Things Seen

Things Seen by Annie Ernaux takes the form of a journal kept by a Paris-area woman during the mid-to-late 1990s. The journal entries forthrightly document the intersection of the narrator’s everyday activities and the larger world of the Bosnian war, poverty, the death of Princess Diana, talk radio, and broadcast news among other things. Ernaux’s unflinching and quietly dazzling observations reveal unexpected insights and complicities in such simple acts as riding the subway or a trip to the supermarket. When you finish this stunning little book you’ll want to go back to the beginning and start reading it again.

Here, more or less at random, are two sample entries from 1998 (the RER is the regional rapid transit system in Paris):

March 25

In the early morning RER, a woman was putting on eye make-up, the mirror at nose level. Another was filing her nails, then polishing them. Carefully and slowly they performed these gestures among the crowd of travelers as if alone in their bathrooms. Superb freedom, or exhibition – hard to say. Their hands, their eyelids seemed to be distinct objects that they cleaned and lubricated in peaceful delight.

April 2

Papon has been condemned to ten years in prison. I don’t know what to think. People said, “you have to put yourself back in time; things were not so clear then.” That always means put yourself in the shoes of those who had nothing to fear, in their offices, in Vichy or elsewhere, never in those of the people who boarded trains for Auschwitz.