Exteriors, by Annie Ernaux
Having read Exteriors by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie, I now understand more about the inspiration for Lauren Elkin’s book No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus. Both books are journals that record observations of the city, in both cases Paris or its environs, throughout a year or series of years. They both prominently feature public transportation. They both contain some personal writing but focus mostly on the exterior world. Georges Perec’s book in this tradition (which I have not yet read) An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in Paris features more prominently in Elkin’s book than Ernaux’s does, but I heard in an interview how important Exteriors was to Elkin, which is why I picked it up.
As I wrote in my post about Elkin’s book, I’ve been thinking about what makes this style of writing interesting. It’s made up of vignettes with no connecting story and not much authorial presence to make it cohere. What is it about those vignettes that makes them worth reading? I’m still not entirely sure, but I enjoyed both books, at least in part because both Elkin and Ernaux have a good eye for interesting people and situations and details.
Ernaux’s book came out in 1993, and the journal entries cover the years 1985-1992. They describe people on trains, in supermarkets and hair salons, and out on the streets of Cergy-Pontoise, a new (at the time) town 40 kilometers outside Paris. The entries are vibrant and funny and strange. She’s particularly good at capturing overheard conversations among friends, the behavior of young children, interactions between store clerks and customers, and walking through stores and malls, falling under the spell of consumerism along with the crowd.
Like Elkin, Ernaux spends some time pondering the project itself, although not much — most of this book is her observations and only occasionally does it get self-reflective. In one of these sections, she describes the value of this kind of writing for herself as a writer:
…committing to paper the movements, postures and words of the people I meet gives me the illusion that I am close to them. I don’t speak to them, I only watch them and listen to them. Yet the emotions they arouse in me are real. I may also be trying to discover something about myself through them, their attitudes or their conversations.
This makes sense from a writer’s perspective: she is keeping a journal to feel a connection to other people and to better understand herself. Later in the book she admits to finding these fragments frustrating, since they aren’t part of a larger cohesive narrative, but still,
I have this need to record scenes glimpsed on the RER, and people’s words and gestures simply for their own sake, without any ulterior motive.
There is value in paying attention to what is around her because what is in the world matters. She wants to record the world as it is. But even here, she is arguing for what this offers her, personally. This writing meets her own needs. But what about the reader? Why not just keep a private journal and leave it at that?
One possible answer comes at the book’s very end when she writes about the value other people hold for her, people whom she will never see again:
So it is outside my own life that my past existence lies: in passengers commuting on the subway or the RER; in shoppers glimpsed on escalators at Auchan or in the Galeries Lafayette; in complete strangers who cannot know that they possess part of my story; in faces and bodies which I shall never see again. In the same way, I myself, anonymous among the bustling crowds on streets and in department stores, must secretly play a role in the live of others.
Other people tell us who we are; other people hold our stories and histories in the way they remind us of ourselves or the people we know. As happens to Ernaux, strangers can bring back memories that evoke happiness or shame. Human beings are porous and interdependent; boundaries among people are not as distinct as we sometimes think.
By not including many biographical details and instead focusing on the people and scenes around her, Ernaux enacts this porousness. We know she’s there as a narrator, we sometimes see her thoughts and emotions, but mostly she’s a conduit between the world around her and the reader, letting us glimpse other people’s lives and affect us too.
She also becomes a model for how to pay attention. Reading this book reminded me of how, for a while when I was much younger, I kept a little journal in order to record whatever caught my eye that was interesting and strange. I didn’t write about myself, but described something I observed, one small thing, in a very short paragraph or maybe just a sentence. I wanted to practice seeing the world.
This explains, perhaps, why I like Elkin’s and Ernaux’s books — I’m drawn by nature to this kind of record-keeping — but surely it’s something many people value. We don’t want to sleepwalk through our lives. Reading Ernaux might make us look at the world a little more carefully.
