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 a generation. Each time she begins, she meets the same obstacles: how to represent the passage of historical time, the changing of things, ideas and manners, and the private life of this woman? How to make the fresco of forty-five years coincide with the search for a self outside of History.
The Years is yet another masterpiece brought to English language readers by the United Kingdom’s finest publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. In the United States, this book is available from Seven Stories Press.
The Years is a narrative of France from 1940 (Ernaux’s birth) to 2006, told in “an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes,” and in the unique auto-socio-biography style that she has developed. Indeed it straddles the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, published as un roman in France but in the United Kingdom under Fitzcarraldo’s white covers (usually for essays); the U.K. ISBN registration covers essay, memoir, and literary fiction in translation.
It opens with a collage of images and memories from throughout the period of which below are a sample:
All the images will disappear:
the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, after the war, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the cafe?
the tearful face of Alida Valli as she danced with Georges Wilson in the film The Long Absence
the majesty of the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, who wore a flowered smock like all the residents of the old folks’ home, but with a blue shawl over her shoulders, tirelessly pacing the corridors, haughty like the Duchess of Guermantes in the Bois de Boulogne, and who made you think of Ce?leste Albaret as she’d appeared one night on television with Bernard Pivot
the stranger of Termini Station in Rome, who half lowered the blind of his first-class compartment and in profile, hidden from the waist up, dandled his sex in the direction of the young women in the train on the opposite platform, leaning against the railings, chins in hands
the guy in a cinema ad for Paic Vaisselle dishwashing liquid, cheerfully breaking dirty dishes instead of washing them while an offscreen voice sternly intoned ‘That is not the solution!’ and the man, gazing at the audience in despair, asked ‘But what is the solution?’
the images, real or imaginary, that follow us all the way into sleep
the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone
They will all vanish at the same time, like the millions of images that lay behind the foreheads of the grandparents, dead for half a century, and of the parents, also dead. Images in which we appeared as a little girl in the midst of beings who died before we were born, just as in our own memories our small children are there next to our parents and schoolmates. And one day we’ll appear in our children’s memories, among their grandchildren and people not yet born. Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.
The narration then switches to impressions of World War II, for the narrator not actual but received memories, imbibed during family get-togethers:
The voices of the guests flowed together to compose the great narrative of collective events, which we came to believe we too had witnessed.
They never grew tired of talking about the winter of ’42, the bone-chilling cold, the hunger and the swedes, the food provisions and the tobacco vouchers, the bombardments
the aurora borealis that heralded the coming of the war
the bicycles and carts on the road during the Debacle
the looted shops
the displaced searching the debris for their photos and their money
the arrival of the Germans – every person at the table could say exactly where, in what city – and the always courteous English, the inconsiderate Americans, the collabos, the neighbour in the resistance, X’s daughter whose head was shaved after the Liberation
Le Havre razed to the ground, where nothing remained, the black market
the Krauts fleeing across the Seine at Caudebec on knackered horses
the countrywoman who loudly farted in a train compartment full of Germans and proclaimed to all and sundry, ‘If we can’t tell it, we can make them smell it!’
From a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.
But they only spoke of what they had see and could re-live while eating and drinking. They lacked the talent and conviction to speak of things they’d been aware of but had not seen. Not the Jewish children boarding trains for Auschwitz, nor the bodies of starvation victims collected every morning from the Warsaw ghetto, nor the 10,000 degree fires in Hiroshima. Hence our impression, which later history courses, documentaries and films failed to dispel, that neither the crematoria nor the atomic bomb belong to the same era as black market butter, air-raid warnings, and descents to the cellar.
The line “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events” is key to Ernaux’s own style in the book:
There is no “I” in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only “one” and “we,” as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time before.
The narrative is largely based on Ernaux’s own life but she uses “we” not “I,” or “she”¹ when specifically referring to herself: her personal memories (auto) are used to both tell her own life story and her evolution as a writer, but also to describe the collective experience (biography) of her friends and indeed the generation of French women to which she belongs (and perhaps social class, ethnic group and artistic inclination as well), which in turn also becomes a (sociological) history of France itself — hence the auto-socio-biography.
