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‘Our memory is outside us’: introducing author Annie Ernaux

Sitting on my bookshelf is an unassuming paperback bound in a plain white sleeve, its title, The Years, emblazoned across its front, the only clue to what lies within. Between the covers is Annie Ernaux’s 2008 memoir, translated by Alison L. Strayer: a capsule of her memories between 1941 and 2006, interspersed with accounts of the radical political and cultural upheavals in her native France, that capture the complexity of womanhood in a patriarchal world. 

Brought to Anglophone audiences by Fitzcarraldo Editions, their ubiquitous minimalist design attests to the power of Ernaux’s words; any cover illustration would be superfluous, powerless to capture the sheer range of subjects, styles, and forms at play. In her hands, the minutiae of everyday life become the measure of an era; Ernaux’s words reveal that it is as much the sensation of living in a particular moment, the subjectivity of one’s social conditioning, that gives history shape. And, most powerfully, these are things we learn not from history books or statistics, but the testimony of the unheard. 

Crucial to Ernaux’s testimony are its glimpses into the reality of the female experience – a wealth of life given shape not only in arrestingly banal accounts of ‘kitchen-table abortions’ during a time when reproductive rights were too often a mere shimmer on the horizon, but in the wearying trauma of the domestic world in which a woman could be reduced to the ‘hub of a wheel that could not turn without her.’ Perhaps this is the source of her collective biography and its convergence of the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ – a reminder of how the common experiences that isolate us might also engender bonds of solidarity and resistance if we acknowledge them.

The slippery process of memorialisation itself is as integral to The Years as the memories, signalling its particular obsession with photography and the increasing mediation of female life. Warning us from page one that ‘all the images will disappear,’ Ernaux reminds us of the importance of recognising life beyond what history selects for us: what we preserve and value too will one day be gone, and we cannot inhabit the past. It is only in conversation with, and empathy for, the other that we keep memories alive and adjust the narrative. 

The Years reveals that any one life can only be understood in the light of those around it – a notion demonstrated by the collaborative force and art of its translation. Ernaux expands the realm of what the memoir can be, attesting to the interrelation – if not the interdependence – of the private and the public, the personal, and the collective. 

Image: annonysky5 sky5 via Flickr

Image is a portrait of Annie Ernaux