The Years

Annie Ernaux

Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Published 20 June 2018
French paperback with flaps, 232 pages

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All the images will disappear:

the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, after the war, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the café

the tearful face of Alida Valli as she danced with Georges Wilson in the film The Long Absence

the man passed on the pavement in Padua in the summer of 1990, his hands fused with his shoulders, instantly summoning the memory of thalidomide, prescribed to pregnant women for nausea thirty years before, and of a joke people told later: an expectant mother knits the baby’s layette while gulping thalidomide pills at regular intervals – a row, a pill, a row, a pill. A friend says in horror, Stop, don’t you realize your baby may be born without arms, and the other answers, It’s okay, I don’t know how to knit sleeves anyway

Claude Piéplu leads a regiment of légionnaires, waving a flag in one hand and leading a goat with the other, in a Les Charlots film

the majesty of the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, who wore a flowered smock like all the residents of the old folks’ home, but with a blue shawl over her shoulders, tirelessly pacing the corridors, haughty like the Duchess of Guermantes in the Bois de Boulogne, and who made you think of Céleste Albaret as she’d appeared one night on television with Bernard Pivot

on an outdoor stage, the woman shut into a box pierced all the way through by men with silver spears – and emerging alive because it was a magic trick, called The Martyrdom of a Woman

the mummies clothed in tattered lace, dangling from the walls of the Convento dei Cappuccini in Palermo

Simone Signoret’s face on the poster for Thérèse Raquin

the shoe rotating on a pedestal in an André shop, rue du Gros-Horloge in Rouen, the same phrase continuously scrolling around it – With Babybotte, Baby trots and grows well

the stranger of Termini Station in Rome, who half lowered the blind of his first-class compartment and in profile, hidden from the waist up, dandled his sex in the direction of the young women in the train on the opposite platform, leaning against the railings, chins in hands

the guy in a cinema ad for Paic Vaisselle dishwashing liquid, cheerfully breaking dirty dishes instead of washing them while an offscreen voice sternly intoned ‘That is not the solution!’ and the man, gazing at the audience in despair, asked ‘But what is the solution?’

the beach at Arenys de Mar, next to a railway line, the hotel guest who looked like Zappy Max

the newborn flailed in the air like a skinned rabbit in the delivery room of the Clinique Caudéran Pasteur, found again half an hour later, dressed and sleeping on his side in a little bed, one hand out, and the sheet pulled up to his shoulders

the dashing figure of the actor Philippe Lemaire, married to Juliette Gréco

in an advert on TV, the father who hides behind his newspaper, trying in vain to toss a Picorette in the air and catch it in his mouth, like his little girl

a house with a vine-covered arbour which was a hotel in the sixties, no. 90A, on the Zattere in Venice

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 lavatories built above the river, in the courtyard behind the house in Lillebonne, the excrements mixed with paper borne away by the gently lapping water

all the twilight images of the early years, the pools of light from a summer Sunday, images from dreams in which the dead parents come back to life, and you walk down indefinable roads

the image of Scarlett O’Hara dragging the Yankee soldier she has just killed up the stairs, then running through the streets of Atlanta in search of a doctor for Melanie, who is about to give birth

of Molly Bloom, who lies next to her husband, remembering the first time a boy kissed her and she said yes yes yes

of Elizabeth Drummond, murdered with her parents on a road in Lurs in 1952

the images, real or imaginary, that follow us all the way into sleep

the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone

        They will all vanish at the same time, like the millions of images that lay behind the foreheads of the grandparents, dead for half a century, and of the parents, also dead. Images in which we appeared as a little girl in the midst of beings who died before we were born, just as in our own memories our small children are there next to our parents and schoolmates. And one day we’ll appear in our children’s memories, among their grandchildren and people not yet born. Like sexual desire, memory never stops. It pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history.

(...)

Considered by many to be the iconic French memoirist’s defining work, The Years is a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present, cultural habits, language, photos, books, songs, radio, television, advertising and news headlines. Annie Ernaux invents a form that is subjective and impersonal, private and communal, and a new genre – the collective autobiography – in order to capture the passing of time. At the confluence of autofiction and sociology, The Years is ‘a Remembrance of Things Past for our age of media domination and consumerism’ (New York Times), a monumental account of twentieth-century French history as refracted through the life of one woman.

