Les Années (The Years) by Annie Ernaux: An individual perspective on “collective” memory

This is an autobiography which aims to avoid “sentiment”: “The point is not to speak of the personal”. Instead, referring to herself in the third person, or writing collectively as “we”, Annie Ernaux adopts a fragmented approach which tends to distance the reader from her.

As implied by the choice of quotations at the outset, she is preoccupied with our insignificance in the scale of things – not only shall we be forgotten as individuals, but matters of great importance to us will seem trivial to our descendants, and our way of living may come to seem ludicrous, even blameworthy. This has become very topical since our materialist way of life, justified by “the need for growth” is now under criticism for destroying the planet for future generations.

Annie Ernaux’s attitude may explain her tendency to give more importance to fleeting, often banal memories than to major events in her life. The opening pages are a list of ephemeral images, some from before she was born, reflecting her insight that, influenced by our parents’ talk, we may have a kind of false memory of events which happened to other people in the past before we even existed. Many of the images are sordid or grim, and it would seem quite arbitrary – a woman urinating behind a café, the glimpse of a thalidomide victim with no arms. This sets from the outset a somewhat depressing, negative, joyless tone which is never fully dispelled.

She often seems more interested in the social history through which she has lived than in recounting the main events of her life. So, on one hand she writes a good deal about the impact of the 1968 riots, the social revolution resulting from the availability of the pill or the arrival of a consumer- driven society which also discarded the taboos and traditions which constrained our childhood until the 1960s. On the other, I never learned, for instance, whom she married, nor when and how the couple parted. She makes no allowance for the reader’s frustration if significant details are hinted at but kept hidden. She writes about a woman’s desire for divorce, mixed with fear of rupture and independence, in an abstract, generalised way. In just one poignant scene, which reveals complex feelings during what may be the last family holiday with her husband in Spain, she becomes an individual with whom one can sympathise, suggesting that a little more “sentiment” in the book would not have gone amiss.

I formed the impression of a bright girl from a narrow, working class background, who “escaped” via the encouragement of her teachers and a good education. However, breaking the taboos over sex outside marriage just a few years ahead of “the pill” and loosening of the abortion laws, she joined the ranks of those obliged to marry and start a family before they would have chosen to do so. She seemed dissatisfied with her lot as a teacher, perhaps because of her long-held desire to be a writer. Drawn to left-wing movements, uneasy over consumerism and the faceless development of new urban areas, Annie Ernaux nevertheless comes across as an “academic” socialist, actually rather contemptuous of workers in the unappealing new suburbs built for them, where she would never willingly set foot.

It is not her style to discuss explicitly her frustration over being diverted by family responsibilities from achieving the ambition to become an admired author. Instead, it is revealed when, oppressed by the annual ritual of the Christmas celebrations in which she now occupies the head of the table, she imagines the crazed action of overturning the table and screaming. Perhaps because she is a writer, a recurring theme is her panicked sense of only having one life, which she has allowed to slip by, without realising it: the living of her past life amounts to a book, but one that has not yet been written – until now.

I found the book hard-going at times. The repetition and lists of people and events are quite tedious and I was not familiar with many of the cultural references. It was fascinating to learn about, say, Ranucci, the last French citizen to be sentenced to death as recently as 1976 by guillotine, which seemed particularly barbaric and antiquated although it was originally seen as more humane than other methods, but the need to look things up continually fragmented the reading of an already disjointed text which rambles on for over two hundred and fifty pages in short sections with no chapters to form natural breaks.

Annie Ernaux has said: “This is the story of events and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence but transmitted through the “we” and “them”. The events in my book belong to everyone, to history, to sociology”.

Yet this approach only works if the events are clearly explained in context to those who did not experience them at the time, and may be ignorant of them now. Admittedly, those who can share her experiences may derive a nostalgic pleasure from being reminded of them.

Les Rêveurs (Dreamers) by Isabelle Carré: Stages of Life

Well-known award-winning French actress Isabelle Carré’s autobiography adopts a style which seems popular with French writers. It is fragmented and anecdotal, often putting more emphasis on minor rather than major incidents, fictionalising events without making it clear when this is the case. The author sometimes writes about herself in the third person, sometimes adopts the viewpoint of a third party to imagine or interpret the memory of an occurrence, even from before she was born.

So it is that she begins with a description of the unmarried pregnant teenager who turns out to be her mother. Forced to hide away alone in a Parisian flat by her hardhearted aristocratic parents, she refuses to hand the child over for adoption, and is “saved” by marriage to the young art student, son of a railway worker, who has become infatuated with her resemblance to a Fra Angelico madonna. This gives a flavour of an unorthodox upbringing in the 1970s, when conventions were breaking down anyway.

Isabelle Carré may devote a whole chapter to a stranger in the Metro who reminds her of someone she once knew, or to the behaviour of a family on the beach compared with her own, without ever explaining how she established herself as an actress, or whether she has a husband. This approach seems to stem from creative writing advice that it is better to select memories, rather than attempt to “cover everything”, since in childhood in particular, one’s impressions tend to be partial and subjective.

