Ok, I’ll be honest: I hadn’t heard of Annie Ernaux before she won the Nobel Prize and while I am not a fan of this sort of prizes, their significance, or arbitrariness, I still consider them a good way of being introduced to new (at least to me) literature.
So I read Annie Ernaux. I knew it was going to be a good read, since for a week after the prize announcement, my feed was full of White Men Writers™ complaining, priding themselves over never having read her (not surprised boys, we know you only read each other), or talking about how forgettable her texts are. The only books that are better than books feminists love are the books misogynists hate.
I wish I had read Ernaux before because I absolutely loved it. Her writing is simple and elegant but still able to feel exquisite. The Years is a memoir of the writer but is written more like a collective memoir of French society during Ernaux’s life. There is no I in this book, only we (the French on), which offers such a unique reading experience. Constructed about a series of photographs which are described in detail, reading The Years feels like flipping through a family album and hearing the stories that are linked to each photo. It always starts with the details in the photos and keeps zooming out until the whole of France is encompassed in the description, showing the smooth connection between the micro and the macro of our world. Because of this, The Years can feel like a memoir, but also like a history book or even like a sociological analysis of French society. And Ernaux states very clearly that she cannot tell the difference between the memoir realm, which deals with the individual and one’s life, and the history realm, where the individual is just part of a mass with very few exceptions:
Family narrative and social narrative are one and the same.
Being a memoir after all, it is interesting to see how the perspective evolves from the 40s and 50s when the writer is a child and a teenager to later on when she becomes an adult. The sociological perspective is always there, but she keeps true to the emotions and feelings of the age and makes them fit into the larger context.
I loved so many things about this book, but probably my favourite part was the dialogue with the younger generation. I don’t like that it’s generally acceptable for a generational conflict to exist, especially the fact that older people are supposed to think that young people are ruining everything and that a lot of times they really do think that. But Ernaux is cool about that, she sees how the mistakes of her generation are not present or less present in the younger one and she embraces that, she is open to learning from it and she writes about this beautifully:
The young were sensible. For the essentials, they shared our way of thinking. They didn’t heckle us at the lycée, challenge the curriculum, the rules, or authority, and accepted the boredom of classes. Outside of school they came to life. They spent hours at a time on Playstations or Atari consoles, and playing role-playing games. They raved about home computers and begged us to buy the first model, Oric-1. They watched Les enfants du rock, Les Nuls, nonstop music videos on Bonsoir les clips, read Stephen King and to make us happy, leafed through the Phosphore, the lycée students’ magazine. They listened to funk and hard rock, or rockabilly. Between LPs and Walkmans, they lived inside music. They “partied hard” at teufs and probably smoked tarpés. Studied. Were close-mouthed about their futures. Opened the fridge and cupboards at all hours to eat Danette pudding cups, Bolino instant noodles, and Nutella. Slept with their girlfriends at our apartment. They didn’t have time for everything, sports, painting, film club and school trips. They didn’t resent us for anything. Journalists referred to them as the whatever generation.
Schooled together since kindergarten, girls and boys grew up quietly in what seemed to us a kind of innocence and equality. They all spoke the same crude, ill-mannered language. They called each other assholes and told each other to fuck off. We found them “very much themselves” and “natural” in relation to all that had tormented us at their age, sex, teachers, parents. We questioned them with circumspection, afraid they’d say we were a pain in the ass and got up their noses. We allowed them a freedom we’d have loved to have had ourselves, but discreetly watched over their behavior and silences, as our mothers had done with us. We looked upon their autonomy and independence with surprise and satisfaction, as something that had been won over several generations.
They had a thing or two to teach us about tolerance, anti-racism, pacifism, and ecology. They weren’t interested in politics but adopted all the generous watchwords and the slogan created just for them, Touche pas à mon pote! They bought the CD for hunger relief in Ethiopia, followed the march of the Beurs. They proved to be exacting about the “right to be different.” They had a moral worldview. We liked them.
So I am once again thanking the White Men Writers™for the great recommendations, I really hope many more will come.