Annie Ernaux’s The Years is a striking piece of communal memoir

Ernaux may be a bestselling memoirist, but this is not a personal story: from occupied France to Aids, she becomes the objective, largely unseen reporter of her times.

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Annie Ernaux’s mother died in 1986, aged 80, eight days before Simone de Beauvoir, as Ernaux tells us in her brief life, A Woman’s Story (1988). The dates seemed to her to be pertinent, and they are. Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation, and her agenda is feminist. She picked up the baton. Less active politically that her predecessor, she records personal experience against a background of social change, and has chosen memoir as her principal medium. Her latest work, The Years, already a best-seller in France, is a powerful attempt to grasp history through “material” memory, and to describe the evolution of attitudes, events, and, as importantly, things.

It is less intimately personal than earlier works, which are striking essays in self-revelation. Happening (2000) is a detailed account of an illegal abortion procured in 1963 while she was still a student in Rouen, and contains graphic material which simultaneously shocks and informs: she takes the reader day by day through the anxious waiting for the stain in the knickers, the growing certainty, the visits to cautious and unhelpful doctors, to the rendezvous with the abortionist, Madame PR, in her well-remembered apartment. She walks around for days with a probe inside her, and eventually aborts in the hostel bathroom, the foetus breaking out “like a bomb or a grenade erupting, the bung of a cask popping”. Neither she nor her possibly disapproving student accomplice have any idea whether or not to cut the cord (they do, and blood rushes out in spurts) or how to dispose of the “Indian doll”, with its tiny body and its huge head.

Understandably she never forgot a moment of this trauma, and in revisiting it (through diary, memory and location) and recreating it she rightly believes she is rendering us all a service. “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people”. At one point she perhaps ironically suggests she should have dedicated the volume to the unsympathetic and avaricious Mme PR, who did not seem to be doing very well at her profession (her apartment was poorly furnished) but who did the job when no one else would.

The Possession (2002) is an account of the overwhelming jealousy that seized Ernaux when her younger lover left her (albeit at her request) and then finds another woman who turns out, infuriatingly, to be more or less the same age as herself. (“I realised that I was an interchangeable part of a series.”) Her attempts to discover the identity of her rival are described in paranoid, tragi-comic detail – a shaming frenzy of anonymous phone calls, lurking in corridors, searches on the internet. She writes about sex with Gallic frankness, but “the image of his cock on the other woman’s belly” does not torment her as much as the thought of their underwear mingled together in the laundry basket.

In this short work’s only footnote, Ernaux raises an interesting point: if she is telling the whole truth, are the characters in her story likely to be identified by those who may have “decoded the system of substitutions I have used – for the sake of discretion, or some basically conscientious reason”? She uses initials (presumably false) for names, and alters precise locations. The ethics of memoir clearly concern her, but they do not inhibit her, as far as we can read.

In The Years she moves outwards towards a broader canvas, a longer and more collective viewpoint. It covers her entire life-span, from her birth at the beginning of the Second World War, through the growing affluence and confidence of the 1960s and 1970s, to 2008 with its urban riots and immigration scandals. She adopts a third-person narrative voice, using photographs of herself through the decades to provide visual anchors of chronology, as she evolves from “a little girl in a dark swimsuit on a pebble beach” in 1949 to a 66-year-old with reddish-blonde hair and a lined face, and her olive-skinned granddaughter sprawling on her lap, at Christmas 2006. But this is not that woman’s story: she is the objective, largely unseen reporter of her times.

For those of my age, whose lives occupy the same time-span as hers, this is a book with myriad resonances. At times historical memories diverge sharply: we were in battling Britain, she was in occupied France. Her family never tired of “talking about the winter of  ’42” when the Germans arrived, of the inconsiderate Americans, of “the always courteous English”. But many other memories converge: of food shortages, of rag dolls and dirt floors, of poor hygiene, of dogs roaming free and mating in the middle of the street. (I’d forgotten the dogs: you don’t see that now, but you certainly did then.) Then the stampedes for bananas, fireworks and, in France, the return of National Lottery tickets.

Ernaux was born into a family of weavers and carters in rural Normandy, and her mother, after working in the margarine factory and the rope factory, became a shopkeeper, running a general store. I recognise the world: my grandparents ran a B&B, in a village which had no electricity and very few flush toilets. Her evocation of this vanished age and her use of the collective “we” remind one of the opening sequences of Madame Bovary, set in the same region, where a strong communal consciousness surveyed change and innovation with a mixture of scepticism, stubborn superstition, and hope. From this, we have all moved on.

She charts societal development by invoking cultural moments and technological innovations. We had Elvis Presley, LPs and record players, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer (already old, but new to her), the 2CV, Formica; then the Caravelle jetliner, flavoured yoghurt, transistor radios, The Cranes are Flying and Last Year at Marienbad, twin sets and Mary Quant. Some of these touchstones signify across national barriers: others, specific to French popular culture, are footnoted by the translator, Alison L Strayer, who also copes ably with rendering outdated expressions such as “old geezer” and “nincompoop”. There is no footnote, alas, for Charlie Hebdo, which appears frequently in these pre-massacre days, and now needs no gloss.

The public backdrop is sketched in; in the far distance Dien Bien Phu falls, while the war in Algeria comes to Paris. But part of Ernaux’s genius lies in noticing the insignificant and saying the unsavoury. She is acute on the subject of sanitary towels and condoms, birth control methods, sexual fear and shame, female lust, and irrational fear of Aids (she goes to Aids tests for purification as though “to confession”). She contrasts private and public moments in a passage in which her narrator describes her memory of the 1954 All Saints’ Day ambush in Algeria as the day on which she saw “a young woman squatting over the grass, as if to lay an egg, and standing again, pushing her skirts down. To this storehouse of illegitimate memory she consigns things too unthinkable, shameful or crazy to put into words.” The shameful and the crazy are her domain.

But Ernaux is also a sharp observer of what we now call “consumer society”. Some of her observations are a little troubling: can anyone really have thought the scart plug a “soothing” sign of material progress? But she is surely right that our ever-increasing craving for new gadgets, new technologies, for upgrading, is unstoppable. She takes the story on from the point at which Georges Perec, in his 1965 novel Les Choses, left off. Perec (whom she salutes in passing) died in 1982, and had been fascinated by brand names and by advertising, having worked in that field himself: how enthralled he would have been by Ernaux’s example of marketing excess, which claims that “L’Evian fruité, c’est plus musclé”. What can that mean, in any language?

Some of us will not own or recognise some of the objects she names, and I for one wish I’d never even heard of the toilet macerator. There is no stopping progress, and as she says, we don’t know where we are going. But at least we are all in it together. “To think of oneself in collective terms brought a certain exaltation,” she writes. Towards the end of a long life, Ernaux has gained a long and communal perspective. She reminds us that we are material beings, and that we remember in and with the body. And our communal memory makes us part of one body. That is, in its way, comforting. 

Margaret Drabble’s novels include “The Dark Flood Rises” (Canongate)

The Years
Annie Ernaux. Translated by Alison L Strayer
Fitzcarraldo, 240pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact