[Seven Stories Press; 2021]

Tr. from the French by Tanya Leslie

How do French women do it? How do they stay so thin? How do they dress so well? These are questions that have plagued the universal sisterhood of women for centuries. That is why it’s crucial we read French women’s memoirs, so we can organize our lives accordingly. The slim one I have in hand is Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors, published in French as Journal de dehors in 1993, arriving somewhere in the middle of her “autofiction” career. The book, as the title suggests, gazes at the navel of not the self but of others, possibly finding the self there anyway.

Snark aside, Ernaux’s oeuvre has dealt with the consequences of trying to be “the French woman” — most notably, putting men’s desire above all and hating your own body in the process. These transgressions against the self are peppered throughout her other books that echo one another not just in content but also in the merry-go-round of their French and English titles. There is a volume entitled La Vie Exterieur (2000) published in English as Things Seen in 2010, supporting the view that Ernaux has been writing one narrative in different styles, focusing on different periods of her life.

Exteriors, in Tanya Leslie’s seamless translation, is made up of several vignettes from Ernaux’s life in the small town of Cergy-Pontoise, interspersed with paragraphs in which she explains to the reader why she is recounting these observations. In the short introduction, she also instructs us how to read the book: to pay attention to “the words we use to order a cut of beef” for gleaning the “the violence and shame inherent in society.” Already these two injunctions bring to this reader’s mind Julie Ducournau’s 2016 film Raw, a contemporary tale that gives you a sense of the expense for French women to become French women.

The vignettes start in 1985, when we see train passengers commuting from the suburbs to Paris. Of course, “the suburbs” is a pretty unstable term. Ernaux is describing “a new town 40 kilometers outside of Paris,” so not quite the provinces. On the second page, we encounter a black woman and an Arab man. I have been conditioned, at this point in a French narrative, to expect a side remark on the death of the white male due to all my reading of Michel Houellebecq. None comes. You can look at multicultural France and see something other than what Houellebecq sees, apparently.

However, when it comes to the war of the sexes, the world described by Ernaux matches Houellebecq’s nostalgia perfectly. The fridge and the kitchen are battlegrounds in all Houellebecq novels, with the liberated wife either refusing or not having the talent to cook, and the male protagonist hankering after a France when women were women and men were men. At the butcher’s, Ernaux observes someone say, “I’d like a steak for a man,” invoking a quotidian French world-making in which everything is binary, most of all sex (surely, this is the sentence we have been instructed to look out for in the introduction). Women do all things in a womanly way, men do things in a manly way, and never the twain shall meet. As we have learned from other works of Ernaux, the premium placed on womanly behavior is so high that women learn to look at themselves from the outside at an early age, resulting in Frantz Fanon’s “third-person consciousness.”

Although it is a very thin volume, Ernaux finds the space to further explain to the reader what she’s trying to do. She writes, “Why do I describe and detail this particular scene, like many others in the book?” For readers in 2022, the snippets we get from the ‘80s and ‘90s have a touch of nostalgia and form part of an archive. For Ernaux, of course, what she sees is more immediate: she asks herself when looking at fellow customers or passengers, “Why am I not that woman?” Enfer, c’est les autres, et cetera. However, she could equally wonder why she isn’t the sibling that died of the Spanish flu (her The Years opens with a passing reference to the disease) or the Black woman reading a romance novel. Indeed, Ernaux could even have been the Arab man, and then she would have written a completely different story of how France made you uncomfortable in your own skin.

