The French author Annie Ernaux has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, collective restraints of personal memory.”
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee at the Swedish Academy, the body that administers the prize, said of Ernaux that, “in her oeuvre, she consistently explores the experience of a life marked by great disparities regarding gender, language, and class.”
He continued: “Her literary work dealing with her class experience and rural background began early, as a memory project with the ambition of widening the boundaries of literature beyond fiction in the narrow sense. In its reconstruction of the past, it leans on Marcel Proust's À la recherche de temps perdu, but she guides the search in an entirely new direction. Despite her consciously plain literary style, she declares that she is an ‘ethnologist of herself,’ rather than a writer of fiction.”
Ernaux was born in 1940 and grew up in Yvetot, a small town in rural Normandy that was nearly destroyed by the German army during World War II. There, according to a statement published on the Nobel Prizes website, her parents owned and operated a combined grocery store and café. “Her setting was poor but ambitious, with parents who had pulled themselves up from proletarian survival to a bourgeois life, where the memories of beaten earth floors never disappeared but where politics was seldom broached,” the statement reads, adding that Ernaux's “path to authorship was long and arduous.”
Ernaux is regarded—and now, with the world's premiere literary prize, cemented—as one of the most significant memoirists of the 20th and 21st centuries, and in an interview with PW published in 1996, Ernaux spoke about her feelings on memoir, the writing of self, and what is now called autofiction. “Displaying one‘s feelings in a book is immodest,” she said. “It's like crying on the shoulder of the reader.” She added: “It doesn't matter to me if something I‘ve written is called a novel or autobiography. It's readers who decide if what they're reading is one or the other.”
The Works of Annie Ernaux
Many of Ernaux's books have been translated from the original French and published in the United States. Two new translations, of Do What They Say or Else (Univ. of Nebraska) and Getting Lost (Seven Stories), were published this fall. Seven Stories Press founder and publisher Dan Simon, who has published 12 books by Ernaux in translation over the past 31 years, said that Seven Stories will go back to press today for “around 100,000 copies altogether of various titles.”
Seven Stories—named for the first seven titles acquired by the press, one of which was a book by Ernaux—will publish a new translation of Le Jeune Homme, by Alison Strayer, in the fall of 2023, with another title in 2024 to be announced. Yale Press will also publish a new Strayer translation of a work by Ernaux, Look at the Lights, My Love, next year, and has moved the publication date up from fall to spring.
"Congratulations first of all to Annie Ernaux, who has stood up for herself as a woman, as someone who came from the French working class, unbowed, for decade after decade,” Simon wrote in an email to PW. “Also congratulations to the Nobel Prize for Literature Committee, which here makes a brave choice by choosing someone who writes unabashedly about her sexual life, about women's rights and her experience and sensibility as a woman—and for whom writing is life itself.”
The Academy, in its statement, cited Ernaux's fourth book, A Man's Place, as “her literary breakthrough,” noting: “In a scant hundred pages she produced a dispassionate portrait of her father and the entire social milieu that had fundamentally formed him. The portrait employed her developing restrained and ethically motivated aesthetics, where her style has been forged hard and transparent. It flagged a series of autobiographical prose works one step beyond the imaginary worlds of fiction. And even if there is still a narrative voice, it is neutral and as far as possible anonymized.”
A subsequent book, A Woman's Story, a portrait of Ernaux's mother, “offers significant elucidations on the nature of Ernaux's writings, shifting between fiction, sociology and history,” the Academy said. “In its severe brevity it is a wonderful tribute to a strong woman, who more than the father had been able to maintain her dignity, often in fraught conditions. In her relationship to her mother, shame and onerous silence are not present in the same acute way.”
With Shame, the Academy said, Ernaux brought “a continuation of the portrait of her father in its attempt to explain the sudden rage of the father against her mother at one particular moment in the past. The first line is a veritable whiplash: ‘My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.’ As always, Ernaux seeks to exceed the limit of the tolerable.” The Academy also described Happening, the “clinically restrained narrative about a 23-year-old narrator's illegal abortion,” as a “masterpiece” in which “the distance to the historical self is not stressed as in many other works,” and The Years as “her most ambitious project, which has given her an international reputation and a raft of followers and literary disciples.”
The State of the Nobel Prize in Literature
In an open question and answer session following the announcement of the prize, reporters questioned the present members of the Academy about the geo- and sociopolitical implications of the decision. A reporter from the Nordic Chinese Times asked if, considering Ernaux's writing on abortion and that “nowadays, the world is facing a lot of challenges,” if the Academy had any “specific message you want to deliver to the whole world” with the choice of Ernaux.
A reporter from the AP, noting that the Academy had once again awarded the prize to a writer from Europe—the region that has dominated the list of laureates since the prize was established in 1901—asked if the body had “anything to say to the people in North America, South America, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, who have yet to see one of their authors represented here?” (Writers from each of those regions have, in fact, won the prize, but in far smaller quantities, and often with complicating factors; for instance, two white South African writers, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, have won the prize, whereas only two Black writers—Wole Soyinka, in 1986, and last year's laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah—from the entire African continent have ever won the prize.)
In his response, Olsson reasserted the Academy's intent to avoid delivering any political message, an intent perhaps underlined by the fact that neither Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov nor the still-recovering Salman Rushdie—both of whom had been mentioned by pundits as deserving of the prize—was honored.
“We concentrate on literature and literary quality, and we don't have any more ‘message to the world,’ Olsson said. “But it's also very important to us, of course, that the laureate has a universal consequence in her work—that it can reach everyone. And in that respect, I think, the message is that this is literature for everyone.”
He added: “We have many, many different criteria, and you cannot satisfy all of them. We can only be sure that what we strive for—that is, literary quality every year—you have to satisfy that criterion. But one year, we gave the prize to a non-European writer, Abdulrazak Gurnah. This year, we give the prize to a woman. In both these cases, I think we have very few laureates, as you know, in the past. We try, of course, to broaden the scope of the Nobel Prize. But our focus must be on literary quality first of all.”
This story has been updated with further information.