Things Seen: A Review of Annie Ernaux’s Book from Lanie Tankard

My thoughtful friend Lanie Tankard, knowing that I was in the midst of that wrenching process known as moving, sent me another delicious review. I loved the idea of books as food that she borrows from Annie Ernaux. Her description of this book as an amuse- bouche was perfect, don’t you think? Hope it makes you hungry to read! Bon appetit!

Annie Ernaux

Things Seen

by Annie Ernaux

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010

Available in hardcover and paperback.

Translated by Jonathan Kaplansky

Foreword by Brian Evenson

French Voices Award

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

Annie Ernaux sees things and makes notes about them. Anyone who keeps a journal does the same. In fact, her latest book, Things Seen, takes the form of a journal with select dated entries spanning the years 1993–1999. This journal, however, is unique. Writers of memoir can learn much about the ability to observe sharply and clearly from reading it. So can journalists and bloggers.

This respected French writer has already published memoirs about her childhood and the lives of each of her parents, as well as several novels that are autobiographical.

Ernaux’s focal point in Things Seen is the edge.  Her concentration is riveted on contrasts, even though the things she observes are witnessed during ordinary repetitive activities — riding the subway, driving a car, waiting for a medical appointment, hearing the daily news.  She writes sans snark, a rarity in the current era. Her approach is clinical and minimalist, with nary a stray word in the entire 92-page book.

Self-awareness provides Ernaux with the ability to place things seen into a larger context and finally to evaluate their effect. Such talent imbues this deceptively simple and slim volume with such integrity and purpose that the reader is almost forced into a slow savoring of each journal entry as a single amuse-bouche before realizing that together they constitute an entire gourmet meal.

Ernaux is a participant observer of culture, society, and individual responses to the Zeitgeist. She paints with the alphabet as René Magritte wrote with pigments, each producing images of day-to-day events that create awareness of the human condition. Both Ernaux and Magritte force us to be attentive to our surroundings. And yet ultimately, she writes, “Things seen in the outside world require everything; most works of art, nothing.”

She notices the sensation of time passing as well as the need to be noticed. She writes of irony —in mother/daughter interactions, journalism, distant realities, marketing, and social welfare. She makes keen comments about writing as habit, memories as color versus black/white images, reading as food, and the writerly life.

I have always wanted to live in Paris. Thanks to Annie Ernaux, I feel as though I had a brief sojourn there. Yet I am also aware that while each of us has her own city, we both inhabit the same terrain — that of our shared humanity.

C’est la Vie.

Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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