Later in the narrative, Ernaux’s interest in the body takes her again to the butcher’s where she observes client-shopkeeper dynamics and how the butcher categorizes his customers: “A subconscious ritual is being played out here, celebrating the convivial symbolism of meat, gorged with blood, the family.” Naturally, eaters of halal and kosher meat are barred from this family and “the recurring bliss of Sunday lunches.” The butcher’s, alluded to in the introduction, becomes the fulcrum of Frenchness, an exclusionary space where the steaks are clearly marked for men and women. Further on, the meat takes on a more overtly religious meaning:

From the outside, the Leclerc hypermarket resembles a glass cathedral. Inside, you walk between huge shelves, separated by aisles, when suddenly, at the back of the shop behind a glass partition, you glimpse men and women dressed in white — coats, caps, plastic gloves — cutting up meat. Bloody carcasses hang from hooks. The feeling that, after cramming your trolley with food, you have ended up at a hospital or a morgue.

This close questioning of the meaning of meat takes this reader back to the narrative space of Ducournau’s Raw, where women who are conditioned to venerate meat end up venerating it a bit too much. In its mean campus setting, our vegetarian heroine tries hard to become a Frenchwoman who enjoys meat and sex in ways that are prescribed by her male peers. In the film, the veterinary school itself becomes the cathedral, and the heroine a perverse priestess. The imagery of carcasses finds explicit articulation in the film, with the cinematography very much in conversation with the above paragraph. The film shows us that the answer to “How do French women do it?” is very dark indeed.

As a writer explicitly interested in the mechanics of writing, Ernaux says, “I realize that I am forever combing reality for signs of literature” and listens to conversations in public spaces to understand how narrative works. “[P]ostponing the final twist, heightening the desire of the audience: all story-telling operates along the same lines of eroticism,” she observes. The irony is of course this is not how Ernaux writes at all. Having combed real-life storytelling for narrative ticks, she seems to have grown out of them, seeking another, meta and autofictional register in her own writing.

Ernaux is also interested in other people’s voices and how they tell their stories. She observes a mother-daughter couple on public transport: “Clearly impressed by their own social status, they feel they have the right to share everything they do and say with the other passengers, knowing full well that they are the centre of attention.” They reveal an “[i]ntimacy of a mother-daughter relationship which they see as enviable.”

Her sparse writing may suggest an aloofness, but Ernaux is in fact tuned to how non-white bodies are perceived in “fashionable” French spaces in the ‘90s:

At Hediard, in the smart, fashionable area of the New Town, a black woman wearing a boubou walked into the shop. Immediately, the manager’s gaze became razor sharp, relentlessly pursuing this new customer, who has probably come to the wrong shop, who doesn’t realize she is out of place.

The book also has a very interesting discussion of religious feeling in France. Ernaux shares a report that suggests that the French may verbally insult God but not spit on a crucifix. It is rather refreshing to consider religion in its Christian iteration in France. Ernaux supplies an explanation: “Not because they scorn superstition but simply because they recoil at committing an act whose finality is transgression for its own sake.” However, given how much discourse has been generated around the punching down sort of humour Charlie Hebdo engages and how transgression for its own sake should be protected, I wonder if contemporary French people would agree with Ernaux on this point.

While the world of exteriors does leave impressions on Ernaux, her focus remains her writing. She is forever searching the outside world for signs of intimacy, landing on one in the metro: “a boy and a girl and stroke each other, alternately, as if they were alone in the world. But they know that’s not true: every now and then they stare insolently at other passengers. My heart sinks. I tell myself that this is what writing is for me.” Is this what Ernaux is doing? Staring at her fellow travellers and readers insolently, while she strokes her ego? I am sure, despite her instructions, I am reading her wrong here.

Instead, one can concentrate on how her heart sinks, how she doesn’t want to be quite so self-centered. In any case, she ends the journal entries with the understanding that just as she might be using other people as props for her stories, so do other people use her for theirs. Thus, she invites this reader to cannibalize her narrative, to see her as a symptom of Frenchness, and to comb it for everyday exclusionary practices.

Nagihan Haliloğlu is a lecturer at the Comparative Literature department at Ibn Haldun University.  She has published articles on multiculturalism, modernism, travel writing and contemporary Turkish literature. Her reviews have appeared in The Millions, Full Stop, and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs blog.

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