I Despair, Annie Ernaux

The lake is never alarming. Sand-bottomed, shallow—for such an ancient vast body—and therefore opaque, it blows up, and out of its own humour generates giant waves, one after the other after the next—short and shallow, not a smooth cradle between them coming and coming and howling and breathing, then exhausted and quiet, the level still full, the thick snake still flicking occasionally indolently under the surface. The next morning sunny and lapping and fresh at the heels of chubby legs and sand pails. I might be ashes at its sandy bottom one day, me and all my dogs. Nice.

The lake is never alarming, but the banks that it sometimes licks have been alarming, cause for alarm because imperilled, even though bolstered with giant slabs of limestone stacked the distance and now years later interlaced with slender prairie aspen and birch and maple and bound in place with their roots and mulch and the diligence of pine voles and squirrels. Before the weave and weighty guardians were in place, a November storm roiled one last time before freezing and sucked at the banks and I, for no reason, was there so late. These banks, some number of feet higher than the shore and distant from the water’s edge, on a quiet usual day, by 30 feet, had been assaulted, probably for a day’s worth of hours, and showed grey and worn. All the life of my memory had been fathered by a long row of pines, planted when the small cottage had been built. Now, straggled roots hung like ravelled curtains shielding caves in the sticky grey clay impermeable to spade or poking stick. I can’t compress the chest of a failing victim; I can part the trailing root curtains and, knees sliding and slipping, press my cheek against the wet clay to warm it with my breath, transfer the health tint from my skin to the bank, breathe in, and out. The smell is medicinal, elemental like iron oxide, like blood, some rot, the secret smell of vegetation living below our sight under our feet, supporting those pines whose roots had had their ground pulled out from under. Roots how deep to support 50 feet of green to the sky. It shouldn’t be salty but it is and, for the very little I’ve bitten off, slick and sticking between my teeth. The lake, the clay, the trees, the wind with its own schedule, make no promises. Consistency to their essence makes failure or disappointment moot. We, though, have no egress, no recourse. If we have roots we gnaw our own and languish. We aren’t spiders, we never mend. Our industry we direct elsewhere.

Annie Ernaux’s The Years (Seven Stories Press, New York, Oakland, London, 2017), described as a memoir, tells the period from her first memories to her 66th year—1940 to 2007—and omits celebration, gain and good and the possibility of or need for a better future.

Thinking about what translation is, is as allusive and enticingly entangling as Mel Bochner’s artwork Language Is Not Transparent, as undefinable and impossible to grab as Annie Ernaux’s writing, “Between what is yet to come and what is, consciousness is empty for a moment.” Tied to a single language, I imagine from the outside and think that for the period of the work—the work of literary translation—the translator and the subject share a single osmotic skin. That would be an ideal, I think, and an earnest reader has to trust this is so if we are to engage with the text, turn ourselves over to it. Alison L Strayer translated The Years in 2017 and the book concludes with her Translator’s Note, about the choices of pronouns and why, the process, tempo and pacing and therefore time (which may be the book’s subject in spite of its being identified by the author as “a sort of impersonal autobiography”). I sense Alison Strayer is trying to maintain some objectivity in spite of the suggested closeness necessary to the craft. This could well be her regard and respect for the original text with its almost stifling tone of distance and disengagement. A distance so held that as a reader I could have been absorbing the lines on the page from a distant planet, maybe the moon—oxygen-starved, sucker-punched and nodding in disappointed agreement.

The limitations and constraints of gender are everywhere, over and over in this book written to describe, and annotate, the years 1940 to 2007, set first in provincial France, then Paris, and France in the larger world. Photographs and video clips are described in The Years, marking off sections and dates, but the following description, photographic in its clarity, is not one of them. It places a woman in a room looking out through a window at a house across the road. Guests come out of the house, one after the other, and she watches them urinate “behind a blind wall in the garden.” The date for this observation will be marked in her memory, not for a significant political event but because she observed what she felt was “a kind of pure fact: a young woman squatting over the grass, as if to lay an egg, and standing again, pushing her skirts down.” Gender-specific and rich, and pure, in its singularity for a woman. Legs open to support a squat, open not so very high off the ground, vulnerable through exposure, however brief, hobbled by having to rise before taking flight, if flight is called for; determined as the carrier of an imagined egg, and the future—a gendered privilege or burden—harvested or hatched, a function and destiny biologically determined; also the decorum and grace of the dated and limiting apparel—skirts, not a skirt, but a flurry, a ruffle and rustle, the coquetry ascribed to the necessary function—pushing down what had been lifted.

The News and its burden of tragedy—this time the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, is of even less moment to her than the death of Marilyn Monroe had been the previous summer: “because it will have been eight weeks since her last period.”