In interviews, she speaks of the importance she attaches to dreams, since real life without them can seem too “brutal”. She is fond of the image of one’s life as an iceberg, in which only a small part is visible. Another preoccupation is the eternal tantalising question of “what might have been”, inspiring her to play with a situation and develop it along a different path from what really happened. Yet in what is essentially an autobiography we are not told when this is the case.

French readers will no doubt gain a warm sense of nostalgia from the frequent cultural references. I found looking them up a good way of maintaining my interest in a narrative which often seemed quite tedious, despite some dramatic incidents. So it was that I discovered the “Les Neiges du Kilimanjaro”, rated one of the best French pop songs of the 1960s. The author’s tendency to express her feelings in snatches from past pop songs or quotations from plays became rather trying after a while, also giving the sense that she conceals herself behind the words of others, that is, forever acting.

Clearly a highly imaginative child, she injured her leg badly jumping out a window in an attempt to fly. Was the overdose which landed her in a psychiatric hospital aged fourteen, a result of “nature” or dysfunctional “nurture” or a mixture of the two?

Her mother seems clinically depressed, perhaps through a combination of her own mother’s neglect, living in an apartment with a red décor and large collections of African masks, and a husband who comes out as a homosexual when it is still barely legal. This culminates symbolically in his painting the outside of the front door with the naked figures of two men, running to freedom along a beach, which unsurprisingly arouses the neighbours’ wrath even more than his elder son’s loud piano-playing.

Isabelle seems to harbour resentment against her mother’s coldness and lack of maternal feeling, and show more of a rapport with her father with whom she chooses to live when her mother eventually insists that he leaves. Alone aged fifteen in the flat he buys her, holidaying with him in situations where she is the only female present with his gay friends, could have destabilised her further, but perhaps simply fed her versatility as an actress, finding consolation by immersing herself in acting out imaginary lives.

Following up the reference to her father’s design of a spherical record player used in a film starring Serge Gainsbourg, revealed that her father is the well-known French designer, Alain Carré. Since in later life he went on to run a successful company employing 90 people, one wonders how he reacted to her descriptions of his previous Walter Mitty-type loss-making projects, his quest for happiness with a male lover, his imprisonment for fraud, and subsequent alcoholism.

In interviews, Isabelle Carré appears somewhat intense, but charming, charismatic and humorous. Admitting that she wrote the book primarily for herself, is discussing it really just another role for her to play? Quoting a playwright she explains, “J’écris pour qu’on me rencontre”, but to what extent is this true? How much of her do we actually “meet”?

The Pianist of Yarmouk by Aehem Ahmad: “There’s always hope”

This is the revealing and moving memoir of a young musician who captured media attention in the west during the earlier part of the civil war in Syria, by dragging a beaten-up piano into the rubble of Yarmouk, the besieged suburb on the outskirts of Damascus, originally a large camp for refugees from Palestine in the 1940s. With help from foreigners, but at considerable personal risk, he succeeded in making the dangerous journey to Germany in 2015, where he was eventually reunited with his immediate family, and now continues to perform music about Syria to inform and remind us of the ongoing crisis there.

Ghosted by a couple of writers, the book is not particularly well-written and some details are unclear and at times hard to credit, but that is outweighed by the vivid first-hand account of life in Syria plus his resilience and flashes of humour even in adversity.

His father’s blindness and frequent need of him as a guide created a stronger bond than is usual between Syrian fathers and sons. A regular violinist at weddings, the father had greater ambitions for Aeham to become a classical pianist, going to extraordinary lengths to help him, against the odds, to gain a place at the prestigious music school dominated by children of the wealthy, going on to cajole, even bribe him, to continue practising through his rebellious teenage years. This gave him the skill which would one day save him from the hell of the civil war.

Initially impoverished, the family manages to achieve a brief level of prosperity through manufacturing and selling musical instruments, until the war forces the boarding up of the shop which is eventually blown to smithereens. Ironically, it seems to be the reluctance to abandon their instruments which keeps them in Yarmouk until they are caught up in the deadly siege.

I particularly liked the continual insights into life in Syria before it was disrupted by the war: the continual violent arguments between Aeham’s normally rational mother and her sister-in-law in the house they shared as an extended family. Despite skiving off high school to play popular music and compose in the shop (why wasn’t it open?), and insisting on marrying when his parents consider he is too young, Aeham still follows the custom of asking them to find him a suitable wife, and keeps to the tradition of not seeing their choice Tahini prior to their engagement – until curiosity brings her to their music shop to check him out, after which they arrange clandestine meetings.

From the outset there is pressure not to step out of line: Aeham is good at creating a sense of fear, as when he can tell from his father’s body language that the man whose piano they are tuning is dangerous – he turns out to be the ruthless and corrupt secretary of defence and close confidant of Assad’s father.