It doesn’t hurt that both books are short, as is Perec’s: if they were longer, we might feel bogged down in details that don’t add up to a larger narrative. But as it is, they show us a bit of the world we haven’t been able to see for ourselves and get us to think about strangers we’ve never met and never will meet and show them as interesting and important. They get us to think about how much strangers matter in our own lives — a lot, given these pandemic times — and then we’re done.
Publishing This Week
New books out recently that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. All quotations below are from the publisher:
The Vanished Collection by Pauline Baer de Perignon, translated by Natasha Lehrer (New Vessel Press): “Pauline Baer de Perignon knew little to nothing about [her great-grandfather], or about his vanished, precious art collection. But the list drove her on a frenzied trail of research in the archives of the Louvre and the Dresden museums, through Gestapo records, and to consult with Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano.”
This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris (Catapult): “A Black mother bumps up against the limits of everything she thought she believed--about science and medicine, about motherhood, and about her faith--in search of the truth about her son.”
Fear of Black Consciousness by Lewis R. Gordon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Gordon “takes the reader on a journey through the historical development of racialized Blackness, the problems this kind of consciousness produces, and the many creative responses from Black and non-Black communities in contemporary struggles for dignity and freedom.”
High Risk Homosexual: A Memoir by Edgar Gomez (Soft Skull): This memoir “traces a touching and often hilarious spiralic path to embracing a gay, Latinx identity against a culture of machismo--from a cockfighting ring in Nicaragua to cities across the U.S.--and the bath houses, night clubs, and drag queens who help redefine pride.”
Lost & Found: A Memoir by Kathryn Schulz (Random House): “Eighteen months before Kathryn Schulz's beloved father died, she met the woman she would marry. In Lost & Found, she weaves the stories of those relationships into a brilliant exploration of how all our lives are shaped by loss and discovery.”
The Love Parade by Sergio Pitol, translated by George Henson (Deep Vellum): “Following the chance discovery of certain documents, a historian sets out to unravel the mystery of a murder committed in his childhood Mexico City home in the autumn of 1942.”
New on the TBR
New books acquired:
The Plains by Gerald Murnane (1982; Text Publishing Company, 2017): Gerald Murnane is a name I’ve heard often, and he sounds like someone I’d like; I’m particularly intrigued by this Teju Cole blurb: “Murnane, a genius, is a worthy heir to Beckett.”
Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison (2002; Counterpoint, 2018): The main character’s name is Money Breton!
How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: Essays by Kiese Laymon (2013; Revised edition from Scribner, 2020): I read the 2013 version of this book and liked it a lot, but this is a revised, updated version reissued after Laymon bought the rights back from his first publisher. I’m curious to see how the book has changed.
Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott (Coach House Books, 2004): This is an anthology of experimental fiction writers describing their ideas about narrative.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953; Vintage, 2013): I’m now ready to read more Baldwin, beginning with this one, his first novel.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury, 2021): I’m slowly reading through this essay collection about being female.
Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson (1915): I’m going to start reading the first volume in the Pilgrimage series today. For anyone interested in these books, here’s an excellent website with lots of useful information.
The Cormac Report
Every time Cormac asks me what the book I’m reading is about, I answer with something like “Oh, it’s about the author’s life” or “It’s a novel about regular people living their lives.” Sometimes I’ll give details; other times I’ll avoid giving details because it’s a subject I don’t want to discuss (Melissa Febos’s essays in Girlhood is a good example — no, I don’t want to describe her essays on sexual harassment and assault).
Either way, he thinks my reading is boring: “You’re always reading about boring people and their boring lives!” Which is basically true! I love reading about people’s boring lives, as long as the books are well-written. It’s hard to explain to a kid who loves to read about dragons why the books I read are interesting. Maybe he’ll get it when he’s older, or maybe he’ll continue reading about dragons and shaking his head over my reading choices. To be honest, I find his books about dragons kind of boring — so unrealistic! Who cares about made-up creatures fighting battles! But, as the adult, I keep my mouth shut about that.
Have a good week everyone!