On 6th October 2022, Annie Ernaux was announced as the 119th winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the 17th woman laureate in the history of the prize. Ernaux is a beloved and iconic writer in France and has been tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for a few years now, yet despite her success in France and elsewhere in Europe she was relatively unknown outside academic contexts in the Anglophone world until the London-based independent press Fitzcarraldo Editions began to publish her work in translations by Alison L. Strayer and Tanya Leslie. By October 2020 Ernaux was Fitzcarraldo’s most published author, and at the time of writing the press has published eight of her works. This is also the third time that a “Fitzcarraldo author” has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (the first two were Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk, and as Anna Cafolla notes in a recent Guardian article, the press also recently published 2004 laureate Elfriede Jelinek). For a young press founded in the spirit of risk, the impact of such a prestigious award cannot be underestimated.
All of the works by Ernaux that Fitzcarraldo have published in English translation are “white covers”, classified as non-fiction (the “blue covers” are Fitzcarraldo’s fictional works), a categorisation that indicates both the autobiographical nature and the historical significance of Ernaux’s work. Ernaux’s award was, the committee notes, for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”, and indeed “collective” is a word frequently associated with Ernaux’s writing. From the “collective autobiography” The Years to the collective memory honoured through her personal experience in texts such as Happening and A Girl’s Story, Ernaux writes about her own life in a way that is inseparable from the time in which she has lived. The committee also mentioned Ernaux’s “clinical acuity”, a description of her writing that highlights her distinctive style: Ernaux writes deep and intense emotions with an observational composure that borders on detachment. In A Girl’s Story (translated by Tanya Leslie), Ernaux describes her own “minute attention to detail” regarding her relationships, and this attention to detail is as true of her writing style as it is of the content.
Almost all of Ernaux’s body of work is written as an attempt to order, make sense of, or immortalise her memories. The first of her books to be published by Fitzcarraldo in English translation was The Years in 2018, translated by Alison L. Strayer and awarded the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019. Widely regarded as her most important work, Ernaux’s opening line in The Years, “All the images will disappear”, both sets up and sums up her project: every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, bear witness, and claim a place in the world. Ernaux herself describes The Years as an “impersonal autobiography,” based on a collection of images and reflections, a narrative framed by photographs of the author at different points throughout her life. The girl and woman in the photographs is never explicitly named as Ernaux, but the series of photos provide the reference points through which her past – and that of her country – is narrated.
Perhaps the most harrowing of Ernaux’s works – and, to return to the Nobel committee’s summary, the most courageous – is Happening (translated by Tanya Leslie), in which Ernaux reconstructs her experience of a clandestine abortion in 1963, supplementing her memory of events with fragments of a journal she kept at the time. Ernaux makes frequent reference to both the act of writing and her sense of responsibility in sharing her story; specifically, she insists on the importance of articulating the reality of clandestine abortions, and the need to resist the complacency of remaining silent about past discriminations simply because they no longer happen. Ernaux demolishes such barriers of silencing and secrecy, putting into words her “extreme human experience” as both a chronicle of a brief period of her life in 1963 and a series of observations in parentheses which represent Ernaux’s reflections on living with the memory of the abortion that almost killed her, the process of writing about it, and how the narrative becomes a force of its own.
Common to both The Years and Happening, as well as to many other of Ernaux’s works, is a sense of responsibility: to record the experiences of her generation, and particularly the experience of women. This, for her, takes precedence over the potential reaction to her work, as she explains in a parenthetical statement in Happening:
“(I realize this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful. I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.)”
Far from writing a repellent or distasteful text, Ernaux displays immense generosity and compassion in sharing her story. Through the public articulation of her intimate experience, she fulfils a sense of moral responsibility to challenge the patriarchal structures that order her experience of the world.
Throughout her œuvre Ernaux looks back on pivotal moments or relationships with a detached observation that belies deep emotion, and offers a portrait of a particular time, place and milieu that shaped her. In A Girl’s Story (translated by Alison L. Strayer) she exposes what it is to be a woman from a particular background at a particular time in history, in The Years she chronicles the personal impact of major historical events of the twentieth century, in I Remain in Darkness (translated by Tanya Leslie) she explores her mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s, and in A Man’s Place (translated by Tanya Leslie) she offers intimate portraits of her family. These observations – often focusing on women’s subjugation and/or lack of autonomy over their own bodies – are never separate from her personal experience, whether this be the experience of sexual desire in Simple Passion (translated by Tanya Leslie) or of her traumatic illegal abortion in Happening. Indeed, Ernaux is convinced that “of one thing I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing” (Happening). By taking personal experience and offering it as literature, Ernaux both inscribes herself into history and uses her role as memoirist to give voice to a generation of anonymous women whose traumas have been systematically silenced.
Though Ernaux may be late to come to the attention of an Anglophone readership, her Nobel recognition was not an entirely unexpected or surprising choice. The prize notoriously favours European authors (indeed, Ernaux is the 16th French laureate) and in recent years has stated an intention to address its lack of women laureates (I might have ranted about this a few times). That Ernaux might be a good “fit” for the Nobel should not, however, detract from the importance of her work: a chronicler of her generation, a perspicacious observer of her own circumstances and the world that shaped her, and a writer with as much compassion as talent, Ernaux is an important author of our times whose work deftly blends the everyday and the momentous, the intimate and the universal.
Associate Professor of French and Translation
Department of Languages, Cultures and Visual Studies