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  • Picturing Pain and Pleasure in Annie Ernaux’s L’Usage de la photo
  • Lisa Connell

French writer Annie Ernaux has long foregrounded physical and emotional sensations as the building blocks of her autobiographical writing.1 However, it is in L’Usage de la photo (2005) where the connection between the body and subjectivity most powerfully emerges. Co-written by then lover Marc Marie, the text is organized around fourteen photos of different rooms after a night of lovemaking and the authors’ reflections on the images to offer a plurinarrative recounting of Ernaux’s battle with breast cancer and her love affair with Marie. The text’s visual imagery thus has an evident temporal function, since it situates the author’s battle with breast cancer and relationship with Marie between March 2003 and January 2004. Yet the photos play out a second and more significant epistemological instance in that they represent the limits of transforming corporeal experience into narrative.2 Indeed, L’Usage’s concerted juxtaposition of the struggle to survive with a sensuous connection to her body brings new insight into an enduring feature of Ernaux’s œuvre: the strained relationship to the body as a source of knowledge for-mation, gendered identity, and empowerment. While the book works within her traditional framework of sexual discovery, gender, and everyday life and showcases Ernaux’s characteristic blend of autobiographical writing, journal intime narratives, and episodic remembrance,3 its primary thematic concerns of desire, health, and illness reconfigure the relations between the body and identity that have previously emerged in her work. Whereas dominant cultural markers such as marriage, education, and family relations underscore the body as a driving force that enables her to assess the intersections of the self and society, the role of the body in transformational experiences of self-knowledge takes on a new urgency in light of Ernaux’s diagnosis with breast cancer. Distilled to their most insistent forms of pleasure and pain, corporeal sensations in L’Usage de la photo become the testing ground for her experiments [End Page 145] in self-representation. Showing that her experiences of pleasure, pain, and illness are more than a solitary confrontation with her own mortality, Ernaux challenges the depersonalized medical narrative of her body’s vulnerability by imagining her physical self outside of binary configurations of health and sickness. Even as the autobiographical portrayals of her diagnosis with cancer and sexual desire entail an unsurprising emphasis on the singular body, then, they do so in such a way that prevents familiar categorizations of individual and collective identity. In so doing, she makes a compelling claim for physical sensations as proof of individuality and self-understanding, while testing the limits of autobiographical writing as a resource of communal knowledge about living with pain.

As the recent volume Textual and Visual Selves: Photography, Film, and Comic Art in French Autobiography (2011) suggests, Ernaux’s inclusion of images in L’Usage coincides with an increasing prevalence of hybrid autobiographical narratives within French literary production. Although some essays revisit well-trodden notions of multiple or fractured selves in women’s autobiography, they also effectively highlight a feminist use of visual narratives for navigating the gendered spaces of public and private and prohibitions on self-disclosure the genre invokes. As such, they point to a feminist topography committed to dismantling the sociocultural and political underpinnings of the public and private spheres through acts of testimony. Many critical readings of L’Usage have convincingly argued how photography represents Ernaux’s confrontation with death and will to survive a life-threatening disease within such discourses of public and private.4 Her deployment of image and word certainly displaces boundaries of individual and social life without obscuring what Shirley Jordan identifies as “the connection between women and intimacy and the social proscriptions and taboos that have traditionally regulated women’s association with the private sphere” (“Chronicles of Intimacy” 73). Despite the value of this perspective, however, the role of photography in the text is best understood as an instrument that measures how self-narratives contribute to notions of a collective existence. Reading the images as an expression of the cultural and narrative conventions of sharing, comparing, and exchanging...


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pp. 145-160
Launched on MUSE
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