Tomorrow we’ll tell more people about Annie Ernaux*:

“the death at sixteen of the common black-and-white cat, who had returned after years of obese bumbling to the frailty of the photo from the winter of 1992. She covered the cat with earth from the garden during the heat wave while the neighbours jumped screaming into their pool. With this gesture that she had never performed before she felt as if she were burying all the people in her life who had died, her parents, the last aunt on her mother’s side, the older man who’d been her first lover after the divorce, and had remained a friend and died of a heart attack two summers earlier – a burial that foreshadowed her own.

These events, happy or sad, when she compares them to others that happened long ago, do not at all seem to have modified her ways of thinking, tastes, or interests, which became settled when she was about fifty in a kind of inner solidification. The series of gaps that separate all the past versions of herself ends there. What has most changed in her is the perception of time and her own location within it.  And so she realizes with amazement that back when she was asked to do dictations from Colette at school, the author was still alive, and that her grandmother, who was twelve when Victor Hugo died, must have had a day off school on account off the funeral (but by then she already worked in the fields, no doubt). And while the loss of her parents grows more and more distant in time (twenty and forty years ago now), and nothing in her way of living or thinking resembles theirs (indeed hers would ‘make them turn over in their graves’), she feels she is drawing closer to them.  As the time ahead objectively decreases, the time behind her stretches farther and farther back, to long before birth, and ahead to a time after her death. She imagines people saying, perhaps in thirty or forty years, that she was alive for the Algerian War, just as they used to say of her great-grandparents ‘they were alive for the War of 1870’.

She has lost her sense of the future, a kind of limitless background on which her actions and gestures were once projected, a waiting for all the good and unknown things that lived inside her as she walked up Boulevard de la Marne to the university in the autumn, or finished the last page of The Mandarins, and, years later, jumped in the Austin Mini after class to fetch the children, and even later, after her divorce and the death of her mother, left for the United States for the first time with L’Amerique by Joe Dassin playing in her head, and up until three years ago, when she threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain and made a wish to return to Rome.

The future is replaced by a sense of urgency that torments her. She is afraid that as she ages her memory will become cloudy and silent, as it was in her first years of life, which she won’t remember anymore. Already when she tries to recall her colleagues from the lycée in the mountains where she taught for two years, she sees silhouettes and faces, some with extreme precision, but she cannot possibly ‘put a name to them’. She tries desperately to retrieve the missing name, match the name with the person, join the separate halves. Maybe one day all things and their names will slip out of alignment and she’ll no longer be able to put words to reality. All that will remain is the reality that cannot be spoken. Now’s the time to give form to her future absence through writing, start the book, still a draft of thousands of notes, which has lived in parallel to her existence for the past twenty years and is thus obliged to cover a longer and longer time.” 

Annie Ernaux, The Years, p 221 – 223, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018. (Translation: Alison L. Strayer, 2017.)

*Tim Etchells told us about this book. Good call too, Tim.



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