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by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Jonathan Kaplansky
Reviewed by Darryl Morris

Things Seen (La vie extériure), was originally published in France in 2000. The literal translation of the book's title, "Exterior Life" or "The Life Outside", fits nicely with its content, as it is a series of brief observations and random thoughts about people and events that exist outside of the life of the narrator, which take place between 1993 and 1999. Many of the stories take place on the Métro, the RER trains that carry passengers from the suburbs to Paris, or on the streets of the city. In keeping with Ernaux's style, the portrayals are objective and unsympathetic, honest and detached. A typical observation takes place on the Métro during the Christmas season:

The subway car is full. A woman's voice is raised, powerful. "Act a little human!" Absolute silence. A terrible voice, that tells of her misfortune, accuses people of selfishness, their asses nice and warm, etc. No one looks at her or responds to her anger, because she is telling the truth. On the platform, she collides with people carrying bags of Christmas presents, hurls abuse at them, "you'd be better off giving money to the unfortunate rather than buying all that crap." Again the truth. But we do not give to do good, we give to be loved. Giving to a homeless person just to prevent him from dying altogether is an intolerable idea and it would not make him love us anyway.

Occasionally the unnamed narrator links the person she is observing to past events in her own life: a woman on a plane gazes at herself in a mirror and adjusts her appearance, in anticipation of meeting a lover; street musicians at Les Halles remind her of a dream she had as a teenager to visit Harlem, to listen to jazz music. At other times she will try to imagine herself as the person she is observing, such as the woman who pilfers a pair of pantyhose in a Parisian shop.

News events are also described throughout the book. A 1993 bombing of an art gallery in Florence is mourned, mainly due to the loss of Renaissance era paintings rather than the human lives that are lost. Princess Diana's death and the worldwide reaction to it is compared to the indifference to the thousands of people killed in the Algerian civil war. The narrator effectively portrays the plight of the poor and homeless in the following entry:

In France there are thirty million dogs and cats that people would never think of leaving outside in such weather. We let men and women die in the street, perhaps precisely because they are our fellow men, with the same desires and needs as us. It is too difficult to put up with this part of ourselves, dirty, stupefied by the lack of everything. The Germans living near the concentration camps did not believe that the Jews in flea-ridden rags were people.

Things Seen is a quietly powerful and damning view of the inhumanity of modern society; it is a book that is both deceptively simple and deeply profound.