by Alice Lowe
Periodically, we revisit some of the “best of” Bloom from previous years. Following is an encore post, originally published on May 18, 2021. Before Annie Ernaux was a gleam in the Nobel Prize committee’s eyes (perhaps), Alice Lowe sang her praises here, and—like Ernaux herself—the piece has gotten better with age. (For more on Ernaux, see also Alexandra Schwartz’s excellent piece on her in this week’s New Yorker.)
She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation.
Thus Annie Ernaux sets out her goals for the memoir as she writes it, and they become part of the book itself. The Years is not just her own story but a chronicle of her generation—which also happens to be mine. Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 in Lillebonne, a small village in northern France, I in 1943 in Franklin Square, a hamlet on Long Island, New York. But in spite of geographic displacement and points of reference, we are united by shared history and experience
Ernaux is a prominent French novelist who has published more than 20 books since 1974. Yet she has dwelt under the radar of American readers, even though 12 have been translated into English, and two—A Man’s Place in 1992 (La Place, 1984) and A Woman’s Story in 2003 (Une Femme, 1989)—were named New York Times Notable Books. Les Années was published in France in 2008, where it received numerous honors. Now as The Years, in its 2017 English translation by Seven Stories Press, it has garnered a flurry of appreciative critical reviews in the U.S. and England, and has brought Ernaux popular acclaim.
Her previous books are considered fiction, but they are all essentially autobiographical, tracing events and people in Ernaux’s life. Her first, the 1974 Les Armoires vides (translated as Cleaned Out, 1990) chronicles the internal dialogue of a 20-year-old college student after an illegal abortion. Subsequent novels chronicle her marriage, a significant affair, her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, her parents’ lives and deaths. I located these last two, A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, in the fiction section of my local library, but their first-person narration and intimate detail defy this classification.
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.
In The Years, Ernaux turns away from autofiction, which she called autosociobiographie, to nonfiction that emphasizes her sociological perspective. Reviewers have labeled it historical memoir, group memory, collective autobiography, “WE-moir.” This distinction is most striking as the narrator identifies herself as “she,” “we,” and “they,” but never “I.” Her earliest recollections begin in the third person, but soon take on the “we” of children collectively as she describes a postwar childhood. The framework for the entire memoir is a continuous rotation of points of view. There are no chapter breaks, but transitions are marked by white space.
Pronouns are important to her concept. The rationale she sets out in the book itself is that “There’s something too permanent about ‘I,’ something shrunken and stifling, whereas ‘she’ is too exterior and remote.” Eventually she gravitates with more frequency to the communal first person plural, which feels most fitting. As a reader I find myself distanced by “them,” but drawn in and included among her collective “we.”
Photographs—not shown but described in detail—introduce each shift in time and form frames for narrative and recollections. The first, from 1941, is “a sepia photo, oval-shaped…a fat baby with a full, pouty lower lip and brown hair pulled up into a big curl.” The next, circa 1944, shows “a little girl of about four, serious, almost sad despite her nice plump face.” She dissects these images, observing foreground and background, clothes and furniture, the positions of hands, and reads a story and a history into each.
After the war, at the never-ending table of holiday meals, other people’s memories gave us a place in the world. Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects.
In addition to photo images, holiday meals mark the transitions and disconnects of generations. The children were silent observers, seen but not heard, taking in the conversations and filing away bits that would merge with their own first-hand memories. Ernaux introduces a family tragedy with the emergence of a photograph of a little girl, Ginette, with a notation that she died at the age of six, two years before Annie’s birth, the older sister she never knew.
It is with the perceptions and sensations received by the spectacled fourteen-and-a-half-year-old brunette that this writing is able to retrieve something slipping through the 1950s, capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.
