Annie Ernaux’s Do What They Say or Else is a matter-of-fact coming of age story set in Normandy, France, in the late 1960s. It’s not sweet or sentimental. It’s straightforward and refreshing. Simple and profound.
Anne is 15 and a half, bored, disgusted by her parents, and intensely curious about sex. Sounds about right. She is suffering through the summer before she starts high school. This is the summer she begins to leave her parents behind and experiment with being an adult. She has secrets, which she is happy to share with the reader, but not with her parents. Smart decision.
One secret is “if I had to die, in a war for example, I would throw myself at the first guy who came along.” So would I. She is wise and makes keen observations – such as perverts start to “come out in March like the primroses.” Or this one about her parents: “you have to keep your mouth shut all the time so you won’t hurt their feelings.” She has just read Camus’ The Stranger and is deeply affected. She would love to discuss the book with her parents, but she knows they will not find that normal.
Like all teenagers, Anne is cynical but also naive. “There must come a day when everything is clear, when everything falls into place.” If only. Anne is a wonderful narrator because she’s curious about everything and insightful. She is every 15 year old I remember being, and it is fascinating to listen to her as she navigates to adulthood. “Curiosity is normal at my age: it would be strange if that wasn’t the case, except that for girls, curiosity can lead to anything, and it’s frowned upon.” Anne ain’t wrong.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor
Don’t read this book. It’s a fraud.
I don’t normally give book reviews, because I don’t normally read books. They’re a waste of time, and this one sure was.
First, it bills itself as a memoir. Now, when I think of memoir, I think of great men, like myself, doing great things, like own hotels. To my surprise, this memoir was written by a woman. I was immediately suspicious. What has she ever done? The answer is nothing. She rides trains all day and makes observations. I could do that, but I have better things to do. And for this kind of crap someone decided this Annie Ernaux woman should be awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature. It just confirms why I never had any respect for that award.
Second, Annie Ernaux has no friends. Nor should she. She’s a voyeur who is obsessed with eavesdropping on strangers – as if strangers can tell us anything about ourselves or our world. Yet, she seems to think so. Here’s something stupid she said. “It is other people – anonymous figures glimpsed in the subway or in waiting rooms – who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.”
The only time a stranger ripples me is when she’s sexy. Then the hunt is on, and she won’t be a stranger for long.
Knowgood Carp, Owner of all the Hotels on Block Island and some in Connecticut
When Annie Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, I had only one question. Who is Annie Ernaux? Why have I never heard of her? Is she French or something? That’s where the internet comes in handy. She’s French. Regardless, I picked up one of her books, Exteriors, which was first published in English in 1996. It’s short, curious and rewarding.
Ms. Ernaux believes a “hypermarket (supermarket) can provide just as much meaning and human truth as a concert hall.” That concept has been expressed before, but not quite the way Ms. Ernaux presents it. She writes in a hyper-detached style, as if she’s a scientist. She focuses only on the essential. Unicorns do not prance on these pages. Exteriors purports to be a memoir, but there is no sustained narrative. The book consists of written snapshots of complete strangers. Her observations are more akin to sparse journal entries.
Still, it is literary and themes do emerge. Ms. Ernaux describes contemporary society as purely transactional. Tacky consumerism pervades everything. She’s not a fan of the ruling classes either. Their obvious disdain for the working classes is oppressive and depressing. The few relationships presented tend to be dysfunctional. Ms. Ernaux does not interact with anyone except the reader.
So why does Ms. Ernaux write about the strangers she observes on the train or at the mall? I enjoy being a voyeur as much as anyone, but is this mere voyeurism? Ms. Ernaux thinks not. “It is other people – anonymous figures glimpsed in the subway or in waiting rooms – who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.”
In a crass world, there can still be profound connections, even with strangers. A child on the train reminds Ms. Ernaux of her sons when they were young. A woman waiting in line reminds her of her deceased mother. “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 . . . 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 . . . must secretly play a role in the lives of others.”
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor