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French Forum 26.1 (2001) 67-82

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Women on Women and the Middle Man:
Narrative Structures in Duras and Ernaux

Susan Marson

It is hard to imagine two texts more different in style and subject matter than Annie Ernaux’s Une femme and Marguerite Duras’s Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, even though they are both narratives written by women and about women.1 Nearly a quarter of a century separates the two texts; but the period between 1964, when Le Ravissement was published, and 1987, the date of Ernaux’s Une femme, corresponds to an era in French cultural and intellectual history during which the concept of a writing specific to women was developed. In this context, the apparent difference between the two texts provides a terrain for questioning the specificity of women’s writing, by asking how they both use and perceive the language of narrative.

Ernaux wrote Une femme, the story of her mother, as an act of mourning begun shortly after her mother’s death. For Diana Holmes, Ernaux’s writing can be described as realist, reproducing a known social world, encouraging identification with the characters and appearing to use language in a straightforward fashion to simply describe and recount.2 Indeed, Ernaux’s narrator, in telling the story of a woman living in a rural, working-class milieu, speaks of the account as lying somewhere between literature and sociology. Duras’s text, on the other hand, uses an unidentified setting where the English, German and French names of the characters, their professions and social activities all suggest upper middle-class life in colonial society. The story relates the effects produced on the central character, Lola Valérie Stein, by an event that took place at a ball at T. Beach when her fiancé, Michael Richardson, left her for an older, married woman, Anne Marie Stretter. The story line is complex and the narrative knowingly enigmatic.

Yet despite the obvious differences, which I shall discuss later, the two narratives do share a number of features, all of which stem from a common concern, that of using narrative to express otherness. [End Page 67]


Both Une femme and Le Ravissement are first-person narratives where the narrator is a secondary character. For this reason perhaps, both emphasize the importance of perspective and of storytelling itself. What occurs is presented neither as the objective truth of an omniscient narrator, nor as the subjective truth of individual experience, but rather as one person’s attempt to recount, or account for, another’s experience. The two narrators, far from providing any stable point of knowledge or vision, are affected both by the events of the plot and by the act of storytelling. For Ernaux, writing the text begun three weeks after her mother’s death is part of the process of mourning: "sortir un livre n’a pas de signification, sinon celle de la mort définitive de ma mère" (Une femme 69). For Jacques Hold, Duras’s narrator, telling Lol’s story is an act involving acquiring knowledge which increasingly concerns not only the character, but himself and his growing desire for her: "Mais qu’est-ce que j’ignore de moi-même à ce point et qu’elle me met en demeure de connaître?" (Le Ravissement 105).

The construction of the two texts is surprisingly similar, both consisting of textual fragments separated by blank spaces with no chapter numbers, where each passage generally refers to a memory. In neither text is the plot linear: Une femme and Le Ravissement are concerned with ordering memories to make meaning and communicate past truth.

Je passe beaucoup de temps à m’interroger sur l’ordre des choses à dire, le choix et l’agencement des mots, comme s’il existait un ordre idéal, seul capable de rendre une vérité concernant ma mère (Une femme 43–44).
Le bal reprend un peu de vie, frémit, s’accroche à Lol. Elle le réchauffe, le protège, le nourrit, il grandit, sort de ses plis...


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