Alone Together: On Annie Ernaux’s “Look at the Lights, My Love”
By Apoorva TadepalliApril 11, 2023
Look at the Lights, My Love by Annie Ernaux
Domestic shopping is a singular experience, a private activity carried out in full view of the public. It is one of the few tasks often conducted alone in the presence of many other people who are also alone. The types of institutions where ordinary citizens do this, Ernaux writes, has a huge impact on the way a community or society is formed. To her, superstores like this one “cannot be reduced […] to the ‘chore’ of grocery shopping. They provoke thought, anchor sensation and emotion in memory.” Such a store is both alienating and inviting, oppressive and inspiring, but it is one of the most basic experiences of the average middle-class person’s everyday life. “Politicians, journalists, ‘experts,’ all those who have never set foot in a superstore, do not know the social reality of France today,” Ernaux writes. The 2022 Nobel laureate collected her notes into a diary, Look at the Lights, My Love, originally published in 2014 and now released in its first-ever English edition this year, in a translation by Alison L. Strayer for Yale University Press.
Look at the Lights records the mundane routines and behavior that are to be expected in the superstore environment. Shoppers navigate subtle social rules—sampling grapes while “kept in check by others’ eyes,” trying to work the self-checkout system but drawing the same ire usually reserved for a lackadaisical cashier, sitting down “to watch the ballet of customers who come and go.” The dancers in this ballet reach out to each other in small ways: a man asks her for advice on dog food versus puppy food, “out of a simple desire to tell an unknown woman that he has a six-month-old dog, nothing more,” Ernaux thinks. An employee setting out apples gives Ernaux tips about oven-baking pies. She feels self-conscious asking a salesman to “rouse himself” and explain gigabytes to her, and especially so when she catches him smiling patiently at her. This exposure is highlighted on the escalators moving in opposite directions, where “we can peer at one another with frank curiosity, like the passengers of two trains moving slowly through a station in opposite directions. In what way are we present to each other?” Ernaux asks. “I feel like a smooth surface reflecting other people and the signs hanging over their heads.”
The shopper of groceries, school supplies, and clothes brings her domestic, private self to the superstore: details about how she lives, whom she lives with, what she does all day. She brings her shopping list and leaves it in her cart for Ernaux to find—“curly lettuce flour ham, lardons grated cheese, yogurt Nescafé vinegar”—which the writer compares with her own: “Ricoré coffee lady fingers mascarpone milk, cream sandwich bread.”
Like her grocery list, Ernaux’s diary is meticulous and spontaneous at once, a collection of details crucial and not. It is also a work in progress, developing in real time. Other shoppers’ lists may be left around to find at the store, just as her people-watching is both private and public. The line at the checkout is especially intimate, Ernaux notes, when everyone is “observed and observing,” looking at each other’s price tags and plans for the evening and the “signs” over their heads, getting a sense of each other in a “drifting intuitive way.”
This publicness is strange, but shopping is a somewhat appropriate setting for it. “Isn’t coming to the shopping center a way of being admitted to the spectacle of a party?” Ernaux asks. “Immersed, truly, not through a TV screen, in light and wealth, and worth as much as things.” Consumers are on display as much as products are. There is the inevitable surveillance at the superstore: the cameras hidden in the ceilings, the signs warning against loitering, the lack of benches in the areas where poor people frequent. In contrast to a childhood dream in which she tore, unrestrained, through deserted stores and snatched up all the candy and toys that caught her eye, Ernaux notes how “docile” the store customers are in the presence of each other and of the store’s bird’s-eye. “[W]hy don’t we revolt?” she wonders, abstractly, standing in longer and longer lines because the superstore has cut back on staff. “Why not avenge ourselves for the wait imposed on us […] and all together decide to dig into the cookies and the chocolate bars[?]” But of course, if anyone tried this, there would be no solidarity: “We are a community of desires, not of action.”
Ernaux’s site of observation recalls the Paris arcades from Walter Benjamin’s study of 19th- and 20th-century consumerism, composed between 1927 and 1940. The Arcades Project was a response to the same stultifying feeling Ernaux is describing, the docility and inactivity—the “internalized fear”—ingrained in the customers at the superstore. Benjamin famously described his project as an attempt at a “prince’s kiss,” something that would rouse the individual from this dreamlike state. Ernaux comes across as the kind of flaneur that Benjamin was interested in, someone watching modernity unfold in real time. Arcades was never finished, but it was more of a process, and a documentation of a process, than a product—as the arcades themselves were, according to Benjamin: a representation of both the promise and the failure of capitalism simultaneously.
“These are the shelves of dreams and desires, of hope—therapy shelves, in a sense,” Ernaux writes, watching the “meditative state” that overcomes people in front of products “designed to restore the waistline, bowel movements and sleep, designed to help one live better, be better.” But behind these promises there is nothing; the promise itself is the product: “[T]he best part comes before the item is placed in the cart.”
This is why the superstore, like the arcades, is a monument to excess and waste. Customers and employees alike often look dazed, drifting through the aisles; they buy more than they could possibly need, yielding to the “inexorable logic of accumulation.” Ernaux sometimes goes to the store simply “to fill the void,” or “put [her]self in idle mode. Pure distraction.” “I sink into a kind of torpor,” she writes, and the sounds from “deep inside the superstore” recall “the sound of the sea when one is dozing on the sand.” Just before Christmas, she notices an “atmosphere of excitement and expenditure (or desire to spend).” Anticipation is more attractive than acquisition.
Benjamin discussed the arcades in his radio plays for children as well, especially the magical toy rooms that could be seen around Berlin just before Christmas. He noted the “charmed attractions” of the department stores, describing to the children listening to his show every strange and curious toy in great detail, especially the ones he remembered and could never find again, the ones that had disappeared. Benjamin was genuinely charmed by the arcades and by commodities, perhaps in spite of himself, and he is therefore more generous toward our relationship to consumerism than Ernaux is. He wanted to understand and appreciate the beauty of all the toys, even as he recognized the “little theater piece” put on by the saleswoman who wanted nothing more than to get him to buy something, enchanted or not. In this way, he offers a remarkable way out of the consumerist trap, a wild loophole. “[T]he more someone understands something and the more he knows of a particular kind of beauty,” he explained to the children, “the more he can rejoice in everything that he knows and sees, and the less he’s fixated on possessing it.”
The superstore, like the arcades, is a moment in history; nothing is timeless, or outside of time. Benjamin quotes Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin (1831) in The Arcades Project, describing three showrooms in an antique shop, crammed with “the relics of civilizations”: in this “ocean of furnishings, inventions, fashions,” the protagonist “felt smothered under the debris of fifty vanished centuries, nauseated with this surfeit of human thought, crushed under the weight of luxury and art.” The modern shopper is uniquely positioned to watch modernity unfold in real time, but also to see, as Benjamin saw, the ruin that will ultimately befall the superstore, just as it befell the arcades.
Ernaux recognizes this at once. She is deeply invested in recording the “present,” because this is how she can “distinguish objects, individuals, and mechanisms, and to give their existence value”—to write, not just see. But this present is already becoming past: with “online ordering and curbside pickup,” she writes, “[i]t may be that this life will disappear.” And “today’s children, in adulthood,” she speculates, “may remember with nostalgia Saturday shopping at the Hyper U, as those of over fifty remember the pungent grocers’ shops of the past where they went with a metal pitcher to get fresh milk.”
Apoorva Tadepalli has written for The Point, The Atlantic, The Baffler, Bookforum, and elsewhere. She tweets @storyshaped.
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