a decade after the book appeared in France, in 2008 – for Ernaux to receive widespread attention and plaudits from English-language media.
Exteriors, which was first published in 1993, is Ernaux’s seventh work to be released by Fitzcarraldo Editions. This slim volume – slim enough to read comfortably in one sitting – takes the form of journal entries written from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. At the book’s opening, the author is living in a new town outside Paris: an experience she describes as having been ‘overwhelming’ at first. Even after growing accustomed to these new surroundings, the way of coping with ‘find[ing] myself in a place suddenly sprung up from nowhere, a place bereft of memories’, was to pay more attention to exteriors: people she sees, graffiti on commuter trains, snippets from the radio, and more. In the foreword, Ernaux stresses that Exteriors should not be read as sociology, but rather ‘an attempt to convey the reality of an epoch’ by considering humdrum routines: a task she recognises is quixotic. “I am sure that you can learn more about yourself by embracing the outside world than by taking refuge in the intimacy of a journal,” Ernaux notes. Other people “reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.”
Exteriors is perhaps best enjoyed when leafed through at random. Many of Ernaux’s quotidian observations on the train and in the supermarket probe and amuse, while giving pause for thought (not least a man on the RER in 1987, who tells passengers that Jean-Marie Le Pen “is for the Arabs, the ones who work.” It’s the ones who cheat that he doesn’t like.) Nonetheless, however well observed Ernaux’s accounts are, even the sharpest of them are surface-level examinations that don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. Some fragments include questionable assumptions about the people the author sees; on a girl “chewing gum vertically”, she notes: “A man watching her could only imagine her slicing his penis and his balls.” Elsewhere, in what seems a particularly ill-judged comparison, Ernaux writes that she is “visited by people and their lives – like a whore.” The epiphany prompted by a teenage couple is possibly more accurate. The pair stare rudely at other passengers between bouts of caressing and arguing. Ernaux’s heart sinks: “I tell myself that this is what writing is for me.”
Words: Stephen Cox