The Years by Annie Ernaux is an unusual book, a sort of communal memoir mapping the personal story of Ernaux alongside the social and political history of France (and the world) between 1940 and 2006. This might sound a bit dry and academic, but The Years is strangely compelling, mainly because it speaks our own memories, of time passing and things changing. There were references here that went above my non-French head and I’m sure a native French would find this book even more poignant. It didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it though. The experience of time passing seems as universal as anything.
There’s never an ‘I’ here, always ‘we’ or ‘they’ or, occasionally, ‘she’ when Ernaux takes a bird’s eye view of her own life. She speaks for a generation, those who are in their 80s now, seen through the prism of a French working-class woman who goes to university, becomes a schoolteacher, marries and gets divorced. She can’t speak for everyone, but she certainly spoke to me in her reflections on time and age.
She pictures herself here in ten or fifteen years with a cart filled with sweets and toys for grand-children not yet born. But she sees that woman as improbable, just as the girl of twenty-five saw the woman of forty, whom she has since become and already ceased to be.
Then there are the daily details, the small things which seem so insignificant yet constitute so much of our lives. At times, The Years reminded me of some of Knausgaard’s writing and Proust is certainly in the back of Ernaux’s mind. Luckily, this book is much more accessible than Proust’s and much shorter than Knausgaard’s. She’s equally interested in big societal shifts: the student uprisings in the 1960’s, wars in Vietnam, Algeria and Iraq, the arrival of TVs, dishwashers, mobile phones.
I found the first few pages of The Years a bit confusing and unrelatable and the first chapters coloured by the vague memories from early childhood. However, as you read, this book gets better and better.
The Years by Annie Ernaux is translated by Alison L. Strayer and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 227 pages.