Annie Ernaux is known for writing primarily autobiographical stories that aim at capturing and expressing the truth and reality of situations and feelings as she encounters them. But what is her reality exactly? It is that of a woman, born in Normandy during the second world war, in a working class family. An only child, she grows up with a slightly untraditional parental model: her father does house chores while her mother radiates authority and strong-headedness. She is pushed by her parents to climb the social ladder: studying hard at school and not having children too early become the keys to escaping a working class life. Annie Duchesne becomes a school teacher, gets married and begins her prolific writing career in her thirties, publishing her first book about her abortion, Les armoires vides, in 1974. Twenty books later, she became the first Frenchwoman ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature on Oct 6, 2022, "for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory".
In a radio interview on the day that she received the Prize, Annie Ernaux said the following: “Je pense que l’écriture, la littérature n’est pas neutre, ne l’a jamais été (...) de parler seulement de beaux livres, de belles écritures, c’est une façon de masquer le pouvoir.” (Entretien à France Inter le 6 octobre 2022). To me, this powerful statement is exactly why Annie Ernaux’s Nobel Prize is good news. Not only does Annie Ernaux talk about subjects that require a certain bravery (abortion when it used to be illegal for instance), she also refuses the traditional idea that literature should be beautiful “à tout prix”. It takes a certain kind of courage to make your own rules, especially when you aspire to write and enter a literary sphere dominated by male writers who tend to belittle the importance and power of autobiography as a genre, especially when written by women. Ernaux reminds us that literature is not innocent and void of purpose: it is fully a part of the fabric of our society, it’s a tool and a weapon, and therefore it has no choice but to be “engagée”. Indeed, why should we accept neutrality in art, when we wouldn’t accept it anywhere else?
The clinical acuity
By laying down on the page the specificities and very detailed experiences of her life, Annie Ernaux reaches a certain universality: a paradox which has always fascinated me. In an interview for Le Monde in 2011 she says: “Quand j'écris, j'ai besoin d'être, d'un bout à l'autre, dans une démarche de vérité, ou plutôt de recherche de vérité, jusqu'à l'obsession - retourner sur les lieux, n'inventer aucun détail.” Even though she is extremely detailed in her accounts of the events and emotions that pass through her, Annie Ernaux remains very relatable. You just need to enjoy reading about someone who is always trying to be fully honest with themselves, to understand the political and social mechanisms at play in the world, and someone trying to uncover “the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.
Please share your thoughts about Annie Ernaux’s Nobel prize with us, and explore the topic further with the following:
- To read Annie Ernaux, you can borrow most of her work at the French Library:
- You can listen to some Annie Ernaux audiobooks. She narrates herself “L’Autre Fille” (available at the Library in CD format or on Audible here) and “Une Femme” (on Audible, and the excellent Dominique Blanc narrates “La Place” on Audible here)
- In English: you can listen to an episode of the podcast “The Politics of Everything” which discusses past literature Nobel Prize winners and how the prize works.
- You could watch L’évènement (“Happening” in English), the 2022 release directed by Audrey Diwan based on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical abortion story.
- You can listen to more of her interviews on France Culture.
- You can read a Le Monde article where she and Camille Laurens share their views about the “autofiction” genre.
A dual citizen of France and the USA, Sonia grew up between the Midwest and Brittany. After obtaining her BA in Philosophy and Modern Languages at Oxford University in 2015, she spent several years in Paris, working in classical music and studying voice & opera at the Conservatoire. She moved to Boston in the fall of 2020, where she now performs as a singer. Sonia is thrilled to also be a part of the French Library’s team, where she can put her deep love of French literature to use while working as Librarian.