SHAME by Annie Ernaux


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Acclaimed French minimalist Ernaux (Exteriors, 1996, etc.), who has previously created docufictional versions of her past, now takes a violent incident from her childhood and turns it into a work of memory and meditation. On a Sunday in June after attending Mass, she witnessed her father try to kill her mother. The year was 1952, and the author was going on 12. Her parents had been quarreling and her father was reacting to her mother’s provocations. For the child who saw the attempt, life would never be the same, for from that day on she became aware of the sensation of shame and of seeing all subsequent embarrassments as colored by that event. It becomes the explanatory figure in this very tiny literary carpet she weaves around it. Her family aspired to something better for themselves: She went to private school, her mother was a regular church attendee, and they lived in a respectable quarter of the town. Now they were no better than those they despised for drawing attention to themselves by behaving in uncouth ways. She describes what life was like in her native town in 1952: the fashions, the events, and the town itself. Next, she recalls the moments of shame that now shadow her life: A schoolteacher sees her mother in a soiled nightgown, and she has her own humiliating encounter with a snobbish young girl during a family trip to Lourdes. She notes all the rules her family and school expected her to observe. But, as the author learned, all these anxious acts of propitiation and obedience can be nullified in an instant—respectability, like civilization, is a very fragile fabric. Intense and relentlessly earnest, but as usual Ernaux excels at capturing the exact emotion of an event and an era. Only the French can write, read, and buy such a book in great numbers.

Pub Date: June 15th, 1998
ISBN: 1-888363-69-X
Page count: 112pp
Publisher: Seven Stories
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1998


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