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Annie Ernaux’s acts of revenge

The Nobel laureate on abortion, the “shame” of her upbringing and forging a new working-class literature.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When she was in her twenties, Annie Ernaux wrote in her diary: “I will write to avenge my people.” When she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in her eighties, she explained what she meant: “I proudly and naively believed that writing books, becoming a writer, as the last in a line of landless labourers, factory workers and shopkeepers, people despised for their manners, their accent, their lack of education, would be enough to redress the social injustice linked to social class at birth,” she said in her acceptance speech in December 2022.

Ernaux, now 82, was awarded the prize for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”. France has had more Nobel literature laureates than any other country. Ernaux is the 16th French winner – and the first French woman.

“I wanted to show these lives that had not been written about,” Ernaux told me when we met in late May, during a rare visit to the UK. “I wanted to show the people who came before me. These lives were the very thing I’d been ashamed of. Coming from this working-class environment, it was really important to me to bring not only vengeance, but truth.”

Talking through an interpreter, Ernaux spoke slowly but energetically. She wore a black blouse with a khaki skirt. Her French chic – the cardigan tied in a knot around her shoulders, the Agnès B handbag she carried – stood out in the English country house setting in which we sat. We were in a room at Charleston, the former home of the modernist painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, in the South Downs. That afternoon Ernaux would appear at Charleston Festival in conversation with the Irish novelist Sally Rooney.

In cabinets in the studio in which we sat hung the Famous Women Dinner Service, a set of 50 plates, hand-painted by Bell and Grant, that depict notable women including the Queen of Sheba and George Eliot. Ernaux did not seem much interested in the plates, but they made appropriate decor for a meeting with an author whose frank and intimate portrayals of womanhood – of puberty, sex, motherhood, daughterhood, abortion, desire – are unparalleled.

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[See also: Why we need the Women’s Prize for Non-fiction]

Annie Duchesne was born in 1940 to working-class parents in Lillebonne, Normandy. She had an older sister, Ginette, who died of diphtheria at seven years old, in 1938. “I did not grow up in a traditional family unit,” she told me, “because really my mother was the dominant force in the family.” Blanche Duchesne had worked in a margarine factory, but she left to set up a grocery shop and café in Yvetot, which she and her husband, Alphonse, ran together. “My father played more of an affective role. The ambition really came from my mother. She was an avid reader, and so really transmitted this love of literature to me. Marriage was never a priority for me. My mother wanted me to have an education, to get a job, to make something of myself. That was always the aim: to do something with my life.”

At school Ernaux was a high achiever. And while her mother’s education had ended at the age of 12, Ernaux went on to study at Rouen University. She became a French teacher and taught until she retired from the profession in 2000. In 1972 she married Philippe Ernaux, with whom she had two sons.

The night before our interview, Ernaux attended a screening in Lewes of The Super 8 Years, a film about her marriage, directed by her son David Ernaux-Briot, juxtaposing silent home footage taken by Philippe with Ernaux’s own narration. Over videos of Christmases at home in France and family holidays abroad, Ernaux’s voiceover tells us: “The woman in the image always seems to wonder why she’s there.” More than 40 years on, Ernaux describes her younger self as “a woman secretly tormented by the need to write”.

Without Ernaux’s narration, the film would be a nostalgic glimpse of a family experimenting with a Super 8 video camera, a purchase that symbolised their entry into the bourgeoisie. But the story that she tells is of a woman constrained by domesticity. It is deeply melancholic. Watching the footage back for the first time, Ernaux said at the screening, was like throwing a rock into a lake and looking to see the ripples. Now, she feels “the same way as when I look at my books”, she told me. “Everything is true. It’s correct. And at the same time it’s not quite reality anymore.”

During her marriage, Ernaux wrote fiction in secret. She told Philippe she was working on a PhD thesis so that she could have time alone. Her first book, Cleaned Out, a thinly fictionalised account of her upbringing and adolescence, including the illegal abortion she had aged 23, was picked up by the prestigious publisher Éditions Gallimard in 1974. When Philippe found out, Ernaux said in 2020, he told her: “If you’re capable of writing a book in secret, then you’re capable of cheating on me.” The couple separated in the early 1980s.

Since then, Ernaux has focused on writing memoir, detailing her life’s most significant events in short, powerful volumes. In A Girl’s Story she recounts her first sexual experiences, during the summer she turned 18. I Remain in Darkness is a moving portrait of her mother’s mental disintegration due to Alzheimer’s. Simple Passion describes, with intoxicating intensity, the secret affair she had with a younger, married man. In The Young Man, her most recent book, she recalls another affair, with a man 30 years her junior, who stirred in her memories of her working-class upbringing. “With him I travelled through all the ages of life, my life,” she writes.

[See also: Do we have a duty to read women writers?]

Ernaux is one of France’s leading writers. Her recent re-emergence in the Anglophone world is thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, a London-based independent publisher with a reputation for intellectualism and elegance. Its uniform cover design – blue for fiction and white for non-fiction – takes inspiration from European publishers such as Gallimard, and is well matched to Ernaux’s sparse and exacting prose style, translated into English by Tanya Leslie and Alison L Strayer.

