A Man's Place by Annie Ernaux

Up-dated version of the original review by Edith LaGraziana
No matter when it comes, if out of the blue or dragging on painfully, the death of a dear parent almost always arrives too soon and is the source of great grief. Those who are left behind follow very different strategies to cope with the loss… and writing about the departed is one of them. Without doubt the greater part of such works of sorrow ends unread, maybe even forgotten somewhere on the bottom of a drawer, not so the award-winning French book titled A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux, the author's literary homage to her late father written more than ten years after his death. In it she resurrects her relationship with the man who was her father and who never really managed to shake off his humble origins as the son of an illiterate farm labourer in Normandy although together with his wife he started a small café and grocery shop.

Bellow, Saul "Humboldt's Gift"


Reviewed by Marianne
from Let's Read

I try to read the latest Nobel Prize winner for Literature and at least one former one every year. This was my fourth one since the last laureate was announced. I still need to get a copy of one of Abdulrazak Gurnah's books before the next announcements in October.

Apparently, this book didn't just get the Pulitzer Prize, it is also said that it won Saul Bellow the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, he called on writers to be beacons for civilization and awaken it from intellectual torpor.

An intense book, there is so much to talk about. The relationship between Charlie Citrine, our protagonist, and his friend Von Humboldt Fleisher, a renowned author who takes Charlie under his wings. Whilst he is only at the beginning of this career, he tells us this story from the point of view when it has more or less ended.

When I was reading the book, I'd been wondering whether this might have been a biography, or at least partly a biography. I then found out, that this is a "roman à clef" (French for novel with a key), a novel about real-life events that is overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the "key" is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction. Aha! In this case, it's about the author's friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz with Bellow being Citrine. Well, I'd never heard of Delmore Schwartz and now I have learned a lot about him (not just form the book, I also looked him up on Google and Wikipedia.) Very interesting, read the information in the links.

While this is probably a good account of Bellow's and Schwartz' relationship, the book also tries to come to terms with the constant changes in the world, especially in culture. The difference between the ideal world and the real one is a big topic in this book that was only supposed to be a short story but then ended up with almost 500 pages.

Brilliant storytelling with lots of fields covered: literature, culture, divorce, relationships, parenting, alcoholism, madness … and also all types of characters from all levels social classes, including a Mafia boss. Oh, and there's quite a bit of humour in the story, as well.

The Times mentions that "Bellows is one of the most gifted chroniclers of the Western World alive today." Apart from the fact that he has passed away in the meantime, I totally agree. So, if you're in for a great read, this is worth picking up.

From the back cover:

"For many years, the great poet Von Humboldt Fleisher and Charlie Citrine, a young man inflamed with a love for literature, were the best of friends. At the time of his death, however, Humboldt is a failure, and Charlie's life has reached a low point: his career is at a standstill, and he's enmeshed in an acrimonious divorce, infatuated with a highly unsuitable young woman and involved with a neurotic mafioso. And then Humboldt acts from beyond the grave, bestowing upon Charlie an unexpected legacy that may just help him turn his life around."

Saul Bellow received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work" and the Pulitzer Prize for "Humboldt's Gift" also in 1976.

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.  

Original Post on "Let's Read".

Böll, Heinrich "The Silent Angel"


(German: Der Engel schwieg)


Reviewed by Marianne
from Let's Read

I know I've read books by Böll at school. But that's a long time ago and I doubt I've read one since. I don't know why. I love Nobel Prize winners and he is one. I usually read his kind of genre. Still, no idea why I never read anything by him again but here we are.

I finally made it and read one of his books. "The Silent Angel" is about a soldier who returns to Germany after WWII. With false papers. He goes back to his old home town, Cologne (also Heinrich Böll's home town) and tries to just survive, like so many others. He finds good people who help him but also bigoted ones who only think about themselves.

