Annie Ernaux: 2022 Nobel Prize winner in literature

Annie Ernaux considers writing to be a freeing act. Her writing is direct and unadorned by flowery prose.

Annie Ernaux, a French writer, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022. Annie Ernaux will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature for her brave and clinical explorations of the origins, separations, and social constraints that shape individual memories. Annie Ernaux considers writing to be a freeing act. Her writing is direct and unadorned by flowery prose.

Who is Annie Ernaux?

Annie Ernaux, the French author born in 1940, spent her childhood in the Normandy village of Yvetot, where her parents had a general store and café. Her upbringing was marked by poverty and ambition; her parents had risen from proletariat survival to a bourgeois lifestyle, and the recollection of pounded dirt floors never faded, but politics were hardly spoken. Ernaux regularly and from varying perspectives looks at a life with significant gender, language, and social class differences. Her road to become a published novelist was long and winding.

Her first works, which dealt with her upbringing in a rural area, were part of a larger initiative that sought to expand the canon of literature beyond the traditional novel. Despite her timeless and unique style, she claims she is more of a “ethnologist of herself” than a fiction author. The fact that she has been profoundly influenced by a sociologist like Pierre Bourdieu is just as instructive as the fact that she often alludes to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

Ernaux’s desire to tear away the mask of fiction not only inspired her to meticulously rebuild the past, but also to try her hand at a ‘raw’ kind of language in the form of a journal, recording nothing but objective reality. Journal des dehors (1993; Exteriors, 1996) and La vie extérieure (1993–1999) are (2000; Things Seen, 2010) two such examples.

Though Annie Ernaux began her exploration of her Norman ancestry in her first novel, Les armoires vides (1974; Cleaned Out, 1990), it wasn’t until her fourth book, La place (1983; A Man’s Place, 1992), that she found widespread critical acclaim. Within a few hundred pages, she painted a scathing image of her father and the community that had so profoundly influenced him. Her style has evolved to become more restrained and morally oriented, and this was reflected in the image.

(Credit: Frederic Reglain / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Beyond the realms of fiction, it signaled the beginning of a series of autobiographical prose writings. And if a narrative voice remains, it is objective and, if at all possible, disguised. Ernaux also includes introspective musings about her writing, in which she rejects “the poetry of memory” in favor of “une écriture plate” (simple writing) that, in solidarity with the father, evinces his culture and language. Aiming at what Roland Barthes termed a “zero degree of writing,” the term écriture plate is associated with le nouvelle roman, a French literary movement of the 1950s.

Ernaux’s writing, however, also has a significant political undercurrent. The specter of betrayal toward the social class she left behind permeates her literature. In light of the fact that it exposes us to social inequalities, she considers writing to be a political act. To this end, she describes language as “a knife” that she uses to sever the bonds between reality and fantasy. In her ruthless yet virtuous desire to expose the truth, she is similar to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

A few years later, in 1987, she published Une femme (A Woman’s Story, 1990), a much shorter depiction of her mother. It provides substantial clarifications on the multifaceted character of Ernaux’s publications, which range from fiction to sociology to history. Although brief, it is a fitting eulogy for a formidable lady who, unlike her father, managed to keep her composure no matter how trying the circumstances. There is less of an emphasis on guilt and burdensome silence in her connection with her mother.

Annie Ernaux’s La honte (1996; Shame, 1998) is emblematic of the pain that comes with trying to rebuild the past. In its effort to explain the father’s sudden wrath towards the mother at one specific period in the past, it resembles the portrayal of her father in many aspects. The first phrase, “My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon,” is so abrupt that it almost knocks the wind out of you. Ernaux’s goal is to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, as it always has been.

Her own words from inside the book sum up her intentions: “I have always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward, the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others.” The humiliation of daily life is the source of the shame that makes the situation so intolerable. The issue of dignity or lack thereof is beside the point when Annie Ernaux is at writing. She finds solace in literature because it allows her to express in words what she cannot say out. In Ernaux’s view, shame is all that remains of a person’s identity before their first sexual experience.

Her performance, L’événement (2000; Happening, 2001) in which a narrator (the 23-year-old narrator) describes her illegal abortion with clinical restraint, is a masterpiece. As a first-person account, it avoids the commonplace emphasis on the reader’s remove from the protagonist’s actual past.

Moral restraints of a restrictive culture and the condescending attitude of those she encounters turn the I into an object regardless. It’s a brutally frank piece of writing, with thoughtful reflections added in parenthesis in which she simultaneously addresses herself and the reader. Even though it has been 25 years after the “incident,” the author succeeds in immersing the reader in that time period, making them feel like an integral part of the past.

Ernaux examines the cultural construction of romantic love in L’occupation (2002; The Possession, 2008). She simultaneously admits to and battles a stereotypical self-image based on entries in a journal documenting her lover’s desertion. Her envy is exposed as an unhealthy preoccupation, and the dates of her writing once again mark the precise time when language became a potent tool for slicing open the truth.

The passage of time plays second fiddle to everything else in Annie Ernaux’s work. No other work compares to Les années (2008; The Years, 2017) in its emphasis on the influence of societal norms on individual lives. This work, her most ambitious to date, has earned her widespread renown and a legion of devoted fans and literary admirers. Some have labeled it “the first collective autobiography,” while others have hailed it as a groundbreaking “sociological epic” of the modern Western civilization.

To emphasize the impact of zeitgeist on her life, Ernaux switches from the first-person perspective of her own spontaneous recall to the third-person perspective of communal memory. She doesn’t have a Proustian-style emotive memory that can take her back to her childhood. Stories, melodies, and prevailing political ideologies shape our life. Also, these gatherings are over in a flash. Consequently, Ernaux has a hard time identifying the person she used to be. Memories from different people have blended into one another in Les années.

Annie Ernaux keeps going back to the same place: the roadblocks to seeing clearly. In Mémoire de fille (2016; A Girl’s Story, 2019), she recovers the processes of shame from a new viewpoint, demonstrating the unique power they have in her sociological analysis. That piece is about her coming to terms with her virginity loss in a summer camp in Orne, Normandy, near the end of the 1950s. The community rejects her because of the responses to her behavior, which she helps publicize.

The author’s decision to avoid confronting the trauma for half of her life has had detrimental impacts on her emotional and physical well-being. It’s a matter of “a different kind of shame from that of being the daughter of shop-and-café keepers. It is the shame of having once been proud of being an object of desire.” Her judgment is as harsh against the young lady she once was as it is toward those who have degraded her. As one pivotal paragraph puts it, “when you want to clarify a prevailing truth […] this is always missing: the lack of understanding of your experience at the moment when you make your experience.” The “opacity of the present” is the term used to describe this challenge.

Annie Ernaux’s conviction in literature’s potential to set people free is clear. Her writing is direct and unadorned by flowery prose. And when she describes the embarrassment, humiliation, envy, or inability to recognize who you are because of your class, she does it with tremendous bravery and clinical accuracy, she has accomplished something wonderful and lasting.

Source: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2022 – Biobibliography

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.