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A comrade of our times

Annie Ernaux spent her childhood and adolescence in Yvetot, Normandy, where her parents ran a café and grocery shop in a working-class part of town. She followed a teaching career and has published some twenty books, including A Man’s Place and The Years. Since 1975 she has lived in Cergy.

It was at a television broadcast that went out in the afternoons for ‘housewives’ – the term was still being used in 1981 – called Aujourd’hui Madame: that’s how it was that by chance I met Claude for the first time. It was a slightly stuffy programme, which was being recorded in advance. We were both there to talk about our books – which had just come out – with women viewers who had read them. I knew of Claude Duneton, famous since the publication of his book, I Am Like a Doubtful Sow,[1] which, strange to say, teacher that I am, I had not read. And I would later discover that I completely shared the view he had expressed on teaching. I was unknown to him – no surprise. I had not published much in seven years, and if one had to read everything that came out… As it was, we were expected to have at least read through the other’s book. Claude’s was called The Devil Without a Door, the first volume of an autobiography he had called Oh, My Ancestors![2] Mine was also an autobiography, but masquerading under the word ‘novel’, which fooled no-one, A Frozen Woman.[3] So, as the broadcast started, both he and I knew that we were coming from a world we had in common, neither rich nor cultured, not at all like that of the afternoon’s readers, mature ladies exuding a sense of their bourgeois status, smug and self-satisfied. They bore down on me like harpies, accusing me of being a bad mother and demolishing my book so violently that I didn’t watch the programme when it was broadcast, simply glad to forget the details. I remembered only what followed. At the point when everyone was about to leave the studio – when, devastated, I was ready to flee – Claude Duneton asked me if I had time to go and have a drink with him. He expressed in his smile, his eyes, his corpulent frame, something warm, solid, ‘a quiet strength’ – I will always find that the Mitterrand slogan suited him well.[4] So I said yes without hesitation.

He ended up taking me for a couscous near the Gare du Nord, together with an English friend of his who’d accompanied him to the broadcast. He drove an old Citroën DS, which had the unbeatable comfort of an armchair on wheels, meeting his needs, so he explained, arising from hip problems. I told him that it was the same for me. We started talking about that, almost more than about books, in the brasserie, where we stayed a long time. We were both of us similarly compromised for the same reason, a congenital dislocation of the hips discovered too late, once we had begun to walk: ‘Oh no, the child is limping, how awful!’ And we had both had to spend long months flat on our backs, straitjacketed in plaster casts. We came out of them, duly repaired but not enough to avoid the onset of suffering and limping in our forties. And it was linked, also, to our social backgrounds, to the world view of parents who worked hard all day long, who didn’t have the time to take care of themselves. Good health for them, for everyone, was simply absolutely essential. In this working-class environment, they were not on the lookout for the slightest scratch on their children. And social security simply did not exist. The working-class body strangely made its way into our conversation. Claude attributed the fact that we had become writers to the enforced immobility of our early years. While the other children were running about and discovering the world around them, we were obliged to imagine it. There must be some explanation for this unusual escape from the slide towards social reproduction (we didn’t use the term ‘class defectors’ in 1981).

Two and a half years went by. I had published A Man’s Place, the account of my father’s life. Bernard Pivot invited me to appear on his talk show “Apostrophes”. This was the first time. I learnt from my press secretary that, for the radio channel France Culture, Claude Duneton was proposing to question me on my experience of this event, before and after. He was going to do the same with the writer François Maspero, also invited for the first time. I said yes without the slightest hesitation, indeed on the contrary with a feeling of pleasure and relief, that I would be able to express and share, with someone I had confidence in, the terrible apprehension that I could not dispel. It was a great idea of Claude’s. I haven’t retrieved the tapes of the recording but I remember a feeling of freedom in contrast to my almost cold resolve during the television programme.[5] Claude was both a reassuring presence and a sagacious interviewer, calm. Yes, once again, he helped me overcome what I considered a worse ordeal than the oral exam of the agrégation.[6] I can see him handing me the microphone just before I go into the studio of the Antenne 2 network. Then the next day, at Marie-Dominique Arrighi’s place, also a producer at France Culture, welcoming us, François Maspero and me, to a joyous and fascinating debriefing of our first experience of “Apostrophes”.

A year after that there we are in my garden in Cergy, in June. He had come to see me, still driving his big Citroën DS, with Isabelle Yhuel, with whom he now shared his life. Within a month, I was going to have an operation for a hip replacement, a decision I had resolved to take despite the fear that such an intervention provoked in me, above all about the anaesthetic. Claude had come to support and encourage me and to encourage himself to consider going under the knife. We laughed and joked over the fear of death. ‘If that’s where you end up’, he said, ‘I’ll get myself a wheelchair for the rest of my days!’ ‘You can’t get out of it that easily’, I said. ‘I’ll wake up and you won’t be able to put off your operation any longer!’ Isabelle shared my view and I sensed that she would know how to persuade him. Sure enough, two years later, it was my turn to go and visit him in Cochin Hospital. I realise that over several years all our encounters arose from events to do with the repair of our bodies, otherwise young and robust but marked by a pathology generally associated with old people, bodies which we had to come to terms with on a daily basis, more so Claude than me, in view of his numerous activities. To speak of it here is, I believe, to be faithful to a truth about bodies, about their materiality, about the overriding importance of lived experience that I read in his texts.

I don’t recall having broached the subject of writing to any extent other than from a consideration of what prevents its practice. It was a matter of modesty. Writing and Claude, both a case of modesty. What does come back to me is a conversation on how it would be impossible for either of us to write books not based on reality. A question of origins. Of memory. A reality embedded in the gestures and words of parents, of the inhabitants of Lagleygeolle, his village whose twenty-seven war dead, young men who had died in the 1914-18 War, he resuscitated in his magnificent The Monument.[7]

Farewell brother.


[1] NdT/Translator’s note: This is my translation of the title Je suis comme une truie qui doute as the text has not been translated into English.

[2] NdT/Translator’s note: This is my translation of both titles Le Diable sans porte and Ah! Mes aïeux! as the texts have not been translated into English.

[3] NdT/Translator’s note: La Femme gelée (1981)/ A Frozen woman, trans. Linda Coverdale (Seven Stories Press, 1997).

[4] NdT/Translator’s note: The phrase ‘la force tranquille’ was the slogan used on posters to promote François Mitterrand’s campaign in the 1981 French Presidential elections.

[5] NdT/Translator’s note: The programme can be found online : Garbit, Philippe, ‘Annie Ernaux: “En passant à Apostrophes, mon livre allait totalement exister“‘, Les Nuits de France Culture, France culture, réalisation Virginie Mourthé (22 août 2017),

[6] NdT/Translator’s note: This is an advanced competitive examination giving higher status and slightly reduced teaching hours to teachers.

[7] NdT/Translator’s note: This is my translation of the title Monument as the text has not been translated into English.


This piece is a translation of a text originally published in ‘Claude Duneton façon puzzle’, eds Catherine Merle, Gisèle Roy & Pierre Chalmin (Editions Unicité, 2023). It is translated and published here with Annie Ernaux’s kind permission. Translated by Jo Halliday. First published here on 29 May 2024.