Annie Ernaux, 82, is one of France’s most respected writers. The Nobel Prize in Literature 2022 honours her “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”. In France, she has won multiple awards for her books, including the 2017 Marguerite Yourcenar prize for her entire body of work. The Anglophone literary world noticed her most recently when her 2008 memoir Les Années was published in English as The Years (translated by Alison L Strayer) and made it to the International Booker prize shortlist in 2019. Her other notable works, which include A Woman’s Story (1987, translated in 2003) and A Man’s Place (1990, translated 1992), are considered classics in France. Her language is plain and incisive, which she wields like a knife to slice through the chaff of life. By using an aloof third-person voice she illustrates how “family narrative and social narrative are one and the same” (from The Years).
Ernaux grew up in Yvetot in Normandy. She is from a working-class background, and her parents ran a café-grocery store. An awareness of class and gender disparities marks all her writings. These worlds spring to life from her pages, where she describes parents, brothers and sisters sleeping in the same room, where “people used jugs and basins to wash and did their business in outhouses,” where used sanitary napkins are left in buckets of icy water. Her book Shame opens with the most brutal line, “My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.” It is the kind of Hemingwayesque sentence that MFA students are now sure to pore over, given the attention that the Nobel prize will bring her.
In her autobiographical prose, fact and fiction tango. She writes about the hardest subjects whether it is about a 23-year-old narrator’s illegal abortion (Happening), the violence of a father (Shame) or a torrid affair with a Russian diplomat (Getting Lost).
As the International Booker Prize noted in Ernaux’s hands, “Autobiography is given a new form, at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective,” ensuring that her books, especially The Years reads like a “genre-bending masterpiece”. She narrates the decades from 1941 to 2006 in unremitting continuous tense by using photos and books, songs and headlines. To read The Years is to travel through the deprivations of World War II, to see the end of the Vietnam War, to watch the collapse of the World Trade Centre, to note the frailties of aging, and to observe how media “took charge of the process of memory and forgetting”.
Ernaux’s play with reality, her arm’s length distance from emotions sets her writing apart. She said in an interview to the Guardian (2019), “I’m not a writer who focuses on emotions…The point is not to speak of the personal.” What is remarkable is that she writes about her own life more like an archaeologist than a memoirist. Her book Shame opens with an epigraph by the author Paul Aster, “Language is not truth. / It is the way we exist in / the world.” Her clinical use of language makes her personal experience universal.
Over the decades, Ernaux has emerged as a strong feminist voice in the French literary world, both through her writings and her political stands. Cleaned Out (1974) recounts a back-alley abortion in Normandy, and was published shortly before the procedure became legal in France. A Girl’s Story (2020) details the summer of 1958 and Ernaux’s first sexual experience with a much older man, and one she spent decades grappling with. In 2018-2019 she came out strongly behind the MeToo movement, believing that male domination is too easily seen as male seduction. She admonished her French contemporaries at that time who believed the movement had gone too far.
Towards the end of The Years, she writes, “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only “one” and “we,” as if it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before.” In her impersonal memoirs, Ernaux tells us not her story but the story of a generation, where the author’s experience enlarges into something much greater than the immediate and the individual. The Nobel prize will rightly bring her to the attention of many more readers.