In Annie Ernaux’s extraordinary memoir, The Years, she writes her life from the time of her birth in 1940 up to age 66. And I mean her whole life: personal, political, cultural—she covers it all in this unlike-anything-I’ve-ever-read (and in a really good way) book.
She does it by using a collective voice so what emerges is as much the portrait of a generation, a country, our world as a personal story. The narrative is interspersed with the intimate and detailed description of photos of herself at various times of her life and dinner table family gatherings—as well as large scale political and economic movements and the inevitable disillusionment that follows.
I am an avid underliner. When I read something that resonates, I mark it and dog ear the page so I can go back and read it again. My copy of The Years has a record number of such markers. Here’s a taste.
Describing her teen years, 1958:
There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, milk in pyramid-shaped cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next to 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 noice and diversity of the world.
And in 1963 as a self-absorbed 20-something:
There is no relationship between her life and History, though traces of the latter remain fixed in her mind by the gray weather and sensation of cold one March (the miners’ strike), by clammy humidity one Whitsun weekend (the death of Pope John Paul XXII), by a friend’s remark, “World war will begin in two days” (the Cuban Missle Crisis)…. The time of current events, no more than that of sensationalistic news items, which she disdains, is not her time, which is wholly compressed of images of herself.
(I confess, to my embarrassment, totally relating to that: huge globe-shattering events serving only as background to the state of my love life.)
And of course that seminal time in France, May, 1968, “the first year of the world,” gets extensive play, both during the events in the streets and their aftermath:
Short of leaving everything, jobs and apartments to live in the country (a plan postponed but sure to be realized one day), the ones most hungry for rebirth sought remote villages on harsh terrain for holidays. They disdained the beaches where you tan stupid, and the home provinces, flat and “disfigured by industrialization.” On the other hand they credited with authenticity poor farmers in arid lines unchanged for centuries. Those who wanted to make History admired nothing so much as its erasure through the return of the seasons and immutability of gestures, and from these farmers bought an old hut for a song.
The advent of a new kind of consumerism also falls under Ernaux’s scrutiny: Here’s she is on the new big box shopping malls:
Retail spaces multiplied and expanded into open countryside, concrete rectangles bristling with plaques easily read from the highway, venues for diehard consumption where the act of buying was performed in an ambiance of start minimalism…. It was a place of swift and unparalleled shots of emotion, curiosity, surprise. bewilderment, envy, loathing—of raid-fire battles between impulse and reason…. With pleasure or annoyance, lightness of heart or deep despondency, depending on the day, more and noire, the acquisition of things (which we later said we couldn’t do without) was life’s magnetic north.
She takes us through the reigns of DeGaulle and Mitterand and Sarkozy and too many wars to count, and reflects on France’s attitude toward immigrants, the cultural shifts brought on by the pill, the women’s movement , the changes wrought by new technologies—it’s all here in a kaleidoscope of images and impressions. And somehow it works, coming together in a multi-hued portrait on one woman’s life in a time of unprecedented dramatic change.
One of the most poignant parts of this book for me is Ernaux’s description of her early life, how her parents, their parents, and their friends would gather at holiday meals and tell stories of the hardship of their early lives, wars they’d lived through, people they’d lost. There’s a profound sense of loss as that disappears, not only the older generation, but that sense of connection with what came before.
Those of you who are Francophiles will be more familiar with many of her references than I was, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s easy to swap in your own history, your own names. What we’re seeing her is the arc of a life.
Toward the end of the book, Ernaux begins to discuss her process of assembling the book you hold in your hands:
All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time, the one that made its way through the years of the distant past and glided all the way to the present. By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.
And indeed she does.