The Nobel Prize for Literature 2022 has gone to French author Annie Ernaux, for, according to the Swedish Academy, “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.
Ernaux, 82, has seen a sharp increase in popularity in the English-speaking world since 2019, after her seminal work ‘The Years’, translated by Alison L Strayer, was shortlisted for the Man Booker international prize. Her book on her illegal abortion in the 1960s, ‘Happening’ (first published in 2001) has also been in the limelight after abortion rights were curtailed in the US.
As the Nobel citation says, Ernaux’s work — ranging from a history of France to her first sexual experience and the shame around it to her mother’s illness and death to her abortion to her class-linked shame – meticulously mines her own memory and life experiences with “courage and clinical acuity”.
Her treatment of her memories is unsparing but unembellished – she travels back to the moment she is writing about as completely as possible, without giving herself the benefit and wisdom of hindsight, putting on paper the raw vulnerability of the moment. As anchors, she uses songs, slogans, meals from the time she is writing about, which many say blurs the line between fiction and autobiography.
Ernaux, née Duchesne, was born in Lillebonne Normandy in 1940. Her parents moved to Yvetot a few years later, where they ran a grocery and cafe. Her mother believed in the transformative power of education, sending her to a school with better-off children. It was here that young Annie first experienced shame of her working-class background. In an interview to The Guardian in 2019, she had said that “it is terrible to play yourself down,” but it this “experience of limitation, the unwritten rule not to venture above your station in life”, that dominated the milieu in which she grew up.
Later, she worked as an au pair, a schoolteacher, and as a teacher at Centre for Distance Education. She retired in 2000, devoting herself fully to her writing.
Her books have explored how shame is built into the female consciousness, and how women censor and judge themselves even in personal spaces such as a diary.
Her ‘A Girl’s Story’ (published in French in 2016), built on her own experiences at a children’s camp, deals with the shaming an 18-year-old girl is subjected to for her sexuality. The teenager has her first sexual encounter – it may be overwhelming but is not humiliating. However, her peers soon mock and jeer at her, someone writes in toothpaste on her mirror ‘Long live whores’, till she looks at her own behavior as a “moral failing”.
‘Happening’, based on her abortion, describes the blood and mess commonplace for women, but always labelled “shocking” when such experiences are written about.
‘Getting Lost’ (2022), which talks of her affair with a Russian diplomat – she was divorced, he was married – is a rare clear-eyed account of female desire.
Before the Nobel, Ernaux has won other awards and honours. According to her website, “Her works overall have received the French language prize and the Marguerite Yourcenar prize, as well as publication of her almost complete works to date in the Quarto edition by Gallimard in 2011 (Ernaux is the first woman writer to be published in this series in her lifetime). In 2014 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cergy-Pontoise.”