Look at the Lights, My Love by Annie Ernaux (Translated from French by Alison L Strayer) - review by Tess Little

Tess Little

A Pale View of the Tills

Look at the Lights, My Love

By

Yale University Press 81pp £12.99
 

Visiting a new supermarket is a disorienting experience. On the surface, it’s all familiar: the sliding doors, the black rubber conveyor belts, the flecked linoleum. But then you can’t find the baskets, you’re in the wrong queue, you’re not in a queue, you can’t enter this queue with a trolley. As the familiar slips, you become uncomfortably aware of the unspoken rules you might be transgressing. After all, you entered the supermarket as a customer and must behave as a customer should. In all supermarkets, the most absurd transgression is to leave without buying a thing.

Look at the Lights, My Love is a diary of visits to an hypermarché on the outskirts of Paris. Across thirty-five entries, Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux provides ‘a free statement of observations and sensations, aimed at capturing something of the life of the place’ – including its various rules. Customers cannot carry backpacks, must wrap purchases from elsewhere in plastic and should refrain from taking photographs (Ernaux, failing on the last two counts, is duly reprimanded). Then there are the norms of ‘consumer civility’. We keep our distance; we bristle when someone ahead is slow to pay; we turn a blind eye when one or two grapes are popped in the mouth pre-purchase.

The subject at the heart of Look at the Lights, My Love is what we reveal of ourselves in the strange sterility of the store. And it is an odd, artificial system. In her introduction, Ernaux recalls the bewilderment she witnessed among shoppers in a newly opened supermarket in Slovakia

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