Reading The Years. tr. Alison L. Strayer (2017. Original: Les Années, 2008) feels very much like leafing through an old photo album, opening the contents of a treasure box found in the attic, or listening to family stories at the dinner table.
The book moves from the 1940’s to the early 2000’s, interweaving your personal experiences with those of your generation, against the backdrop of the political and cultural changes in French society during the period. We move from your working-class upbringing, through your formative years and your work as a French literature teacher, to your marriage, your life as middle-class wife and mother of two, and to your eventual divorce and subsequent love affairs.
Your life, however, is not the central topic of the book: you seem to be much more interested in the changing atmosphere in which this life unfolded. We move from post-War France, through De Gaulle, Mitterand, the war in Algeria, May 1968, the rise of consumerism, the sexual revolution, the nuclear threat, the AIDS crisis, the fall of the Soviet Union, Le Pen, the rise of unemployment, and the attacks of September 11: “As the years accumulated, our landmarks, 1968 and 1981, were erased.”
Told in the first-person plural pronoun “we”, by a narrator who refers to herself in the third person as “she”, the book blurs the limits between personal and collective – as if the narrator and her generation were simply mirrors within mirrors, turned to face each other. It feels very much like looking at something from two different perspectives at once: from the inside and from the outside; from a particular and from a more universal point of view. The use of “we” also reminds me of the chorus in an ancient Greek play, or some kind of background noise. It reflects the way the narrator, as a child, used to listen to the WWII stories told by her relatives at the dinner table: “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” It feels very much as if we were at the dinner table with her and her contemporaries.
Playing with the tentative lines between memoir, essay, prose-poetry, fact and fiction, collective history an individual experience, the narrative is framed both by particular scenes that repeat throughout the story and by photographs taken throughout the narrator’s life. We have a strong sense of moving in time, caught in the flow of events; and, strangely, we also have the feeling of being arrested in time by a scene or an image, where the personal can briefly emerge from this flow of collective memories and events.
As the book opens, we are met with a timeless, disembodied voice: “All the images will disappear“, which is followed by a list of fragmented, unconnected scenes and blurred images, randomly emerging from the narrator’s memory, as if her attempt at remembering important events only led to the more vivid image of seemingly trivial ones – “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone”, lingering in the narrator’s mind even when she is trying to remember something entirely different.
Throughout the book, we have scenes of family gatherings, where the faces seem blurred, as if relatives were just ghosts in each other’s memories, and only the family roles were permanent, not the people behind those roles. On a stranger note, at several points, the book seems to be haunted by the ever-recurring image of a woman urinating out in the open, in broad daylight.
From the list of random scenes, the narrator turns to a picture of her childhood: caught by this self and this moment from which she has no memory, she proceeds from this point on, in a detailed but uninterrupted flow of images of a life in rapid change, moving from individual to collective, and back, in “a 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.”
We follow a thread of fading and blurred scenes that remain in the memories of the narrator for a short time, only to be replaced by others, and to disappear completely afterwards. More often than not, we recognize something of ourselves in the collective “we” voice, and the narration shows an uncanny side: it is so unpersonal, that it becomes very personal at times. Any of us can find herself briefly caught in the flow, then submerge again.
We also have a sharp sense of the passing of time, and its fleeting, irretrievable nature, as the narrator’s life (along with that of her generation) passes us by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” If the book begins with random images lingering in the narrator’s memory even against her will, it ends with the snapshots the narrator deliberately wants to keep from the destruction of time – even though she knows nothing can really be saved.
We are caught in the narrator’s struggle to capture and catalogue memories that are permanently shifting and acquiring a new meaning, a new significance – which, in turn, mirrors her struggle to write a book that captures the sense of a living memoir within the living dimension of history: a sense we, at some point, might have of striving to live and, at the same time, striving to watch life from the outside, as it is being lived. It’s like handling a palimpsest: at once excavating the images underneath, and covering them with new meaning.
They will all vanish at the same time, like the millions of images that lay behind the foreheads of the grandparents, dead for half a century, and of the parents, also dead. Images in which we appeared as a little girl in the midst of beings who died before we were born, just as in our own memories our small children are there next to our parents and schoolmates. And one day we’ll appear in our children’s memories, among their grandchildren and people not yet born. Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history. – The Years, Annie Ernaux
It will be a 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. An outpouring, but suspended at regular intervals by photos and scenes from films that capture the successive body shapes and social positions of her being – freeze-frames on memories, and at the same time reports on the development of her existence, the things that have made it singular, not because of the nature of the elements of her life, whether external (social trajectory, profession) or internal (thoughts and aspirations, the desire to write), but because of their combinations, each unique unto itself. To this ‘incessantly other’ of photos will correspond, in mirror image, the ‘she’ of writing. 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. – The Years, Annie Ernaux
Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countryside of France and other parts of Europe: a heritage unseen in the photos, lying beyond individual difference and the gaps between the goodness of some and the wickedness of others. It united family members, neighbours, and all these of whom one said “They’re people like us” a repertory of habits and gestures shaped by childhoods in the fields and teen years in workshops, preceded by other childhoods, all the way back to oblivion. – The Years, Annie Ernaux
And we, on the threshold of the 1980s, when we would enter our fortieth year, were suffused with a weary sweetness that came of accomplished tradition, and gazed around the table of faces, dark against the light. For a moment we were struck by the strangeness of repeating a ritual in which we now occupied the middle position between two generations. We were overcome with a kind of reverse vertigo, brought on by immutability, as if nothing in society had moved. – The Years, Annie Ernaux
About the book
- Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018, tr. Alison L. Strayer, 240 p. Goodreads
- Seven Stories Press, 2017, tr. Alison L. Strayer, 256 p. Goodreads
Original Title: Les Années, 2008
- My rating: 5 stars
- Shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and for the 31st Annual French-American Foundation Translation Prize
- Winner of the 2008 Françoise-Mauriac Prize of the Académie française, the 2008 Marguerite Duras Prize, the 2008 French Language Prize, the 2009 Télégramme Readers Prize, and the 2016 Premio Strega Europeo Prize.