Occasional review: Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’

I picked up a couple of Annie Ernaux books last time I was in France. I think The Years (Les années) was a recommendation from someone, possibly a bookseller. I remember starting it (“Toutes les images disparaîtront…”/”All the images will disappear…”) but didn’t read the whole thing until I received this translation, from Fitzcarraldo Editions. It is a stunning piece of work, a memoir of life in France since the second world war drained almost entirely of the personal. Ernaux presents her life as a series of disconnected generalisations – sociological, political and cultural: an election might carry as much weight as a film, or an advertising slogan, or the availability of abortion, or the changing tenor of parenthood or coupledom. She describes her goal at one point as presenting “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation”.

The great stylistic trick of the original, of course, is her use of that characteristically French pronoun on, which carries none of the painful elitism of the English one, and in fact Alison L. Strayer often translates on as we.

A pair of underlined paragraphs – of which there are many in my copy – picked at random:

Meanwhile, we studied for our BAs while listening to the transistor. We went to see Cléo from 5 to 7, Last Year at Marienbad, Bergman, Buñuel and Italian films. We loved Léo Ferré, Barbara, Jean Ferrat, Leny Escudero, and Claude Nougaro. We read Hara-Kiri. We felt nothing in common with the yé-yés, who said Hitler, never heard of him, and their ideols, who were even younger than we: girls with pigtails and songs fo rthe school playground; a boy who bellowed and writhed on the floor of the stage. We had the feeling they’d never catch up with us. Next to them, we were old. Perhaps we too would die under de Gaulle.

But we were not adults. Sexual life remained clandestine and rudimentary, haunted by the spectre of ‘an accident’. No one was supposed to have a sex life before marriage. Boys believed their lewd innuendos displayed advanced erotic science, but all they knew how to do was ejaculate on the area of the girl’s body to which she directed him, for the sake of caution. No one knew for sure whether or not they were still virgins.

(As it happens, the first uses on in the original, and the second uses nous.)

The closest Ernaux comes to her own person is a series of descriptions of family photographs in which she features, from childhood to late middle age, but even here she is always she, never I. Dispassionate is the word.

There is an obvious link here to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but Ernaux is not conceptually or theoretically interested in the idea of photography. In fact, in Barthes’ terms, the photos she gives us are all stadiumand no punctum. She refuses to pick out the single, novelistic detail that, despite its inconsequence, is able to carry the weight of sentiment.

Nevertheless, this is a book that couldn’t exist without Barthes’ Mythologies, the book in which he schooled us all in how to read broad sociological meaning into minor cultural appurtenances. His intuitive takes on consumer society and advertising are the groundwork on which Ernaux’s relies. She knows she need only list the objects; we instinctively add the interpretation. As she says:

Now, everything once considered normal had become the object of scrutiny. Family, education, prison, work, holidays, madness, advertising, every aspect of reality was questioned, including the one elaborating the critique, who was ordered to probe his own origins, where are you speaking from, comrade? Society had ceased to function naively. Buying a car, marking a paper, and giving birth all had meaning.

Musing on the nascent idea of the book, Ernaux says she wants to “capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory”, and the strange neutrality of the narrative means that we can all slip into her boilerplate memories, no matter our nationality or generation. (Not true, in fact, but I’ll get to that in a moment.)

In the privacy of our rooms, we engaged in solitary orgies of playing the same disc over and over.

Yes, we did. And much more besides. And yet Ernaux doesn’t just present memories, she reflects on memory, as well.

She is visited by fleeting images of her parents in the small Normandy town, her mother taking off her work coat to go to evening prayer, her father coming up from the garden with a spade over his shoulder, a slow moving world that continues to exist, more surreal than a film and far removed from the world in which she lives, modern and cultivated, forward-moving – towards what is difficult to say.

Is that not a perfect description of the workings of contemporary human memory?

There is a problem, though. The weand the one of Ernaux’s book are not in fact representative of all French people, not even all French women. Hers is a middle-class we, an expansion in both directions of Perec’s trendy couple in Les Choses, and it specifically excludes the French immigrant population, which today, including second generation immigrants, makes up a fifth of the nation. Her we sets itself in opposition to their they:

It was a dangerous population, always ignored and always under surveillance, right down to its imagination, which annoyed us insofar as it was focused elsewhere, on Algeria and Palestine. They were officially called ‘youth from immigrant backgrounds’, or in daily life, Arabs and Africans, or to employ a more virtuous phrasing, les Beurs and les Blacks. They were IT professionals, secretaries, and security guards. That they called themselves French we privately found absurd, a usurped claim to glory to which they were not yet entitled.

This is candid, certainly, but it is far harder to take than the ironical self-takedown of Ernaux and her peers as willing sacrificial lambs of the consumer society. “For us and by us, consumption was purified” is gently critical of her own kind, but the distance she maintains throughout the project means that we get no judgement on the “absurdity” of black or Arab Frenchwomen and men thinking themselves French, and no recognition of exactly where that nebulous nous, and even more nebulous on, begin and end.

It’s a moment of discomfort in a book that otherwise pays the reader (this white middle-class reader, in any case) the great compliment of inserting them, Zelig-like, into the great European cultural showreel of the last 70 years. Not having read much else by Ernaux (only Regarde les lumières mon amour, a short book along similar lines about her local hypermarché that simply doesn’t have the sweep or intuitive intelligence of this) it’s astonishing how well this book fits into our contemporary literary narrative in the UK. It’s a further hint that the division that autofiction wants to overcome or dissolve is not between the novel and the autobiography, or the memoir, but between the novel and the essay.

The Years, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer. Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Thanks to Fitzcarraldo for the review copy.

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2 comments

  1. hastanton

    ‘On’ is most often used for nous …esp when speaking…. I think prob because it’s easier( less clumsy) to conjugate the verbs than using nous . I certainly read it as ‘we’ so it’s not a quirk of translation. I thought the passage re non white French was remarkably honest …that does most nearly reflect the attitude, even today to some extent.

  2. Pingback: June Reading: Batuman, Manguso, Teo, Fuller | Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs

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