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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

The Years

Annie Ernaux

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Years

Title: The Years
Author: Annie Ernaux
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Years - US
The Years - UK
The Years - Canada
Les années - Canada
Les années - France
Die Jahre - Deutschland
Gli anni - Italia
Los años - España
  • French title: Les années
  • Translated and with a Note by Alison L. Strayer

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Our Assessment:

A : exceptional memoir of an individual/generation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 22/6/2018 Lauren Elkin
The LA Times . 18/1/2018 David L. Ulin
Le Monde . 7/2/2008 Christine Rousseau
NZZ . 14/2/2018 Beatrice von Matt
New Statesman . 18/7/2018 Margaret Drabble
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/1/2018 Edmund White
TLS . 8/10/2012 Michael Sheringham
TLS . 26/7/2019 Kate Webb

  From the Reviews:
  • "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. (...) She shows it is possible to write both personally and collectively, situating her own story within the story of her generation, without ever confusing the two." - Lauren Elkin, The Guardian

  • "Throughout The Years, first person singular is never used, even when the author is describing intimate events. Instead, Ernaux relies on a shifting flurry of pronouns: she, we, one. They blend and blur, sometimes within a single paragraph, to create a kind of intelligence or point of view that is universal and particular at once. (...) For Ernaux, photographs are central to the construction of her narrative -- as much for their illusions as for what they reveal. (...) It’s a brilliant strategy, not least because it encodes the notion of the collective, of the shared experience, into the marrow of the book." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Un roman total traversé de phrases sèches, froides et crues que vient recouvrir une patine nouvelle. Celle du temps qui passe avec ses sensations, ses souvenirs, ses joies, ses oublis et son désir farouche de sauver. Celle d'une coulée de lumière mélancolique et grave qui fait de ces Années l'un des plus beaux livres de cette singulière mémorialiste." - Christine Rousseau, Le Monde

  • "Annie Ernaux' konsequentes Unternehmen, das autobiografische Ich zu dezentrieren und den Nebensachen ein existenzielles Gewicht zu geben, verändert den eigenen Blick und wirkt lange nach." - Beatrice von Matt, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(A) powerful attempt to grasp history through "material" memory, and to describe the evolution of attitudes, events, and, as importantly, things. (...) In The Years she moves outwards towards a broader canvas, a longer and more collective viewpoint." - Margaret Drabble, New Statesman

  • "This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read; you might call it a collective autobiography. (...) Ernaux certainly isn’t a Marxist, but at the same time she sees history as sociological and the economy as determinative. (...) 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, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) monumental account of twentieth- century French social history as refracted through the life of one woman. (...) The unremitting waves of social change recorded in Les Années, with particular attention to women’s lives, sweep away the collective narratives Ernaux recalls from her childhood." - Michael Sheringham, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Years dilates the genre from a record of the intimate and subjective to an account of collective experience. It is a masterly and audacious work that dares to speak for a generation, and to do so at a time when, as Ernaux observes, photographs and films are supplanting human recollection, bringing "another form of past ... into being ... with little real memory content". (...) The Years is also notable for the weight of sociological data it contains, and for its passionate taxonomies, seizing on each new realm of human ingenuity and productivity." - Kate Webb, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Years is a creative memoir, not only of an individual but of a generation and, indeed, an entire nation. Annie Ernaux's book is autobiography, but it is written, as translator Alison L. Strayer notes, in the "je collectif" -- a nice way of putting first-person plural (which Strayer explains: "I translate mostly as 'we' but sometimes as 'one' for formality or rhythm or simply because it is the only choice that presents itself"). The book is personal, but inclusive, constantly relating to the common experience; as Ernaux-as-narrator eventually explains:

