— Marcel Proust
THE YEARS BY Annie Ernaux, one of the most important and well-read French memoirists, is a collection of recollections — or the compilation of “abbreviated memories,” as she calls them. The book is placed somewhere on the edges of literature, history, and sociology. It moves in fragments, from personal to common, from exceptional to ordinary and vice versa.
Other people’s memories gave us a place in the world.
Ernaux examines each year of her life, from 1940 to 2006, without ever using the pronoun “I.” As if she is absent from her own life, and the memories belong to a stranger. In a unique way for memoir writing, her narration is told from the point of view of an ambiguous third person. In French, “on” is a generic/collective “he/she,” which could be translated to “one” in English. But it is very difficult to maintain a whole book, narrated in “one” point of view, so, in the translation, instead of this generic third person, “we” has been used. Unlike the classic form of the genre, which can be defined as solely focusing on the author’s personal life events, The Years is a new form of writing a memoir where the sense of urgency is intertwined with muted emotions. As much as a writer such as Karl Ove Knausgaard lets his imagination take off in reimagining and rebuilding his past life with fiction and memories indistinguishable from one another, Ernaux does the opposite. Unlike her previous work, all autofiction, in The Years she doesn’t intend to reexamine and fictionalize her life. Her main focus is to stay away from fiction, truthful to her own exact memories from the world she has lived in, throughout the years. She writes in a voice that can be described, most of the time, as journalistic (not sensational journalism, but informative journalism), but there is an undertone of melancholy without ever being overly melancholic or poetic. Ernaux keeps the images two dimensional, therefore love, despair, hatred, or hope are absent from the surface of the page.
All the images will disappear […] Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.
The process of reading The Years is similar to a treasure box discovery, filled with old family photo albums, some having a few words in the back, yellowish and falling apart. For the reader, the images of the past reveal themselves in broken shapes and forms with holes all over. You leaf through this pile of images and texts and feel immersed in the past. The years have come and gone, and most of the moments lived — captured only in photos and partially in memory— have vanished.
There is a parallel between reading The Years and a whirling dervish who is turning incessantly, slowly transcending into a state of “high” beyond the present moment. The reader might be tempted to turn her head away, yet at the same time wonder how much longer the dervish would continue his rise to the out-of-this-world state.
The future is replaced by a sense of urgency that torments her. She [Ernaux] is afraid that as she ages her memory will become cloudy and silent, as it was her first years of life, which she won’t remember anymore.
Approaching an age where death becomes a near possibility, she writes to remember a past that seems to be slipping away. With time and distance, Ernaux becomes an observer of the events of her own life. And by doing so, the reader — instead of becoming a witness to one’s life and feeling empathy and emotions for someone else (the writer) — slowly becomes part of the narration, and creates a new kind of inward sentimentality. Almost as if it is the writer who is the witness to her reader’s memories. This phenomenon could be compared to intertextuality.
Reading The Years makes the reader ponder the meaning of literature. Is Ernaux’s work “literature” per se, or a study in sociology? When a memoir lacks the author’s emotions, and when it is written, on purpose, with no intention of moving its reader, how can we still call it a work of art? What is Art?
Ernaux has revealed in interviews that she has been taking notes for decades to prepare for writing this book, which, for the right reason, is called her magnum opus. At first glance and through the first pages, the book’s unfamiliar form tests the reader’s patience. After reading two dozen snippets, the reader might wonder how much longer she can go on. There are many cultural, political, and historical references, unfamiliar to the reader who has no background or interest in the French/francophone world. The Years is not an easy read, having no plot, climax, moral lesson, or humor. These are the intimate details of a French life that might go over the heads of many. It is not a fast read either.
It is the kind of book you close after reading a few pages, carried away by the bittersweet taste it leaves in your mind. If you persist, opening yourself to the rhythm and brief impressions, the narration impacts your mind, and you discover a meaning behind the facade. The real magic happens outside of the book, or indirectly beneath the flow of reading each individual snippet. At some point, the reader is moved by an anecdote of her own life, as she recognizes herself in a singular memory of the collective voice of the narration. Parallel to the linear act of reading, the reader transcends into a vertical movement toward personal experiences and vague reminiscences. This makes the memoir “un-personal,” and by eliminating herself from the memory, Ernaux transforms her life into history and her memories into the collective memory of a generation.
We read about the effect of the war on the youth in France, World War II and La guerre d’Algérie, the girl in the black-and-white photo and her place in the world, feminism, sexuality, the digital revolution, and color TV, most popular books and pop songs, the way girls dressed up and dreamed, existentialism, Ernaux’s marriage and maternity, September 11, her father’s death, her cancer, her career, love, the evolution of morality, communists, Arabs in France and immigration, banlieu de Paris, et cetera.
Between what happens in the world and what happens to her, there is no point of convergence. They are two parallel series: one abstract, all information no sooner received than forgotten, the other all static shots.
Is it possible to grasp the true sense of a life lived, through a backward glance at static shots that remain in one’s memory? Kafka says, “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.” Ernaux doesn’t write to not be forgotten. She doesn’t write for some continuation after her death. For her, images disappear, so she has no other option than to write to capture those moments on the verge of disappearing. She writes to bring to life those static shots, trapped in the passage of time, for the future generations. The little girl in the black-and-white photo can be any other little girl. And the picture of her late sister at six represents all dead children of those years, because “[t]here were dead children in every family.” This is how the particular becomes universal and one’s tragedy transforms into human tragedy.
Since her first memoir, The Place (1983), Ernaux has been writing the story of her life, and with each book, she has gone deeper and deeper to the core of these events. In the process, she has revolutionized the art of memoir by removing the sentimentality out of her voice. Annie Ernaux, largely translated in Europe, is less known in the United States, maybe because the American publishing industry is less interested in little, intimate memoirs. The French language by nature is lyrical and full of music. Translating Ernaux, with her particular “unpoetic” voice, doesn’t seem to be an easy task. But Alison L. Strayer, faithful to Ernaux’s intention, has kept the book’s authentic color and rhythm, the un-poetry of the text, but also its poetic undertone.
Even if you haven't lived in the same decades, even if you have never set foot in France, you still might be moved, bouleversé by an unexplainable melancholy. Your own memories are mixed with images of a world you don’t know, and yet it seems so familiar: a world that is banal, yet still legendary. Insignificant and still mythological. It is a meta-nostalgia if we use scientific definition. Like a model of nostalgia that might fit everyone and anyone. In a sense, the actual reading of the book starts at the end, in the last few pages where she explains her true intention: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she [Ernaux] will capture the lived dimension of History.” And the last sentence: “Save something from the time where we will never be again.”
Azarin Sadegh is a 2011 PEN USA Emerging Voices fellow. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Coast Magazine, Iranian.com and various anthologies.