A very touching story about how people want to get back into life after all the horrors of the war. Cologne was particularly beaten, probably one of the most destroyed German towns after Dresden. You can still tell today because there is hardly anything left from what stood there before the war. Just the cathedral, the rest is all built new, mostly ugly buildings erected quickly after the war so people had somewhere to stay.

Even though the novel was written in 1949, it didn't get published until 1992. I guess that shows how much influence Nazis still had at the time. Not all of them ended up in Nürnberg.

Anyway, this novel shows how the "little man" fared during and after the war. Heinrich Böll has a great way of describing every little detail without it getting boring. I will surely read more of his books.

From the back cover:

"Just days after the end of World War II, German soldier Hans Schnitzler returns to a bombed German city, carrying a dead comrade's coat to his widow - not knowing that the coat contains a will. Soon Hans is caught in a dangerous intrigue involving the will; he also begins a tentative romance with another grieving woman, as together they seek an identity and a future together in the ruined city."

Heinrich Böll received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972 "for his writing, which through its combination of a broad perspective on his time and a sensitive skill in characterization has contributed to a renewal of German literature".

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.  

Original Post on "Let's Read".

A Woman's Story by Annie Ernaux

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana 
on Lagraziana's Kalliopeion 

Very few will deny that the mother has a very special place in the heart of a person and that when she dies, it uses to be a particularly painful loss in most cases even if she has been suffering for a long time. It means the irrevocable end of an era – of “childhood” in a wide sense – given that even the last remaining bond is cut and we can no longer submit like a child to her loving care when we feel like it. After the death of her mother, the renowned French author of autobiographical prose Annie Ernaux (born 1940) set out to trace the course of life of the woman who brought her into life and raised her. The result is A Woman’s Story, first published in 1987 under the original French title Une femme, a touching literary portrait of a strong and powerful woman who was more than just the author’s mother. 

The slim book begins in the morning of 7 April 1986, when Annie Ernaux receives a phone call from the nursing home of the hospital in Pontoise where her mother has died after breakfast. Although her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1980s and her condition has been constantly deteriorating since moving her to the nursing home became inevitable, death arrives unexpected. Now the author’s last living connection with her childhood is gone which makes her feel as if her roots had been cut off. Only after a first period of shock and mourning, she finds the strength to sit down and pay her literary tribute to her mother as she did for her late father before.


Skilfully combining biographical and historical facts, anecdotes passed on in the family, own memories, conclusions and contemplations the author resurrects the picture of a woman born as forth child of six into a poor, but proud working-class family in the small town of Yvetot in Normandy in the early years of the twentieth century. She leaves school aged eleven and works in the factory always dreaming of a better life. Then she meets her future husband originating from a humble family like herself and working in the same factory. She gets married, has a first daughter and saves money to make her and her husband’s dream of a little café and grocery shop come true. This is in the 1930s and great grief is around the corner. Her little girl dies from diphtheria, Nazi-German troops occupy France, war rages in the country. Then a ray of light: another daughter – the author – is born to her in 1940. Things change for the better after the war, but she and her husband need to work hard to give their daughter a better start into life than they had. The girl studies at university, becomes a teacher, marries a bourgeois… and moves away. In 1967 her husband dies suddenly. Three years later she goes to live with her daughter’s family first in Annecy, then in Paris. But eventually, she feels the urge to return to Yvetot which she does in the mid-1970s.


The book isn’t a biography in the strict sense nor a memoir, but an homage to an exceptional woman and the different sides of her character that the daughter hardly noticed while she was alive. Moreover, it’s just the simple, even ordinary story of the ups and downs of a French mother’s life in the twentieth century that Annie Ernaux retells with great sensitivity and a certain nostalgia blending with the inevitable sorrow of a person who writes about a loved one who just died. This doesn’t mean that the tone of the book is whining or depressing – not at all! It goes without saying that it’s not a cheerful read either, but it’s quiet and contemplative as befits this kind of text. Highly recommended for reading!

Original post on Lagraziana's Kalliopeion:


»»» read also my review of A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux on Edith's Miscellany.


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