Ernaux travels through French history pivoting on the objects, images, words, dinner tables, and clothes of her personal memory.

Ekaterina Panikanova

The Years by Annie Ernaux is first and foremost a remarkably original text. Ernaux, who has penned an autobiographical text before, has constructed an autobiographical narrative that she considers to be rather impersonal. There is more than one singular first-person pronoun, “I”, in the book. There is only “we” and on [French third person indefinite personal pronoun] in French. Ernaux travels through French history pivoting on the objects, images, words, dinner tables, and clothes of her personal memory. The details of her life story starting from 1940s onwards, as a young girl who grew up in a working-class family in Yvetot –a small city in Normandie– are presented together with the transformation of provincial France, alongside Paris and its banlieues at a later stage. The narrative allows us to trace how food, etiquette, bathrooms, understanding of sexuality, objects, words, language, books, family relationships, womanhood, and manhood have transformed, and how this transformation was experienced – in such detail that is only attributed to social historians. Ernaux examines the rhythm, recurrences, things  accepted along the way, and ways of doing things in daily life: she intertwines walking, sitting down and standing up, speaking, laughing, calling for someone on the street, eating and drinking, the way objects are held, bodies, voices, stories –in short, all the everyday practices that make up provincial France–with the coming-of-age story of a little girl. Here, I must commend Siren Idemen’s brilliant translation, it’s definitely a treat to read her translation of this text.

In my opinion, the most powerful part of the book is about Ernaux’s childhood, youth, and young adulthood, which correspond to the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Ernaux presents the ways in which she experienced the crucial political turns she has witnessed, such as the fall of the agrarian society model of provincial France based on farm-households and the rise of industrialism, wars in Algeria and Vietnam, effects of consumerism and free market economy, transformation in gender relations, radical spirit of women’s emancipation movement, enfeeblement of the hegemony of the Catholic Church, the subversive effects of May 68. All this transformation is told alongside the important turning points in Ernaux’s life since she was 4 years old. As a daughter of a white working-class family, she manages to leave her hometown, and by means of education, she leaves the  world of her poor and uneducated family behind. In parts about her childhood and adolescence, Ernaux has done an incredible job of not only describing how suffocating it must have been to grow up as a little girl in provincial parts of the country during the 40s and 50s; but also, how young women rejected the suffocating climate of the provincial France– created by the family institution– with their bodies and confronted it to be liberated from it. These parts of the text have a calm tone that is able to fully convey the soul of the moment where the family institution –does not necessarily use brute physical force against girls and women– creates a suffocating environment by its conservatism, misogyny, everyday oppressive practices, and constant (re)delineation of what is permissible or not; and where young women act in a myriad of ways to break loose from this hell, including reading in general and erotic books, imagining another world possible, masturbating, spending time with their girl-friends, and attempting to keep up with the “modern world”. It’s a delight to read about the ways in which young women –and men– tried to resist, bend, erode, and fight against a regime full of secrets, boundaries and barriers dictated by the provincial family –as an institution. Ernaux wrote: “One possible summary of the life of a provincial teen: going up to town, daydreaming, bringing oneself to orgasm and waiting.”

I believe the disappointment and discontent of a young intellectual woman who found herself married with children in the 50s and 60s –that is rights before 1968– while she has been dreaming of another kind of life, is told from a feminist perspective with striking details and all its nuances. We understand well the emotional state she is in. Once she had a child, she wrote “I am petite bourgeoise who has arrived” in her diary. As a woman who works as a teacher, drops her child off at daycare, and wakes up to the sound of the electric shaver, she is bored of the familiarity and predictability of this life as much as she holds on to it. She is afraid of not being able to pen her first novel, and not leading a life that is built on genuine ideas– “I am afraid of settling into this quiet and comfortable life, and afraid to have lived without being aware of it.” Here, I would like to point out that modernist novels written throughout the 20th century have been concerned with unveiling the violence exerted by the family and the institution of the family, and its regime of secrets and suffocating climate. While reading Ernaux, I could not help but think about authors like Rachel Cusk and Vigdis Hjorth, who transgress the limits of autobiography and fiction in a similar fashion; and whether the contemporary form in which family is/can be confronted is these kinds of autobiographical texts.