(¹as an aside, I believe the French original uses on heavily, but Strayer has sensible avoids the use of “one” in English, which would have conveyed a rather different impression)
Another distinctive feature is how, in Ernaux’s account, as is true in reality for most people, political events are often mere background, simply marking the turning of the years in much the same way as does, in another thread, the winner of each year’s Tour de France. The story of France in the second half of the 20th Century is instead told, effectively, with the personal:
It is with the perception and sensations received by the spectacled fourteen-and-a-half-year-old brunette that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.
Ernaux also applies an inversion of the Sebaldian technique. Where he included, often uncommented, photos in his text, often ones he had discovered in junk shops but which fitted his narration, she often starts a new era of reminiscence with a photograph from her family album (later in the book, videos), but one described verbally to rather than physically seen by the reader. For example a photo taken by her young husband on a Sunday lunchtime:
In a photo taken indoors, a close-up in black and white, a young woman and a little boy sit side by side on a single bed, fitted out cushions to make a sofa. Behind them is a window with sheer curtains. An African artefact hangs on the wall. The woman wears an outfit in pale jersey, a twin set and a skirt just above the knee. Her hair, parted in dark asymmetrical bands, accentuates the full oval of her face. Her cheekbones are lifted in a big smile. Neither her hairstyle nor her outfit corresponds to the images one later saw of 1966 or 1967. Only the short skirt is consistent with the fashion launched by Mary Quant.
On the back is written ‘Rue Loverchy, Winter ’67.’
As lunch simmers flagrantly on the stove, and the babbling child assembled Lego blocks, and the toliet flusher is repaired while Bach’s Musical Offering plays in the background, they build their collective sense, all in all, of being happy. The photo plays a role in this construction, anchoring their ‘little family in the long term. It acts as a pledge of permanence for the child’s grandparents, who will receive a copy.
Literature also plays an important role, another way to chart both the passing years (“Leningrad was St Petersburg again, much more convenient for finding one’s way around the novels of Dostoevsky”) but also the evolving taste as she matures. For example, in the lead in to the student revolution in Paris of May 1968, one of the few events that really does impact on daily life:
Television, with its fixed iconography and minimal cast of actors, would institute a ne varietur version of events, the unalterable impression that all of us had been eighteen to twenty-five that year and hurled cobblestones at the riot police, handkerchiefs pressed to our mouths. Bombarded by the recurrent camera images, we suppressed those of our own May ’68, neither momentous – the deserted Place de la Gare on a Sunday, no passengers, no newspapers in the kiosks – nor glorious – one day when we were afraid of lacking money, petrol, and especially food, rushing to the bank to withdraw cash and filling a cart to overflowing at Carrefour, from an inherited memory of hunger.
It was a spring like any other, sleet in April, Easter late. We’d followed the Winter Olympics with Jean-Claude Killy, read Elise, or The Real Life, proudly changed the R8 for a Fiat sedan, started Candide with the première students and paid only vague attention to the unrest at Paris universities, reported on the radio.
But the Sorbonne closed, the written exams for the CAPES were cancelled, and students clashed with police. One night, we heard breathless voices on Europe 1. There were barricades in the Latin Quarter, as in Algiers ten years earlier, Molotov cocktails and wounded. Now we were aware that something was happening and did not feel like returning to life as usual the next day.
The reference to the events in Paris in 1968 (my birth year), which were not particularly echoed in the UK, emphasizes the point that the book can’t help but read differently to an Englishman of a younger generation than to a Frenchwoman of Ernaux’s own, the national differences in terms of references to celebrities, adverts and branded products perhaps most noticeable: there is less of nod of constant recognition as there would be to Ernaux’s own compatriots. However, the experience is equally effective, indeed it is fascinating to see which things are common and which different.
Strayer makes effective although sparing use of footnotes (just 29 in the 227 page book), for example to explain that CAPES in the quote above is the Certificat d’aptitude au professeur de l’enseignement du second degré, the secondary teachers’ training certificate. Indeed at times I wondered why one particular cultural reference was explained out of a dozen in the same paragraph, although I suspect cases where Google would not help may be one reason.