Annie Ernaux’s unembellished memoir of her father, is deliberately devoid of florid or gilded prose. It is a simple story of an ordinary farmer, turned laborer, turned struggling shopkeeper in Northern France in mid-twentieth century. “A Man’s Place” is as much about the culture of rural France before and after World War II, as it is a story about a man and a father. Her father, essentially uneducated, improved upon the education of his strict father. Her father fears the real and the imagined pettiness of neighbors and relatives. He is apolitical, not laborer, nor bourgeois. He quietly revels in his daughter passing her Certificat d’Aptitude and becoming a teacher while staying within his class. She borders on embarrassment, as her emotional and physical distance from her father and mother grows. She and her husband are bourgeois. There is love between parents and daughter. She knows and appreciates her father and mother survived so that she might do better.
The cursory description of survival was for me a weakness of the book. It is attributable, in part, to the daughter’s limited experience or knowledge. In part, to her father’s acceptance of life “as is”; to finding as much happiness in the moment as is possible. Nonetheless, it is a recitation of a life. There may not be emotion to survival, just survival. How well do children know their parents’ lives?
The emotional shell that enveloped the “Greatest Generation” was protective. Torment untold, is torment not revisited. It is antithetical to their progeny who are open books.
Ms. Ernaux won the Prix Renaudot for this work, which was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a New York Times Notable Book. At 90 pages it is an extended short story. As a cultural history of rural northern France during the mid-1900s it is worth an evening read.