Two books by two important French writers appear simultaneously in the English language. Furthermore, both volumes take up French history of the last 50 years, with a focus on growing self-awareness of the working class in France. Annie Ernaux is a prominent French writer, known for her memoirs A Man’s Place (1984) and A Woman’s Story, works dedicated to her parents. Didier Eribon is a professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, who has published noted works on Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. The theme of this last book is taken up again in the latest publication. What is more, Eribon is an admirer of Ernaux’s work, and often cites it in the present volume.
Walter Benjamin has written about Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot that it resembles a massive crater. The same metaphor illuminates Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years, and on an even more explicit level. This work, which was received with great praise in France 10 years ago, and now again on the occasion of its English translation (Les Années [Paris: Gallimard, 2008]; translated 2017, Seven Stories Press, now with Fitzcarraldo Editions), attempts to narrate the very flowing away of time by taking a very specific attitude towards words, events, objects, and people. In this sense, Ernaux’s book puts itself before a metaphysical task. For this reason, there is a consistency to Ernaux’s arresting decision to write in the third person plural “we”—fittingly described by Lauren Elkin in The Guardian as a “choral we” or—and in the singular “she.” Elkin’s observation is well put because it brings out how this entire narrative is like a chorus, repeated after each verse of a song or lyric, providing its pivotal momentum. Accordingly, The Years develops a personal story to attain a general or collective significance: It becomes the story of France of the last 50 years.
In contrast, Eribon goes exactly the other way. Eribon, an established sociologist, uses his academic vocabulary, the language of abstraction and generalization, to bring out his highly personal story. Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims [Paris: Fayard, 2009]; translated 2013, Semiotext(e), now with Allen Lane) relates Eribon’s personal journey from his childhood in Reims to his uncertain steps onto an academic career. On this journey, he feels constantly the pull of two opposed sides of his identity: his working-class background and his homosexuality. Eribon himself notes how he has been able to make an intellectual concern of homosexuality, writing successful books like Insult and the Making of the Gay Self precisely by rejecting and even denying his class origins. One coming out coincides with another closeting. Compared to the metaphysical aspiration of The Years, Returning to Reims can be read as an introduction to sociology, to the understanding of truths that envelop us whole.
The Years’s special quality, its resemblance to Benjamin’s crater, asserts itself from the beginning:
All the images will disappear: the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the café.
A little bit further, this preamble pauses, to commence another series: “Thousands of words, the ones used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order, make the heart beat and the sex grow moist, will suddenly be nullified.” This preamble of the novel consists of a series of about 50 short aphorisms, all of whom, some stronger than others, display a way of folding away in themselves. None of these aphorisms is dressed up as a full sentence. They are not capitalized, and there is no full stop at the end of any of them but the very last. In that sense, they are less than statements. They mean to prepare the reader for what comes next, the story of the particular way in which time flowed over or through France these past 70 years.
The difficult, aphoristic folding away of statements is achieved by presenting the component on which the aphorism opens as married to something heard in a very minor key, or very singular, as to shut it down or sidetrack it and show how its potency runs out. Here is another one:
…on an outdoor stage, the woman shut into a box pierced all the way through by men with silver spears—and emerging alive because it was a magic trick, called The Martyrdom of a Woman.
In this case, the formula works so well because it connects the history of patriarchy and its abuses to a dramatic title, but only through a provincial scene of entertainment, of folklore, even, and thus by way of an exception on this history. It heightens the horror of patriarchy precisely because this formulation—like the others—does not attain the rank of statement: It enacts the very suppression it describes.
Ernaux soon departs from this aphoristic style. She then goes on to describe the experience of her generation: the poverty of rural Normandy after World War II, the hatred of Germany, and the way in which time, for the children, was experienced as received, as a given thing. Time and history were present in the stories told by the generation of the parents, and invariably, these stories would involve the occupation. Indeed, this part of the book articulates time as some kind of sediment, something washed up on the shore. Time has as memory a physical dimension to it that is absolutely evident to the children: “Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects.”
The children simply take this dimension of time for granted. Yet over time they discover their capacity to answer to it, even if they remain for the most part silent witnesses. In fact, Ernaux reports that only as teenagers they become gradually become a partner in conversation to their parents and other grown-ups:
In the mid-1950s, at family meals, teenagers remained at the table. They listened but did not speak, smiled politely at the jokes that were not funny, the approving comments whose objects was their physical development, the salty innuendos designed to make them blush, and answered only the cautious questions about their schoolwork.
Gradually, Ernaux’s generation awakens to the life of time, its characteristic of moving along with human beings—although never in sync: There is always a discord between the pace of history and the generation that occupies it, and The Years relates the experience of this dissonance.
Compared to Eribon’s Returning to Reims, there is the strong similarity of people discovering at a young age that their education has already exceeded that of their parents, or indeed their entire milieu. This presents them with a crisis of authority: Within the household, they cannot make knowledge-based claims that would undermine the position of the parents, the father most of all. As Ernaux’s parents were shopkeepers at a time when almost everyone was feeling the aftermath of the War, her experience of the class struggle appears relatively mild. The lower middle classes, and a context of general scarcity, help to mediate her awareness of class of identity. Her character, “she” or “we” is aware of being in school together with the children of doctors and schoolteachers, but is always able to reconcile, or at least make sense of these conflicting worlds. Eribon, however, describes his background as extremely poor. There exists an absolute separation between his, and the middle class. This separation can only be traversed by pretending to be someone he is not. In turn, for Ernaux’s generation, and more importantly for women the main predicament of being a young adult is the inexistence of contraception in the 1950s in France.
