- The Journey Home:Annie Ernaux's Retour à Yvetot
Traveling is a brutality.It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sightof all that familiar comfort of home and friends.You are constantly off balance.Nothing is yours except the essential things:air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky.Cesare Pavese1
This article examines a very curious journey: not a journey to a destination, a record of an adventure, exploration or immigration, but a journey back to a home that the author had long avoided. Annie Ernaux was born in Lillebonne and grew up in the small, rural Normandy town of Yvetot. She has recounted her departure from this town in a succession of autobiographical texts that allude to the discomfort she associates with it. Having left to pursue her studies, she only returned for short visits to her parents' café-épicerie. Throughout her long career as a successful writer, representatives of the town have frequently invited her to attend events there but she has always declined. In an interview with Normandie Actu, Ernaux explains her reluctance thus: "Il y avait, à cette époque, encore beaucoup de gens qui m'avaient connue dans mon enfance. J'étais encore pour eux 'La fille du pays'. C'était pour moi très dur de revenir et je ne voulais pas vivre ce moment-là" (n.p.). In 2013, however, at the age of 73, she returned to Yvetot for a conference and subsequently published Retour à [End Page 344] Yvetot: the text of her speech, the transcript of the public interview she gave and of the questions she took from the audience, and photographs of her in Yvetot. In this article, I first examine the place of Yvetot within Ernaux's oeuvre. I then analyze the way in which she presents this enigmatic journey home in Retour à Yvetot as a tentative, collective endeavor in which she extends both her identification with her readers and her portrayal of Yvetot in her life and work. I show that by creating a plurivocal, multi-layered work that combines images and text, Ernaux further nuances what Nancy K. Miller identifies as the cornerstone of this author's oeuvre: it works the border between self and other that is "the potential for identification or repudiation, sympathy or revulsion, love or violence" (But Enough About Me 112).
Evolving Depictions of Yvetot
Yvetot has long occupied the backdrop of Ernaux's work, appearing as a distant presence in many of her texts. The recurring references to her parents' café-épicerie, the streets of the town and the school all strike a note of familiarity with readers of Ernaux's work. Yet these incursions into her texts are simply thumbnail sketches, alluded to but never described in any detail; whereas towns are awarded almost the status of characters in the work of some authors, such as Clos-Salembier for Hélène Cixous, Cherchell for Assia Djebar, or Sadec for Marguerite Duras, Yvetot is always firmly in the background for Ernaux. The frequent abbreviation to the allusive "Y" in texts such as Les Armoires vides is emblematic of the status accorded to the town in this author's work. The character of Denise in this fictional work presages the representation of shame, discomfort and even disgust associated with the author's place of origin; the local population who frequent the café are variously portrayed as lewd, unclean and untrustworthy, the few shops are provincial and old-fashioned, the streets are filthy and the woods are dangerous, and all of this is contrasted negatively with the middle-class people, culture and geography of the university town.2 Nora Cottille-Foley has even noted that urine is mentioned forty-four times in this text (888). Ernaux is well known for the depiction of shame associated with [End Page 345] class difference that pervades her work, beginning with this autobiographical novel.3
Yet Ernaux's representation of Yvetot is far from onesided. The town has been a constant presence in her work, as she continually returns to her place of origin to explore not just her memories and the nature of her self-knowledge but also the effects of socio-economic...