This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read; you might call it a collective autobiography … Change happens so imperceptibly that only big events like the collapse of the Berlin Wall or 9/11 allow us to establish a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ Closer to home, photographs set a time line, as do family holidays, and both are used as markers throughout the book. But because everything, no matter how obscure or distant, is now available on the internet, we inhabit ‘the infinite present’ … Ernaux is always trying to envisage the book she will write — this very book we are reading, in a fluent, idiomatic translation by Alison L. Strayer … 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.
Ernaux’s memoir The Years, which was recently translated into English, is best understood as an account of the sociological conditions that made her previous work possible. The Years is unsentimental and distant in tone, flattening out the trajectory of Ernaux’s singular life by telling a grander narrative in which the weight of history acts upon an individual life … The result is a memoir that is humble and generous, an homage to the great French writers and thinkers of the previous century. The ‘she’ of The Years could be (and indeed is meant to be) any woman who grew up in a small town and moved into the literary world … The Years is not the testimony of a woman who once existed, but of a woman who no longer exists.
For Ernaux, photographs are central to the construction of her narrative — as much for their illusions as for what they reveal. She builds The Years around such images, as well as meals: commemorations and communal gatherings, the structures by which we arrange our lives. 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. This is essential, because The Years is not Ernaux’s story, or not her story alone. Rather, it uses the circumstances of her life as a template to uncover larger commonalities and concerns … This is work that wants to address reality as it is. That such a gesture is impossible, that we are always under the influence of our minds, our beliefs and our perceptions, is part of the point.