       There is no "I" in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only "one" and "we," as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time before.
       Ernaux presents the work largely in short sections, many only a paragraph long, summarizing times, periods, events, a rapid flow (rather than simply rapid-fire) chronological progression from the Second World War (Ernaux was born in 1940) to the near-present. There's a photo-album-feel to the book, with Ernaux even referring to numerous photographs in the text -- but tellingly not reproducing them, merely describing them, in some detail: this, too, is how the work as a whole comes across: not descriptions of the events etc. per se, but rather of the memory of them that lingers, the pictures no longer in front of us but still vivid -- or blurred -- in the mind's eye.
       Nearing the end, Ernaux writes about the conception and the writing of the text:
     This will not be a work of remembrance in the usual sense, aimed at putting a life into story, creating an explanation of self. She will go within herself only to retrieve the world, the memory and imagination of its bygone days, grasp the changes in ideas, beliefs and sensibility, the transformation of people and the subject that she has seen
       The book opens with the understanding: "All the images will disappear", as memory fades and is inevitably lost. The first pages are more or less a mere list of specific memories, plucked from memory -- small, often seemingly incidental, detritus accumulated over a lifetime. Then Ernaux returns to the beginning -- photos of her infant self, from before having any memory -- and proceeds from there, rolling at a steady, fairly rapid pace across the years.
       The experiences are hers, but mostly shared: from school curriculum and what they read, to food, lifestyle, topics of conversation and concern. In part, her story is one of class, too -- shifting though it was already in those times -- and her experience already diverges from that of most of her early classmates in that she was one of those who escaped hers, through education: she is one of those: "few young people luck enough to remain in school", at the lycée (and eventually university).
       She notes the post-war shifts in attitudes -- towards the past, towards technology and consumerism ("More than ever people relied upon the acquisition of things to build better lives"), towards sex (beautifully describing the legalization of the pill, and the lingering awe and fear, all around, of what it embodied -- and how: "We strongly sensed that with the pill, life would never be the same again"). She notes the advent and spread, slow and fast, of the personal landline telephone (and eventually the cellphone), television, and ultimately computers. She's very good on the mixing of the sexes, and how boys and girls, and then women and men, relate to each other, from childhood separation and differences to the fumblings of sex.
       Early on, culture -- and especially literature -- are of particular importance, and much of what is read or otherwise consumed mentioned -- while also suggesting Ernaux's own, specific literary development:
We discovered the nouveau roman of Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Sollers, and Sarraute, which we wanted to like, but it didn't offer us enough help with out lives.
     We preferred texts with words and sentences that summarized existence, our own and those of deliverymen and cleaning ladies in housing projects, from whom we set ourselves apart because, unlike them, we "asked ourselves questions."
       Politics (and social upheaval, in all its forms) shifts from limited childish awareness of adult concern for the topics to one 'we' are increasingly aware of and involved in -- but it's only one part of the life-picture: De Gaulle, Mitterand, 1968, the AIDS crisis, the fall of the Soviet Union, the 11 September attacks are significant but they all also merely meld into the larger flow; they mark kinks or changes of course, but are also simply caught up in this memory-flow. And, for example: "As the years accumulated, our landmarks, 1968 and 1981, were erased."
       And so it is throughout her story -- which is a story of how memory shifts and fades, the significance of past events weakening even as some remain bright and vivid in our minds, and sometimes the unexpected and/or seemingly incidental making the longest-lasting impression.
       The personal is kept at some distance through the use of that "je collectif", the fumblings of sex, marriage and motherhood treated largely as a common rather than purely personal experience. Amazingly, Ernaux pulls it off, in this and all the other regards: The Years isn't impersonal at all, and remains a deeply intimate work -- very much hers -- even as she speaks for her generation (and class, country, sex, etc.).
       The presentation may look sketched, so much time and substance covered, and obviously it helps if readers are familiar with post-war French conditions and history -- if the names and titles and events she mentions don't need to be elaborated on for readers to understand what she is referring too. Obviously, the layers are more effective for those who shared the experience, French readers who are closer to them. Yet there's more than enough substance here to make for a rich and very rewarding reading-experience even for those for whom this is entirely foreign.
       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.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 December 2017

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The Years: Reviews: Annie Ernaux: Other books by Annie Ernaux under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Annie Ernaux was born in Normandy in 1940. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2022.

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© 2017-2023 the complete review

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