The same class distinction and difference for their respective generations mediates access entry to intellectual debates, books, and representatives. For Ernaux, these come as a matter of course: studying to be a teacher, listening to the radio news, and generally making her way into the world means for her a pre-existing acquaintance with de Beauvoir and Sartre, and the rest of French intelligentsia that follow their trail. When les nouveaux philosophes appear on the scene in the early 1970s, they arouse only a mild and fleeting interest:
Unlike Sartre, who was said to be senile and still refused to go on TV, or de Beauvoir with her rapid-fire diction, they were young. They challenged our consciences in words that we could understand and reassured us of our intelligence. The spectacle of their moral indignation was entertaining, though it was not clear what they were trying to do, other than discourage people from voting for the Union of the Left.
It is interesting that in Ernaux’s account, philosophy—but also art and often cinema—is talked about as an integral element of the general French culture (there is scattering of namedropping throughout The Years, indicating an easy and self-evident familiarity with high culture). Indeed, Ernaux skips those thinkers whose rigor is much more respected in academic circles today, like Foucault and Derrida—exactly thinkers of the caliber that Eribon ends up close to. For instance, Eribon’s intellectual debt to Sartre, in terms of his coming of age as a philosopher, is massive, as he Sartre is a lasting presence when he describes his formative years. Nonetheless, he is keen to point out, in his biography on Foucault, how young philosophers of the latter’s generation admired Merleau-Ponty even more because Merleau-Ponty “was more academic, more rigorous, less ‘in vogue’, and, above all, took more risks in his attempts to open philosophy up to contributions from the human sciences.”
It seems that Eribon shares Foucault’s attitude, that philosophy or academia is always in need of another kind of legitimacy, as it, from Eribon’s perspective, cannot be a part of a culture as a whole. Indeed, for Eribon, all of this, the intelligentsia, was a strange land from the outset, to be taken only by an utmost effort of will and determination, and not without a measure of self-denial and the pretence of being something other than he was. The very activity of reading Marx or Sartre was revolutionary and borderline insubordinate for Eribon as an adolescent. This break constitutes his experience of embarking on an academic life, leaving his native milieu behind him and explains his affinity for Foucault taking leave of Sartre at the end of the 1940s: a thinker with the setup of Eribon is never easy with his environment and must always take the avant-garde.
Ernaux’s character, navigating the predicaments of sexual autonomy, family life and its disruption, and financial independence, appears simply to lap up the world of philosophy. Her social mobility is constrained by other factors or by exceedingly more factors at the same time, not permitting of one or two significant ones. For Eribon, being gay and being working class together set up the north and south for his entire life to span.
This process, for Eribon, is far from completed. In fact, he notes how this book is yet another step in his journey of removing himself from his origins:
I’m painfully aware that the way I have arranged the writing of this book assumes—both about me and my readers—that we are socially distant from the circumstances and from the people who still live the kinds of lives I am attempting to describe and to reconstruct. I am equally aware how improbable it is that any of those people could end up reading these pages. When people write about the working class world, which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. This happens even if they write with the goal of exposing and critiquing the very status of social illegitimacy to which these people are relegated over and over again, because in writing they take a necessary critical distance because they have left it behind, and with it comes the position of a judge or an evaluator.
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940, Didier Eribon in 1953. Both spend their upbringing in the North of France. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulties for women of her generation, Ernaux relates a vastly more open social reality from the one that appears in Eribon’s pages. That same difference, however, coincides with their slightly differing social backgrounds, from the lower middle classes and the working classes. Furthermore, to highlight this difference does a disservice to The Years, which is not about class and sociology. It is about time, and how sexuality can take its pulse.
“Near the end of her book, Ernaux presents her methodology and her instrument: “the palimpsest sensation.” In these final pages of The Years, the protagonist—“she,” “we”—describes a relationship with a younger lover. Although the relationship appears exclusively sexual, it is to the protagonist least of all about sex. Instead, sex becomes an antenna for reconnecting to a lifetime of experiences. It is because she does not belong to this man’s generation, his life and his world, that during their rendezvous she is displaced onto the span of her life as a whole. Her body in these moments attains the capacity of feeling sensations from decades ago, as it records once more the sensations of her life, that become manifest this time as their duplicate: the palimpsest sensation.
There are very moving pages, particularly in the description of the closeness of the lover as recording her former bodily closeness to her mother. This kind of reconciliation is only hinted at in Eribon’s book, in its consistent but implicit reverence for his mother, who he describes as a very intelligent person, and someone who craved education but was always in a position too disadvantaged to get it. This woman gets a couple of great lines, for example about her son’s prejudice towards his own class, as well as the final say when it appears that Eribon has arrived in the world of academia.