I have no frame of reference for Ernaux’s memories of the restrictions and reconstruction of postwar Europe, of the domination of the Catholic Church and attending all-girl convent schools. I’m not yet a part of her collective “we.” But then she describes a photo of herself in 1955, wearing a short-sleeved sweater, polka-dot skirt, and ballerina flats, and I see myself. She lists what was “in” for teenage girls: plaid skirts, black sweaters, chunky lockets—check. Ponytails and bangs like Audrey Hepburn’s in Roman Holiday—check. Her point of view switches to the third person singular: “she” listens to pop music on the radio and copies down the lyrics, thinks about boys all the time. Even before she pulls back from that girl, herself, “she,” to reflect the larger shared world of teenagers, I’m on board; my own American teenage years mirror hers. Her “we” now includes me.
She recalls a brief, painful summer romance. When the boy stopped calling she wept and played “Only You” by the Platters over and over, stuffed herself with bread, cookies, chocolate. My first heartbreak was a year later, and the song was “One Summer Night” by the Danleers, but the story is the same.
And so into the ’60s. France had Algeria while we had Vietnam; we shared the Cold War. But French and American youth were equally self-absorbed. There were overlaps in the movies we saw and the music we listened to; Ingmar Bergman and the Beatles were universal. “Sexual life remained clandestine and rudimentary, haunted by the specter of ‘an accident.’”
The girls on either side of her in the photo belong to the bourgeoisie. She doesn’t feel like one of them. Nor does she think she has anything in common with the working-class world of her childhood. She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say of what. She feels she is nowhere, ‘inside’ nothing except knowledge and literature.
Ernaux studies literature at university and reads dead authors: Kafka, Dostoevsky, Durrell, Flaubert, Woolf. But she looks to contemporary writing to help form her present existence. “It seems to her that education is more than just a way to escape poverty. It is a weapon of choice against stagnation in a kind of feminine condition that arouses her pity, the tendency to lose oneself in a man.” She starts a novel “in which images past and present, her dreams at night and visions of the future, alternate with an ‘I’ who is her double, detached from herself.” This is her first mention of writing, and even here she seeks to establish a unique voice, one that distances author from narrator.
I went from high school directly into the working world and didn’t attend college until the late ’70s, didn’t start writing for decades more. Yet our experiences coalesced again after just a few years, when “youth had come to feel like a vague and cheerless time…[and] we fell in love more purposefully and found ourselves married and soon to be parents.”
French student riots and protests in May 1968 mirrored American uprisings in response to Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Annie and I, absorbed with new motherhood and family life, felt detached, isolated. We became feminist activists when “we realized that we’d missed our share of freedom—sexual, creative, or any other kind enjoyed by men.” We read the same texts—The Female Eunuch, Sexual Politics, no doubt The Feminine Mystique—and we had the same poster on our walls: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”
François Mitterand was elected President of France in 1981, and “everything seemed possible.” The death penalty was abolished, homosexuality legitimized, the workweek reduced. The changes didn’t last—it was as if they had never happened. We didn’t fare as well stateside, going from Nixon to Reagan with Jimmy Carter providing a brief but uneventful reprieve. Still, the yo-yo of hope and despair, the back and forth in politics, the absence of lasting progress—all was familiar.
“And we, on the threshold of the 1980s, when we would enter our fortieth year, were suffused with a weary sweetness that came of accomplished tradition,” Ernaux writes. Divorce proliferated, and neither Ernaux nor I were exempt.
What has most changed in her is the perception of time and her location within it. The future is replaced by a sense of urgency that torments her. She is afraid that as she ages her memory will become cloudy and silent. Now’s the time to give form to her future absence through writing, start the book, still a draft of thousands of notes.
At 45 she lives with her two sons, has a lover, and fears getting old. Thoughts are revived about the book she’s envisioned over the years: “It would convey the passage of time inside and outside of herself, in History.” She never mentions her semi-autobiographical novels published every few years since 1974, yet they must have provided rich material.
In her early 50s she lives alone with a cat. She still teaches, and devotes her free time to reading and films, phone calls and correspondence, love affairs. “She” and her cohort (myself included) grapple with their lives and the changing times. There’s still no “I.”
Her writing project assumes precedence, prodded by fear of forgetting and guilt at her failure thus far to commit it to paper. With each start, she meets the same obstacles: “how to represent the passage of historical time, the changing of things, ideas, and manners, and the private life of this woman?”
