Another French book, this time. Given that I shall be relocating to the French Alps in under a month for my year abroad (eek!), I thought I should start making a conscious effort to practise my language abilities to prevent turning up and not understanding anything. I chose Enfance by recommendation. It was on some of my friends’ reading list for a module at university, and they spoke highly of it, so I decided to give it a go.
At first, I was confused. No, my ability to read French hadn’t disappeared; I just did not get the narrative technique to begin with. Sarraute, as the narrator, converses with an interlocutor, which, once you realise, is not difficult to grasp, but does require concentration. This shouldn’t put you off reading Enfance, though, I think everyone who reads the book (biography/memoir/life-writing?!) would agree that it actually makes the narrative a lot more interesting as it forces the reader to consider the reliability and authenticity of narrators, particularly in autobiographical works.
In the same vein, I enjoyed the book because of the fact that it pulls into question the idea of reliability- not only of the narrator, but also of our own memory. As well as wondering if the events in the book are real, one is encouraged to consider whether events in our own lives really did happen as we remember them, or if we have (albeit sub, or even un, consciously) edited them out of convenience.
As well as calling memory into question, Sarraute’s story also calls for a reconsideration of family figures and parental roles. It is safe to say that Sarraute’s mother does not conform to stereotypical characteristics of a mother, which means her father is almost forced to compensate for this. As a result, I could not help but feel pity for Sarraute, and the incredibly lonely life, or at least childhood, she appears to have led. However, what makes this even more touching is that Sarraute never overtly asks for the reader’s sympathy. In fact, she doesn’t even explicitly tell the reader that she was lonely or unhappy- it is just clear through the fact that her only friend is her toy bear, and that her favourite thing was handwriting, simply because she could control it, and it is this very lack of self pity that made me pity Sarraute more.
I think I liked Enfance so much because it was so different to anything that I had read before. I have read autobiographies and similar such texts, but I don’t think I had ever read it in this form. In fact, if the reader did not know anything about Sarraute before reading the book, it appears to have such a strong narrative that it might be mistaken for a novel written in first person narration.
Overall, I would very strongly recommend Enfance, for French speakers. I would be resistant to recommend an English translation, simply out of worry that the style would not be effectively translated across languages. I don’t think the book has a specific audience in terms of age, which makes it a perfect read for everyone.