When this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced it included French book “The Years” by Annie Ernaux. Some people scratched their heads at its inclusion – not because of its perceived quality – but because the English version was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo with their recognizable plain white covers and blue lettering. This signifies it’s a book of essays or nonfiction (as opposed to their plain blue covers with white lettering which signifies it’s a work of fiction.) But the Man Booker International Prize is only open to fiction. What gives? Well, when “The Years” first appeared in its native French language it was classified as a novel. So apparently Fitzcarraldo asked the Booker if “The Years” could be submitted as a novel even though they originally classified it as nonfiction. The Booker accepted.
This titbit of gossip doesn’t matter, but it shows how the form of “The Years” doesn’t follow any neat classification. It’s part fiction, part essay, part autobiography. Personally, I don’t care how books are categorized or which shelf they sit on in a bookstore. What is important is how this revolutionary book conveys a sense of history, consciousness and national identity like no other book I’ve read before. Narrated in a unique collective “we” voice it follows a woman and those around her from post-WWII through to the current Information Age. In doing so it provides such a unique shifting sense of time as it speaks from the perspective of people in an era of rapid change. Also it regularly focuses on jarringly precise details that come close to poetry. Somehow it achieves the startling feat of being both intimately personal while also speaking as the collective voice of a generation. It’s extraordinary, beautiful and warrants prizes no matter what label it’s published under.
One of the absolutely fascinating things “The Years” does is openly discuss its protagonist’s desire to write a book and the struggle to find the right form for doing so. Normally such self-consciousness can be distracting, but in this book it’s very poignant how it captures our desire to catalogue our experiences and lives in a way which will both memorialise them and articulate their true meaning. In fact, in the later part of the book she explicitly states the mission of why she’s written the book in this way: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” She does this by referencing a number of photographs taken throughout the protagonist’s life and it’s through the lens of these different stages of an individual life that she touches upon the sensibility of a generation. For instance, with a picture of the adolescent girl she devises “that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.”
I also felt I could strongly relate to how she discusses the process of maturity. As we age our perception of time and our own personalities change as well. As a precocious teenager she feels: “She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say to what. The life behind her is made up of disjointed images. She feels she is nowhere, 'inside' nothing except knowledge and literature.” This beautifully captures a sense of moving from childhood to a different form of engagement with society where we become preoccupied with intellectual questions rather than just looking at the world with wonder. Later there’s an especially poignant moment where she feels her life is passing her by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” This so elegantly and tragically describes a heightened sense of self-consciousness where we see our lives like a movie or the story of a novel. And we feel that it’s being captured in some essential way, but in reality our experiences only exist on the periphery of other people’s and aren’t memorialized except in fleeting memories or photographs.
It’s so interesting how personal details are often only referred to in asides. We’re fleetingly aware the protagonist gets married, works, has children and gets divorced but these aren’t the central tenants of the plot. What this book is more concerned with is capturing the mood in stages of time and how this individual’s personality is informed by and reflects the changing society. The sense of a collective voice powerfully shows the social change and predominant ideology of a certain section of French society at different times. As she moves through the decades of the 60s and 70s there’s a growing sense of feminism and social progress. Later on there’s a critique of capitalism and material obsession in the 80s and a sense of how our relationship to world events changes with the advent of the Information Age. But there is also an expression of regressive values and xenophobia which periodically emerge in views about immigrants and Arabs. In response to acts of terrorism there are some jarring statements where its expressed “That people could murder each other over religion was beyond our comprehension. It seemed to prove that these populations had remained at an earlier stage of evolution.” Ernaux describes how these pervasive feelings of prejudice spread throughout cultures at certain times, the way in which sections of society can form elitist views and subject different cultures to a form of “otherness” which divides people in the country.
I admire how daring the author was in self-consciously plotting out the book’s structure while also creating such an enjoyable and moving reading experience. I felt I could connect with the story so powerfully though it’s so wrapped up in a time, place and people very different from my own. The novel is beautifully framed at the beginning and end with certain images which seem plucked at random but have taken on such importance for the protagonist. There are several points in the book when she recalls the memory of a woman pissing out in the open and though it was just a fleeting observation it stays with her so vividly. I love how this reflects the way we can become obsessed with certain experiences or memories which linger in our minds – not because they have any great significance but they have been defined by our point of view. They are “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone.” This shows how it’s not the fact of events in history which resound in the collective memory but our unique perceptions of them. This is one of the many brilliant ways this novel expresses so much about personality, time and the state of being.
Now that “The Years” has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (and even though I still have three other books to read on the list) I hope Annie Ernaux wins.