Having originally read the book in January this year, I revisited Annie Ernaux’s The Years (translated by Alison L. Strayer) due to its inclusion on the Man Booker International 2019 longlist. This collective autobiography “at the confluence of autofiction and sociology,” as the cover blurbs it, was certainly worth revisiting. It’s an impressive perusal of French culture and society as viewed through the lens of one writer, written in a memorable and inventive way.
What ultimately makes this flout the nonfiction category – and therefore making it eligible for fiction awards which it has already won in France – is the humble fact that, of course, Ernaux is unable to write in a completely truthful manner about France in, say, the 1940s. In terms of the autobiography genre, how could she write factually about a period of time when she was less than ten years old? I like this approach because it reminds me of how all that’s categorizable as nonfiction is based on interpretation. Text analysis 101. It’s something that Rachel Cusk addresses magnificently in her Faye trilogy.
So what we have in The Years are impressions, fleeting moments from one woman’s history captured in ephemeral language. There’s anxiety about memories soon vanishing – Ernaux was nearing her seventies when the book was first published in 2008:
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. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.
From this vantage point, Ernaux sets out to chronologically chart a cultural history of France from her birth in early 1940s to 2006, but this history is evidently partial. She employs a plural voice – a we-narrator, which raises questions of translation that I won’t touch upon here more than to say that in the French original the word used is the more complex ‘on’ and not ‘nous’ – which suggests that these events have happened not only to her but basically to every woman in France. But I don’t think that’s what Ernaux is trying to convey; I think she’s more nuanced than that. Near the beginning of the book, in the context of war-ravaged France, the narrator remarks:
From a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone was equally affected by events.
Perhaps that’s what evokes the more passive ‘on’ narration for the rest of the book. And it’s a beautiful read. Through glimpses of seemingly unimportant details such as advertisements, Ernaux evokes a compelling picture of life lived in a certain time and of the changes that society goes through over the course of decades. It decentres narratives of war and politics by highlighting the personal and collective spaces of women. It’s saturated with references to 20th-century French culture, which is the only pitfall of the book for a reader like me with negligible knowledge of the subject matter, but I think Ernaux succeeds nonetheless in telling a deeply affecting story, one that I will remember.