Wednesday 2 August 2023

Ernaux, Annie "The Years"

Ernaux, Annie "The Years" (French: Les années) - 2008

We read this in our international online book club in July 2023.

As so often, I had never heard of Annie Ernaux before she received the Nobel Prize. And that's why I always eagerly await the awards, in 99% of the case, the choice is excellent.

And it was this time. Annie Ernaux is a little older than me but I could find a lot of her experiences in my life. I think most women born in the middle of the last century share them, no matter where they're from. Maybe that's why I liked this book.

It wasn't at all what I expected. While the author grows up, she compares her life with her country, its politics, its developments, especially for women (always to slow). Her memories are haphazard, always in fragments, like a collage or a scrapbook. She uses the third person singular. I think that makes it easier for us to associate with her story, she doesn't give the impression as if she is just speaking about herself.

So, this is not just a biography about Annie Ernaux' life but a history of France after WWII. And a reminder to reflect on our own lives and what our country has done for us and to us. So I am sure it is also interesting for younger people who would like to hear about the generations before them.

I have not studied French (at university, I have learned it at school and speak it) but taken lots of classes and read a lot about French history and politics, visited the country, have friends there. So, not much was totally new for me. But I still enjoyed learning what history and society did to one single person, how she grew up the way she did and became the woman she is today. I will surely read more by her.

Some comments from the discussion:
  • "Beautiful language and picture of its time. The reading created a feeling of 'participation' or belonging, as she wrote the autobiography mostly in 'we' form.
  • I have read her biographies about her mother and father, and the abortion. With this The Years, I finally understood her writing style. I found it impressive, starting as glimpses of history, flowing, like a movie, and ended as glimpses again, the person grew along with the story also, reflecting her life in different ages, the perspective growing with the story, as she grew, her perspective of the world grew. Adding more and more observations the wider her perspective and reflection became. Much of the historical references and politics I missed. But an excellent brilliant book, for adults with some reflective skills.
  • A subjective culture history. I did not feel connected to the 'we' form of participation she tried to bring to the story, like she was taking power she doesn't have. The history interested me, but pop cultural references were not familiar to me.
  • The modern pop culture and freer availability of products came much earlier in France than in Finland, I felt.
  • The French perspective on Algeria before and in the later parts of the book felt written from a French born person, very one-sided, that turned around in the modern waves of anti-immigration feelings.
  • Language was very dense, containing a lot of information in small space of pages. Interesting to read about how influences from different parts of the world arrived and 'affected' the French population. What political news shocked them, what was passed over. What parts of Europe they observed, Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe, etc. and how the feelings and thoughts about these changed. The travelling, the Euro.
  • It was not an emotional book, but a very verbal one, she kept a distance to her history and feelings from youth, trying to keep neutral. Like a huge amount of source material (her life) summarized into this book, full of specifically chosen sayings and expressions. It made the book a beautiful experience to read or listen to. The translators were also skilled in translating these special sayings.
  • We also discussed listening to audiobooks, how we feel about it, experience it, and how we felt it affected reading this book.
  • It was interesting that she analysed her own book in the end, intention to write the book, how she wrote it, what perspective, etc."

From the back cover:

"Considered by many to be the iconic French memoirist’s defining work and a breakout bestseller when published in France in 2008.

The Years is a personal narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present - even projections into the future - photos, books, songs, radio, television and decades of advertising, headlines, contrasted with intimate conflicts and writing notes from 6 decades of diaries.

Local dialect, words of the times, slogans, brands and names for the ever-proliferating objects, are given voice here. The voice we recognize as the author’s continually dissolves and re-emerges. Ernaux makes the passage of time palpable. Time itself, inexorable, narrates its own course, consigning all other narrators to anonymity. A new kind of autobiography emerges, at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective.

On its 2008 publication in France,
The Years came as a surprise. Though Ernaux had for years been hailed as a beloved, bestselling and award-winning author, The Years was in many ways a departure: both an intimate memoir 'written' by entire generations, and a story of generations telling a very personal story. Like the generation before hers, the narrator eschews the 'I' for the 'we' (or 'they', or 'one') as if collective life were inextricably intertwined with a private life that in her parents’ generation ceased to exist. She writes of her parents’ generation (and could be writing of her own book): 'From a common fund of hunger and fear, everything was told in the 'we' and impersonal pronouns.'"

Annie Ernaux received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022 "for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory".

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.


  1. Not exactly sure how... But I've heard of this one. Sounds interesting. I'll keep a look out if I stumble across it...

    1. Well, she did receive the Nobel Prize last year and I blogged about it. I'm sure I wasn't the only one, plus they will have mentioned her in the news. So I'm not surprised you've heard the name, Kitten. I think you might like the book, comparing our lives to hers.

  2. I was curious to see how it would work for somebody who didn't grow up in France then. Glad you enjoyed it!
    I have to say, none of her other autofiction novels attract me. But I really enjoyed this one. I wrote a good size review on it back in 2019, when it got on the Man Booker International list:

    1. I totally did enjoy it, Emma. It's interesting to see how things were different in France but even more interesting how many things were exactly the same. People are the same all over the world and certain time and circumstances dicdate our lives.
      Thanks for your link.

  3. I'd never heard of her before she won either. And I'm still not at all familiar with her books.

    1. It's like that with many Nobel Prize winners, Lark. Some are already well known and there is a big hype. Others, especially when it's a woman, get forgotten as quickly as they appear. Such a shame because, especially if a woman receives the prize, she usually well deserves it.

  4. I've never heard of her either. So glad you still connected so deeply to the author's story.

    1. There are so many great authors out there, Sarah, so it's not surprising that we don't hear of some. That is one of the reasons I follow the Nobel Prize winners and some other awards that caught my eye.
      And yes, I did feel a connection to the author.

  5. I never heard of her before she won the prize. I read A Woman's Story last month, and I thought it was excellent.

    1. I hadn't either, Deb, and I speak French and the country is our neighbour, so I'm not surprised she wasn't well known in the US. Someone posted about another book about Annie's life which also seemed to be great, so I guess we found a new great author.

  6. I think this is the book that was recommended to start with in Sweden. If you had not read any of her books when she received the prize. I think I will start with this one as well, since I have not read anything by her before.

    1. You will probably like it as much as I did, Lisbeth. Enjoy.