The tone darkens dramatically with the onset of war: the risk of arrest or a beating at one of the arbitrary checkpoints set up by rival military groups; the sniper fire which punctuates Aeham’s music as he accompanies a band of children singing; the piano, defiantly painted the colours of the Palestinian flag, set alight by a bigoted ISIS soldier because “ owning musical instruments is an unforgivable sin”. All this has to be endured on a diet of red lentil falafel and clover.

Although the dramatic account of Aeham’s eventual escape, involving exploitation by people smugglers and chains of middle men both sides of the political divide, has become an all too familiar theme, there is an authentic ring to his frequently breaking down in tears en route, or believing that he was about to meet his end, because of the surreal, inhuman stress of it all, together with his subsequent sense of guilt over having escaped and mourning for a past life, despite being in the safety of Germany.

This book is important reading for those unaware of the tragedy of Syria and Palestine. It is also worth viewing on YouTube some of the videos of Aeham playing.

“L’Insoumise de Gaza” by Asmaa Alghoul & Sélim Nassib: “When there’s no choice but to rebel”

L'Insoumise de Gaza (Documents, Actualités, Société) (French Edition) by [Nassib, Sélim, Alghoul, Asmaa]

The eldest of nine, Asmaa Alghoul grew up in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah where her grandparents had fled after their land was taken by the Israelis. I found it hard to “place” her family; although, as a refugee, she received handouts at school, her father was clearly educated, at times holding down a professional post abroad and teaching at a Gaza university, while her uncles were much more fundamentally religious, supporters of Hamas, some holding quite senior posts. Encouraged to ask questions by her relatively broad-minded father but chastised by the uncles for her lack of piety, by her mother for not doing her homework and her teacher for misbehaving at school, a combination of these factors must have engendered her unusually stubborn, resilient and persistent stance, a prerequisite for a female journalist in the tough, chauvinist environment of the Gaza strip.
Having left an Islamic university because it was too strict, and a less academic, more secular one when her course folded through lack of students, Asmaa quickly found work writing for a newspaper about the plight of Gaza and Palestinian women’s rights, going on to win a succession of international prizes for the courage and quality of her work.

She demonstrates in quite an extreme form the dilemma of the woman who wants to combine marriage and motherhood with a career which involves great commitment flexibility, even danger in the sense of risking arrest and torture for attending a demonstration, or death when trying to cover an Israeli attack. She tends to let her “heart rule her head” in choosing husbands, only to find them to be not as open-minded as she thought. Perhaps she is a little blinkered when it comes to admitting her own fault in the failure of a relationship. She certainly seems to have suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her son, both her children being largely brought up by her own mother, it seems.

She gives a vivid impression of life in the Gaza strip, surprising me at first with her “plague on all your houses” attitude to the various opposing groups who confine the inhabitants in a vice. As a child she refused a sweet from a well-meaning Israeli soldier, “because it contained poison”. Some of her earliest memories were of Israeli soldiers attacking with stones and teargas the house of her extended family, beating her uncles for their connections with Hamas. Years later she was to tell a Jewish American lecturer at Columbia that he was the first Israeli to teach her something.

Yet she also condemns the corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Organisation, claiming that they pocketed large sums sent by naïve European and American groups to help the Palestinians. One of their number, she claims, even supplied the concrete to build the infamous wall protecting Israel.

Dispelling my belief that Hamas was at least democratically elected to represent Gaza, she describes how they manipulated the system to get enough votes to win. She also describes their repressive fanaticism, driven by control freakery rather than based on any doctrine, in which a woman is continually harassed and manhandled for failing to cover her hair completely with a headscarf, arrested for sitting on the beach fully clad, but with her clothing moulded to her body after bathing in the sea, or tortured for attending a demonstration.

As is no doubt vital for one’s sanity and endurance, there is much humour in the book, as when she manages to flout the taboo on cycling, using the company of some European wars waged by the Israelis in the early C21, culminating in the broken ceasefire of 2014 in which several members of her family were killed, mostly innocent civilians. She writes vividly of her fear of being killed, the sudden and arbitrary nature of death: of her newborn twin nephews, one died and the other survives, but to be haunted by this fact for the rest of his life. Then there is the strange depression which comes in the aftermath of bombardment when all tension is abruptly removed and one can relax. Although she appreciates that all wars must end in peace between enemies, so sees the futility of retaliation, she describes the urge to do so “because our blood is not as cheap as you think”.

No one escapes her fearless, pithy, no-holds-barred analysis, so it is obvious why she has attracted such fierce attacks in return. “What a region!” she writes, in which Islamic State kills people indiscriminately in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam, whereas Israel does so in the name of its Promised Land. She ends this book on a positive, defiant note but the prospect seems bleak in reality.

Some prior knowledge is needed to appreciate this book fully, although I suppose it could equally well inspire a reader to go away and gen themselves up on an injustice which is allowed to persist through widespread indifference compounded by ignorance.