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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Things Seen

Annie Ernaux

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To purchase Things Seen

Title: Things Seen
Author: Annie Ernaux
Genre: Diary
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 131 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Things Seen - US
Things Seen - UK
Things Seen - Canada
La vie extérieure - Canada
La vie extérieure - France
  • 1993-1999
  • French title: La vie extérieure
  • Translated by Jonathan Kaplansky
  • With a Foreword by Brian Evenson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective, frustrated look at the world around her

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today . Winter/2002 E.Nicole Meyer

  From the Reviews:
  • "While the neutral tone, economy of style, and preponderance of political and social events may belie any intimacy, Annie Ernaux somehow succeeds in expressing the personal, whether it be her above-cited remark on truth, a description of her terror during a tear-gas attack in the subway, or her references to the importance of the role of writing in her own life. (...) (I)t successfully compels the reader to reflect critically on our current era. In this, Ernaux joins art and politics and produces an important work of art." - E.Nicole Meyer, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       La vie extérieure is almost a diary, consisting of observations and impressions from the period 1993 to 1999. The entries are dated, but it's not her personal life that Ernaux is focussing on, but rather what she sees around her. Few of the entries are longer than a page, and sometimes she goes months without an entry. Ultimately it is less revealing about that period in (French/European/world) history than as a personal document -- another sliver in what adds up to the life-work of Ernaux.
       Late in the book she writes:

     La vie extérieure demande tout, la plupart des oeuvres d'art, rien
       This 'exterior life' (reality itself) is more -- often much, much more -- than what can be recorded and dealt with on the page, a frustration felt throughout the book. Reality -- so often: terrible reality -- dwarves art (as well as everyday routines and preoccupations). The conflict in the former Yugoslavia gets numerous mentions, with Ernaux led to think her own relatively easy life (and specifically: what she does with it) fairly insignificant in light of that. Later, she addresses Iraq and Chechnya (noting: "Les Russes exterminent tranquillement les Tschétchènes. Personne ne s'en émeut"). There are also local social concern, including poverty and AIDS.
       She notes the blurred lines on television between reality and fiction, the popularity of (re-)creations of real life (and this long before 'reality TV' had really taken hold).
       The observations are often small ones: someone seen on the RER, cashiers in stores -- making for a focus on individuals in their many varied routines, the small sameness of everyday life that possibly dulls us to the outrages around us, specifically the neglect of those who suffer, both near and far.
       The longest entry -- just over two pages -- describes an event at which Taslima Nasreen speaks, a writer more obviously involved in the public sphere (both in her writings and due to the threats made against her person), though Ernaux sees it as just another part of the same spectrum (and seems as interested in the crowd-reaction as in Nasreen-as-writer)
       Ernaux can only turn to the page, venting her anger (and even, as she puts it, hatred). It is, of course, an act and expression of frustration. It's not even that much here is closely observed -- the scenes are quickly sketched, the observations small ones -- but it is finely done, an effective, even provocative little book.

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Things Seen: Reviews: Annie Ernaux: Other books by Annie Ernaux under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Annie Ernaux was born in Normandy in 1940. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2022.

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