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”?

“Cheri” by Colette: a question of age.

Cheri (Vintage Classics) by [Colette]

Although I read this in French, I bought the English version featured here to help me cope with some of the more obscure passages in the original French, and as a translation it captures the spirit of the classic novel.

With her wry wit, strong sense of place, concise, vivid descriptions and minute dissection of her characters’ shifting emotions, Colette was a talented writer, even if her novels now seem dated, perhaps in particular this novel set in the Paris of the idle rich around 1900. Too handsome for his own good, both neglected and indulged from birth by his ghastly mother Charlotte, a courtesan who has done well for herself, Chéri (aka Fred!) has for six years been the lover of her rival and friend of a sort, the beautiful, high class “tart with a heart”, Léa, twenty-four years his senior. So what will happen when Charlotte marries him off to a “suitable” young girl? Does Chérie love Léa mainly as the caring mother he never had? Does Léa love Chérie as a means of keeping at bay the physical decline into old age which she does not want to face? Is this the tragedy of two people who, beneath all the banter and bickering, have a genuine love for each other, more than just intensely physical, yet the great difference in their ages makes it impossible for them to make a permanent life together?

I found this quite hard to read in the original French, because of the old-fashioned vocabulary relating to the past culture and fashions of the day, so had to resort to an English translation to check on a few points. For instance, “pneumatiques” turned out to be the “petits bleus” telegrams sent round Paris in metal tubes (via the sewers!).

Apart from Léa and the unfortunate young wife Edmée, the characters are fairly unappealing, not least the petulant, capricious Chéri, clearly unfulfilled, bored and desperately in need of some useful occupation. The dialogues are often quite funny, and the emotionally charged climax in which Léa and Chéri finally express themselves honestly is powerful and revealing, but there is a shallowness to their lives which is rather depressing. Since Colette’s own life was clearly often driven by strong physical passions, I have probably not interpreted the book in the way she had in mind.

An intriguing footnote is that Colette herself had an affair in her late forties with a teenage step-son, I believe after having written this book which perhaps enacts a long-held personal fantasy. This relationship apparently inspired “Le Blé en Herbe, which I would recommend more. The work by Colette which I most admire is the semi-autobiographical, “La Naissance du Jour”.

“Un brillant avenir” by Catherine Cusset: “bitter sweet”

Un brillant avenir (Folio t. 5023) (French Edition) by [Cusset, Catherine]

As an opening hook, the portrayal of Helen, an elderly woman frustrated by her husband’s dementia but traumatised by his sudden death and apparent suicide, may not seem at all compelling. It turns out to be a family saga, with the focus on Helen, née Elena in post-war Communist Romania and destined to marry Jacob, a handsome young Jewish man, in the teeth of the ingrained anti-semitism of Ceaușescu’s bigoted, inward-looking regime, which drives her to seek emigration first to Israel and then the United States to obtain a better future for her adored only son, Alexandru.

Written in a clear and simple style, with a strong focus on the minutiae of daily life, this novel feels very authentic, but too often also banal, even boring. This contrasts with the complexity resulting from the decision to alternate chapters back and forth in time, which proves a little disjointed and confusing at times, giving the reader the benefit of additional insight into events, but at the cost of destroying some of the potential for dramatic tension.

Although Helen is not a particularly likeable character, given to emotional, hysterical, manipulative behaviour, the author develops a detailed character study which enables one to empathise with her at many points in the story and to understand the forces which have shaped her. The same applies to her French daughter-in-law Marie, much more laid back and unconsciously thoughtless with a sense of entitlement born of a more relaxed and free upbringing. The tension between the two women and the relationship which they eventually achieve weaves a strong thread through the narrative.

