Back to Books
Reading is such a central part of my life. I can’t believe that I haven’t written about books for quite a while, so here goes.
When the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced every year, the chances are that, unless it’s an American year, I probably have not heard of whoever is being crowned, unless he/she writes in English. American publishing contributes to the tunnel vision by making available only a relatively small number of books in translation.
Often most of the Nobel Prize winner’s work is only translated and published after the award has been bestowed on them. That was the case, for example, with this year’s awardee, Jon Fosse, the Norwegian playwright, whose production has been described as “sprawling.” He has been translated into more than 50 languages, with only a few plays represented in English. I’ll own primary responsibility for my ignorance of his work, but I sure didn’t get much help.
Annie Ernaux, the 2022 Nobel Prize winner, fared a bit better because a prominent small publisher, Seven Stories Press, has been publishing her work here for years. Nonetheless, her work was unknown to me before the award, so I’m a little late to the dance. I just finished reading The Years, which is my introduction to her writing, so I can hardly present myself as an expert. What I know about Ernaux is what’s available online. She was born in 1940 in Normandy. Her parents were shop keepers. She became a high school teacher and worked for many years for the National Centre for Distance Learning, an online government service which provides education materials and opportunities for kindergarten through university.
Although her earliest work was fiction, for the rest of her career she has turned to memoir, producing volumes about everything from her parents, dementia, her marriage, her abortion, her divorce. The Years, which I’ll address in more detail in a minute, is a slight departure. Although it is also based on personal experience, it uses that experience to represent a sweeping account of the path followed by many in her generation – their politics, cultural preferences, reactions to technological innovation and subtle changes in values. The pronoun I never appears. The narrator speaks about we, having appointed herself the voice of her social class and its historical trajectory.
In my recent writing about the material in my “archives,” I’ve expressed my bewilderment at how much has fled from my memory, the sense of disorientation that comes from reading what you’ve written about places you’ve been, things you’ve done, people you’ve known without any recollection that you were present for any of it. Ernaux’s prodigious memory sits at the far end of the memory spectrum from all that. Either she has a freakish kind of perfect recall or, more likely, she has been a religious diary keeper and photograph collector, both of which serve as effective anchors for memory. Here’s a brief example that will give you the flavor of her approach:
We left. We settled in a new city forty kilometers outside of the Boulevard Peripherique (the circular road that defines the outer boundary of Paris), a lightweight house in a subdivision nearing completion with the colors of a resort village and streets named after flowers. The doors banged shut with a bungalow sound…. It was a quiet place at the edge of the field with a line of pylons marching across it.
Note how succinctly she captures the arrival of suburbanization in France. And note the use of WE. Although this was part of the author’s lived experience, by the use of this pronoun she has made the experience universal to everyone who was alive and at a similar stage in their lives.
This is what is, at the same time, so powerful and so frightening about the impact The Years had on me as a reader, particular one who is almost the same age as Ernaux and who therefore has marched through the same historical and cultural moments as the author, albeit in a different country and language. At the same time that I basked in the accuracy and familiarity of her observations, I felt my own individuality denied and undermined. It’s as if the grooves I’ve followed were pre-cut and unavoidable, and that they were the same grooves that everyone of my age and social class was destined to follow. Let me be clear that this may not be the reaction Ernaux intended to elicit, but it felt like a punch in the gut for me nonetheless, a product of a culture that valorizes the quest for personal uniqueness.
When we returned to New York in 1968 after three years in Mississippi, we were greeted with the masthead of The Village Voice which said something like “Join the 94,000 other New Yorkers who open the pages of The Voice every week.” You might have thought that after our time away in a place where there were few people like us in any way, we might find this message reassuring. On the contrary, it threatened us with a kind of predictable invisibility that led us to take flight, this time to New Hampshire, where we were once again distinctly different. I’ll admit that this is a poor foundation on which to build one’s identity, but, in the moment, it felt like a way to save us from drowning.
The Years is a brilliant book, which I recommend to all of you. I missed many cultural references – you will too – but we live in a time when cultural boundaries are rapidly being erased. I plan to read more of her memoirs. Yesterday, I listened to a short story of hers called “Returning” on a New Yorker Fiction podcast about a visit to her widowed mother in Normandy. Of course, it’s much more memoir than fiction, but it captures so efficiently the distance between her present life and that of her childhood. But I’m still smarting from the way The Years threatened to rob me of an essential part of my being, a belief, however unsupported, in my uniqueness. (There’s that word again.) Perhaps the intensity of my reaction is a mark of how well deserved that Nobel Prize was.