Annie Ernaux, The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions 2022, from Les Années 2008, translated by Alison L Straya 2017)
Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, which probably accounts for my long wait for this book at the library. It was worth the wait.
It’s a memoir, covering roughly the first 60 years of the author’s life, from listening to adults telling heroic stories of the Resistance in the late 1940s to presiding over family gatherings at the turn of the century full of lively exchanges in which ‘there was no patience for stories’.
It’s not like any other memoir I’ve read. Ernaux describes how she imagined it, referring to her past self as ‘she’:
This will not be a work of remembrance in the usual sense, aimed at putting a life into story, creating an explanation of self. She will go within herself only to retrieve the world, the memory and imagination of its bygone days, grasp the changes in ideas, beliefs and sensibility, the transformation of people and the subject that she has seen … To hunt down sensations that are already there, as yet unnamed, such as the one that is making her write.(Pages 222–223)
Earlier (on page 162), she says she wants to assemble the multiple images of herself that she holds in memory, and thread them together with the story of her existence – ‘an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation’.
So it’s the story of the changing attitudes and sensibilities of a generation (the broader ‘they’ and the more specific ‘we’), and of an individual member of that generation (‘she’), embedded in an impressionistic account of France’s political, social and cultural history over half a century.
Algeria gains independence but anti-Algerian racism persists. 1968 happens, and leaves a deep mark on Ernaux’s generation, including those like her who weren’t actually throwing cobblestones. Catholicism vanishes ‘unceremoniously’ and consumer capitalism invades all aspects of life. There’s AIDS, wars and climate change.
The early sexual experiences of Ernaux’s later memoir A Girl’s Story (the link takes you to my blog post) take up a couple of paragraphs. ‘She’ marries, divorces, becomes a grandmother, teaches, retires, ruminates on the approach of death, and writes.
As I read this book, I often just let a series of specifically French references wash over me – resigned to never knowing everything. An Australian The Years might mention Gough Whitlam pouring sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hands, Jack Thompson’s nude centrefold for the first edition of Cleo, or Auntie Jack threatening to rip your bloody arms off: immediately recognisable to some readers, mystifying to others, and opening a whole new vista to the latter if they go exploring.
My practice of looking at a single page is a good fit for this book – the writing is so compressed that practically every page cries out for detailed explication.
Page 76 focuses on the general scene, talking about ‘we’ and ‘they’, as opposed to the passages that begin with a photograph of ‘a woman’ – always Ernaux – and talk about ‘she’. (It’s a book where you watch the pronouns.)
It’s 1962, near the end of the Algerian liberation struggle. Page 75 has described an incident in October 1961, when Algerian demonstrators were attacked by police, and a hundred of them thrown into the Seine, largely ignored by the press. Page 76 begins:
Try as we might, we would see no resemblance between October’s heinous attack on Algerians by Gaullist police and the attack on anti-OAS militants the following February. The nine dead crushed against the railings of the Charonne Métro station bore no comparison with the uncounted dead of the Seine.
As with many passages, I’m happy to guess at the general drift, but since I’m blogging about it, I’ll delve a little.
The OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète / Secret Armed Organisation) was a violent rightwing organisation opposed to Algerian independence. A demonstration against them was organised in February 1962 by leftist groups including the Communist party. The nine victims of police violence at the Charonne Métro station received a lot of publicity and the event came to be seen as a defining moment in the struggle. Ernaux reflects that ‘we’ – her generation, and I would add most people since – give value to the things the press highlights and have trouble giving full value to the sometimes much greater things it ignores. The narrative doesn’t pause to sermonise on the underlying racism.
Nobody asked whether the Évian Accords were a victory or a defeat. They brought relief and the beginning of forgetting. We did not concern ourselves with what would happen next for the Pieds-Noir and the Harkis in Algeria, or the Algerians in France. We hoped to go to Spain the following summer – a real bargain, according to everyone who’d been there.
You probably guess, correctly, that the Évian Accords were the treaties that brought an end to the Algerian war (Wikipedia entry here). The Pieds-Noir were the Algeria-born whites who opposed independence; the Harkis were Algerians who supported French forces (shades of the people abandoned when the USA and Australia quit Afghanistan). ‘We’ don’t include those people, and though our sympathies are with the freedom fighters we’re more interested in our next holiday abroad (again, a familiar syndrome).
The next paragraph shifts smoothly from ‘we’ to ‘people’ and then ‘they’. Though it’s not a hard border, Ernaux is no longer talking specifically about her own cohort, but about French people generally. It’s a characteristically brilliant summary of the mood of a time, beginning:
People were accustomed to violence and separation in the world. East/West. Krushchev the muzhik/ Kennedy the leading man, Peppone/ Don Camillo, JEC/UEC, L’Humanité/L’Aurore, Franco/Tito, Cathos/Commies.
Peppone and Don Camillo are a Communist mayor and a priest who clash in a series of popular books (Wikipedia entry here). JEC is Jeunesse étudiante chrétienne / Christian Student Youth); the UEC is Union des étudiants communistes / Union of Communist Students). L’Humanité was the Communist newspaper; L’Aurore was a centrist mainstream newspaper. All these dualities can be reduced to the almost affectionate diminutives ‘Cathos/Commies’.
The paragraph continues, now definitely in ‘they’ territory, a clear distance between Ernaux’s student grouping and the attitudes described:
Under cover from the Cold War, they felt calm. Outside of union speeches with their codified violence, they did not complain, having made up their minds to be kept by the state, listen to Jean Nochet moralise on the radio each night, and not see the strikes amount to anything. When they voted yes in the October referendum, it was less from a desire to elect the president of the Republic through universal suffrage than from a secret wish to keep de Gaulle president for life, if not until the end of time.
I suppose every French person would know that Jean Nochet was a vehemently anti-Communist broadcaster and that the referendum of 1962 meant that the French presidential election moved from a US style electoral college to direct popular vote. The motive attributed to the electorate reflects De Gaulle’s changing status in Ernaux’s mind over the years.
And then, a characteristic change of focal length, this time from national politics to Ernaux’s own group, with just a whiff of a suggestion that the students at that time didn’t pay much attention to politics (which was to change six years and a few pages later):
Meanwhile, we studied for our BAs while listening to the transistor. We went to see Cleo from 3 to 7, Last Year at Marienbad, Bergman, Buñuel and Italian films.
As I write this blog post, I recognise a way the book touched me personally. My oldest brother was pretty much the same age as Ernaux. Like her he moved from home in a small town to go to university in a large centre. This list of movies reminds me of the enthusiasms he brought home on uni holidays. He certainly talked about Last Year at Marienbad. I don’t remember if Agnès Varda featured. It was probably in 1962 when he took me on an excursion from boarding school to see my first subtitled movie, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Though the book might not be for everyone, it’s a richly instructive evocation of an era, and at the same time I’m pretty sure most readers would find something in it that speaks directly to their own experience.