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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.

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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Ernaux
2 CommentsPost a comment
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I tried reading Olga Tokarczuk Booker International Prize winning novel “Flights” last year. I really tried. But, although I could appreciate what an engaged and intelligent writer Olga Tokarczuk is, I just wasn’t enjoying the book's fragmented nature. So after 60 pages I regretfully shelved it to try again another day. Therefore, I was so delighted when I immediately connected much more easily with the story and protagonist of her most recent translated novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”. Here a teacher/caretaker/translator named Mrs Duszejko dwells in a remote Polish village during the dead of winter when most of the community’s inhabitants have left for the season. One snowy day she and her neighbor (who she calls Oddball) discover their only other immediate neighbor (who she calls Big Foot) dead in his home. She soon believes this is part of unusual murder plot orchestrated by the animals of the woods who are motivated by revenge. Mrs Duszejko is wonderfully eccentric. She rigorously consults astrological charts, dresses up as a wolf for the mushroom pickers’ ball and sometimes encounters the ghosts of her mother & grandmother. She surmises that “the best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.”

Unsurprisingly, the surrounding villagers and police force (who she frequently writes to with her ardent conspiracy-theories) don’t take her very seriously and consider her a kook. She’s very aware of this, but is steadfast in her opinions even though she seems to have manic-depressive tendencies. As the title of the novel would suggest, she’s prone to a lot of bleak self-reflection. At one moment she might reflect “one day we shall all be nothing more than corpses” and the next “How great and full of life the world is.” She feels somewhat like a deliciously bleak Jean Rhys character - but less drunk and unconcerned with romance. Mrs Duszejko even goes so far as to postulate “that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.” Through the lens of this idiosyncratic woman’s sensibility, we’re introduced to a way of viewing the natural world, society and human relationships from a refreshing new perspective. 

That’s not to say I agree with most of Mrs Duszejko’s cockeyed theories or philosophies and I don’t think we’re meant to buy into her ideas. For instance, she has an odd reverence for angry impulses believing that “Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.” This goes against the common adage that anger can make us blind to the truth. At another point when thinking about her neighbor who is a writer (who she calls the Grey Lady) she suggests: “people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous... such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality - its inexpressibility.” It’s enjoyable how Tokarczuksimultaneously pokes fun at the endeavour of writing and a particularly dour perspective on the literary impulse. 

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Mrs Duszejko herself is often consumed with literature as she helps her sensitive younger friend (who she calls Dizzy) to translate the letters of William Blake. Each chapter is headed by a quote from a Blake poem and it's interesting how these ideas meld with Mrs Duszejko's thoughts. She seems intent on creating theories through which this community that's dominated by patriarchal rule can exist more harmoniously with nature: “People have a duty towards Animals to lead them - in successive lives - to Liberation. We’re all traveling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.” Certain words are capitalized in her sentences highlighting when she's defining these terms for her philosophical systems of thought. In this way, she strives towards elaborate theories which no one takes seriously and this prompts her to take alternative action.

I really enjoyed this intriguing story and portrait of an idiosyncratic personality. There’s a dry sense of humour at the heart of it which I really appreciate. It's prompted me to want to go back and try reading “Flights” again because Tokarczuk has such a unique point of view.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlga Tokarczuk
2 CommentsPost a comment
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If I hadn’t read some articles in the past (such as ‘Bridging the gap: the east-west divide in art’), I’d have entirely believed the central story of Mathias Enard’s new novel. It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were invited by Turkish rulers in Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn, but neither ever journeyed to this Eastern superpower. However, “Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants” imagines Michelangelo travelling to work for the sultan in the summer of 1506. He’s embittered by Pope Julius II failing to deliver timely payments for commissions and enlivened by the thought of surpassing the talent of his rival Leonardo da Vinci whose design was rejected. During this stolen season, Michelangelo comes into contact with Muslim culture and people outside of his staunch Christian beliefs. An encounter with a mesmerising androgynous dancer also prompts him to adopt a more fluid attitude towards sexuality and gender. It’s a brilliantly told fantastical tale that plays on ideas concerning history and the power of story-telling.

Enard does a lot to support the seeming validity of his novel including letters, lists of ship cargo and sketches of Michelangelo’s proposed bridge. Like Damien Hirst’s famous ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ exhibit/documentary which assemble rare art objects he claims to have retrieved from the bottom of the ocean, Enard’s novel is an elaborate joke and entirely serious in its quest to reconstruct an imagined period of Michelangelo’s life. Art and literature not only reflect the culture they emerge from but fashion versions of how that civilization wants to be remembered. We can also retrospectively read into these artefacts myths around their creation and how we’re positioned within their lineage. So part of why Enard’s novel feels so believable is because we want to believe in this great exchange between the Renaissance and the Orient (or the European fantasy of the East.) However, it never really happened and the fact of Enard’s construct says as much as the content of his intricate fable. With this novel he forms a radical confrontation with lost corners of history and the marginalized invisible people whose stories aren’t often reflected in art.

Interspersed with descriptions of Michelangelo’s time working for The Grand Vizier are accounts by the nameless androgynous dancer that mesmerised him. This performer speaks to the artist while he sleeps in an ingenious kind of counter-narrative to “One Thousand and One Nights”. Instead of trying to lull him to sleep the dancer urgently wants to open Michelangelo’s eyes to the people he doesn’t see, what is left out of his art and the consequences of the legacy he leaves. The dancer is a slave stolen from another place entirely as are several people the artist encounters in Constantinople. Most of their stories have vanished from history just as they have lost their countries of origin. I kept thinking back to the recent novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which describes a mass kidnapping and enslavement of Icelandic people by Barbary pirates.

The dancer is aware how being slighted in story-telling amounts to an erasure of being. Imperialism functions through myth-making as much as it does through brute force. The dancer observes how “You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings and elephants and marvellous beings… But you will know, since you are here pressed against me, you ill-smelling Frank whom chance has brought to my hands, you will know that all this is nothing but a perfumed veil hiding the eternal suffering of night.” Through constructing Michelangelo’s imagined journey, Enard enables this voice from the past to cut through time with the power of a knife.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMathias Enard