Over the past 45 years, the French writer Annie Ernaux, who until recently was little known outside her native country, has quietly produced some 20 books. Most of them were written while she was teaching high school, near Cergy, part of the ville nouvelle of Cergy-Pontoise, an anonymous planned community built in the 1960s outside Paris, to which scant notice would likely have been paid had Eric Rohmer not set his film L’ami de mon amie there and, before him, Camille Pissaro made paintings, along the River Oise—and did Ernaux herself not continue to live and write there.
The majority of Ernaux’s books are novella-length and, in one way or another, concern aspects of her own life: growing up as a single child (an older sister died in early childhood) in the commune of Yvetot (which was nearly razed during the Second World War), in the Seine-Maritime department of Normandy; languishing in an unsatisfying early marriage under the demands of motherhood and a profession; undergoing an illegal abortion; having an obsessive affair in middle age with a married foreign businessman ten years her junior; coping with the inevitable agonizing decline of her mother following a diagnosis of dementia.
They read like well-plotted fiction, but Ernaux rejected the genre early on. Nor are they, strictly speaking, memoir, she says. Two of her earliest, and best, books are Man’s Place (La place, 1984), about the life and death of her father, in which she broke with the idea of fiction in favor of what has been called auto-sociobiography, and A Woman’s Story (Une femme, 1987), about the life and death of her mother. Both are profound works of remembrance and also of feeling, at once detached and empathic.
In an appearance on “Apostrophes,” with Bernard Pivot, shortly after receiving the Prix Renaudot for Man’s Place, Ernaux passionately explained, scarcely pausing for breath, why it would have been unthinkable for her to write a work of fiction about her father, who grew up poor and worked in factories until the war, after which he and Ernaux’s mother made a tiny ascent into the lower-middle class by opening a café-cum-grocery.
Ernaux had surpassed her parents, thereby becoming a class “deserter,” a deserter of her “place,” in the sense of both her home and her station in life. She had become a deserter even of her “native” language—that is, the circumscribed language of her class origins—by becoming educated, something her father had had no chance to do but was enormously proud of his daughter for having done.
But of course very often it is the act of writing itself that constitutes the betrayal, and Ernaux is perfectly conscious of the paradox of writing anything at all, as, for her, it is inherently a treasonous act, rendering a cool observation, at best, of those for whom the import of her text might well give rise to confusion, shame, or smallness (or else be unfathomable altogether). Still, a writer is what Ernaux is, and each writer has a moral choice to make—or to ignore—when approaching subject matter based in intimate experience.
Ernaux is quick to make a distinction between what she does and the approach of practitioners of, for example, so-called autofiction (a category that she is often bundled into), claiming that, presumably unlike them, she adheres to a “pact with the truth.” Hewing closely to the facts and to lived experience, as best she can remember them (“What matters is the question of intentionality,” she has said), is one of the things that account for the exceptional affective power of her narratives.
Her facts ring “true.” You feel them to be true. And her much noted “flat,” or “white,” or “factual” style—which has been compared to that of Maurice Blanchot (“These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them”) and Georges Perec (“They would like to have been rich. They believed they would have been up to it”), and which also bears a resemblance to any number of modern writers’, such as Raymond Carver, provides her with, perhaps, the least transgressive vehicle to hitch her emotional content to.
It may offer a way of absolving herself of the “shame”—a very great theme in her work and the title of another of her books, La honte (1997)—of daring to depict people more vulnerable than she has now become, through class ascent. (Of her mother, she writes, “She longed to learn the rules of good behavior and was always worrying about social conventions, fearful of doing the wrong thing”—something the author herself no longer has reason to fear.)
I can’t think of any recent writer who understands this particular minefield better than Ernaux—or who manages its treacherous passage more sensitively.
I’ve often marveled at the fact that Marcel Proust was a boy of ten when my grandmother was born, making them contemporaries, sharing, as they did, forty-one and a half years on earth. Because I knew my grandmother, in a way you could say that I, too, lived in the time of Proust, through her. And so it is that in the course of The Years (Les années, 2008) that Ernaux returns to a time, to a history, that her narrator (this time not an “I” or a je but a nameless “she” or “we”; an elle or an on or a nous) did not necessarily personally experience but that people she knew did, and as you read along you soon come to realize that your own world, at least the world of the average Westerner who happens to have lived through the same period, or portions of it, shares many parallels: you experience Ernaux’s “years” while simultaneously experiencing your own, just as, perhaps not as distantly as you might at first think, did my Colorado grandmother and Proust in Paris.
