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Annie Ernaux: The Years, review - time’s flow | reviews, news & interviews

Annie Ernaux: The Years, review - time’s flow

Annie Ernaux: The Years, review - time’s flow

Magisterial and unconventional account of 1941 - 2006 from France’s premiere memoirist

Annie Ernaux, 'The Years' © Fitzcarraldo Editions

“When you were our age, how did you imagine your life? What did you hope for?” It is a video of a classroom south-east of the Périphérique separating Paris from the working-class suburbs. The students are mostly girls between fifteen and sixteen and they wear make-up, jewellery, low-cut tops  we understand they’re sexy, confident, cool. Several are African, North African, Caribbean. When the teacher laughs, which is often, it bears vestiges of the provincial attitude of “a young girl who acknowledges her lack of importance,” though it’s unclear whether the students notice for she conducts the class with gravitas, imparting what she can. This question, however, brings her up short. How reel back so many years to that particular self, so distant and different? How digest the relationship between youthful hopes and imperfectly made decisions when it is a question more tangled than cause and effect? While the distance between her past and present self is vast her laugh belies its proximity. She pauses and considers out loud her pause. Then her voice tips up a tone, sharpens “You live in 1985, women can choose to have children if they want, when they want, outside of marriage. Twenty years ago that was impossible!”

Annie Ernaux: The YearsThe moment is characteristic of French author Annie Ernaux’s The Years, which folds personal memoir into collective history to create a luminous and insistent flow of words that carries us through from 1941 to 2006. While Ernaux at the time is discouraged by her inability to express beyond “stereotypes and commonplace words the full reach of a woman’s experience between the ages of sixteen and sixty-four,” in its telling this video recording becomes a specific moment reading backwards and forwards in time, speaking as much of the France of the past as implying what is to come  for her, for the girls. It’s autobiography, but at a remove. Ernaux uses the impersonal “on” in the French, which in Alison L. Strayer’s English translation becomes “we”, and she writes of herself as “the woman”. As befits an author whose work will outlast her, “I” is kept aloof from the tide of years, so the sensation of reading particular moments in Ernaux’s life is  amongst the passing of war generations, burgeoning commercialisation, legislative victories, fashions, foreign wars, social movements, films, songs and political upheavals  of returning to a plumb line, of taking a sounding through historical currents.

It’s a function of the prose to establish and maintain space between Ernaux the writer, whose life becomes material for the book but remains firmly outside of it, and Ernaux the narrator, who suffuses and channels the work; and in this Strayer’s translation glows. It casts the hypnotic rhythms of Ernaux’s writing into intricate alliteration to create a kind of incantatory insistence which seems to allude to a single heartbeat while expanding into the vastness of epic. She rings Ernaux’s tones through her own exact idioms so the eighties anti-racism slogan Touche pas à mon pote! becomes “Hands off my buddy!” and in the early times of “countrysides and farms”, when hired hands and housemaids drew the subtle line between propriety and childhood they “stepped out” before marrying.

In the course of years Ernaux grows up and out of her small village, attends university and then suddenly has a husband. They have children and a divorce. Ernaux takes lovers and glides into the independence which almost by accident she missed as a young woman. As a reader, shocks of recognition are potent: the young girl’s sense of “the undeniable weight of truth” because something is written in a book, the sudden waking realisation of being caught in a particular type of life, projects falling by the wayside to be later revived, difficult unfamiliar new technologies and the romance of having a lover’s writing peel out of a fax machine, the indescribable feeling of “simultaneous stagnation and mutation” in the midst of social crisis. There’s also the definite moments, newsworthy, by which multitudes can index their own lives against each other’s: Black, Blanc, Beur, the 1999 eclipse, the 1998 World Cup, the falling of the Twin Towers one by one, Diana’s crash. As time passes, language ages, and what feels contemporary for a reader indicates where they too are located within this at once individual and collective history. The book’s perpetual question, where were you, is mythological in scale.

Towards the end is a photograph of a middle-aged woman holding in her lap a young girl in a manner “less of possession than of offering, as one might see in a photo of generational transfer - grandmother presents granddaughter, an establishment of filiation.” This is the child whose arrival Ernaux, in a state of alarm while steadily losing her hair to a course of chemotherapy, admits to considering might herald her replacement in the world. She doesn’t though, for she survived to greet her granddaughter to a world vastly changed from the one she herself entered sixty-six years prior. To this young girl the novelties and progress her grandmother has lived through are as indisputable as Ernaux’s own “wondrous times” when, with all the other children, she “rushed from the table the moment they were excused and took advantage of the permissiveness of feast days to play forbidden games,” while the adults continued talking about the close-by time of war “replete with violence, destruction, and death.” Yet the proximate past is as impossible to enter as the distant, and from now, through the eyes of this little girl, she is and always in some way will remain, a grandmother  a fact as inconceivable to the young au pair who curled up for warmth by a Finchley radiator, as the year 2000 had been to her as a divorcée before the arrival of the official letter confirming her teaching position effective until that year: “Up until then, that date had no reality.”

It is here that Ernaux brings together self as narrator and as writer, and in so doing, unclenches some control: not of the writing, but in telling her own life. She has written this memoir by picking images from her storehouse of memory and finding within them “something that the image from personal memory doesn’t give her on its own.” In so doing, she set out “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”. Personal memory yields to that of the collective to “capture the lived dimension of History,” but her brilliance is to relinquish neither humour nor sense of scale. Her self and her granddaughter both inhabit and make “History”, and here she is, showing herself being consigned to her granddaughter’s memory. Of course, as with anything written, recollected, recalled and conveyed this too is a performance, and one thing The Years makes plain is the equation between the artifice of language and the partiality of living. Words and lives simply capture aspects of time and language as they pass  both will continue to be fashioned and refashioned endlessly. What we are left with is the impression of "light and shadow streaming over faces."

@_kwaters_

 

Strayer's translation casts the hypnotic rhythms of Ernaux’s writing into intricate alliteration to create a kind of incantatory insistence which seems to allude to a single heartbeat while expanding into the vastness of epic

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