Annie Ernaux, Les années


Literary Architecture

Longtime readers of the Daily will remember Matteo Pericoli’s Windows on the World project, which featured his pen-and-ink drawings of the views from writers’ windows around the world. Matteo is also the founder of the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, an interdisciplinary project that looks at fiction through the lens of architecture, designing and building stories as architectural projects. In this new series, Matteo shares some of his designs and what they reveal about the stories they’re modeled on.

There is a moment in Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel, Les années, in which the author writes that she “would like to unify the multiplicity of images of herself—separate, disjoined—through the thread of a story: that of her existence […] fused to the movement of a generation.” (Translation mine.) 

This is perhaps the clearest description not only of her literary intent—to tell her life story without invoking the first person—but also of the reader’s experience: trapped in a paradox between History with a capital H and a life that inevitably intersects and insinuates itself into historic time.

From the beginning, Ernaux tells us that the very images of herself are the connecting elements of the two dimensions: those “things” that will end up being lost as soon as the mind that remembers them dies. Therefore, in order to meld her time with “the flow of a generation,” she writes about herself without ever using the word “I.”

Reading Les années feels like being immersed in a narrow space made of emotions, a sense of growth, and moments of striking illumination. This space is submerged below a larger, overbearing volume—historic events that feel remote but that constantly shed light on our progression.

Seen from the outside, the volume, whose own weight has caused it to sink into the ground, is fractured by a series of irregular slivers—thin slits that never let us doubt History’s solidity. Some of these openings on its smallest facade provide access to a path, which presents a completely different spatial sensation compared to the monolithic structure containing it.
 The connection between the inner path, the void (our experience as visitors and readers of Les années), and its surrounding structure can be better understood when light penetrates the void from its many narrow openings.


It’s clear right away that the inner space won’t passively follow the mass of History. In fact, we do not realize (if not at the end) that while History was carrying on above us, we were in fact descending, accompanying Ernaux through her life until the very last moment, when she offers her final images that she doesn’t want forgotten.

Ernaux_Preliminary-Sketch In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.