Some years pass and perhaps, with them, some gain. The contraceptive pill, a taunting limited freedom in regional France. Ernaux writes on behalf of sisters and, recurring throughout The Years, the eternal disadvantaged second place, “We’d be so free in our bodies it was frightening. Free as a man.” In her lecture at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2022, for all her writing and many awards, on the occasion of receiving the most prestigious literary prize in the world, writing that for women the full achievement was still to come. The Years records the period 1940 to 2007 and they move as quickly as retrospection draws you to recognize. Now the early 2000s—exhausted by disappointed expectations, exhausted by the effort necessary to thwart disappointment—they, Ernaux and companions, rest on the beach, in the earned warm sun. “We opened our eyes and saw a woman walk into the sea, fully dressed in a jacket, a long skirt, and a Muslim headscarf over her hair. A bare-chested man in shorts held her by the hand. It was a biblical vision whose beauty made us terribly sad.” Of course. Some gain for some; none for others. None at all in this biblically inscribed image, which would be seen as beautiful by whom, when? Its timeless analogy is the crime in its eternal repetition that Ernaux decries.

She, they, all, could live in the world only as it existed. Structures, some millennia-old, determined what was possible, what was allowed. Education, free will, time could provide some elasticity, some change, but forms and conventions had still more pull and what was radical exerted more stretch than was really wanted or could be tolerated, it seemed.

Spring, in Paris. It was 1968 and media brought rumours of unrest, movement and an unusual assembly, a coming together of people gathering in the streets, resisting, protesting the continuation of what had been the structured usual. Suddenly, with cobblestones and Molotov cocktails everyone was once again a student, young. Ernaux, among the cheering assembly, wrote, “On our behalf, they hurled years of censure and repression back at the State,” and “Our allegiance to the blazing nights of Paris was rooted in our crushed desires, the degradations of submission.” The new order was celebrated and institutions, settings, opportunities to which only certain populations had had access were now open to all. In this new order, “institutional sanctified spaces are a thing of the past.”

Still, disappointment, disillusionment—although goals and ideals hadn’t been clearly posited—ride with the tempo of the book, which is also the rush of the years, and time is never slowed. Casually, as though it were just a population’s oversight, she notes, “We were unconcerned by the absence of an emergent labor leader,” and when the Parti Communiste and union leaders negotiated with the government, certain that their position was the one shared by the streets of protesters, well, sometimes things do slip and they “felt a chill come over us.” You see shoulders lift in a slight shrug, nonchalance or defeat, feigned or real, but what is to be done. Still rent to be met, a job to return to, taxes, the car. How to sustain protest and hope, which begin to read as futile, a luxury for others without the car and such.

There were political shifts, occasions for optimism that couldn’t be held—no one appeared to support this—and years passed. A new revolution, also important of course, to be desired and lauded—the sexual revolution, something better for women, a determination of desire as they wished.

In 2000 planes didn’t fall out of the sky to change the world. That would be later, and the millennium came without event except for those duped to believe it had meaning beyond the addition of more zeros. The decade preceding this was a brief entry in her book, wrongs, crimes, casually immoral acts against countries, victims, most often children, an indifferent US, attempts at peace halfhearted and dismissed—no will. Princess Diana dead, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Ernaux introduces this list of moral absence: “The 1990s just past held no particular meaning for us.” What meaning could be found to make a comprehensible summation? But there was a passing moment of ecstasy: “The World Cup and the triumph of the match. We knew that, having won we could die happy, die together (except it was the exact opposite of death), rediscover the great surrender to one sole desire, one image, one story.” She concludes the section: “Nothing lay ahead.”

Such a unity of purpose, a sole desire can’t ever be achieved. We know that. The receding dot on the horizon bobs tantalizingly ahead, just ahead, over there, but Ernaux said, “Nothing lay ahead.” Hopelessness, ennui, despair, a life lived leaving exhaustion the heir to stake a claim and reassemble—what?

Now planes do fall out of the sky and into America, which they almost knocked down. Everyone remembers the moment and their particular dailiness around that knowledge, the personal significance almost superseding the actual event. Ernaux wrote simply, “There began we don’t know what.”

Indefatigable, the people on the blue marble planet carry on. The web, shopping, more shopping. “We never cease to upgrade.” Goods of course. “It was normal for goods to arrive from all over the world and freely circulate, while men and women were turned away at the borders.” The Internet, computers, the web—but not the mending spiders. She notes, “With digital technology we drained reality dry.” Now, we are where? Unmoored, uprooted, groundless. Ernaux observes the moon, not as silver presence or pale-yellow orb, or white and smiling back but as a reminder that we have places to go, explorations to undertake, travel possibilities, opportunities. Is there water there, rare dusts and minerals to harvest? Entropy—there has to be an ultimate limit. An end now seems desirable when she writes, near the book’s conclusion, “The infinite ceased to be imaginary.”

I return to the trees at my lake’s edge and the clay bank that supports them and the limestone slabs that cover the tangle of small trees’ roots that have offered their sustaining help. The lake isn’t alarming. ❚

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