Devouring the Present

The Years BY Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories Press. Paperback, 240 pages. $19.
The cover of The Years

“I have always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward, the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others,” writes Annie Ernaux’s narrator near the end of her 1998 autofiction, Shame. Ernaux takes the sentiment further in the opening lines of her 2008 book, The Possession: “I have always wanted to write as if I would be gone when the book was published. To write as if I were about to die—no more judges.”

This is a thread that ties together much of Ernaux’s writing, one pulled taut by a certain anxiety about truth on one end and the endurance of a self on the other. The frank admissions that pepper her work expose the radical nature of her long writing career. Ernaux’s early works, all autofiction, are closely narrated accounts of the landmark events in her life, including her near-lethal illegal abortion, her whirlwind affair with a much younger man, and her father’s attempted murder of her mother. These often breathless accounts of her life are transgressive and unabashed narratives of female desire, be it erotic, artistic, or political.

Ernaux’s memoir The Years, which was recently translated into English, is best understood as an account of the sociological conditions that made her previous work possible. The Years is unsentimental and distant in tone, flattening out the trajectory of Ernaux’s singular life by telling a grander narrative in which the weight of history acts upon an individual life. It is not a work of autofiction but rather one of autosociobiographie, a term Ernaux coined. In a 2011 interview with Le Monde, Ernaux explained the category, saying that “the only writing that seemed fair to me was that which refused fiction altogether, which I later called autosociobiographie because I nearly always placed myself at the meeting of self and sociohistorical reality.”

The defining feature of The Years, and its realization of that meeting, lies in Ernaux’s use of pronouns. She leaves out “I” entirely in favor of an alternating “she” or “we” to recount the story of a generation. The narrator is barely recognizable as a giant of French literature—the story hovers over her difficulty in beginning to write and skates past the publication of her novels. Instead, the focus lies on the shifts in society that allowed her to do the things she did and hence to write about them. The result is a memoir that is humble and generous, an homage to the great French writers and thinkers of the previous century. The “she” of The Years could be (and indeed is meant to be) any woman who grew up in a small town and moved into the literary world.

The young Annie is poorer than her classmates, awkward and bespectacled, intellectually and sexually frustrated. Ernaux adds parenthetically: “One possible summary of the life of a provincial teen: going up to town, daydreaming, bringing oneself to orgasm and waiting.” Family meals serve as the centerpiece of small-town existence following the end of the Second World War, where “the voices of the guests flowed together to compose the great narrative of collective events, which we came to believe we too had witnessed,” and “from a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns.” But as time went on, and memory waned into history, “the Occupation and rural childhoods with all their privations merged into a single bygone era. People were so thoroughly convinced that life was better now.”

This budding observation is troubled after May ’68, when “suddenly, the 1936 we knew from family stories was real”:

Individuals, whether or not they were intellectuals, were entitled to speak and be heard. They needed only represent a group, a condition, an injustice. The fact of having experienced something as a woman, homosexual, class defector, prisoner, farmer, or miner gave one permission to speak in the first person. To think of oneself in collective terms brought a certain exaltation.

This was the collective moment for Ernaux’s generation. As she puts it, “1968 was the first year of the world.” She hails the women who publicly admitted to having had illegal abortions in the “Manifesto of the 343,” drafted by Simone de Beauvoir and published in Le Nouvel Observateur in 1971. Before May ’68, “the fact of having read Simone de Beauvoir was of no use except to confirm the misfortune of having a womb.” Afterwards, “we read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, Stifled Creation by Suzanne Hörer and Jeanne Socquet with the mingled excitement and powerlessness one feels on discovering a truth about oneself in a book.”

Women understand, in the aftermath of May ’68, that collective life has changed. What Ernaux isn’t yet sure of, however, is whether or not her own life will. Sometime in 1967, when she is consumed with caring for her husband and young child, she contemplates “questions about herself, being and having, existence. . . . These are the things her book would be made of, if she had the time to write, but she no longer even has time to read.”

These problems don’t disappear with the revolution, even if “for the first time, we envisaged our lives as a march toward freedom,” and Ernaux seems to worry that she may be too old and settled (read: hypocritical) to really participate.

Ernaux’s readers know that this wasn’t the case—she published her first book in 1974 and within a decade had divorced and found a new lover. But, as she intimates early on, the wave was bound to crash: “At holiday lunches, references to the past were few and far between. For the younger people there seemed no point in exhuming the grand narrative of our entry into the world.” For the revolution had waned, Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front were commanding the attention of journalists and voters, and “the ideals of May ’68 were being transformed into objects and entertainment.”

Such is the timbre of The Years: The lessons that define one generation will still elude the next. “All the images will disappear,” she declares with no optimism. Perhaps paradoxically, it is this conviction that spurs the writing of The Years, a process that (much like in her previous books) figures into the narrative itself. The reader knows that Ernaux first conceived of the project around 1985, when “the idea has come to her to write ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’” that “would be something like Maupassant’s A Life and convey the passage of time inside and outside of herself, in History.” The reader also learns that Ernaux struggled with her use of pronouns, that “her main concern is the choice between ‘I’ and ‘she.’ There is something too permanent about ‘I,’ something shrunken and stifling, whereas ‘she’ is too exterior and remote.” The somewhat disorienting effect at play here comes not only from the shift between pronouns but also between tenses. Time and subjectivity seem to collapse within the narrative.

By the end of the book, the narrator has finally decided how to write it: “It will be a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life.” This could be read as the author’s latest attempt to write herself out of existence, if not for one further stipulation:

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.

This final narrative decision reflects Ernaux’s true model for her book: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. She writes of creating her own version of that epic novel, of awaiting “if not a revelation then a sign, a happenstance, as the madeleine dipped in tea was for Marcel Proust.” The connection between In Search of Lost Time and The Years is easy to make; both works are above all preoccupied with memory and the passage of time. Proust began writing In Search of Lost Time at the height of French Decadence, as anxieties swirled about the fin de siècle. The hegemony of the aristocratic class was beginning to erode, technology was evolving, and women were challenging their role in society. One of Proust’s great achievements was his ability to imbue in his narrative the manifold shifts occurring in society and expose how these forces animate individual lives. It is this legacy that reverberates as Ernaux relates the story of a generation born too late to remember the widespread poverty of the war and into a world of rapidly changing technologies, sexual mores, and class distinctions.

By the end of The Years, Ernaux has very nearly extinguished herself, leaving only an imprint—photographs, memories, and histories sliding through the passage of time. Her memory falters, she suffers from cancer, technology baffles her. The turn of the twenty-first century has overtaken her. The images have begun to bleed together. To her, the book will “give form to her future absence.” The Years is not the testimony of a woman who once existed, but of a woman who no longer exists. There is, indeed, something too permanent about “I.”

Gili Ostfield is a writer and graduate student living in Brooklyn.