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6 October 2022

Why Annie Ernaux deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature

With clinical precision and revelatory intimacy, the French memoirist reinvigorated the art of life-writing.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Annie Ernaux writes life like no one else. The 82-year-old French author, who was today awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a master of memoir. Over the course of countless works – many of which are autobiographical – she has affirmed the genre of life-writing as a crucial part of our artistic landscape.

The Years, first published in 2008 and translated into English by Alison L Strayer in 2017, is typically acknowledged to be Ernaux’s defining work. The book is a patchwork quilt of social history from the years 1941-2006 that incorporates news headlines, photos, songs and impressions, spanning Ernaux’s life as she observes a changing, modernising France. Taking a communal approach to history, Ernaux strikes upon a tone that feels revelatory in its intimacy, despite the book’s broad scope.

Though her most widely known work, The Years is her least personal. In many of her other books – slim volumes that have the emotional heft of something ten times their size – Ernaux’s lived experience is the centrepiece. In A Girl’s Story, originally published as Mémoire de fille in 2016, she recounts the summer she spent working at a holiday camp in Normandy in 1958, during which time she had her first sexual experience. It was a traumatic encounter that caused her to develop depression and an eating disorder. Sixty years on, she explored in her writing the grey areas of sexual assault – something she was never taught about as a girl.

Ernaux was born in 1940 into a working-class family in Normandy. Her parents owned a small grocery shop and cafe: her mother, who had worked in a margarine factory, had ascended the social ladder. Ernaux completed school – her mother had left aged 12 – and studied at Rouen University. She became a secondary school teacher and later, between 1977 and 2000, a university professor. Alongside their admiration, her family looked upon her professional rise with suspicion. 

Ernaux wrote a novel while she was at university but it was rejected by publishers for being “too ambitious”. Her first published book, Les Armoires vides or “Cleaned Out”, is a thinly fictionalised account of her upbringing. She wrote it without telling anyone in the early 1970s, when she was a French teacher and a married mother of two. “My husband had made fun of me after my first manuscript,” she told the New York Times in 2020. “I pretended to work on a PhD thesis to have time alone.” When the book was sold to a prestigious publisher, her husband told her: “If you’re capable of writing a book in secret, then you’re capable of cheating on me.” The couple divorced in 1985, and Ernaux’s insistence on truth-telling has been a crusade ever since.

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In France, Ernaux is highly acclaimed. Her books have won prizes and been bestsellers. Her emergence in the English-speaking world is largely thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, the London-based publisher that has since 2018 regularly reissued Strayer and Tanya Leslie’s translations of Ernaux’s books. The eighth Ernaux title from Fitzcarraldo, Getting Lost, appeared on 21 September. (The independent press has impressive form on spotting Nobel winners: it also publishes Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk, who received the prize in 2015 and 2018 respectively.) Happening, a film adaptation of Ernaux’s 2000 work, won the Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival in 2021. In it, a 23-year-old Ernaux (“Anne”) becomes pregnant and seeks an illegal abortion – a storyline that became even more poignant after the overturning of Roe vs Wade earlier this year, which amounts to a federal ban on the procedure in the US.

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Ernaux’s work has immense and enduring social importance. Her sparse, clean style has become trendy – but Ernaux has been making use of white space for decades. Her insistence on writing her truth, as a woman – even if that means detailing her illegal abortion (Happening) or the sexual pleasure and emotional turmoil of an affair she had with a married man (Simple Passion) – is always her prime objective. She sometimes writes harshly about people she has known – though she judges herself just as sharply, so these recollections never appear cold. This quality is admired in other writers as “brave” or “honest”. For Ernaux there is no other way. 

Even in the presentation of Ernaux’s Nobel Prize there was a hint of this: she won “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”. Would she deem herself courageous?

“Clinical acuity”, however, is just right. Annie Ernaux is interested in the kinds of literary questions that leave critics in knots. Is writing about one’s family a form of betrayal? Is to misremember a twisting – or a development – of the truth? And what if my memory is different to culture’s? These questions hum at the edges of her works, yet never cloud them. Ernaux always renders her stories with precision.

[See also: Annie Ernaux and the brutal art of memoir]

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