This life of a woman born in France in 1941 is set against a backdrop of social and political development and change from the post war years right up to the early 21st century. Through personal and collective memories, descriptions of photos, adverts and references to popular culture, she combines individual with collective experience to evoke the lived dimension of history. The result is a fabulous narrative arc which is deeply compelling as we recognise changes which have impacted on our own lives, yet also fascinating in its portrayal of a life rooted specifically in France with its particular history and collective memory.
The narrative is free flowing but punctuated by accounts of conversations at family meals which reveal the preoccupations of the adults at the time. So in the post war period the older generation come back again and again to memories of the privations of the Occupation, but this topic gives way with time to, for example, an interest in the younger generation, the ‘student’ narrator who is the only family member to study in the 50s. The family meals become a focus for the narrator’s growing awareness of her education taking her away from her class background. We’re told early on that her family only discuss things they had seen and could re-live while eating and drinking….not the Jewish children boarding trains for Auschwitz, nor the bodies of starvation victims collected every morning from the Warsaw ghetto. When returning for family meals as a student she decides not to say much about her studies- her family lives in a closed world that was no longer ours.
Photographs of the narrator as a child, with family and friends, are described in intimate detail and act as a kind of pause button in the text, inviting us to look deeply at the captured image. The descriptions of facial expression, gesture and posture give us a sense of the emotion at that moment, from carefree toddler to self conscious teenager, to stylish young mother. They act too as a trigger for reflections on age and relationships. The 1999 photo on the beach at Trouville with her sons: two women and two men stand in a tight little group. The four faces are pressed close to each other, each divided into zones of darkness and light by the sun, which slants down from the left….She has the gentle distant smile of parents or teachers accustomed to having their picture taken with young people. And the 2006 photo: The woman’s hands in the foreground, the joints pronounced, almost gnarled, appear oversized. Her smile, her way of staring into the lens and holding the child, express an attitude that is less one of possession than of offering, as one might see in a photo of generational transfer- grandmother presents granddaughter, an establishment of filiation.
The social changes experienced by the narrator are immense and emblematic for a whole generation of women. Sexuality is of course a theme and Annie Ernaux describes well the desire and longings of adolescence and the first fumbling sexual experiences as well as the illegal abortions endured by so many women at that time. The narrator becomes a young wife and mother, juggling the demands of work and family, fulfilling the role of the modern woman as seen by women’s magazines. But she has no time for herself, to read or write, and, sick of the role of the wife, in the 80s separates from her husband to live independently with the freedom to take lovers.
She charts the growing importance of consumerism in shaping our lives. First, there’s the arrival of new things-the gas cooker, the formica table- and the desire simply to possess them, facilitated by the growing use of cheque books and credit. She claims that the profusion of things acted to conceal the scarcity of ideas and the erosion of beliefs. But she is also good on how things altered human behaviour, so how the transistor radio prefigured the Walkman in allowing you to be alone but not alone and have at ones command the noise and diversity of the world. She describes the growing importance of style and taste in furniture and decor for the young married couple, not least in signalling class and status. She notes how consumerism changes the landscape with interminable warehouses and superstores lining the autoroute outside cities, and the hegemony of the spacious, attractive and spotlessly clean places where merchandise is bought over the bleakness of metro stations, the post office and the public lyceés.
The narrator’s lived experience of political events begins with 68: her heady accounts of student occupations and sit ins, of the unprecedented warmth, camaraderie and conversations between people of quite different backgrounds conveys the newness of those days and the rupture with the past. She subsequently describes the hopes and disappointments of her generation of progressive intellectuals in her account of the achievements of a range of presidents from Giscard through Mitterand to Chirac, culminating in the unforeseen rise of the National Front and the ignominy of having to vote for Chirac to ward off Le Pen. She watches international events too: the fall of the Berlin wall, the break up of the former Yugoslavia and of course 9/11-all from the perspective of the educated French intellectual, seeing the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as a backward step with the return of religion and intolerance. And we see through her experience of the Algerian struggle for independence from France evolving attitudes towards the immigrants from North Africa who came to live in the banlieues, taking French citizenship and challenging existing ideas of what it is to be French.
Through much of the narrative the personal pronoun ‘we’ is used in the translation: I haven’t seen the original but assume this is translating the French ‘on’. This works well to convey the collective generational experience, but once or twice I felt ‘surely everyone didn’t think that!’ And at times I wanted to have some more of her feelings for her family: did she feel love for her husband, what about her feelings on the birth of her babies? Yet there were other moments when I was moved by flashes of the personal: the image of her father’s body being brought downstairs in the unbearable part of memory, the discreet watching over her teenage sons’ behaviour and silences, like our mothers did with us.
The book begins with the words all the images will disappear and a series of random images of photos, posters, film clips, images from these years. It ends with another series of images and the words to save something from the time where we will never be again.In this skilful interweaving of the personal and collective experience Annie Ernaux has created a powerful chronicle of what it was to be a woman in 20th century post war France which will endure.