The Years

In 1985, as described in her newly translated (by Alison Strayer) autobiography The Years, Annie Ernaux begins to consider writing the book we are reading:

“…the idea has come to her to write ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, set between 1940 and 1985. It would be something like Maupassant’s A Life and convey the passage of time inside and outside of herself, in History, a ‘total novel’ that would end with her dispossession of people and things: parents and husband, children who leave home, furniture that is sold.”

It is worth noting that at this point Ernaux had been a published writer for over ten years working in the autobiographical genre, and that what she was imagining was clearly something which went beyond the work she was already producing. Previously her books have tended to focus on one aspect of her life: of the two I have read, for example, Cleaned Out relates her experience of abortion and I Remain in Darkness tells of her mother’s dementia. Now the intention was to produce something all-encompassing and cumulative, a new form which would require a new method, which, twenty years later, she describes:

“It will be slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life… There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before.”

It begins in valedictory fashion: a series of memories introduced with the phrase “All the images will disappear.” The conclusion to this prelude is equally certain:

“Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it.”

What follows both answers and emphasises: The Years preserves the memories within it, but in presenting a lifetime in two hundred pages it encapsulates the brevity, the impermanence.

Ernaux uses the frozen images of photographs as milestones on her journey, beginning with one of “a fat baby with a full, pouty lower lip and brown hair”. She begins, not with her own memories, but with those of the adults around her in her post-war childhood:

“The voices of the guests flowed together to compose the great narrative of collective events, which we came to believe we too had witnessed.”

Ernaux intends not only the milestones of her own life, but the milestones for France in the second half of the twentieth century, ‘the great collective narrative’, while at the same time distrustful of that narrative, noting that the adults “lacked the talent and conviction to speak of things they’d been aware of but had not seen.” Ernaux lacks neither talent nor conviction, and manages a tone that is both incisive and bemused, observant of the tides of change while not immune to being washed along; she is both camera and subject.

What most astonishes in reading The Years is the pace of change. Partly this is material: in her childhood Ernaux tells us:

“We lived in a scarcity of everything, of objects, images, distractions, explanations of self and the world…”

As an adult she sees the development of the ‘consumer society’:

“The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.”

(In case this seems rather distant and high-handed, Ernaux will happily satirise her own behaviour, teaching the dangers of advertising while buying all the latest technology “with a sense of using modernity to intelligent ends” – “For us and by us, consumption was purified.”)

By the book’s end, we find a very different world to that of her childhood:

“We lived in a profusion of everything, objects, information and ‘expert opinions’.”

Similarly there are striking changes in attitudes, to women, for example, and sex. Sex is a topic Ernaux returns to again and again, beginning with the judgements of her youth:

“The unwed mother lost her entire worth and had nothing to hope for, except perhaps a man who would sacrifice himself and take her in, along with the fruit of her sin.”

The contraceptive pill changes everything for women, though initially “we didn’t dare ask the doctor for a prescription and the doctor didn’t offer, especially if one wasn’t married.” Later, too, Ernaux reflects:

“With the pill they had become sole rulers of their lives, but word hadn’t got out yet.”

Ernaux also charts the political scene, the wars (Algeria, Vietnam), the elections, May 1968 and its aftermath. Of course, some of this is less fascinating for the non-French reader, but much of it mirrors political movements in Europe as a whole.

Ernaux’s real success, though, is in combining all of this – political, social, economic – with the personal in a seamless narrative which is breath-takingly sustained. Time and again she finds exactly the right phrase to bring a new experience or thought to life (a Walkman, for example, is “the first time music entered the body”). The overall effect is intelligent, moving and, at times, revelatory.

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6 Responses to “The Years”

  1. Bellezza Says:

    I am currently reading this, and I’m finding that while her experiences are different from mine (both in years and countries), they are remarkably the same. As a very simple example, she stated how the year ran from October to July for her, instead of January on, which has always been true for me. The new year always starts in September, for me, when school starts. But, there are more meaningful examples for which I need to think harder to relate. I loved it.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Interesting review. A couple of readers recommended Ernaux to me when I wrote about Delphine de Vigan’s account of the life (and death) of her mother in Nothing Holds Back the Night. What strikes me as being different here is the combination of the broader cultural landscape in France (social, political etc) with the deeply personal. That’s quite a difficult balance to pull off effectively. The writing sounds truly excellent.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve been very uncertain about this. Still am a bit. It does sound though like you found it rewarding and outward as well as inward looking (I was worried it might be a bit solipsistic).

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oh, I don’t know if you saw this piece by Jonathan Gibbs – https://tinycamels.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/occasional-review-annie-ernauxs-the-years/ – he also likes the book but criticises it for a sense of hostility towards immigrants, which is a bit ugly. Did that strike you at all? You pick up one of the same lines he did and also make a point about possible snobbery/looking down on others not of her group.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think he’s spot on, but the snobbery is intended to honestly represent feelings at the time – Ernaux does not present herself or her generation as perfect.
      He’s also right about it presenting middle class experience, but the task of representing all classes / races in what is essentially a memoir seems a big ask.

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