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Annie Ernaux's memoir

At the end of Annie Ernaux’s 2008 memoir, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer, she tells us, using the same third-person we have become acquainted with, just what she has been doing. We already know but her confirmation matters:

“There is no “I” in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only “one” and “we,” as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before…By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.”

Nearing the end of her accumulation, she arrives in the years following the new century as a woman in her late sixties. Looking at photographs, recalling yearly family gatherings, placing them amongst elections and upheavals, she places our obsession with the new, with things, programs, entertainments, as a solution to the wretchedness of the political. Yet, in perhaps the memoir’s saddest sentence, “In all this lively exchange, no one had the patience to tell stories.” So she is telling by reminding, giving forth a narrative linked by photos (we assume they are of her), gatherings, trends, disasters, and always those (French) elections. As an American almost two decades younger, I recognize much, though many of the proper names are unknown to me. The confidence of her writing reminds me I remember more than I first recall. And now her recollection tells me where one is headed entering this thing called “retirement,” passing notes back to my generation as we slide into that space. As an artist and teacher, she no longer needs the lesson plans and such; her own life is the outline containing the instigating event(s).

In Ernaux’s chronicling of the early digital era, regarding the rapidly gaining virtual ground of the internet and the availability of seeming everything, she decides, “The great desire for power and impunity was fulfilled. We made our way around a world of objects without subjects. The Internet engineered the dazzling transformation of the world into discourse.” Archiving and searching for the past being now possible for one and all, “The web was the royal road for the remembrance of things past. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odor and yellowing of paper, bent back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand, had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present.” Our new tools help us forget by remembering everything without the distraction of context: “With digital technology, we drained reality dry.”

Ernaux contemplates this archiving as it arranges even our future, our facile storing of almost everything from our behaviors to our possessions and encounters, when “The obscurity of previous centuries would disappear forever, driven away by the camera on a tripod at the photographer’s studio, or the digital camera in the bedroom. We were resurrected ahead of time.”

How does one continue creating and living when that resurrection flickers beyond the screen? I am reading Ernaux as I look at my own archives, the expectant piles (digital and physical) of fragmentary texts and images. A borrowed grey metal 8mm film viewer sits on my desk, waiting for me to feed my mother and grandmother’s films through it. The tiny yellow Kodak boxes have lurked since my mother’s death more than a decade ago. Once I start looking at them, I will have to organize, put them in some order or logic so that they will have some value, some anchoring effect. What will happen if I do not? The first sentence of Ernaux’s book reminds me, “All the images will disappear.” And the last: “Save something from the time where we will never be again.”

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