For me, this reads like a series of short stories based on the same characters, which gradually caught my interest through a few striking incidents. For instance, there is the irony in how, having battled and plotted to get married, Helen and Jacob commit the same error as her parents in trying to prevent their son Alexandru’s marriage to Marie, because she is French, so it is assumed will take their son away to a distant land where he will find it harder to realise his “brilliant career”. Then there is the poignant moment when Helen, in the violent grip of labour, waits in a taxi en route for the hospital while her mother takes an inordinate time to appear: it as this point that Helen decides that her adopted mother cannot, as rumour has it, be her birth mother, since the latter would never let her suffer in this way. Another striking scene is when, having taken advantage of Jacob’s Jewishness to escape to Israel, Helen realises that her precious son is destined for a spell in the Israeli army, where her overactive imagination leaves him in no doubt that he will either be killed or maimed. There is also a convincing and moving portrayal of widowhood.

The novel seems to contain “jewels” of insight and observation, together with some realistic experiences, set in a somewhat tedious paste.

“Kiosque” by Jean Rouaud: when trying too hard is trying

For seven years in the 1980s, Jean Rouaud financed his dream of becoming a published author by working at one of the newspaper kiosks which form such an iconic part of the Paris street scene. These kiosks seem better suited as the subject of, not a book, but a Sunday colour supplement article, illustrated to show how their design has evolved over the years: the domed roof with a curvy green frieze round the edge designed for Haussman’s Paris; the stark angular plexiglas version of the type in which Rouad worked, and the most recent, controversial version of a “walk-in” green structure shielding customers from the elements.

Rouaud has needed to pad the book out, initially with descriptions of the eccentric anarchist friend who ran the stall, the rather sad ageing men employed to run errands, the motley stream of locals who came by for their favourite paper or magazine. He includes chapters on some of the controversial modern architecture of Paris 1980s, to which he seems opposed: the famous pyramid at the Louvre or what we call “The Pompidou Centre” with its pipework displayed on the outside. He writes about his family, but bearing in mind they have been the subject of five previous books, commencing with “Les Champs d’Honneur” which eventually made his name, this seems repetitious.

Having exhausted these themes, he turns more frequently to navel-gazing, wondering why he has such an urge to write, fearing that he will be as unsuccessful as the painter who is reduced to serving on the stall as well, deriving encouragement from other writers who achieved success late like Henry Miller. He tells us how sorting the newspapers has made his writing more organised and controlled, which makes one wonder what on earth it was like before. He continues to agonise over the style he should adopt, clearly wanting both recognition and the freedom to plough his own furrow.

I found this memoir particularly hard going, not just because French is not my first language. Despite implying that he has “toned down” his preferred style, Rouaud’s sentences remain long, sometimes lasting for an entire page, and tortuously garrulous, often performing mind-boggling flits without taking a breath between several tenuously linked ideas – from an Elvis lookalike with his banana-shaped hairstyle to “primitive” Flemish painters. The style seems like a throwback to the past, pretentious and laboured, larded with heavy-handed attempts at humour which invariably turn out overdone. The subject matter oscillates between the banal and the obscure. One minute he is describing in tedious detail the process of sorting magazines, the next referring to some anecdote about an obscure writer from the past, or to an artist with whom we are assumed to be familiar. Are Chardin’s painting of a skate, for instance, or Jan Van de Meyer’s unfinished portrait of Saint Barbara so well known that there’s no need to include photos of them – and why has he digressed into writing about them anyway?

Some themes are interesting, such as Rouaud’s fascination with haiku, and his habit of recording impressions using this form, in his attempt to engage more directly with realism in his first love of poetry (although he cannot abandon the belief that “l’irréalisme poétique” can be the most effective approach). The section on how Flaubert made a transition from romantic writing to “le mot juste” of Madam Bovary could also be quite enlightening, but all these disjointed topics are jumbled together in a mentally exhausting fashion. The whole book seems to be a rambling mess of ideas which needs to be reorganised.

I suppose one could regard this book as a French equivalent of “Flaubert’s Parrot” but Julian Barnes has the knack of doing it much better. Yet this style is clearly an acquired taste which some will enjoy.