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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 113-130

"Lived experience at the level of the body": Annie Ernaux's Journaux extimes
Robin Tierney
University of Iowa

In her two "journals of the outside," Journal du dehors (1985-1992) and La Vie extérieure (1993-2000), Annie Ernaux composes brief, seemingly disconnected entries filled with insights gained from observing the world beyond her personal life.1 "I wanted to retain something of the time," Ernaux writes on the cover of Journal du dehors, "and of the people whose path I crossed only once" (E 7).2 Frequently referred to by Michel Tournier's term "journaux extimes" (as opposed to intimes) because of their focus on the public sphere despite the format of a personal journal,3 Journal du dehors and La Vie extérieure record the memories of daily realities as fleeting as the crossing of a stranger's path, or the changing traffic detours produced by highway construction (LVE 99). Ernaux's desire to retain the fullness of these lived moments places her work firmly in the tradition of writers concerned with aspects of modern life that are both so mundane as to escape comment, and so profound as to provide moments of extraordinary insight; namely, the "everyday."4 Attending to the ways people place groceries in the shopping cart (JDD 28) and the words they use to scold their children (LVE 10), Ernaux echoes Michel de Certeau's belief that it is the ordinary that "can reorganize the place from which discourse is produced" (5).

Ernaux's attention to the physical body and its role in forging memory, however, performs a critique of the invisibility of the body so often found in writings of the everyday. Greater focus upon the physicality of herself and others allows Ernaux to tap into emotions arising from the porous border that sometimes separates the private from the public. For her, the bodily emotions of fear, shame, and desire connect the "Anonymes" (her initial title preference for Journal du dehors) by the currents they send "rippling through us" (E 7).5

This understanding of the body as locus of social memory allows for an expanded topography in Ernaux's journaux extimes. Whereas everyday theory and literature have typically privileged the urban as the site in which modernity's coherency is disrupted, Ernaux's attention to the body [End Page 113] allows her to perform her critique wherever she experiences a strong emotion in response to a stranger's presence. She does not need to go out "in search of" the marvelously everyday. Instead, she experiences the everyday as she carries out the daily activities of shopping at the supermarket, parking her car, and commuting on the train.6

Ernaux's observations generally occur in the place where she herself lives, the centrally planned "new town" of Cergy-Pontoise.7 Theorists of the everyday have had a field day with the phenomenon of "new towns." Created in toto in the early 1970s, Cergy-Pontoise is distinctly lacking in the Benjaminian "aura" that emanates from the dynamic mixture of old and new that has made urban areas so compelling to those "who walk the city."8 With its middle-class aspirations of order and affordable comfort, the new town has been denounced by Henri Lefebvre as a place of "unredeemable boredom" (Introduction to Modernity, 119) in which, Guy Debord adds, "nothing ever happens" (Debord, 126). Inhabiting a new town and dwelling upon the physical vulnerability of her own self and of those she observes, Ernaux challenges "everyday" theory's class-based aesthetics and the frequently neutral body.

However, the exclusion of suburban space and the unquestioned masculinity of the flâneur are valid critiques of the growing field of "everyday" theory. Writing about the French painter Berthe Morisot who lived and worked in the Parisian suburb of Passy, Kathleen Adler critiques what she calls the "Baudelairean line of succession" and suggests that the sub-urban be considered when thinking about women and the everyday (5). As Ben Highmore points out...


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