The Years by Annie Ernaux is my second book purchase for 2019. It can’t be said it was a planned purchase. No, this is the library book our grand-dog ate.
Selected very purposefully from the pile under a side-table. Luckily it was munched on with quickly waning enthusiasm and I was able to prise it from the dog’s jaw before too much damage was done. Or rather, when there was just enough damage for the library to require the purchase of a replacement.
There’s always a bright side. At least, eventually, once the book was deemed irreparable and after I paid the money, I got to read this award winning memoir at my leisure.
Annie Ernaux is a highly acclaimed French writer. However, The Years is the first of her books I’ve read. It came to my attention when it was short listed for the Man Booker International prize earlier this year.
Edmund White, writing in the New York Times describes The Years as “an earnest, fearless book, a “Remembrance of Things Past” for our age of media domination and consumerism, for our period of absolute commodity fetishism.”
And it is all of that. But more, as well. There were times when I thought this book might prove indigestible. There is much here that is unfamiliar for me, a woman of a different generation, living in a different hemisphere, with a different language, different culture, different politics. But there is much that is similar. Moreover, when I realised Ernaux was born in Normandy and went to school in Lillebonne, a town our family has associations with, well, I was hooked. And then as Ernaux takes her reader through the decades my interest was continually piqued by references to international politics I recognised and remembered.
Ernaux traces the changes in French society from the deprivations of war time France to the consumerism of the 21st century. And she brings a gimlet eye to those changes. On the shopping mall:
It was a place of swift and unparalleled shifts of emotion, curiosity, surprise, bewilderment, envy, loathing,—of rapid fire battles between impulse and reason. During the week, it was a choice destination for an afternoon was, for retired couples, as excuse for an outing and the slow filling of a cart. On Saturdays, whole families streamed in, and casually revelled in the nearness of so many objects of desire.”
On international politics :
Now Russia evoked neither hope nor fear, only perpetual desolation. It had withdrawn from our imaginations, which in spite of ourselves were occupied by the United States, a gigantic tree spreading its branches over the face of the earth. We were increasingly irritated by the Americans’ moral discourse, their shareholders, retirement funds, pollution of the planet, and loathing for our cheeses. To signify the fundamental poverty of their superiority, based on weapons and the economy, the word typically used to define them was arrogance. They were conquerors with no ideals other than oil and the almighty dollar. Their values and principles—don’t rely on anyone but yourself—gave hope to no one but them, while we dreamed of another world. (P196)
Read Lauren Elkin’s review in Guardian Books review here.
She says Ernaux “shows it is possible to write both personally and collectively, situating her own story within the story of her generation, without ever confusing the two.” It’s this aspect of the memoir which made it worth persevering despite the, to this antipodean reader anyway, sometimes esoteric subject matter. It was a pleasure to read such a contextualised memoir. This is a book that through its existence challenges assumptions about women’s writing, about women’s views of the world, about how women live and think.
Read more about Annie Ernaux here
The Years by Annie Ernaux translated by Alison L. Strayer (2018, English edition) Fitzcarraldo Editions
Categories: On Books