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Shame

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"My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon," begins Shame, the probing story of the twelve-year-old girl who will become the author herself, and the single traumatic memory that will echo and resonate throughout her life. With the emotionally rich voice of great fiction and the diamond-sharp analytical eye of a scientist, Annie Ernaux provides a powerful reflection on experience and the power of violent memory to endure through time, to determine the course of a life.

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Overview

"My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon," begins Shame, the probing story of the twelve-year-old girl who will become the author herself, and the single traumatic memory that will echo and resonate throughout her life. With the emotionally rich voice of great fiction and the diamond-sharp analytical eye of a scientist, Annie Ernaux provides a powerful reflection on experience and the power of violent memory to endure through time, to determine the course of a life.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Bernstein
[An]. . .affecting wisp of a memoir. . . .Shame. . .is the mature woman's vision of herself at the moment when childhood innocence was replaced by shattering childhood terror. . . .[The book] contains . ..[a] sense of wonderment at the silently watching child that never really leaves us. — The New York Times
Le Monde
Impeccable... Just as Simple Passion was a book about the desire to name, Shame is about wanting to know... All who wish to know a bit more about themselves must read Annie Ernaux.
L'Express
Shame is electrifying and overwhelming.
Richard Bernstein
[An]. . .affecting wisp of a memoir. . . .Shame. . .is the mature woman's vision of herself at the moment when childhood innocence was replaced by shattering childhood terror. . . .[The book] contains . ..[a] sense of wonderment at the silently watching child that never really leaves us. -- The New York Times
Claire Messud
The careful, unflinching specificities of Shame give voice to a resonant and universal truth; and Ernaux's particular discomfort is, most profoundly, that of being human. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed French minimalist Ernaux, who has previously created docu-fictional versions of her past, now takes a violent incident from her childhood and turns it into a work of memory and meditation. On a Sunday in June after attending Mass, she witnessed her father try to kill her mother. The year was 1952, and the author was going on 12. Her parents had been quarreling and her father was reacting to her mother's provocations. For the child who saw the attempt, life would never be the same, for from that day on she became aware of the sensation of shame and of seeing all subsequent embarrassments as colored by that event. It becomes the explanatory figure in this very tiny literary carpet she weaves around it. Her family aspired to something better for themselves: She went to private school, her mother was a regular church attendee, and they lived in a respectable quarter of the town. Now they were no better than those they despised for drawing attention to themselves by behaving in uncouth ways. She describes what life was like in her native town in 1952: the fashions, the events, and the town itself. Next, she recalls the moments of shame that now shadow her life: A schoolteacher sees her mother in a soiled nightgown, and she has her own humiliating encounter with a snobbish young girl during a family trip to Lourdes. She notes all the rules her family and school expected her to observe. But, as the author learned, all these anxious acts of propitiation and obedience can be nullified in an instant—respectability, like civilization, is a very fragile fabric. Intense and relentlessly earnest, but as usual Ernaux excels at capturing the exact emotion of an event and anera.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781888363692
  • Publisher: Seven Stories Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/1998
  • Edition description: A SEVEN ST
  • Pages: 114
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in 1940, ANNIE ERNAUX grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and began teaching high school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. She won the prestigious Prix Renaudot for A Man's Place when it was first published in French in 1984. The English edition was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The English edition of A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book.

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First Chapter


Chapter One

My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon. I had been to Mass at a quarter to twelve as usual. I must have brought back some cakes from the baker in the new shopping precinct--a cluster of temporary buildings erected after the war while reconstruction was under way. When I got home, I took off my Sunday clothes and slipped on a dress that washed easily. After the customers had left and the shutters had been pinned down over the store window, we had lunch, probably with the radio on, because at that hour there was a funny program called Courtroom, in which Yves Deniaud played some wretched subordinate continually charged with the most preposterous offenses and condemned to ridiculous sentences by a judge with a quavering voice. My mother was in a bad temper. The argument she started with my father as soon as she sat down lasted throughout the meal. After the table was cleared and the oilcloth wiped clean, she continued to fire criticism at my father, turning round and round in the tiny kitchen--squeezed in between the cafe, the store and the steps leading upstairs--as she always did when she was upset. My father was still seated at the table, saying nothing, his head turned toward the window. Suddenly he began to wheeze and was seized with convulsive shaking. He stood up and I saw him grab hold of my mother and drag her through the cafe, shouting in a hoarse, unfamiliar voice. I rushed upstairs and threw myself on to the bed, my face buried in a cushion. Then I heard my mother scream: "My daughter!" Her voice came from the cellar adjoining the cafe. I rushed downstairs, shouting "Help!" as loud as I could. In the poorly-lit cellar, my father had grabbed my mother by the shoulders, or maybe the neck. In his other hand, he was holding the scythe for cutting firewood which he had wrenched away from the block where it belonged. At this point all I can remember are sobs and screams. Then the three of us are back in the kitchen again. My father is sitting by the window, my mother is standing near the cooker and I am crouching at the foot of the stairs. I can't stop crying. My father wasn't his normal self; his hands were still trembling and he had that unfamiliar voice. He kept on repeating, "Why are you crying? I didn't do anything to you." I can recall saying this sentence, "You'll breathe disaster on me." My mother was saying, "Come on, it's over." Afterward the three of us went for a bicycle ride in the countryside nearby. When they got back, my parents opened the cafe like they did every Sunday evening. That was the end of it.

