Annie Ernaux’s The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, translated by Alison L. Strayer), which launched the concept of “collective autobiography,” vacillates between two very distinct forms of narrative. First published in France as Les Annees in 2008, the premise is that an unlikely pair of narratives can work together dialectically to construct a more complex self-portrait of the author. In one strand, Ernaux provides a history of post-war France as seen through her own subjective experiences and her very personal lens. These portions are written in first person plural, in ‘we.’ The second, alternating narrative is that of her own story as she grows up, except that Ernaux turns the ‘I’ of autobiography into the ‘she’ of biography. Ernaux treats the memories she has of herself as if they were the observations of another. Needless to say, the reader has to do a bit of recalibrating to bring the “we” and the “she” narratives into a singular story, but trust me, it works.
Let’s look first at the “collective” aspect of the autobiography. Her perspective of French history is that of a provincial girl whose parents run a cafe/grocery who evolves into a committed feminist and leftist. Through her eyes, the reader will follow the history of France from the Liberation, through the austere years that followed (in 1957, for example, Ernaux’s family had neither a fridge nor an indoor bathroom) into the sudden explosion of the new consumer society that helped lead to the revolutionary days of May 1968. From there she leads us through the seventies and the “back to nature” movement into the heady days of her support for the Socialist presidency of François Mitterand. The book ends during the second presidency of Jacques Chirac and (ironically) the SARS epidemic, an early warning of global pandemics like our present coronavirus.
The big themes for Ernaux are family, class, feminism, commercialism, and politics. She realized early on that people tell stories about important historical moments in the collective. When, as a young child, she listened to family members and neighbors recall the Occupation and the Liberation, “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” Though when she writes about the collective history of her time, she speaks not for her entire generation but only for those her share her particular views. The Years is the story of her tribe.
We who had never really come to terms with working and did not really want the things we bought, saw ourselves in the students, only a few years younger, who threw cobblestones at the riot police. On our behalf, they hurled years of censure and repression back at the State, the violent suppression of the demonstrations against the war in Algeria, the racist attacks, the banning of The Nun, and the unmarked black Citroën DS’s of the police. They avenged us for our fettered adolescence, the respectful hush of lecture halls, the shame we felt at sneaking boys into our residence rooms. Our allegiance to the blazing nights of Paris was rooted in our crushed desires, the degradations of submission. We regretted we had not seen all this before, but felt lucky it was happening at the start of our careers.
In The Years, Ernaux writes about her deep desire to find a new format for this historical half of her narrative. “How to make the fresco of forty-five years coincide with the search for a self outside of History . . . There is something too permanent about ‘I’, something shrunken and stifling, whereas ‘she’ is too exterior and remote.” A few pages later, she becomes even more decisive. “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we.'”
So her book’s form can only emerge from her complete immersion in the images from her memory in order to identify, with relative certainty, the specific signs of the times, the years to which the images belong, gradually linking them to others; to try to hear the words people spoke, what they said about events and things, skim it off the mass of floating speech, that hubbub that tirelessly ferries the wordings and rewordings of what we are and what we must be, think, believe, fear, and hope, All that the world impresses upon her and her contemporaries she will use 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. By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.
Now let’s look at the autobiography side of the book. Ernaux grew up in a lower middle class family and never traveled to Paris as a child. Then, in rather quick succession, came her university years in Paris, marriage and motherhood. When the student strikes of May occurred, she declared “1968 was the first year of the world.” May ’68 meant that, “miraculously, hierarchies and distances dissolved into words. We were through with carefully measured phrased remarks, refined and courteous language, measured tones and circumlocutions, the distance with which, we now realized, the people in power and their flunkies . . . imposed their domination.” By the end of the book she has become a professor, a well-known writer, and a divorced mother of two sons.
When Ernaux writes of herself she tries to do so as an impartial observer, as if she happened upon someone else’s family snapshots and needs to determine their underlying story. “She has her own car, the ultimate sign of emancipation.” “She knows she must ‘save herself for him’.” “She is lower down one the social scale than her class mates. She hopes they don’t notice.” By objectifying herself, by making herself a character in a biography (or in a novel, almost), it seems as if Ernaux wants to see more clearly how the forces of family and society affected the person that she was once. Perhaps she is saying that our past selves are actually more disconnected from our present self than we think.
In this photo, a tall girl blinks against the sun. Her hair is dark, shoulder-length and straight, her face smooth and full. She stands at an oblique angle, one hip slightly outthrust to emphasize the swell of the thighs in the pencil skirt, while making them look slimmer . . . At the precise moment when she smiles, she is probably thinking only of herself, of this photo of herself gazing at the new girl she feels herself becoming: when in the tiny island of her bedroom, she listens to Sidney Béchet, Édith Piaf, and the 33 rpms ordered from the Concert Record Club, when she copies down sentences that tell one how to live, which have the undeniable wight of truth because they come from books.
But at the same time, Ernaux recognizes that family matters immensely, even though, curiously, she never mentions genetics. It is through family that you learn who you are and, crucially, who you aren’t. “Over years, and with no small effort, the tangled threads of family were unraveled, until at last the ‘two sides’ could be clearly distinguished, the people who were something to us by blood from those who were ‘nothing’.” Family engraves mannerisms that mark us, classify us.
Memory was transmitted not only through stories but through ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. . .a repertory of habits and gestures shaped by childhoods in the fields and adolescent years in workshops, preceded by other childhoods, all the way back to oblivion.
If all of this works so well it is because what Ernaux has really done is to borrow some of the tools of literature—point of view, storytelling, character development, even prose poetry—and adapt them for autobiography.
The Years begins and ends with a reminder of mortality, which is always the ultimate stimulus for every act of autobiography. The book opens with a prelude reminding us that “all the images will disappear.” After our death “we will be nothing but a first name [around a holiday dinner table], until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.” And as the book closes, Ernaux thinks about how her own mother was plunged into the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s before her death. She fears the same fate and urges herself to finish the book that we are reading. “Now’s the time to give form to her future absence through writing, start the book, still a draft of thousands of notes, which has lived in parallel to her existence for the past twenty years and is thus obliged to cover a longer and longer time.” It will be a “slippery narrative,” meant “to save something from the time where we will never be again.”