French author Annie Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for “the courage and clinical acuity” in her largely autobiographical books examining personal memory and social inequality.
In explaining its choice, the Swedish Academy said Ernaux, 82, “consistently and from different angles examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class”.
Ernaux, the first French woman to win the literature prize, said winning the award was “immense”.
She has previously said that writing is a political act, opening our eyes to social inequality. “And for this purpose she uses language as ‘a knife’, as she calls it, to tear apart the veils of imagination,” the academy said.
Her debut novel was “Les Armoires Vides” in 1974 but she gained international recognition following the publication of “Les Années” in 2008, translated into English as “The Years” in 2017.
“It is her most ambitious project, which has given her an international reputation and a raft of followers and literary disciples,” the academy said of that book.
By substituting in her narrative “the spontaneous memory of the self with the third person of collective memory”, the academy said of “The Years”, Ernaux merges together the personal and collective memory.
Born to a modest family of grocers from Normandy in northern France, Ernaux writes in a frank, direct style about class and how she struggled to adopt the codes and habits of the French bourgeoisie while staying true to her working class background.
“It’s a long path that she makes in her life,” Swedish Academy member Anders Olsson told Reuters. “She’s a courageous woman.”
A film adaptation of Ernaux’s 2000 novel “Happening”, about her experiences of having an abortion when it was still illegal in France in the 1960s, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2021.
“I did not imagine at the time that 22 years later, the right to abortion would be challenged,” Ernaux told reporters in Paris. “Until my last breath, I will fight for women’s right to choose whether they want to be a mother or not.”
Ernaux also touched on the political power won by the far right in countries around Europe in recent years, saying “the extreme right in history has never been favourable to women”.
The academy said her “clinically restrained narrative” about a 23-year-old narrator’s abortion remained a masterpiece among her works.
“It is a ruthlessly honest text, where in parentheses she adds reflections in a vitally lucid voice, addressing herself and the reader in one and the same flow,” the academy said.
Jason Whittaker, head of English and Journalism at University of Lincoln in Britain, said the prize should bring more attention to the genre of women’s autobiography, “which is very often overlooked in what is still a male-dominated sphere”.
French novelist Annie Ernaux talks to the media after being announced as the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Cergy-Pontoise, France October 6, 2022. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
Similarly to when Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize, the recognition given to Ernaux’s work would attract readers in English, he said.
“She’s been a very important contributor in terms of memoir and autobiographical work,” Whittaker told Reuters. “In terms of her contribution to global literature, it’s really important in placing innovation and interesting techniques in women’s memoir at the centre of literary writing.”
Seven Stories Press, Ernaux’s U.S. publisher of 31 years, said it published the English translation of her most recent book, “Getting Lost”, just two days before she won the Nobel prize, and was now rushing several of her backlist titles to press.
Seven Stories Press Publisher Dan Simon said in a statement that Ernaux “has stood up for herself as a woman, as someone who came from the French working class, unbowed, for decade after decade”.
In picking Ernaux, he said, the Swedish Academy had made a brave choice of “someone who writes unabashedly about her sexual life, about women’s rights and her experience and sensibility as a woman”.
Former French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot wrote on Twitter that Ernaux is “a writer who has put the autobiographical mode in its cold analytical way at the heart of her career. One may not agree with her political options but one must salute a powerful and moving work”.
A NOBEL ‘BADGE’
The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were established in the will of Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel, whose invention of dynamite made him rich and famous, and have been awarded since 1901.
The prize is worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($915,000).
The prize, widely seen as the world’s most prestigious literary award, was won last year by Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Some prizes have gone to writers from outside mainstream literary genres, including French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1927, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1953 and American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016.
Readers in France said they’d been waiting for Ernaux to win. “It seems rather a foregone conclusion,” said Marie Roisson, 48. “What I liked among Annie Ernaux’s works – is the work she did on becoming – to manage to enter another place in a society from where she did not come, and despite the difficulty, to succeed.”
Ernaux suggested winning was a mixed blessing.
“I always said that I did not want to get the Nobel prize,” she told reporters at her French publisher Gallimard’s office.
“Because once you get it, afterwards you always have that badge attached to your name, and I fear that it could mean one no longer evolves once one’s statue is made.”