The book begins shortly after the Second World War, around the holiday table, that threadbare but still adhering emblem of French culture, when the narrator is around eight years old. She recalls abstractedly listening as, over the meal, extended-family members go on and on about the war, “the time before,” composing “the great narrative of collective events,” which the children eventually come to believe they themselves have witnessed.
“Memory,” she writes, “was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countryside of France and other parts of Europe. . . . It united family members, neighbors, and all those of whom one said, ‘They’re people like us,’ a repertory of habits and gestures shaped by childhoods in the fields and teen years in workshops, preceded by other childhoods, going all the way back to oblivion.”
This brief passage could practically serve as a definition of la France profonde, or, to put it another way, French tribalism—French xenophobia, even—harkening back as it does to a time of relative racial and cultural homogeneity, when most people lived and worked in the countryside, mainly on farms, often speaking in regional dialect. (It’s worth noting that at the time of the revolution roughly half the population of France couldn’t speak French.)
After the war, the more or less steady sameness of this history is forever changed: by increasing industrialism and the abandonment of family-based agriculture; by further wars, in Algeria and in Vietnam; by the advent of consumerism and then by free-market globalism; by the demise of the hegemonic influence of the Catholic Church, whose moral authority had for hundreds of years suffused every aspect of French life, including the calculation of time itself and, perhaps most important to Ernaux, strict oversight of the female body; by the tumultuous idealism of May of ‘68, followed by its inevitable distracted decline into work-induced exhaustion and consumer-induced anomie, only to morph, like the city of Paris itself, into a cartoon of itself; by the breakup of the nuclear and extended family; by the scourge of the AIDS epidemic; by growing violence and alienation in the immigrant banlieues; by growing fears on the right of le grand remplacement; and by all the myriad betrayals of the working class over generations that have given us the gilets jaunes of today.
Throughout her book, Ernaux returns to scenes of the family holiday meal, charting its evolution, and at the end offers its most recent incarnation, a meal that still centers around the table but where the narrator—now, impossibly, a grandmother—hosts an attenuated, fractured family, convened for Christmas. At the country meal of yore, everyone hung around the table for hours, regaling one another with the same worn-out stories, year after year, provoking the same dwindling reaction, almost like rehearsed jokes or the call-and-response of a church service, increasingly fallen on deaf ears.
Now non-family guests are invited to partake in the still obligatory ritual, which involves polite conversation and all the trappings of the sophisticated bourgeois table. The table still offers a comfort of sorts, through its very continuity and the primal satiety it provides, even though soon after dessert, in seeming fatigue from the effort of face-to-face encounter, everyone files off to his own corner, to watch TV or play Nintendo. There is an awful emptiness at the end that even a perfect meal can’t quite fix; perhaps it’s an emptiness at the heart of it all, you can’t be sure.
What’s clear is that between the first meal and the last, beginning in 1948 and ending sometime in the mid-aughts, some 60 years later, Ernaux’s world (and ours) has changed utterly. It’s now an undeniably broken, riven place (and yes, the U.S. feels a whole lot the same).
Despite the book’s brevity, it takes quite a while to get through it (unless you happen to be French), owing to its plethora of obscure (to me, at least) references. I’m not sure that such a book could have been written for an audience other than a French one before the age of Google and Wikipedia. While I was looking up events and movements and cultural trends and movies and the names of singers and political upheavals that were specific to Ernaux’s experience, I found myself recalling counterparts in my own history.
Late in the book, writing about the French Presidential elections of April, 2002, for example, she relates what was at the time unthinkable, at least for her constituency: that the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen could, and did, succeed in knocking the left-leaning Lionel Jospin out of the first round, narrowing the race to one between him and Jacques Chirac; in other words, between the ultra-right and the merely center-right. It’s an eerie premonition of the 2016 American race, though in the catastrophic American version, it’s Le Pen who actually wins, of course.
