La vie des autres : Sophie Calle et Annie Ernaux, artistes hors-la-loi by Ania Wroblewski
What is the link between life and art? Where does one end and the other begin? Such questions are hardly original, yet Ania Wroblewski's La vie des autres: Sophie Calle et Annie Ernaux, artistes hors-la-loi delves into them in an engaging way. This well-written, thoroughly researched work, which expands upon and occasionally challenges established scholarship, is enhanced by its thorough bibliography, twelve figures, and annexe.
Wroblewski, who is not the first scholar to undertake this particular comparison, mentions some of the differences between these two well-known créatrices, including age, social and geographic origins, artistic motivation, and methodology. Nevertheless, she explains, far more connects them than divides them. Both began writing and creating in the late 1970s and early 80s, a period marked by three major cultural movements: the importance of le quotidien (Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Michel Certeau), the rise of feminism, and a focus on autobiography and autofiction (Philippe Lejeune). Wroblewski also notes a shared attention to detail, the role of their private lives in their creative endeavors, "un regard féminin désirant" (32), and the ways in which each shapes the reception and interpretation of her work. Especially important for Wroblewski's argument are the ways each manipulates gendered social positions–criminelle, victime, flâneuse–to disrupt traditional structures and develop new creative possibilities. [End Page 230]
Crime is read both literally and in a larger sense. To cite just two instances of the literal, in La honte (1997), Ernaux's father tries to kill her mother, while Calle takes some of her photographs illicitly, for example in L'hôtel (1984). Wroblewski also addresses situations in which an author may find herself charged with a "literary crime" such as libel. Beyond the legal definitions, however, looms the broader issue of transgression, especially feminine transgression. What exactly are women allowed to show or tell? Using Calle's Les dormeurs (1979) and Ernaux's Passion simple (1991), Wroblewski reveals not just the limits, but also the possibilities that come with intertwining art and one's intimate life, particularly when the life in question is a woman's. Moreover, further creative potential is tapped when women turn traditional gender roles to their advantage, as seen in Calle's Des histoires vraies (2002), Douleur exquise (2003), and Prenez soin de vous (2007), along with myriad texts by Ernaux. In these works, Ernaux and Calle adopt the socially accepted pose of victim, specifically victim of love, in order to engage public sympathy whilst carving out spaces where they can seize affective and creative control.
Similarly, the analysis of Calle and Ernaux as flâneuses agissantes emphasizes the role of gender. Moving beyond the doubt, emitted by some, that women can adopt the position of flâneuse, Wroblewski suggests that the larger question lies elsewhere, namely in uncovering the potential ethical and aesthetic limits of art inspired by other people, particularly strangers in the street. One thinks naturally of Calle and her predatory approach in works like Suite vénitienne (1984), but Ernaux's writing raises the question as well, notably the journaux extimes in Journal du dehors (1993) and La vie extérieure (2000).
Whether it involves exposing one's own intimate life or invading a stranger's privacy, Wroblewski emphasizes that this is not transgression for transgression's sake. Instead, Ernaux and Calle push previously accepted limits in order to free themselves from traditional structures and binary distinctions, not just victim or criminal, but also public versus private, permissible versus forbidden, decent versus indecent, high as opposed to low. By subverting existing systems and fostering creative methodologies all their own, Calle and Ernaux position themselves artistically hors-la-loi.
It feels important to read this book in 2019, and not only for the quality of the research and the prose. Nor is this solely due to the author's evident enthusiasm for her subject, which this reviewer happens to share. In the three years since the publication of La vie des autres, women are facing renewed attacks on their subjectivity and redoubled efforts to silence their stories. Wroblewski's monograph is recommended not only for scholars interested in a fresh approach to Ernaux and Calle, but also any reader who believes women's voices must be heard. [End Page 231]