A few days ago, French writer Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Swedish Academy. For many in the English-speaking literary world, this comes as a bit of a surprise; numerous institutions and literary personalities, including the New York Times, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman, expected the Indian-born British-American novelist Salman Rushdie to win, especially after the recent attack on the long-targeted author re-ignited concerns over free speech in the arts. And in the days leading up to the Swedish Academy’s announcement, Rushdie was favored with 8:1 odds. But Ernaux has enjoyed popularity and critical acclaim in her native France for decades, and now English-language readers are racing to catch up (including myself).
Ernaux was born in 1940, in Lillebonne, a small town in the north of France. A few years later, her family moved to a working-class neighborhood in Yvetot, where her parents ran a café-and-grocery shop and where Annie attended a private Catholic school for girls. Her peers at school were mostly from middle-class backgrounds, and it was here that she first encountered prejudices against the working class, a theme that she has wrestled with for most of her literary career.
After hearing she had won the Prize the same day it was announced (for the Swedish Academy had no way of contacting her beforehand), Ernaux expressed how “it represents something huge, on behalf of those I come from,” – the factory workers and farmers whom she grew up with and who are rarely seen in French high literature.
She left home at 18, worked at a summer camp, and then as an au pair in London, before returning to France to study literature at the University of Rouen. She later married (and then divorced) and took a job teaching French at a secondary school. After visiting her dying father in 1964, Ernaux left Normandy for good and moved her family to the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise. She lives there still.
These experiences – of work, of love, of prejudice, of clambering up the social ladder – have permeated Ernaux’s work to an extreme degree. All writers take inspiration from their lives and experiences, but Ernaux has earned special attention and acclaim for her willingness to speak about her own life, plainly and truthfully, in a style that Academy member Anders Olsson described as “scraped clean.” In 1974, she published her first novel, Les Armoires Vides (Cleaned Out), a fictionalized account of her back-alley abortion in 1963, when the procedure was still illegal in France.
Shortly after Les Armoires Vides, Ernaux abandoned fiction writing altogether and focused exclusively on autobiographies, diaries, and memoirs. Many of these works – including 1983’s La Place (A Man’s Place), an autobiographical reflection on her relationship with her father that became her first major success, and 1987’s Une Femme (A Woman’s Story), which tells the story of her mother’s death – constitute a new form of nonfiction life writing, which critics have called autosociobiographical texts. Ernaux’s works blend intimate memories of her life and her family with sociological portraits of the social milieu around her, which is why Angelique Chrisafis of the Guardian has called her “the greatest chronicler of French society in the last 50 years – a kind of guardian of collective memory.”
Her magnum opus, Les Années (The Years), tells the story of her own life in the third person, while also tracking the course of French history from the close of the second world war to the opening of the twenty-first century. And in 2001, she returned to her abortion with the memoir L’Événement (Happening), achieving an even greater honesty than Les Armoires Vides. Speaking with Chrisafis in 2019, Ernaux explained how she wanted “to recreate the truth of it exactly as it was in the moment” and refused to fill in details she did not remember with fictional flair.
Why Did She Win?
Ernaux has won many European literary awards, and her works are undeniably valuable additions to the French canon, but why exactly was she chosen for the Nobel Prize? Every year, the Swedish Academy explains their reasoning for selecting their winner in a succinct official statement: Ernaux was awarded the Prize, “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
Olsson added that “when she…reveals the agony of the experience of class, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or inability to see who you are, she has achieved something admirable and enduring.” Ernaux is also one of only a handful of laureates who writes nonfiction prose, rather than fiction or poetry.
Not just any author can be considered for the Prize; when Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel laid out the plans for the Prizes, he specified one award for the person who, “in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” He also advised that the candidate should have bestowed “the greatest benefit on mankind.”
Academy members have dissected and reinterpreted these two guidelines countless times throughout the history of the Prizes – “greatest benefit” has sometimes been taken to mean artistic experimentation (as with T.S. Eliot) and sometimes to mean popular accessibility (as with Pearl Buck); “idealistic direction” has encompassed everything from Rudyard Kipling’s conservative faith in family and order, to the sexually subversive plays of Elfriede Jelinek.
These are, of course, difficult things to measure, and the choice of a winner ultimately boils down to the preferences of the Swedish Academy, which has been criticized since its inception as Eurocentric, skewed towards the works of Scandinavian writers, unable to speak for the global literary community as a whole. But by these two guidelines, Ernaux shines.
Her life-long commitment to the sometimes-uncomfortable truths of French life is nothing short of “idealistic” – she told The Guardian, “It’s the work of a novelist, to tell the truth…Sometimes I don’t know what truth I’m looking for, but it’s always a truth that I’m seeking.” And, in France at least, her literary and social impact is deeply cherished: Édouard Louis, a fellow writer of working-class origins, admires how “she made up her own [definition of literature]” and “made space for working-class people in literature in a new, contemporary way.”
A Writer for Our Time
Louis’s comments underscore an important point: despite the Swedish Academy’s insistence that their decisions are not political, the contemporary political situation is always at play in what people write, what people read, and how those works are understood. Perhaps anticipating criticism for not selecting Rushdie, organizers emphasized to CNN that the award is given for literary quality and not to send a message to the world, yet Ernaux’s selection sends messages of its own.
Months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, we have a Nobel laureate whose career began by telling her own abortion story. As pro-business policies rise to prominence on the European continent, including in Macron’s France, we have a Nobel laureate whose mother worked in a margarine factory and who understands how meaningful her victory is for the workers. Ernaux is, among all else, a Nobel Laureate for her time.
You may have noticed that most of the links I provided will not take you to Amazon. This is because as big an accomplishment as this award is for Ernaux, it is perhaps an even bigger one for her publisher, Seven Stories Press. This small-scale publisher, dedicated to political non-fiction, works in translation, and children’s literature, was founded in 1995 by seven authors, including Ernaux (and Octavia E. Butler!). They are the foremost purveyor of Ernaux’s works in English, and you would be hard-pressed to find an English translation of her books not published by Seven Stories.
The Press – and Ernaux’s long-time translators Alison L. Strayer and Tanya Leslie – has brought the new Nobel laureate to the Anglophone world, and deserves due credit; you can find most of her oeuvre on their website here (but unfortunately not Les Armoires Vides). And the Paris Review, to commemorate her win, has unlocked a series of diary entries Ernaux published with them in 1988. The entries record her love affair with a Soviet diplomat with the same searing, unadorned honesty that earned her the Prize. You can read those for free here.
For more author spotlights, keep reading here.