Nobel Prize winner 2022 for Literature: Who is French author Annie Ernaux?


On Thursday, the Swedish Academy announced the 2022 winner of the Nobel Literature Prize, French author Annie Ernaux, “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”, said the committee. She is reportedly the first French woman to win the Literature prize and said winning is a “responsibility”. 

Speaking to the press after the announcement, the committee members talked about the author. Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 and grew up in a small town in Normandy, her setting was “poor but ambitious”. They added, her work in literary work dealing with her class experience and rural background began early as a “memory project and she wanted to widen the boundary of literature beyond fiction.” 

Ernaux is an 82-year-old French author whose work is mostly autobiographical. The Academy explained its choice and said that the author’s work has, “consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by disparities regarding gender, language and class.” In 1974, she wrote her first novel named Les Armoires Vides. 

However, it was years before she gained international recognition. She achieved this following the release of her book, in 2008 named Les Années. The book was later translated into ‘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,” said the Academy referring to this book. It has also been called the first “collective autobiography”. 

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She has a “consciously plain literary style” and she describes herself as an “ethnologist of herself” rather than a writer of fiction. Ernaux made a breakthrough with her 4th book, La Place, in 1983, a 100-page book where “she gives an elucidating portrait of her father and the social background that formed him,” said the academy.  

“In her portrait, she applies what would become her restraint and ethically motivated aesthetic where her style has been forged hard and transparent”, describing the Nobel laureate, said the academy. It was this work with which she launched her “autobiographical prose works with wider social context”. 

In an adaption of her novel released in the year 2000, Happening, she writes about her experiences of having an abortion in the 1960s when it was still illegal in France. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2021. 

The book was about a 23-year-old narrator’s “clinically restrained narrative” of illegal abortion and is still recognised as a masterpiece among her works published. As per the academy, “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”.  

In her works “the spontaneous memory of self is substituted by the third person of collective memory,” said the academy. The French author’s work surrounding the social perspective on the mechanisms of “shame” has a special force. As per the academy, in the 2016 book, A Girl’s Story, she uncovers this aspect from another angle. 

Annie Ernaux discovers her self-image as a young woman at the end of the 1950s when she loses her virginity in a summer colony in Normandy. “The reactions to her behaviour, which she contributes to makes known, have the effect that she is expelled from the community,” said the academy. 

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They added that for half of her lifetime she had chosen not to deal with the painful event but now the time has come, she said. To elucidate the academy spoke about a passage from the 2016 novel, which read, “When you want to clarify a prevailing truth this is always missing, the lack of understanding of your experience at a moment when you make your experience”. 

“Therefore, it is very difficult for her to recognize the person she once was”, said the committee. 

They describe the French author’s work as “uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean…She with courage and clinical acuity uncovers the contradictions of social experience, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or inability to see who you are. She has achieved something admirable and enduring”.    

Till now the Nobel prize in Literature has been awarded to 118 people between 1901 and 2021. However, the prizes were missed in the years – 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1943. 

The reason for these seven “missing” prizes has been attributed to the two world wars and the academy choosing to reserve the prize money if they find “none of the works under consideration” and match the aim for bestowing this honour to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

(With inputs from agencies)

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