    It was June 15, 1952. The first date I remember with unerring accuracy from my childhood. Before that, the days and dates inscribed on the blackboard and in my copybooks seemed just to drift by.

Later on, I would say to certain men: "My father tried to kill my mother just before I turned twelve." The fact that I wanted to tell them this meant that I was crazy about them. All were quiet after hearing the sentence. I realized that I had made a mistake, that they were not able to accept such a thing.

This is the first time I am writing about what happened. Until now, I have found it impossible to do so, even in my diary. I considered writing about it to be a forbidden act that would call for punishment. Not being able to write anything else afterward, for instance. (I felt quite relieved just now when I saw that I could go on writing, that nothing terrible had happened.) In fact, now that I have finally committed it to paper, I feel that it is an ordinary incident, far more common among families than I had originally thought. It may be that narrative, any kind of narrative, lends normality to people's deeds, including the most dramatic ones. But because this scene has remained frozen inside me, an image empty of speech--except for the sentence I told my lovers--the words which I have used to describe it seem strange, almost incongruous. It has become a scene destined for other people.

Before starting, I reckoned I would be able to recall every single detail. It turns out I can remember only the general atmosphere, our respective places in the kitchen and a few words or expressions. I've forgotten how the argument actually started, what we had to eat and whether my mother was still wearing her white storekeeper's coat or whether she had taken it off in view of the bicycle ride. I have no particular memory of that Sunday morning besides the usual routine--attending Mass, buying the cakes and so on--although I have often had to think back to the time before it happened, as I would do later on for other events in my life. Yet I am sure I was wearing my blue dress, the one with white spots, because during the two summers that followed, every time I put it on, I would think, "it's the dress I wore that day." Of the weather too I am quite sure--a combination of sun, clouds and wind.

From then on, that Sunday was like a veil that came between me and everything I did. I would play, I would read, I would behave normally but somehow I wasn't there. Everything had become artificial. I had trouble learning my lessons, when before I only needed to read them once to know them by heart. Acutely aware of everything around me and yet unable to concentrate, I lost my insouciance and natural ability to learn.

What had happened was not something that could be judged. My father, who loved me, had tried to kill my mother, who also loved me. Because my mother was more religious than my father and because she did the accounts and spoke to my schoolmistresses, I suppose I thought it normal for her to shout at him the same way she shouted at me. It was no one's fault, no one was to blame. I just had to stop my father from killing my mother and going to jail.

I believe that for months, maybe even years, I waited for the scene to be repeated. I was positive it would happen again. I found the presence of customers comforting, dreading the moments when my parents and I were alone, in the evening and on Sunday afternoons. I was on the alert as soon as they raised their voices; I would scrutinize my father, his expression, his hands. In every sudden silence I would read the omens of disaster. Every day at school I wondered whether, on returning home, I would be faced with the aftermath of a tragedy.

When they did show signs of affection for each other--joking, sharing a laugh or a smile--I imagined I had gone back to the time before that day. It was just a "bad dream." One hour later I realized that these signs only meant something at the time; they offered no guarantee for the future.

Around that time a strange song was often heard on the radio, mimicking a fight that suddenly breaks out in a saloon: there was a pause, a voice whispered, "you could have heard a pin drop," followed by a cacophony of shouts and jumbled sentences. Every time I heard it I was seized with panic. One day my uncle handed me the detective story he was reading: "What would you do if your father was accused of murder but wasn't guilty?" The question sent a chill down my spine. I kept seeing the images of a tragedy which had never occurred.

The scene never did happen again. My father died fifteen years later, also on a Sunday in June.