What the casting of a secret ballot unveils—sometimes hope, sometimes despair—is in every case a surprise, and what both the French and the American elections revealed were the depths of hidden resentments, racism, and delusional thinking, expertly tapped by two masters of manipulation, with a little outside media help. Naturally, just as in the U.S. in 2016, a certain recognizable soul-searching on the left ensues in 2002: “Before we had time to think, we were swept into the frenzy of a mass mobilization to save democracy. . . . We watched the Right retake all the seats.”
Then there are the cultural shifts that any Westerner will easily recognize. Of the 1940s, there was talk around the table only of things actually experienced: “In the time-before of which they spoke, there was nothing but war and hunger.” Ernaux catalogues the frugality of this period of darkness, of war and want, which harbors the latent fear of its return:
“Everything inside the houses had been bought before the war. The saucepans were blackened and missing their handles, the bowls’ enamel worn away. . . . Nothing was thrown away. The contents of the night buckets were used for garden fertilizer, the dung of passing horses collected for potted plants. Newspaper was used for wrapping vegetables, drying shoes, wiping one’s bottom in the lavatory.” (One of the great ironies of today, in our age of income inequality, is that the battered “look” of such vessels, and sometimes the actual objects themselves, are now marketed aesthetically to urban millennials with cash to burn, offering the imagined “experience” of want along with the vaunted virtues of frugality.)Objects, especially long-held ones, contain memories, grounding us implicitly in reality; once discarded, so, too, are the memories, along with the reality.
Little by little, the period of deprivation gives way, and as people start to rebuild their lives, in the 1950s and ’60s, and the fruits of their efforts are rewarded with greater spending power, orchestrated consumerism begins in earnest. While Perec’s book Things (written entirely in the conditional tense) details the painful covetous longings of a dreamy young couple with haut-bourgeois aspirations, Ernaux details the no less ardent desires of others for quotidian, yet no less significant acquisitions—at first it’s televisions and washing machines, the novelty of canned fruit and vegetables.
“There was something for everyone,” she writes, “Bic pens, shampoo in pyramid-shaped cartons, Bulgomme bubble gum, Gerflex, Tampax, and creams to remove unwanted hair, Gilac plastics, Dacron, neon tubes, hazelnut milk . . .” The advent of wider-spread advertising, mainly through television, seduces and bullies and hypnotizes and shames people, through endless verbal and visual repetition, into thinking that they must acquire these things, however nonsensical. It’s not long before Auchan stores are popping up all over the countryside, with shoppers hauling carts overflowing with merchandise to the trunks of their cars, engulfed by similar sensations.
The disease is the same; the only difference is one of price point. Ernaux goes a step further, by identifying one perhaps unintended side-effect of consumerism: objects, especially long-held ones, contain memories, grounding us implicitly in reality; once discarded, so, too, are the memories, along with the reality.
She writes: “The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.” Offering another side effect, this one certainly intended, she goes on: “They got used to writing checks and discovered the financial arrangements available through Sofinco Consumer Credit.” And so it goes, on and on, to this day.
Ernaux has managed an extraordinary feat here, yet I was taken aback when, just a few pages from the end of the book, after I’d spent the preceding pages pondering the author’s aims in writing this singular memoir, as well as her process—what had she intended by her use of shifting pronouns that consist of on or nous or elle, but never je; by those ultimately wearying descriptions of photographs of “her”; by her refusal to identify anyone known to her personally by name?—her narrative takes an abrupt turn.
All of a sudden, the author is spelling out exactly what “she” is about to set out to do (which has by this time all but been completed), explaining the purpose of all those pronouns and references, the point of her process, in fact. It reminded me a bit of reading “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” and then, a couple of years later, seeing Roman Polanski’s film Tess, which effortlessly and mercilessly erased my carefully crafted pencilled images and thoughts. This seems to suggest a doubt on the author’s part that her aims would be clear enough to the reader, through the work itself.
All the same, this is ultimately a minor detail. It doesn’t detract from Ernaux’s remarkable and beautiful achievement—of capturing the most ineffable thing we both know and yet cannot know: time, our time.
“What matters to her, on the contrary,” Ernaux writes at the end, of her narrator, “is to seize this time that comprises her life on Earth at a given period, the time that has coursed through her, the world she has recorded merely by living. . . . But now, more than anything, she would like to capture the light that suffuses faces that can no longer be seen and tables groaning with vanished food, the light that has continued to settle upon things from the moment they are lived, a light from before.”