Author(s): Annie Ernaux; Alison L. Strayer
Literature | 2019 Man Booker International Prize long list | Novel | History | 2019 Man Booker International Prize short list
Co-winner of the 2018 French-American Foundation Translation Prize in Nonfiction
Winner of the 2017 Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her entire body of work
Winner of the 2016 Strega European Prize
Considered by many to be the iconic French memoirist's defining work, The Years was a breakout bestseller when published in France in 2008, and is considered in French Studies departments in the US as a contemporary classic.
The Years is a personal narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present--even projections into the future--photos, books, songs, radio, television and decades of advertising, headlines, contrasted with intimate conflicts and writing notes from six decades of diaries. Local dialect, words of the times, slogans, brands and names for the ever-proliferating objects, are given voice here. The voice we recognize as the author's continually dissolves and re-emerges. Ernaux makes the passage of time palpable. Time itself, inexorable, narrates its own course, consigning all other narrators to anonymity. A new kind of autobiography emerges, at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective. On its 2008 publication in France, The Years came as a surprise. Though Ernaux had for years been hailed as a beloved, bestselling and award-winning author, The Years was in many ways a departure: both an intimate memoir "written" by entire generations, and a story of generations telling a very personal story. Like the generation before hers, the narrator eschews the "I" for the "we" (or "they," or "one") as if collective life were inextricably intertwined with a private life that in her parents' generation ceased to exist. She writes of her parents' generation (and could be writing of her own book): "From a common fund of hunger and fear, everything was told in the "we" and impersonal pronouns."
“She will go within herself only to retrieve the world,” writes Annie Ernaux in this astounding work of what she terms “impersonal autobiography”. Conspicuously not a memoir, unless it is a memoir of time itself, the book takes the form of a ‘flat’, rigorous and unsentimental serial accumulation of moments that would otherwise be lost from human experience, moments shorn of interpretation or context, impressions that the author has resisted the expectation to turn into a narrative. Thus preserved in the nearest possible state to experience, the memories retain the power of memories without being condensed into fact, they retain the power to resonate in the reader in the way in which the reader's own memories resonate. Although the memories are often very personal and specific, covering every detail of Ernaux’s life from childhood to old age, Ernaux never presents them as belonging to an ‘I’, always to a ‘she’ or a ‘we’. She does not presume a continuity of self other than the self that exists in the moment of experience, a moment that will continue until that memory is extinguished. The distancing of the memory from the ‘I’, the clipping free of the experience from its subject, the creation of a text that is at once impersonal and personal, becomes a machine for the conversion of the particular into the universal, or, rather, for erasing the distinction between the two. “By retrieving the collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” At the moment that Ernaux severs her attachment from the memories that she records, she saves them from plausible extinction, she makes them the memories of others. When such responses are awakened in the reader, the reader becomes the rememberer (the rememberer in this case of living in France between 1941 and 2006). Any emotional response comes from the reader’s experience, not the author’s, or, rather, from the collective human experience that includes both reader and author. There are separate narratives, or separate modes, for what one remembers and what one knows to have happened. What is the relationship between these two kinds of memory? “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,” she writes. As Ernaux reaches old age, witnessing a series of “burials that foreshadow her own,” she casts back from an imperative somewhere beyond her death, recording the rush of memory towards its ultimate forgetting. “All the images will disappear. They will vanish all at the same time, like the images that lay hidden behind the foreheads of the grandparents, dead for half a century, and of the parents, also dead. Thousands of words will suddenly be deleted the ones that were used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order. Everything will be erased in a second, the dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated.” But it is not only death that can extinguish memory: “The future is replaced by a sense of urgency that torments her. She is afraid that her memory will become cloudy and silent. Maybe one day all things and their names will slip out of alignment and she’ll no longer be able to put names to reality. All that will remain is the reality that cannot be spoken. Now’s the time to give form to her future absence through writing.” Her book is an attempt to “save something from the time where we will never be again.” By her method of conjuring and recording the raw material of her life, Ernaux “finds something that the image from her personal memory doesn’t give her on its own: a kind of vast collective sensation that takes her consciousness, her entire being, into itself.” The passage of time is made tangible, subjects are dissolved in their experiences, the intimate is revealed as the universal, moments are, in the act of writing, both held and relinquished.