Sidharth Vardhan

Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’ – the story of a generation

the years anniie ernaux sidharth vardhan review analysis
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Published: 2008
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…

(A review of 'The Years',
a novel by Annie Ernaux
English translation by Alison L Strayer
nominated for International Booker 2019
First written on March 25, 2019 )

"We were mutating. We didn’t know what our new shape would be."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


I love the International Booker Prize's new version. They always have at least a couple of gems in their long list. And this book is such a gem. You could start introducing it by saying that it is an autobiography, however, it ain't just biography of a single person, rather it is a biography of a whole French generation born around 1940. Since the industrial revolution, generational differences have widened exponentially. And a single person can live to see the world change many times in his or her life and that is the case with the generation the author talks about. The generation which is the protagonist of the novel (the pronoun used is 'we') was raised in a peasant conservative family and grew up through second world war, cold war, death of philosophers (philosophers are to French what babas are to Indians and authors are to Russians) liberalization of economy, metro, consumerisation of society, television, sexual revolution, computers, mobiles, 9/11 attacks etc. And it is the story of the author or people her age (she was born in 1940) went through those changes.

One of the motivations behind writing the book seems to be fear of being forgotten. The book starts talking about images will be forgotten.

"Yes. They’ll forget us. Such is our fate, there is no help for it. What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten or will seem unimportant. And it’s curious that we can’t possibly tell what exactly will be considered great and important, and what will seem petty and ridiculous [. . .]. And it may be that our present life, which we accept so readily, will in time seem strange, inconvenient, stupid, not clean enough,
perhaps even sinful . . ."

Anton Chekhov (one of the epigraphs

Annie Ernaux the Years sidharth Vardhan review analysis
Annie Ernaux

I think people feel this fear far more than they did earlier. It could be one of the reasons behind the click-happy culture that is developing the world over. The author regularly goes back to look back at her old pictures and talk about her memories of those times.

The next generations will just take for granted the very things they had to fight for. There are people who are jealous of their earlier generation who supposedly lived in 'simpler' times, I myself am jealous of future generations who will be born taking such things like internet and free books for granted and will have so much more to explore (provided global warming or Trump don't destroy the world of course):

"The moon, when we looked up at night, shone fixedly on billions of people, a world whose vastness and teeming activity we could feel inside. Consciousness stretched across the total space of the planet toward other galaxies. The infinite ceased to be imaginary. That is why it seemed inconceivable that one day we would die."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


The book goes from the time of the birth of author to the moment till she has found her inspiration. In the last parts she is already thinking of writing the book:

"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. Each time she begins, 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? How to make the fresco of forty-five years coincide with the search for a self outside of History, the self of suspended moments transformed into the poems she wrote at twenty (“Solitude,” etc.)? Her main concern is the choice between “I” and “she.” There is something too permanent about “I,” something shrunken and stifling, whereas “she” is too exterior and remote. The image she has of her book in its nonexistent form, of the impression it should leave, is the one she retained from Gone with the Wind, read at the age of twelve, and later from Remembrance of Things Past, and more recently from Life and Fate: an image of light and shadow streaming over faces. But she hasn’t yet discovered how to do this. She awaits if not a revelation then a sign, a happenstance, as the madeleine dipped in tea was for Marcel Proust."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)

More Quotes:

Most of the book is quotable but here are a few:

Change of Values over time

"Some sentiments fell out of use, ones we no longer felt and found absurd, such as patriotism and honor, reserved for inferior times and abused populations. Shame, invoked at every turn, was a shadow of its former self—a passing aggravation, a short-lived wound to the ego. “Respect,” first and foremost, was the demand of that same ego for the recognition of others. One no longer heard the words “goodness” or “good people.” Pride in what one did was substituted for pride in what one was—female, gay, provincial, Jewish, Arab, etc."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)

"They pinned a button on their backpacks, the image of a black suitcase and the slogan Who’s next? They tucked it in a drawer at home as a memento. They signed petitions and forgot the cause, forgot they’d even signed them—who was Abu-Jamal, again? Then, overnight, their energy flagged. Effusion alternated with anomie, protest with consent. The word “struggle” was discredited as a throwback to Marxism, become an object of ridicule. As for “defending rights,” the first that came to mind were those of the consumer."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