She retires from teaching as the new millennium begins. After 9/11, she writes, “our image of the world was turned on its head.” Fear of terrorism, of another world war, of the threats of George W. Bush (“insipid son of the one before”), are followed by a sharp political turn to the right in both countries. New and improved electronic gadgets exert pressure to keep up with the times.She observes that “The quick jump-click of the mouse on the screen was the measure of time. The web was the royal road for the remembrance of things past.”
At the family gathering of Christmas 2006 there are three generations, as before, but she now represents the oldest, her sons nearing 40 embodying the middle, grandchildren bringing up the rear. The Years was originally published in 2008, but ten years later I pull up a recent photo of my own three generations—myself, my daughter at 50, and my grandson on his 27th birthday—and I continue to marvel at the extent to which Annie’s and my trajectories kept pace, both personally and societally.
She thinks [a particular] painting represents her life and that she is inside it, as she was once inside Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, and later Nausea. With every book she reads, To the Lighthouse, Rezvani’s Les années-lumière, she wonders if she could write her life in that way too.
Annie Ernaux has been compared to Simone de Beauvoir, Françoise Sagan, Collette, and Marguerite Duras. Upon its English translation in 1995, her novel A Frozen Woman (La Femme gelée, 1979) was likened to Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Reviewers of The Years evoke Proust. In her translator’s note, Alison Strayer asks, “Is this Ernaux’s Remembrance of Things Past or her Gone with the Wind, Life and Fate, with perhaps a nod to Virginia Woolf: the stream of consciousness, the struggle with the ‘I’?”
As I read The Years, Woolf is in the forefront of my mind. For the past 25 years, I’ve read and written extensively about Woolf’s life and work, with a particular interest in her influence on contemporary writers. Is it coincidence or subtle homage that Ernaux’s memoir has the same title as Woolf’s 1937 novel?
The Years was the last of Woolf’s novels to be published in her lifetime. It’s a work of straightforward fiction, not autobiographical, yet I’m struck by ways in which its underlying structure and Woolf’s purpose are manifest in Ernaux’s memoir.
The narrative is built around a span of 55 years—1880 to 1935—in three generations of one London family, the Pargiters. Just as Ernaux journeys from post–World War II France to the present day, Woolf follows the Pargiters from Victorian times through World War I to the mid-’30s, incorporating historical, political, societal and cultural allusions. In a 1937 letter to a friend, Woolf sets out her driving motive:
What I meant I think was to give a picture of society, not private life; exhibit the effect of ceremonies; Keep one toe on the ground by means of dates, facts: envelop the whole in a changing temporal atmosphere; suggesting that there is no break, but a continuous development, possibly a recurrence of some pattern.
This sounds like what Ernaux called “an existence that is merged with the movements of a generation.”
Today we’re inundated with revealing memoirs by people who often are not far past the experiences they relate. They expose themselves and others with what might be seen as courage or indiscretion or both. That hasn’t always been the case. Letters and diaries—Woolf’s are an example—often were withheld from publication while the author and people who might be harmed by them were alive. Entrusting painful or complicated episodes to private writing is a way to achieve catharsis while keeping an accurate record intact. Converting them to fiction is another. Memoirs might wait until later in life, but intimate secrets and potentially scandalous or libelous disclosures can be disguised in a roman à clef.
Although Ernaux wrote and published autobiographical novels for more than 30 years, she doesn’t mention them in The Years, because her memoir encompasses all her stories while expanding the picture beyond the merely personal. Without the pronoun “I,” she has succeeded in writing her “woman’s destiny,” conveying the passage of time in “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation.”
Annie and I are still not so far apart. I write personal essays—mini-memoirs—in which I attempt to incorporate the world I inhabit, a sociological perspective, and the literature I love into my own experiences. Annie Ernaux has become a kindred spirit while providing new insights into the myriad ways we tell our own stories.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in more than sixty literary journals including, this past year: Superstition Review, Ascent, Waccamaw Review, Baltimore Review, Stonecoast Review, and Hobart. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
photo credit: Annie Ernaux courtesy of Seven Stories Press