The Years by Annie Ernaux review – a masterpiece memoir of French life

A ‘slippery narrative’ that blends personal and public life by one of France’s most lauded writers receives its English translation

Annie Ernaux is long overdue to be recognised in Britain as one of the most important writers in contemporary France, and this edition of The Years ought to do the trick. Originally published there in 2008, it was immediately heralded as Ernaux’s masterpiece, her brief Remembrance of Things Past. It has been expertly rendered into English by Alison Strayer, who captures all the shadings of Ernaux’s prose, all its stops and starts, its changes in pace and in tone, its chatterings, its silences.

The book spans the timeframe from the author’s birth in 1940 up to 2006, and moves from her working-class upbringing in Normandy to her years teaching French literature in a lycée, living in the Parisian suburb of Cergy, raising two sons and eventually divorcing. But it is not a straightforward autobiography; rather it is told in a choral “we”, which sometimes shifts into the third person, so the author appears as “she”. This is as close in as it gets. In so doing, Ernaux puts paid (hopefully once and for all) to the idea that memoirs by women are about the small-scale, the domestic. She 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. She reflects on the book she is writing even as she writes it, resolving: “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if now it were her time to tell the story of the time-before.”

“It will be a slippery narrative,” she writes, “composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes.” It is comprised of her own memories, of historical events, of scraps of popular culture, slang, notes on the subtle transformations of the culture. We encounter the war in Algeria, Sartre and De Beauvoir, Edith Piaf’s “Les Amants d’un Jour” (which “gave us goosebumps”), fondue bourguignonne, Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur, May 1968, the pro-abortion rights manifesto of the 343 salopes, nuclear threat, the explosion of consumerism, unemployment, immigration, the advance of technology. Ernaux captures the ineffable passage of time, which she layers like “palimpsests”, in order to express the “lived dimension of history” and, perhaps more crucially, to “give form to her future absence”.

• The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Lauren Elkin

The GuardianTramp

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