The Years is a revolution, not only in the art of autobiography but in art itself. Annie Ernaux’s book blends memories, dreams, facts and meditations into a unique evocation of the times in which we lived, and live.’
— John Banville, author of Mrs Osmond

‘One of the best books you’ll ever read.’
— Deborah Levy, author of Hot Milk

‘The author of one of the most important oeuvres in French literature, Annie Ernaux’s work is as powerful as it is devastating, as subtle as it is seething.’
— Edouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy

‘Ravishing and almost oracular with insight, Ernaux’s prose performs an extraordinary dance between collective and intimate, “big” history and private experience. The Years is a philosophical meditation paced as a rollercoaster ride through the decades. How we spend ourselves too quickly, how we reach for meaning but evade it, how to live, how to remember – these are Ernaux’s themes. I am desperate for more.’
— Kapka Kassabova, author of Border 

‘I admire the form she invented, mixing autobiography, history, sociology. The anxious interrogations on her defection, moving as she did from the dominated to the dominant classes. Her loyalty to her people, her fidelity to herself. The progressive depersonalisation of her work, culminating in the disappearance of the “I” in The Years, a book I must have read three or four times since its publication, even more impressed each time by its precision, its sweep and – I can’t think of any other word – its majesty. One of the few indisputably great books of contemporary literature.’
— Emmanuel Carrère, author of The Kingdom

‘Attentive, communal and genuinely new, Annie Ernaux’s The Years is an astonishing achievement.’ 
— Olivia Laing, author of Crudo

‘A book of memory, of a life and world, staggeringly and brilliantly original.’
— Philippe Sands, author of East West Street

‘Annie Ernaux is long overdue to be recognised in Britain as one of the most important writers in contemporary France, and this edition of The Years ought to do the trick. Originally published there in 2008, it was immediately heralded as Ernaux’s masterpiece, her brief Remembrance of Things Past. It has been expertly rendered into English by Alison Strayer, who captures all the shadings of Ernaux’s prose, all its stops and starts, its changes in pace and in tone, its chatterings, its silences.’
Lauren Elkin, The Guardian

‘This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read. The Years is an earnest, fearless book, a Remembrance of Things Past for our age of media domination and consumerism, for our period of absolute commodity fetishism.’
— Edmund White, New York Times Book Review

‘A completely new form of autobiographical writing.’
— Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

‘A major European writer.’
— Times Literary Supplement

‘For those still doubting Annie Ernaux’s place in French literature – she’s right at the top – we cannot recommend reading The Years enough. The breadth of scope and stylistic control of the work offer a masterful dive into the passing of time and the memories of one woman over the course of sixty years.’
— Le Monde

‘Annie Ernaux’s work is autobiographical, discreet, withholding nothing yet enormously sensitive, precise, and minimalist. ... She doesn’t just tell stories but, better put, tells her own story above all others, yet without falling into intimate revelations whatsoever, distancing herself from subjectivity, and considers literature as a sort of ethnology, something of an “intervention” into the culture which surrounds her.’
— El País

‘Reading Annie Ernaux is a shock, an experience, especially important. With her, the private becomes political, politics is brought into conversation, and from all this explosive, up-to-date and poetic literature becomes ... a masterpiece.’ 
— Nils Minkmar, LiteraturSPIEGEL

‘The Years is a creative memoir, not only of an individual but of a generation and, indeed, an entire nation. ... Beautifully presented – and surprisingly far- and deep-reaching – The Years is wonderful both as a chronicle of post-war French life (and so many of its changes) and a more universal memory-study.’ 
— Complete Review

‘The Years is unsentimental and distant in tone, flattening out the trajectory of Ernaux’s singular life by telling a grander narrative in which the weight of history acts upon an individual life. It is not a work of autofiction but rather one of autosociobiographie, a term Ernaux coined. ... The connection between In Search of Lost Time and The Years is easy to make; both works are above all preoccupied with memory and the passage of time. ... It is this legacy that reverberates as Ernaux relates the story of a generation born too late to remember the widespread poverty of the war and into a world of rapidly changing technologies, sexual mores, and class distinctions.’ 
Bookforum

‘A masterful account of sixty years of French life, from 1940 to 2006, where personal memories, absent photos, diary entries and historical notes are fused together. ... A magnificent text which glides effortlessly from the individual to the collective.’ 
— L’Express

Born in 1940, Annie Ernaux grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. The Years won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008 and the Premio Strega in Italy in 2016. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work.

Alison L. Strayer is a Canadian writer and translator. Her work has been shortlisted twice for the Governor General’s Award for Literature and for Translation, shortlisted for the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal and the Prix littéraire France-Québec, and longlisted for the Albertine Prize. Her translation of The Years was awarded the 2018 French-American Translation Prize in the non-fiction category. She lives in Paris.

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Read an excerpt in the Times Literary Supplement