Ernaux’s most renowned work in English is The Years, which was first published in French in 2008. Here, she uses her personal history as a vantage point from which to observe the social history of France in the period spanning 1941 to 2006. Her account of a modernising nation incorporates photos, news headlines and songs in a way that feels revelatory. It is a strikingly communal approach to history. The book, Ernaux said, laughing, is “quite pessimistic in the end. If there’s a message in The Years, it’s that the world is always changing, always evolving, nothing stays the same. And we cannot understand this change.”

The passing of time, and how we remember our past, is a central theme of Ernaux’s work. “When I live through things, they often have no meaning. And it’s only through the process of remembering that they gain meaning.” She referred to a quote from the Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima, which she included as an epigraph to Happening, her defiantly honest 2000 book about her abortion: “I wonder if memory is not simply a question of following things through to the end.” She explained: “In other words, to really see them, to understand them, too. And this is why I interrogate memory, which to me effectively seems to contain the possibility of truth.”

But historical truth can be hard to certify. In Happening, as in many of her books, Ernaux examines her own process of remembering: “Apart from my diary and my journal, I have no sure indication of what I thought and felt back then because of the abstract, evanescent nature of what goes through our minds… True memory has to be material.”

On his Super 8 camera, Philippe, who died of lung cancer in 2009, filmed what he desired – foreign holidays, a new house, the French countryside. While Ernaux acknowledges he wouldn’t have liked her narration to The Super 8 Years, seeped as it is in her sense of feeling out of place, she knows his film reels, though material, are not wholly truthful either: he documented reality, but was highly selective. This made it easy for her to contradict. If there is a clash between his images and her story, she believes it is there that the truth lies.

When Ernaux began to write in order to avenge her people, she was confronted with the shame of her origins; a memory of her father mispronouncing the names of her teachers; of her mother opening the door in a soiled dress; worse, of her father’s attempt to kill her mother one Sunday afternoon in 1952. That day, an argument between her parents resulted in her father dragging her mother into the cellar. When the 11-year-old Ernaux ran downstairs, she saw him gripping a scythe, usually used for chopping firewood. In her recounting of the event in Shame, the next thing she remembers is the three of them sitting in the kitchen. Later her parents opened the café, like they did every Sunday evening.

“We avoid dwelling on the thing that caused the feeling of shame,” she told me, “but writing, in confronting shame, is a means of freeing ourselves from it. In turning it into a literary object you share the feeling with your readers, which carries with it the possibility of affinity, of identification, which are both liberating.”

In A Man’s Place, a portrait of her father, Ernaux perceives her university education as a betrayal of her class. The international literary success she has experienced since has only led her further from her roots. But she has always insisted on maintaining a link to her class through her straightforward writing style. She wants everyone to be able to understand her books.

The author’s origins have also informed her lifetime of activism. In the 1970s she fought for women’s reproductive rights (abortion was legalised in France in 1975, 12 years after Ernaux’s procedure). In March 2020 she wrote a searing open letter to Emmanuel Macron about his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. This spring she supported the protests against the government’s proposed amendments to the age of retirement.

The remarkable power of Happening – which comes to just 80 pages in the 2019 Fitzcarraldo edition – was made all the more imperative upon the June 2022 overturning of Roe vs Wade, the ruling establishing a constitutional right to an abortion in the US. Ernaux’s first reaction to the news was “anger”, she said, “that these rights had been taken away from women, and so suddenly. Another reaction I had was more ethnological. It made me reflect on the historical subjugation of women by men. I asked myself why, and I’ve come to the conclusion that men are uncomfortable with women’s power to create life. Yes, men provide the sperm, but women choose whether to carry life or not. Men have a problem with that.”

[See also: How a new wave of literature is reclaiming spinsterhood]

Later that day, on stage with Sally Rooney, Ernaux described the Nobel as “a prize I never wanted… It fell into my life like a bomb,” she said, sending ripples of laughter around the audience. The prize disrupted her life, she said, giving her no time to write.

While internationally her win was welcomed, in France the reaction wasn’t wholly positive. The conservative media attacked her, for her “flat” style and for being a woman who writes about her personal life. This reaction is specific to the French literary landscape, Ernaux told me. “The truth is, even if this goes unsaid and is taboo, literature [in France] is the preserve of men. It’s male business. I mean this both in terms of the writers who get recognition but also the members of L’Académie Française [the national council for language, established in 1635] and the members of L’Académie Goncourt [the literary organisation founded in 1900]: they tend to all be men. And so, everyone in France takes it as a given that a great writer is a male writer. It’s not just misogyny; it’s really a cultural institution in France.”

For Ernaux, classism comes hand in hand with misogyny. She can trace the critical backlash against her to A Man’s Place, in which she depicted her father and his people in a manner the literary elite were not used to. “People expect you to either be populist or really amp up the misery, if we think of works like Les Misérables. And I was doing none of those things: I was just making statements, observing without sentimentality. And that’s not how people wanted me to write about the working class.” Later, Simple Passion, with its explicit descriptions of sexual desire, was pigeon-holed as “women’s writing – in a derogatory sense,” Ernaux said, shaking her head, “which isn’t at all my style of writing”.

Does this response reinforce Annie Ernaux’s intent, as a woman born into a working-class family, to write about her lived experience? “I’m actually very indifferent to all of it,” she said, shrugging. Will she – once she recovers her writing time from all the fuss of the Nobel – continue to write about whatever she wants, regardless? “Absolutely.”

“The Super 8 Years” will be in cinemas from 23 June. “Shame” and “The Young Man” will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in September

[See also: Why read life-writing?]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out