From the baby carriage to the grave, life unfolds more and more between the shopping center and the television set. – Annie Ernaux
Born in 1940, and a published author since 1974, Annie Ernaux is known for writing in depth about her own life: her parents, her marriage, her abortion, and later, her breast cancer. In Things Seen, Ernaux turns her gaze outward, both to Paris and the world.
Written as a journal, the book feels as though it traveled in a coat pocket, pulled out to pass the time in train stations and grocery stores, riding on the Metro and eavesdropping in cafes. The writer states the journal is a result of the “simple habit of putting life into words.”
Events are recorded through the initial reaction felt by the writer. Refreshingly absent is the expected self-examination and excuses made for the content of the reaction. We hear the writer’s thoughts as she thinks them, without editing. There is no need to place additional weight on any one topic, as one would in conversation; the narrative flows over war, racism, and homelessness as swiftly as it does hair appointments, grocery shopping, and visits to the dentist. This does not render the writer shallow or uninterested; it reminds the reader of all the passing commentary we also make to ourselves in our day-to-day lives. The commentary doesn’t need to make sense to anyone else. In fact, upon reflection it might not make sense at all.
The idea I found most resonant in the book is that while one may feel they are the only true individual in a crowd, to each other person, one is just part of the nameless crowd. The writer’s viewpoint is that of a passive audience, watching other people's lives unfold in front of her with little more emotion than one would actors on a stage. A memorable example is that of the many different beggars encountered on the Metro; the writer finds it easier to give change to someone playing music than to someone who might actually be starving. It is easier to give the same coin for pleasantry than to accept the concept that someone might literally die without that help.
The writer is distanced from actual events, and this makes the book speed along, as we do not stop to analyze the thoughts themselves; we simply follow the words at the pace of life, just as the writer recorded them.