Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).
The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.
In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.
She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)
By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.
Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.
She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)
Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.
But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)
Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.
There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)
As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.
In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.
The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.
So glad you’ve now read this. One of my best fof 2020
It had been languishing in my TBR pile for about a year, so I’m glad I finally managed to get around to it! Such an impressive fusion of elements encompassing so many different aspects of life, and yet they all feel rooted in Ernaux’s own personal experiences. She makes it seem effortless and seamless, although I’m sure that’s a result of a monumental amount of craftmanship ‘behind the scenes’, so to speak. Have you read any of her other books? I’d like to go deeper into Ernaux’s own life at some point as I found the sections about her as an individual especially compelling.
She deals with many aspects of women’s lives in little novellas. A Woman’s Story, Shame, I Remain in Darkness…all worth reading.
A Woman’s Story was recommended to me several years ago when I wrote about Delphine de Vigan’s account of her mother, Nothing Holds Back the Night. It reminded another reader of the Ernaux and the idea of a daughter trying to get to know her mother better by writing about her life. I’ll have another look.
I’m sure you will like it.
Such an interesting approach to both document her own life and that of her generation and class which, of course, shapes us all.
Yes, absolutely. It seems so obvious as a concept, as we’re all shaped in some way by the social, political, cultural and technological developments happening around us. And yet, the way the book is written feels quite innovative and fresh as it zooms in on Ernaux and then out again to her generation.
Lovely review as always; it really gives me a sense of the writer and her work. I actually have a copy of this, languishing on the TBR pile, waiting for a rare moment of mental energy on my part!
I think that women coming of age in the 1950s faced very particular challenges, which make for interesting lives. As you point out, the stirrings of independence/redefining gender roles are beginning to be felt but the traditional norms still rule the day. I’ve very ignorant of this period (not a big fan of the 1950s in general), particularly its European aspects; for this reason alone I really should get to The Years sooner rather than later. I curious as to whether a young French woman (and philosophy student) such as Ernaux influenced at all by Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (a quick search for dates confirms that it was published in the late 1940s) or by Beauvoir herself? Did Ernaux touch on this at all?
Thank you! That’s a really interesting question about The Second Sex – and yes, I think Ernaux does mention it in passing as one of the cultural touchstones of time, although it’s not covered in any great depth or detail. I’ve yet to read Beauvoir myself (shocking, I know), but other readers have drawn comparisons between her and Ernaux, which seems a natural comparison to make. The other text that is sometimes mentioned in relation to Ernaux is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, largely to the meditative quality of The Years, together with its interest in memory and the passing of time. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!
Wonderful review, Jacqui. As we’ve discussed, I haven’t read this Ernaux, only some of her slimmer works, but even in those she was telling her story as if it was happening to someone else. That distancing effect works well, particularly when she’s dealing wth diificult events. A marvellous writer.
Thanks, Karen. I’m definitely interested in reading some of her other works, particularly A Simple Passion and Happening. I get the sense they go deeper into particular experiences in Ernaux’s life, more so perhaps than the glimpses we see in The Years. It’s also fascinating to see that both of these books (Passion and Happening) have recently been turned into films. Happening scooped the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, which makes it a must-see for me!
This sounds excellent, such a good approach to writing a memoir, combining so many elements from culture, politics and the history she lived through. Fascinating that she chose the pronoun she rather than I, a way of distancing herself I wonder.
Yes, absolutely. Karen also mentioned that distancing effect in her comment, so it’s there in some of Ernaux’s other work, even though the technique might be somewhat different. I’m keen to reads some of her others now, especially as I found the ‘she’ sections in The Years especially compelling.
Oh, this does sound fascinating. Did she write it in English or is it translated? I always feel faintly guilty reading a French author in English, although truth be told I couldn’t manage an actual book in French nowadays!
Yes, it was written in French and translated by Alison L. Strayer. (I always try to mention the translators in the titles of my posts, just to give them equal billing.)
Oh I’m so sorry, it trims the title in my Feedly reader then I was busy reading the post and didn’t look at the title again!
The best book I read in 2018. I love her work in general and this felt like a way of uniting all her smaller books as part of something larger. She has spoken more than once abut how it is not autobiography she writes and there is something unique about her perspective.
Yes, there’s a section where she talks about wanting to erase the ‘I’ from the book, replacing it with the use of ‘one’ or ‘we’ to convey the broader, collective experiences of her generation. Even the use of ‘she’ in the more personal sections enables her to relate some of the more challenging experiences from a distance. I’m looking forward to reading more of her, possibly one of two of the books that have been turned into films: https://variety.com/2021/film/reviews/happening-review-1235057158/
Annie Ernaux is a writer I keep running across, but haven’t read yet. Your description of the way she weaves the personal and what is going on in the world and how each influence the other together makes this book particularly appealing. The 1950s always seem to be remembered in such a simplistic way, I’m interested in her obviously much more nuanced view of a time that started seeing the upheavals that the 60s brought.
Yes, I loved that aspect of it, the constant zooming out and zooming in, weaving together the macro and the micro in a way that somehow feels seamless. It reads so naturally on the page, but there’s clearly a lot of skill and craftsmanship going on underneath!
Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal
One summer, when it was just too hot to read and I was looking for short books in the library, I stumbled on her. I remember feeling as though her prose seemed the sort over which someone had laboured for hours and hours AND simultaneously that it all felt so clean and spare and ordinary that she simply let it spill out of her.
Yes! Exactly that. It feels both effortless and meticulously crafted. That’s such a skill, don’t you think? To be able to achieve that kind of effect… I definitely want to read more of her in the future.
This sounds wonderful. The multiple layers and mix of genres is such an evocative and clever way to write biography. We’re such a mishmash of experiences and influences and we don’t think about our lives in one way, it sounds like she captures the messy experience of living really well!
Yes, exactly that. In some respects, it seems such a natural way of looking at the lived experience, but I suspect the fluidity of Ernaux’s prose hides an immense amount of work beneath the surface. It’s a very impressive book, well worth considering if you’re looking for something different.
Pingback: My books of the year 2021 – part one, recently published books | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie) | JacquiWine's Journal