A FROZEN WOMAN By Annie Ernaux Translated from the French By Linda Coverdale Seven Stories. 192 pp. $17 EXTERIORS By Annie Ernaux Translated from the French By Tanya Leslie Seven Stories. 95 pp. $16
ANNIE ERNAUX's work can evoke the same response that some modern art does in viewers: a tendency to think that, because it appears simple or direct in composition, it was simple to conceive, that anyone could create the same forms and impressions. Instead, at her best, Ernaux has the ability to refine ordinary experience, stripping it of irrelevancy and digression and reducing it to a kind of iconography of the late-20th-century soul.
A Frozen Woman, first published in France in 1981, is a young wife and mother's fictional lament on the inequality of the sexes and the crushing exhaustion of domestic routine. Exteriors records Ernaux's observations of real people and urban landscapes, most of them glimpsed in the planned "new" community of Cergy-Pontoise outside of Paris, where she lives.
While the novel is largely autobiographical and emotionally charged, the journal is crisp and photographic, distancing itself from the lives of the people it briefly captures. They are intriguing precisely because they have no story to be told, no future and no past.
Of the two books, Exteriors is the more original and compelling, offering readers fragments of society and culture which they are free to construct and reconstruct as they wish. Ernaux recorded these diary entries in "an attempt to convey the reality of an epoch -- and in particular that acute yet indefinable feeling of modernity associated with a new town -- through a series of snapshots reflecting the daily routine of a community." These "snapshots" include snatches of argument, techniques of begging and the behavior of people caught in transit or simply waiting:
"We are standing in front of the automatic teller in the shopping mall, forming a long line. A confessional without curtains. A panel slides open, we all repeat the same motions: wait, our heads tilted to one side, press keys, wait, take our money, put it away and leave, avoiding other people's eyes."
Exteriors is a collection of such images, both provocative and familiar. It is the images themselves which contain meaning, unassisted by narrative, just as Ernaux's new community of high rises and shopping malls is "a place bereft of memories," without connections to tradition and history. In this world, the words of customers in a butcher shop are a clue to their place in society, and discarded garbage at the edge of town a symbol of loneliness. Since many of these observations are made in large, impersonal spaces like train stations and "hypermarkets," it is not surprising that they often reflect anger, embattled dignity, isolation, or anxiety.
Ernaux also reflects in her journal on what it means to be a writer, revealing an insatiable curiosity. "I realize that I am forever combing reality for signs of literature," she says at one point; at another, "I am visited by people and their lives -- like a whore." For Ernaux, there is something brash and manipulative in telling a story; the act of writing exposes the self to risk yet craves an audience.
But writing is also a way to express pain and expose fallacies in society's thinking. Both are evident in A Frozen Woman, whose indictment of sexist values and middle-class marriage has become so familiar since the novel was published 15 years ago that it has lost much of its impact.
The narrator, a 30-year-old wife, mother and teacher, looks back on her life to determine the forces which shaped it. Although her parents are unconventional -- her gentle father cooks and gardens while her strong-willed mother runs the family shop with a hard head -- she realizes in early adolescence that women are expected to attract and nurture, men to succeed. She struggles to be passionate and independent, but society's expectations overwhelm her: "I'll never be closer than I am at seventeen to sexual freedom and a glorious sensuality. And I discover immediately that they are out of reach. This first, clearly perceived difference drives me to despair -- I feel it will never be abolished. Boys are free to desire, not you, my girl . . ."
The first part of A Frozen Woman is the strongest, with its vivid family portrait, particularly of the mother. There are also engaging details of a French childhood in a small town. The men in the book, however, are given short shrift, down to the husband, who is nameless and expresses almost generic attitudes and responses. It comes as no surprise that he doesn't help with the cooking.
The writing in the novel is lucid and often perceptive, but it covers well-trodden ground and feels dated. Too often the narrator's voice sounds, in her own words, like "picayune complaints and scattered whines." Exteriors, on the other hand, captures attitudes and experience as they are happening, and Ernaux's stark observations offer insight into our times. Linda Barrett Osborne is a Washington writer.