It is only now that a thought occurs to me: my parents may have discussed both that Sunday afternoon and my father's murderous gesture; they may have arrived at an explanation or even an excuse and decided to forget the whole thing. Maybe one night after making love. This thought, like all those that elude one at the time, comes too late. It can be of no help to me now; its absence only serves to measure the indescribable terror which that Sunday has always meant to me.

In August an English family pitched their tent by the side of a small country road in the south of France. In the morning they were found murdered: the father, Sir Jack Drummond, his wife, Lady Anne, and their daughter Elizabeth. The nearest farmhouse belonged to the Dominici, a family of Italian extraction, whose son Gustave was originally accused of the three deaths. The Dominici spoke very little French; the Drummonds probably spoke better than them. I knew no English or Italian at all apart from "do not lean outside" and "e pericoloso sporgersi," inscribed on train windows underneath "ne pas se pencher au-dehors." We thought it strange that a family who was well-off should choose to sleep out in the open rather than at a hotel. I imagined myself dead with my parents by the side of the road.

From that year, I still have two photographs. One shows me in my Communion dress. It's an "artistic portrait" in black and white, stuck on to a cardboard back with raised scrolls, covered by a semi-transparent sheet of paper. Inside--the signature of the photographer. You can see a girl with full, smooth features, high cheekbones, a rounded nose with large nostrils. A pair of glasses with heavy, light-colored frames bars her cheekbones. Her eyes are staring intently at the camera. The short permed hair sticks out from the back and the front of her Communion cap, loosely tied under her chin; from this cap hangs the veil. Just the hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth. The face of a conscientious little girl, looking older than her age because of the spectacles and permed hair. She is kneeling on a prie-dieu with her elbows on the padded cushion and her broad hands--a ring surrounds her little finger--locked under her chin, circled by a rosary falling down on to the missal and gloves lying on the armrest. There's something vague and nondescript about the figure in the muslin dress, whose belt has been tied loosely, just like the Communion cap. It seems there is no body underneath this small nun's habit because I cannot imagine it, let alone feel it the way I have come to feel mine. Yet, surprisingly, it's exactly the same body as the one I have today.

This photograph is dated June 5, 1952. It was taken not on the day of my solemn Communion in 1951 but, for some reason, on the day marking the "renewal of the vows," when the whole ceremony, including the costume, is repeated one year later.

In the other photograph, a small oblong one, I am pictured with my father in front of a low wall decorated with earthenware jars of flowers. It was taken in Biarritz in late August '52, no doubt somewhere along the promenade running by the sea hidden from view, during a bus trip to Lourdes. I can't be taller than one meter sixty: my head comes slightly higher than my father's shoulder and he was one meter seventy-three. In those three months my hair has grown, forming a sort of frizzy crown kept tight around my head by a ribbon. The photograph is blurred; it was taken with the cube-shaped camera my parents won at a fair before the war. Although one cannot clearly make out my face or my spectacles, a beaming smile is discernible. I am dressed in a white skirt and blouse--the uniform I wore for the Christian Youth Movement gathering. Over my shoulders--a jacket with its sleeves hanging. Here I appear to be slim, lean, because the skirt hugs my hips, then flares out. In this outfit, I look like a little woman. My father has on a dark jacket, pale shirt and pants, a somber tie. He is barely smiling, with that anxious look he has in all photographs. I imagine that I kept this snapshot because it was different from the others, portraying us as chic people, holiday-makers, which of course we weren't. In both photographs I am smiling with my lips dosed because of my decayed, uneven teeth.

I stare at the two photographs until my mind goes blank, as if looking at them for long enough might allow me to slip into the head and body of the little girl who, one day, was there in the photographer's studio, or beside her father in Biarritz. Yet, if I had never seen these pictures before and if I were shown them for the first time, I would never believe that the little girl is me. (Absolute certainty--"yes, that's me"; total disbelief--"no, that's not me.")

The two pictures were taken barely three months apart. The first one at the beginning of June, the second one at the end of August. The format and quality are too different to reveal any significant change in my face or figure but I like to think of them as two milestones: one shows me in my Communion dress, closing off my childhood days; the other one introduces the era when I shall never cease to feel ashamed. It may be that I just need to single out part of that summer period, in the manner of a historian. (To write about "that summer" or "the summer of my twelfth year" is to romanticize events that could never feature in a novel, no more than the current summer '95; I cannot imagine any of these days ever belonging to the magical world conveyed by the expression "that summer.")

[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES...]

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