Annie Ernaux’s “The Years”

Annie Ernaux’s exquisite book, The Years, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, is a hybrid of memoir, autofiction, and history.  I learned about The Years when it was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.  There was a controversy about its eligibility:  it had been classified as a personal  narrative.  But Bettany Hughes, chairperson of the judges, told the Guardian it was a “much-needed riposte to the ever-narrowing trajectory of auto-fiction.”

Memoir or fiction, Ernaux’s book is breathtakingly elegiac. She begins with the sentence, “All the images will disappear,” followed by a list of abbreviated descriptions:   public lavatories built on a river, Scarlett O’Hara killing a soldier in Atlanta, photographs of people being deported to the camps, and “a house with an arbor of Virginia creeper, which was a hotel in the sixties, no. 90A, on the Zaterre in Venice.” But never fear, if lists are not your thing,  she soon segues into a chronological narrative, the  story of her life from 1940 to age 66.

This short personal narrative (240 pages) is intertwined with history, politics, and social history.  Much of the book is set at holiday dinners, as Annie navigates the years of childhood, adolescence, motherhood, middle age, and old age. At the dinners, the relatives look at photos and tell stories.  Ernaux describes the shortages  of commodities  after World War II, the national fascination with the  Tour de France and the race to the moon, the rise of Elvis Presley and rock and roll, the migrations of refugees from Algeria , and the materialism that coincides with the availability of appliances and other commodities.

We get to know Annie very well over the years.  She reads Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gone with the Wind, hopes to become a writer, but becomes a teacher.  She sympathizes with student protests and takes to the streets with them when she is a teacher in the late ’60s. She is too busy with work and raising children to write her book, but she thinks about how she will write it.

This is a bookish book, bearing the influence of many books:   Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Gone with the Wind (Annie wants to be Scarlett O’Hara, as did my own mother), and probably many other French memoirs and novels.  I also thought of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, particularly the last book, The Four-Gated City, which follows Martha Quest from age 30 in post-war London, through the upheavals of the ’60s and on to a dystopian future.

The Years won the 2018 French-American Foundation Translation Prize and the 2016 Strega European Prize.  I do think it should have won the Booker.   I look forward to reading her other books–and if you have suggestions let me know.