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