Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Ernaux's best subject is Ernaux. Her autobiographical novels like Cleaned Out, A Woman's Story, A Man's Place and Simple Passion succeeded brilliantly because Ernaux is mordantly critical of every characterespecially her own. As the title suggests, this isn't a meditation on Ernaux's inner workings but rather a writer's notebook of observations from which Ernaux herself is largely absent. Most of the pieces arise from rail trips between Paris and her home in Cergy-Pontoise, "a new town 40 kilometers outside of Paris." Ernaux's keenest insights are into the uncomfortable relationships between those who live on society's fringes and those more securely in its center. She describes a man leaning against a wall in a subway corridor: "He was not asking for money. Drawing level with him, one noticed that his fly was open, revealing his balls. An unbearable sighta shattering form of dignity." She recalls pedestrians who carefully avoid a section of pavement inscribed by an absent petitioner: "To buy food. I have no family.'' Contrasted with this is the tortured relationship between people and materialism. "I realize," she says, "that I am forever combing reality for signs of literature." But these are just signs. Assembled in this loose and largely unremarkable series of vignettes, they are not yet literature. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
French novelist/memoirist Ernaux (A Frozen Woman, 1995, etc.) turns conversations overheard and people and places observed into a disturbingly effective documentary record of modern life. Moving outside Paris into one of those ``new towns'' with fabricated city centers and enclosed malls featuring vast stores, Ernaux, trying to understand a place with no past, began keeping a journal. In it she ``sought to describe reality as through the eyes of a photographer,'' trying always to avoid any subjective judgments or reactions, though, inevitably, some people or situations reminded her of her own life and family. A cool writer with an eye for the telling detail, Ernaux collected a variety of precise observations and insights in places as varied as a butcher shop and a Parisian lingerie boutique. Some of the entries, which begin in 1985 and end in 1992, are nearly a page long, others only one or two pithy sentences. Ernaux's France is a gritty, tough- minded place where superstores are the new cathedrals, subways have replaced commuter trains (``you enter Paris along underground tunnels, amid artificial lights, not knowing where you are''), and beggars offer a jarring contrast to the omnipresent consumerism. She watches people on the streets, in the stores, on the subway: a young woman unwrapping her purchases and happily admiring them; a homeless man unself-consciously examining his belly and adjusting his socks; and a mother and daughter in sweat suits and white socks, talking loudly as they ``act out the intimacy of a mother- to-daughter relationship which they see as enviable.'' Even the most mundane activities are, for Ernaux, portents of a rapidly changing world increasingly removed from the one she knew as a child and young adult. Our age's angsts distilled to a wrenching clarity by a writer who knows how to look--and what to look for. (Author tour)
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