I find two pivotal points in the book extremely capturing. First is May 1968, and the mobilization initiated by the women’s liberation movements in the 70s. Ernaux describes very well the multidimensional impact of the ‘68 movement and the women’s liberation movements, that is to call to protest, as well as the political impact and power of street protests and the radical rejection of the current state of affairs engulfing different spheres of society. We feel the excitement surrounding this political moment in the text, through the hope and liberation/freedom women feel when they are standing together –despite the desperation that takes over them when they return home–, because the totality of existing patriarchal norms and relations are being questioned, the roots of a world in which women are seen worthy of less is shaken, the sources of shame are abolished and a new discourses around pleasure is getting into circulation. Despite that this excitement is followed by the commercialization of the ‘68 riots and how its fall led to building middle class lives, as well as how the political promises of women’s liberation movements have created new depressing subjectivities and sexualities, it’s great to witness how that first moment of hope was experienced. One of the most illustrative examples corresponds to a period when abortion was illegal in France. Ernaux describes the protest following the declaration of 343 women, who announced and reported themselves that they had abortions in a newspaper: “One Saturday afternoon thousands of us marched on the spot with banners, under the blazing sun. We raised our eyes to the cloudless sky of the Dauphiné and told ourselves it was up to us to stop, for the very first time, thousands of blood-soaked deaths of women. So, who could forget us?”

Let’s talk about the part I don’t like about this book. The “we” employed in the narrative, and the story told in the book refers to the white, center-left, and intellectual/educated sectors of society. This is surely normal since it’s a personal, autobiographical text. But, what made me uncomfortable politically was that not only migrants but also Arab and Black French who had been in France at least for a generation do not somehow feature in Ernaux’s “we”. While the book exposes and critiques racism, xenophobia, and colonial sentiments of white France, which are usually normalized and rendered invisible, the “we” employed in the story is so disconnected from and positioned outside of the banlieues, or Algerian and Black French communities that the post-1980s portion of the story turns into melancholic requiem –of the white French community– for what is lost from the ’68 movement. The political subject of the The Years –who was as passionate about the riots of 1968 and women’s liberation movements as she was able to recognize and confront her boundaries, even when these efforts did not result in her transformation– is not able to develop a nuanced perspective on the struggles of French communities with black, migrant, or Arab backgrounds. There is nothing about these struggles that excites Ernaux.  A rather peculiar political existence, one that is “self-aware but not interested to amend itself”, emerges from this body of text which, on one hand, problematizes the racism and colonialist apathy of the white, provincial population in which its author grew up; on the other hand, it fails to look at the politicization experience of French society with migrant backgrounds post-1980s.  This last part also makes the narrative weaker, and less interesting. Ernaux’s melancholia and sense of loss dominates the final chapters. She positions herself as angry at the speed of the “new” and the ways of the digital world, and her criticisms start to fall into the trap of partial cynicism. It is inevitable to find melancholia in a text concerned with time, where “she would like to capture the light that suffuses faces that can no longer be seen and tables groaning with vanished food, the light that was already present in the stories of Sundays in childhood and has continued to settle upon things from the moment they are lived, a light from before. Save”. But if this text also claims to remind that “the hubbub that tirelessly ferries the wordings and rewordings of what we are and what we must be, think, believe, fear and hope”, it is necessary to remember that much of that hubbub is coming from the banlieues, from the daily ordinary and political voices, bodies, experiences, and struggles of French people with black, Arab, and migrant backgrounds. It seems that any political/personal narrative about France that is deaf to this living buzz –the hubbub rising from the streets, banlieues, metro lines and RER B (frequently mentioned in the text); on the way to work or a protest; while chatting, drinking, praying; while creating a new and political language in French, getting angry, or having a good time– is condemned to suffering from too much melancholy.

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

Translator: Deniz İnal

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan


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