by Annie Ernaux
Seven Stories Press, 2017
A memoir is a snapshot of a person’s life. An autobiography is an attempt to relate the trajectory of a whole life. What is a “wemoir?”
Maybe it is a new genre. That of telling one’s own life story in terms of “we” as a collective, of a generation. That is what Annie Ernaux has done in her book, The Years. Our book group discussed it last week.
Ernaux, 82 years old, is the first French woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The 2022 prize brought her fame outside her native country. She has long been known there for her autobiographical books, in which she is brutally honest about her own life, her marriage, her affairs, her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and her sense of being a witness to her own life.
Born to a poor family in Normandy, Ernaux was blessed with a strong mother and an apparently kind, but not as forceful, father. The mother, whose great ambition when she was young was to be a shop girl, rose above her own expectations to run a grocery store and café. This enabled her only child to receive a convent education, then go to university, and move into the middle class.
It was not easy. When Annie worked at a summer camp as a teenager, she discovered her “otherness”. She’d never taken a shower or a bath and didn’t know how to act around other people. It did not rankle so much as confuse her. This sense of apartness seems to have followed her throughout her life, and the reader feels she is an immigrant in her own country.
The theme of inequality, immigrants, and what to do about them ( they are not, apparently, accepted willingly into French society) and the rise of consumerism make up the core of The Years. It is a meditation on time, of how we are all products of our culture at a particular point in history. Throughout the book, Ernaux uses the word “we” rather than “I“, and “she” or “her” to describe herself. She’s unique, but she wants to tell the story of her generation. She does this so deftly, describing events in a few words as she encompasses 70 years of French life. She repeatedly goes back to the events of 1968, a seminal moment when her generation rebelled.
Toward the end of the book, describing a Christmas lunch with her sons, their partners, and a grandchild, she ruminates that they feel that their lives are more relevant than hers. It is a universal experience. Ernaux opens the window to her life, but also to ours.