Having finally shaken the dust out of our hair from our Chilean adventures, it’s time to slow down on our Man Booker International Prize longlist adventures. Today the journey takes us to France, where we’ll be spending a while (around sixty-five years, in fact) with a woman who dreams of one day being a writer. If that sounds a little, well, dull, never fear – this is a book that says just as much about society itself as about the author, and as you’ll see, there was a *lot* going on in the background in twentieth-century France…
The Years by Annie Ernaux
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Alison Strayer
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
From a series of photographs, and later home movies, a woman reflects on an era, at both a personal and societal level. The Years is a book with a rather apt name, with each one remembered and catalogued, the memories of the girl (or woman) looking back at the writer causing her to recall what was happening in the world around her at the time. From initial muddled childhood memories, fragments of time with pieces missing, we move on through the years, watching the writer develop, observing as she follows her dreams, only to watch them slip away. In particular, the desire to write follows her through the years, even if she seems unable to work out how to put to paper what she wants to express. This, of course, written decades later, is the book Ernaux’s ‘protagonist’ has always wanted to write.
Despite the personal touch, The Years could also easily be read as the story of a country. It’s a detailed portrait of French post-war society, as the country rebuilds, mentally and literally, after the trauma of conflict and occupation. However, it’s also a reflection of the country at a family level, starting in a conservative society where pre-marital sex is unthinkable. As the decades pass, the roles change within these families, and from the first scenes focusing on children quietly listening to war anecdotes, we see a generational shift, with positions changing:
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, and gazed around the table of faces, dark against the light. For a moment we were struck by the strangeness of repeating a ritual in which we now occupied the middle position between two generations. We were overcome with a kind of reverse vertigo, brought on by immutability, as if nothing in society had moved.
p.130 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)
This is the writer’s realisation of just how quickly time passes, turning the youths with a future into the sedate bourgeois of the present.
And yet, it seems only yesterday that she was living through the 1960s and the tumultuous changes roaring through French society. Like most young people, the protagonist is unwilling to conform to the rules of previous generations, wanting far more from her life:
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, which she has experienced (c.f. the school photo from five years before) and of which she is ashamed. She feels no desire to marry or have children. Mothering and the life of the mind seem incompatible. (pp.83/4)
Alas, her dreams are just that, and she’s powerless to prevent herself being sucked into the trap of marriage, motherhood and a steady career…
Outside of the family unit, The Years shows us the changes in the political landscape over the decades covered. There’s De Gaulle, of course, who goes from towering hero to forgotten old man in a matter of pages, as well as May 1968, where hope turns to disillusionment almost before we have time to register it. Mitterand comes and goes, as does Chirac, with Le Pen’s rise and fall acting as little more than background noise at one of the writer’s dinner parties.
In truth, though, Ernaux is usually more concerned with small-p politics, those of the people themselves. One of the ideas running throughout The Years is that of feminism, with her character part of the first generation able to take a stand against the patriarchy, rebelling against oppression and back-street abortions. Yet we also see how feminism gradually gets a bad name, with many questioning its importance once the pill arrives – there’s a sense that women should be happy with what they’ve got. The truth, of course, is that the likes of Ernaux are still no closer to real equality, and in the desire for family life and intellectual freedom, it’s clear that you can’t have both (at least, not if you’re a woman…).
Another of the writer’s interests is memory, obviously, and the book is replete with images and frequent mentions of them fading, providing a thread through the years. One of the most prominent ideas is the way a person’s role changes throughout their life, slipping into the picture, gradually becoming the focal point, slipping to the peripheries, then disappearing, remaining a short time in the memories of others before vanishing forever. The family dinners the writer describes are the encapsulation of this idea, always the same, yet with different people filling the roles. Another nice take on the notion is the frequent reoccurrence of day-time naps, which act as Ernaux’s ‘Madeleine’, with memories of the past returning while she lies dozing…
As you may have noticed, I’ve taken very little care above to separate writer and protagonist, and that’s because they are pretty much one and the same, to the extent that you do wonder whether this is fiction at all. It was published in Fitzcarraldo’s white series of non-fiction books, and some readers aren’t overly impressed with the decision to allow it into a prize dedicated to fiction. However, this is a battle that was already fought and won with the acceptance of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, which was certainly no less personal than The Years. In fact, it’s interesting to compare the two projects as they take very different approaches to this genre of fictional memoir. Knausi’s series is very much focused on himself, with society only described where he feels the reader needs context to better understand *him*. By contrast, Ernaux’s novel shows a wider scope, looking at a country, a culture, over the span of one life, and the decision to make her protagonist a ‘she’, rather than an ‘I’, is a deliberate attempt to be more objective in her description of her life. Whether it’s fiction or not is something best left to the individual reader to decide.
A much more interesting question, though, would be how successful it actually is. The Years is well-written in parts, and certainly cleverly constructed, yet I can’t say I was always convinced. The first part of the book is (deliberately) confused and fragmented, making for hard going, and it was just the start of one of my issues with the writing. Ernaux’s book is full of lists and repetition, something I find dull and frankly lazy, and there were times when I found myself skimming pages (where other readers on our panel enjoyed each cultural reference, stopping to look things up, I tended to gloss over them, hoping for something more interesting to appear). For me, The Years is at its best when it reflects, rather than recites, and (thankfully) there is a lot of that, too.
In the end, how much you like the book may well depend on how much you relate to it. It’s little surprise The Years was well received in France, with its nostalgic glow and lists of important cultural events meaning it comes across as a (rather extended) French version of We Didn’t Start the Fire 😉 I suspect it’ll also strike a deeper chord with women, particularly from older generations, who may have a much more personal connection with the events Ernaux describes. Of course, anyone with more than a few decades behind them will identify with many of the writer’s experiences, especially when she shows how ambitions and fears can turn to smug, staid contentment in the blink of an eye.
Overall, The Years must be seen as a success, both for the reader and the writer. You see, it represents Ernaux’s achievement in finally producing the book she always wanted to write:
All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time, the one that made its way through the years of the distant past and glided all the way to the present. By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History. (p.224)
Which seems like the perfect note to end on 🙂
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Despite my initial misgivings, the further I got, the more I found The Years to be both an absorbing read and a fascinating look at French society and, in particular, the place women occupy in it. I’m still not sure it’s quite as good as some of my shadowy colleagues claim (I suspect there’ll be some rather robust conversations going on behind the scenes), but in a year low on highlights, this is certainly a book that’ll be near the top of our final rankings.
Why did it make the shortlist?
Because it’s very good would be an easy explanation. Because there weren’t enough great books on the shortlist would be another. Perhaps the most accurate one, though, would be to say that enough of the judges were prepared to accept it as fiction. In truth, given the competition this year, that was probably the biggest obstacle Ernaux’s book had to overcome in making the shortlist…
There’s something soothing about a nice orderly life, with the events rolling by with the years, but that’s all in the past. Our next outing is a Swedish take on a very American life, and there’s very little that’s bourgeois about the woman we are to meet. Sex and drugs and… lab rats? All will be revealed very soon…
…although there’s the little matter of the Shadow shortlist to announce first 😉