Mid-week Distractions 4/26/23: Annie Ernaux and the Champagne of Beers

Annie Ernaux

I mentioned last week an allergy to hype culture and capital-T Trends. It’s not a very good mindset for someone who works in media, but I try to take my time with things and let others figure out whether they’re good or bad before I spend my hard earned cash to forge my own opinion. It’s also why I’m six months behind reading anything by Annie Ernaux, the French novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature last October. I’ve been in the library hold queue for her most famous book, The Years, since then. I did snag a copy of her lesser-known memoir, Getting Lost, a couple months back (which Caitlin reviewed last year), and hated it so much that I was reluctant to crack another one of her books open. (The entire book can be summed up thusly: she pines for an emotionally unavailable loser, she gets him off, he leaves.)

The Years, on the other hand, is an expansive exercise in memory, not one rigidly tied to an obsessive tonguing of a long lost emotional cavity. Ernaux captures the rabid consumerism of post-war America, the dangerous nostalgia young people feel for their parents’ glory days, the blithe political dinner conversations about Algeria that make bile rise in a contemporary reader’s throat. It looks backwards and forwards in the same heartbeat, to times unknown on either end of one’s lifetime. Personal and world histories blend and diverge, oil and vinegar, only truly emulsified by an intense shaking up of society. It’s shocking to hear someone speak so honestly about public opinions that have lost their credibility, listen to frank discourse about events that happened largely before I was born, and imagine which unsavory prejudices my parents, who would have been the youth Ernaux describes in her middle age, may have shared with her contemporaries. It makes me shudder to think what current opinions I hold that I will have to hide from my imaginary children someday. (Or, more likely, the sentient AI robodog/therapist that will live in my flood- and fire-proof apocalypse bunker.)

The Years, though a short volume, took me some time to read, because I had to spend so much of it googling the barrage of references to French culture and history Ernaux mentions. It’s always humbling to remember that no matter how well you learn a language, there is an entire catalog of social and cultural touchpoints that will never quite imprint on you as they would have if you had been there, experiencing them in the context of their own time. At least this explains why it’s so hard to pull off comedy in translation.

Things I found on the Internet…

The most beautiful public toilet in Paris. This extremely sexy video recipe for pistachio pie. And reasons why you should never correct someone’s French pronunciation.

Tessa B. has your next breakup song covered with “Adieu Tristesse.”

In the funniest news I’ve heard this week, more than 2,000 cans of Miller High Life were destroyed in Belgium after authorities took umbrage at the can’s slogan, “the champagne of beers,” which they claimed broke European regulations about what can be called champagne. The whole thing is very silly and I love it.

Once again this week, there will be no Le Weekend, as Caitlin is still traveling in France. But you’ll hear a lot more from her next week!

Catherine Rickman, Managing Editor, frenchly.us

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