Development of language

"We lived in a profusion of everything, objects, information, and “expert opinions.” No sooner had an event occurred than someone issued a reflection, whatever the subject: manners of conduct, the body, orgasm, and euthanasia. Everything was discussed and decrypted. Between “addiction,” “resilience,” and “grief work,” there were countless ways of transposing life and emotions into words. Depression, alcoholism, frigidity, anorexia, unhappy childhoods, nothing was lived in vain anymore. The communication of experience and fantasies was pleasing to the conscience. Collective introspection provided models for putting the self into words. The repertoire of shared knowledge grew. The mind grew more agile, children learned at a younger age, and the slowness of school drove young people to distraction. They texted on their mobiles full tilt."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


On arrival of television

"Only facts presented on TV achieved the status of reality. Everyone had a color set. The elderly turned it on at noon when the broadcast day began and fell asleep at night in front of the test pattern. In winter, the pious had only to watch The Lord’s Day to attend Mass at home. Housewives ironed while watching the soap operas on channel 1, or Madame Today on 2. Mothers kept children quiet with Les visiteurs du mercredi and The Wonderful World of Disney. For everyone, TV spelled the availability of immediate, low-cost distraction and peace of mind for wives, who were able to keep their husbands home on Sundays with the televised sports. It surrounded us with a constant and impalpable solicitude that bobbed along on the unanimously smiling and understanding faces of the show hosts (Jacques Martin and Stéphane Collaro), their easy affability (Bernard Pivot, Alain Decaux). We were increasingly united by the same curiosities, fears, and satisfaction."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


On the arrival of Walkman (my favorite quote)

"With the Walkman, for the first time music entered the body. We could live inside music, walled off from the world."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


On arrival of Internet

"The quick jump-click of the mouse on the screen was the measure of time.
In less than two minutes, one could locate classmates from Camille Jullian high school in Bordeaux, second C2 class, 1980 to 1981, a song by Marie-Josée Neuville, an article from 1988 in L’Humanité. The web was the royal road for the remembrance of things past. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odor and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand, had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


On click-happy culture

"We never stopped wanting to click on “save” and keep all the photos and films, viewable on the spot. Hundreds of images were scattered to the four winds of friendship, new social use of photos. They were transferred and filed in seldom-opened folders on the computer. What mattered most was the taking of the photos, existence captured and duplicated, recorded as we were living it—cherry trees in bloom, a hotel room in Strasbourg, a baby minutes after birth, places, events, scenes, objects, the complete conservation of life. With digital technology, we drained reality dry."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)


Commercialisation

"Commercial time invaded calendar time with renewed vigor. Christmas already, people sighed as toys and chocolate besieged the hypermarkets, just after All Saints’ weekend. They were depressed, already feeling the vise-grip of the holiday season, which forced one to think of oneself, one’s loneliness and purchasing power as compared to the rest of society—as if Christmas night were the crowning moment and end of all existence. It was a vision that made us want to go to sleep in November and wake up in the new year. We entered the most grueling period of desire and hatred of things, the peak of the consumer year. With loathing we stood in overheated lines, and performed the consumer act like a sacrifice, a duty of spending offered up to who-knows-what god in the name of who-knows-what salvation. Resigned to “doing something for Christmas,” we bought decorations for the tree and planned the menu for the holiday meal."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)

"In the middle of that first decade of the twenty-first century, which we never referred to as “the noughties,” at the table where we’d gathered the children, now getting on forty (though with their jeans and Converse sneakers they still looked like teens), and their partners—the same for several years now—and the grandchildren, and also a man who’d graduated from transitional secret lover to stable companion, eligible for family gatherings, conversation began with a swarm of back-and-forth questions about work, insecure or threatened by downsizing as a result of new ownership, modes of transport, schedules, holidays, how many cigarettes a day and quitting, leisure activities, photo and music downloads, recent purchases of new objects, the latest version of Windows, the latest model of mobile phone, 3G, attitudes toward consumption and time management, everything that helped them refresh their knowledge of one another, assess the other’s lifestyle while privately confirming the excellence of their own."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)

Still true for Indians

You could argue that most of East still lags behind by a couple of generation from the west. And Indians will find the following quotes relatable:

"For girls, shame lay in wait at every turn. The verdict of too loomed large over their clothing and makeup: too short, long, low-cut, tight, flashy, etc. The height of their heels, whom they saw, what time they went out and came in, the crotch of their underwear, month after month, were subject to all-pervasive surveillance by society."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)

"At every moment in time, next to the things it seems natural to do and say, and next to the ones we’re told to think—no less by books or ads in the Métro than by funny stories—are other things that society hushes up without knowing it is doing so. Thus it condemns to lonely suffering all the people who feel but cannot name these things. Then the silence breaks, little by little, or suddenly one day, and words burst forth, recognized at last, while underneath other silences start to form."

Annie Ernaux (The Years)

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