Metro Essays

By Annie Ernaux
74 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions. £9.

This is a pleasant little book (74 pages!) describing various people the French author Annie Ernaux witnessed (usually on the metro) from 1985 to 1992. Or, as the author herself puts it, “anonymous figures glimpsed in the Métro or in waiting rooms … who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.”

“Glimpses” would have been an equally worthy name, and perhaps a more truthful one as these individuals’ “exteriors” often do tell us more about them, and — as the author noted above — us, than the word “exteriors” may suggest.

“Exteriors” also gives us a look into Ernaux’s writing process, and the way literature so completely engages her mind — something I found both enviable and amusing.

By describing encounters that last as little as three lines, and rarely more than a dozen, this is the perfect companion to your own trip on the metro, something to take with you to the store where you might be able to snatch an encounter or two in the checkout line.

This is the second or third book I’ve read by Ernaux, who seems to be a favorite of the British publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, and it’s easily the most enjoyable one I’ve read so far. It’s funny how delving into the lives of others, in only a handful of lines, can often prove to be more captivating to read than even the most labored of novels.

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