There is an intimacy about Annie Ernaux’s Man Booker International shortlisted memoir in spite of its impersonal tone. We are never told the names of the central character, her lovers, her sons or anyone else apart from, occasionally, public figures. There is no dialogue. Yet we know how she felt at the onset of menstruation and its end; about the kitchen-table abortion; the divorce, and the hotel-room-in-the afternoon routine she adopted with her much younger lover; the mirror’s-eye view of her ageing, naked body; the changing way she related to her sons as they made life choices which she found hard to understand. Not many conventional autobiographies are quite this confessional.
The style of The Years is, to cite its closing words, “To save something from the time where we will never be again.” It’s a wistful, often nostalgic, ramble through one woman’s life, hopes and disappointments.
The threads of the author’s life story are pulled together from a jumble of memories, snatches of song, phrases that stick in the mind, sentiments, snapshots — one of her most effective techniques is describing a very ordinary family photo, recounting the inscription on the back, and then fitting that into a moment in her, and her country’s, life. The book’s charm is the personal detail; its success is weaving that into an account of the nation.
The Yearsis in part an evocation of France’s history from the author’s birth in 1940 — just as the country succumbed to German occupation — until just over a decade ago (the book was first published in French in 2008). At first we hear remembered snatches of kitchen-table conversations where the grown-ups chat about the war, the Nazis, the Holocaust, the liberation. Over the years, we have unmediated observations — about changing attitudes to sex, the retreat of the Catholic church, reflections on the wars against the French in Indo-China and Algeria, the excitement over the student revolt of May 1968, the rise and fall of the bureaucratic socialism of Mitterrand, the fear of AIDS and the oafish racism of Le Pen and a sense of shock and shame at the popular resonance it achieved.
The Years has been described as part of a new genre of collective autobiography — a story which is emblematic of a generation. That’s enhanced by the persistent use of “we” to describe what is often a very personal and intensely individual memory or sentiment.
“ L’etat, c’est moi ” (I am the nation), Louis XIV is reputed to have declared. Ernaux similarly seeks to capture a nation’s identity within the bounds of her own memories and experiences — though, let’s be clear, this is very much the perspective of a woman, white, middle class (a teacher by profession), liberal and on the left. This memoir is inevitably rooted in a particularly French experience of the past — a lot of the references are local and parochial and without at least some understanding of France’s post-war history, and political and social currents, it could prove taxing to read. Yet even for those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the French, there is an energy and dynamism to the narrative which sweep the reader along.
The style of writing — recalling phrases which stood out because they were already dated, catchwords, advertising slogans, school-ground slang — brings zest to the prose, but it makes the book a real challenge to render into another language. Ernaux has won awards for this book — so too has Alison L. Strayer for this translation, and deservedly so. There’s only one occasion when she can’t quite find the words — in a footnote to a phrase which remains in its original form. She notes that it is “an untranslatable fart joke”.
One of the conceits of the book is that its author has an abiding sense of failure for not committing her writing project to paper. The reader of course knows that eventually she did. There is a sweet sadness that permeates the book — “the melancholy of passing things” — especially when the author as grandmother presides over the generations at the dining table much in the way that she remembered the family doing when she was a young child.
On death, Ernaux reflects, we are destined “to vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation”. This book is her attempt to delay that moment of erasure. She has written autobiographical novels and conventional accounts of her family but this memoir which never uses ‘I’ is, by critical acclaim, her defining work. In the years ahead, historians will trawl through the prose seizing on passages which reflect popular attitudes to political and social change and searching for personal incident and anecdote which illuminates a broader theme.
For those of us who simply enjoy immersing ourselves in a captivating journey through fading memories and crumpled images, this is a book to savour.
The writer is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and a former BBC India correspondent.
Annie Ernaux, trs Alison L. Strayer