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The Years by Annie Ernaux

This is such an interesting book. It caught my eye because it won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation this year. I had been hearing and reading about it on twitter and elsewhere. It seemed unusual that this book was gaining popularity and respect but was not a novel. That doesn’t happen very often. Or is it fiction? Is it that strange genre called auto fiction? 

It’s a kind of memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It’s a kind of collective memoir and it was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

The Years

There is a strong thread that follows the chronology of the years, related in the voice of the ‘choral we’. Conversation at family meals, friendships, political involvement, films, books, significant political events, world events and descriptions of photographs – these mark out the passing of time.

The memoir, then, is not of an individual’s life, the events and thoughts of Annie Ernaux from 1940 until 2006. Rather it is a collective memoir of the things we talked about, were involved in, the trends we were caught up in and the receding importance of the war that had absorbed our parents. It becomes a sociological text, but to describe it that way is to omit its literary qualities. For example:

For girls, shame lay in wait at every turn. Excesses in clothing and make-up were always monitored: too short, too long, too low-cut, too flashy etc. The height of their heels, whom they saw, what time they went out and came in, the crotch of their underwear, month after month, were subject to all-pervasive surveillance by society. (71-2)

Reading The Years

I found reading this book quite disorienting. To start with she had insights into stuff that I thought was particularly mine: books, attitudes, relationships and ambitions. She noticed things that I thought other people had not picked up on.

She noted major shifts in attitudes and political trends which I had thought were unique to me, but it turns out were widely shared. Furthermore her analysis was good and added to my understanding of my own passage through the same years.

I found that much of what she was reporting had a French and perhaps even European dimension, but yet applied to my life too. Her experience of Paris in 1968 was more acute (I was safely in the university rebellion at Warwick). In the UK active women could hardly avoid the Greenham Common protests (1981 – 2000) and their significance. But mostly the engagements were broadly similar, despite country and despite a decade’s difference in age.

It was an unsettling experience to read The Years. It was a little like those endless, cyclical debates of adolescence about free will and determinism. What is my life, like hers, like all who are included in the collective voice, what is our life but something to live through in a crowd of other people?

And in the end my individuality was lost. I was not surprised to read these comments by Annie Ernaux in a Guardian interview in April 2019:

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. In the autobiographical tradition we speak about ourselves and the events are the background. I have reversed this. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

But she is also provocative when she proposes the idea that all this will change as the generations replace us and ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

The writing of The Years

Annie Ernaux has said that the main character of The Years is time itself, as indicated by the title. 

There is chronology in the passage of the reader and author through the years since 1940. The war is left behind, we read through the climax of the 1968 uprisings and the comfortable years that follow. In passing she remarks that they had no fear of the future in 1968, but now they fear it, despite a short resurgence of optimism with Mitterand in 1981.

We see all this through non-judgmental descriptions of family meals, films, books, homes, work, political changes, Algeria, the Gulf War and so on. I could read my own history as part of a whole, the well-off left-wing, public sector workers sharing so much of this with France.

Descriptions of photos appear periodically in the text, and they mark the passing of time. They are all, it is implied, of the author as she grows from infancy, through childhood to adulthood. Occasionally her own story intrudes, and both serve to provide some individuality to a text mostly told by the choral ‘we’.

Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 and brought up in Normandy in a working class family. She became a school teacher, her subject was literature until she retired in 2000. She was able to find time to write The Years after she retired, although this work had been in her mind for much longer. She already had several novels published, all apparently based on the same close observation of real things and events.

The Guardian describes her as France’s great truth teller. The book has received many awards, including the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019, and the Francois Mauriac Prize from the French Académie and Marguerite Duras Prize for her life’s work. 

The Lonesome Reader blog reviewed The Years after it was placed on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize International. 

The Years by Annie Ernaux, first published in 2008. I read the English version published by Fitzcarraldo in 2019. Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer 227pp

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