‘All the images will disappear’, begins Annie Ernaux in The Years. ‘Thousands of words, the ones used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order, make the heart beat and the sex grow moist, will suddenly be nullified.’
Then, a list:
‘slogans, graffiti in public toilets, on walls in the street, poems and dirty jokes, headlines’.
a guy in a cinema add, the beach a Arenys de Mar, a newborn flailed in the air, an advert on TV, no. 90A on the Zattere in Venice. Then: ‘the hundreds of petrified faces, photographed by the authorities before deportation to the camps, on the walls of a room in the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in the mid-1980s’.
The Years, presented as a ‘collective autobiography’, begins with the 1940s, the year in which Ernaux is born, and ends in 2006, marking the beginning of the process of writing the book. Memories, public and political events, popular culture, intimate family photographs shape a collective account in third person of postcolonial, postmodern, postwar France. Ernaux excavates through a bold ‘we’: neither a speaking on behalf of, per se, nor an entirely subjective account. The ‘we’ is slippery; it is dangerous; but it also plural. In The Years, the ‘we’ is generational, and it asks: can ‘we’ speak? What exclusions does it acknowledge? What inclusions does it make?
What alliance is ‘we’, even when that ‘we’ accounts for difference?
‘Somewhere below the ideal and the clear-eyed gazes, we knew, lay a shapeless, oozing plain, riddled with other words, objects, images and behaviours: unwed mothers, the white slave trade, the film posters from Dear Caroline, ‘rubbers’, mysterious advertisements for ‘intimate hygiene, discretion guaranteed’, the covers of Health magazine (‘women are fertile only three days a month’), ‘love children’, indecent assault, Janet Marshall strangled with her bra in the woods by the adulterer Robert Avril, the words ‘lesbian’, ‘homosexual’, ‘lust’ and sins so abominable they couldn’t even be brought to confession, miscarriage, nasty pastimes, books on the Index, Tout ca parce qu’au bois de Chaville, free love, ad infinitum, a volume of unspeakable things only adults were supposed to know, the sum and substance of which were genitals and their use’.
‘whether under the bedclothes or in the lavatory, we masturbated before the eyes of all society’.
There is a particularly striking political gesture that The Years makes to speak through embodied experience about a generational struggle. Women’s history is woven into The Years; it is there in who gets to talk around the dinner table, in an account of abortion, AIDS, the introduction of the pill, the energy of ’68 and the re-emergence of secularism; it is there in brief glimpses of colonial violence and the presence of racism in domestic spaces. It is there in the gesturing towards history and its witnessing that Ernaux makes: not as an act of re-writing, but as a means to embed the personal and the public with the same affective poetics, the same weight.
Ernaux’s use of ‘we’ and her deliberate rejection of ‘I’ bring history to witness without singularity or progress, but with a sense of urgency that the experience of time throughout one’s life gives: ‘everything will be erased in a second’. The ‘we’ that takes shape in the book is slippery, partial and paradoxical; this makes it a precarious, if intriguing gesture.
Ernaux’s prose is layered and thick with social politics, but without sentimentality; it is, to reference Sara Ahmed, a cultural politics of emotion that is history itself, presented as a set of relations that reject the premise that the personal is singular. To this end, Ernaux thinks in alliance, and creates alliance, too.
In The Years, generational testimony becomes a means through which to remember, without nostalgia but rather, as a sociological endeavour; to account for the complex web of relations that make up lived experience, that tether the personal to the political, where De Beauvoir and Piaf, Villepin and Chirac, Algeria and ’68, co-exist with a gripping sense of urgency.
‘We reflected on our lives as women, We realised that we’d missed our share of freedom — sexual, creative or any other kind enjoyed by men. […] We felt capable of cutting ourselves loose from husband and kids, and writing crudely. Once we were home again, our determination faded. Guilt welled up. We could no longer see how to liberate ourselves, how to go about it, or why we should.’
The Years is as much about noise, as it is about silence; it is as much about complicity as it is about oppression. Behind the thickness of reference, the layers of memory, a dissonant collectivity thinks about its own being in time. I am familiar with this collectivity, but I am still thinking of whether it constitutes a commons.
‘The Free Market was natural law, modernity, intelligence; it would save the world’, writes Ernaux.
‘The banlieue loomed large in the popular imagination in the shadowy form of concrete blocks and muddy vacant lots at the northern end of bus routes and RER lines.’
‘People had had enough more than enough of Algeria, OAS bombs on Paris windowsills, the Petit-Clamart attack. […] They had got used t the ideas of independence and legitimacy of the FLN, learned the names of its leaders, Ben Bella and Ferhat Abbas. Their desire for happies and tranquillity tallied with the introduction of the principle of justice: decolonization, previously unthinkable. However, they still exhibited as much fear as ever, or at best indifference, in relation to ‘the Arabs’, whom they avoided and ignored. […] And the immigrant worker, when he passed a French man or a woman on the street, knew more quickly and clearly that he wore the face of the enemy’.
Experience is what constitutes history in The Years. The relations that shape the social are performed throughout the book’s accounts; at times, its paragraphs capture momentum, boredom, enthusiasm, guilt; at others, they allow memory to spill its affect. In recounting programming on Canal +, the presence of ‘new philosophers’, authority and ideology, Ernaux constantly displaces the person in their eventness: ‘Other people’s memories gave us a place in the world. ’
‘We’ are not what we remember; ‘we’ remember how we are in the world. What is an intersectional project of remembrance? How might it attest to the specificity of moments in time? Can ‘we’ be a form of alliance, or erasure?
I feel like a ghost in The Years, as if reading its episodic prose, its shifting perception of time and its slippery weight of events invites some kind of mirroring. This is false, but I cannot help it.
I think of the modernist Romanians who became French — from Tristan Tzara to Constantin Brâncuși, Eugene Ionesco, Mircea Eliade, Martha Bibescu. My generation is diasporic; it is a generation of ‘post’, of elsewhere, caught between the scaffolding left by history and that made by a form of capitalism we yet do not understand. I do not know if I can speak with my generation, but I understand the impulse for a kind of commons. ‘We’ don’t know if we should value what we’ve been told: read French authors in French; Russians in Russian. Keep your head above water. Work at it.
Whilst we read second hand copies of Proust and Baudelaire and De Beauvoir, our parents are talking over Joe Dassin or Edith Piaf in smoke filled apartments. We hold on to Tarkovsky and Resnais. We are not aware of the absences of a politics of relation that goes beyond the local, yet we participate, confused, in the image of ourselves constructed well beyond our borders, somewhere out West.
I move through the years with Ernaux’s collective act of remembrance with a sense of precarity. I think of operations of cultural inter-relation, anchored as much to cultural imperialism as to dissent and resistance.
‘We were mutating. We didn’t know what our shape would be’.
‘the book’s form can only emerge from her complete immersion in the images from her memory in order to identify, with relative certainity, the specific signs of our times, the years to which the images belong, gradually linking them to others; to try to hear the words people spoke, what they said about events and things, skim it off the mass of floating speech, that hubbub that tirelessly ferries the wordings and rewordings of what we are and what we must be, think, believe, fear, and hope. All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time, the one that made its way through the years of the distance past and glided all the way to the present.’
Somewhere in The Years, I invented a conversation about the relation between generations and borders, about the work we make to form memories that attest to the specificity and thickness of the political moment.