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‘A woman who writes’: Meet Annie Ernaux, winner of 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature – Firstpost

French author Annie Ernaux has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022. Twitter/@NobelPrize
The name of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature winner is out – French author Annie Ernaux.
The committee said the 82-year-old Ernaux was awarded for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory” and “consistently and from different angles examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class”.
This year’s #NobelPrize laureate in literature Annie Ernaux has said that writing is a political act, opening our eyes for social inequality. For this purpose she uses language as “a knife”, as she calls it, to tear apart the veils of imagination. pic.twitter.com/TQm6rxjvMp
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 6, 2022

Ernaux is the first French literature laureate since Patrick Modiano in 2014 and just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates.
The prize is worth $915,000.
BBC quoted Ernaux, the first French woman to win the most coveted prize in literature, as telling Swedish broadcaster SVT the win was “a great responsibility”.
“I was very surprised… I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer,” she said. “It is a great responsibility… to testify, not necessarily in terms of my writing, but to testify with accuracy and justice in relation to the world.”
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.
Let’s take a closer look at the woman who describes herself as “an ethnologist of herself”.
Early life
According to her website, Ernaux was born in Normandy’s Lillebonne in 1940.
Her parents later moved to Yvetot where they kept a café and grocery shop in a working-class district.
Ernaux’s website says she studied at a private Catholic secondary school in Yvetot, where for the first time she experienced shame of her working-class parents and milieu after  encountering girls from more middle-class backgrounds.
At age 18, in 1958, Ernaux left home for the first time to care for children at a summer camp, the website states.
As per The Guardian, Ernaux studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school.
She was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance from 1977 to 2000.
Works and writing style
Ernaux put out her debut novel Les Armoires Vides in 1974 – a harrowing account of an abortion that she kept secret from her family.
She divorced in 1984 and raised her sons alone.
Her literary breakthrough came through her fourth book La Place (1983) with a 100-page “dispassionate portrait of her father and the entire social milieu that had fundamentally formed him”, the academy said.
In the book that made her name she wrote about her father: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral writing style comes to me naturally.”
Books by French author Annie Ernaux on display at the Swedish Academy. AFP
In that book, Ernaux “distances herself from ‘the poetry of memory’ and advocates une écriture plate: plain writing which in solidarity with the father evinces his world and his language,” the academy said.
Her book A Simple Passion, depicting Ernaux’s affair with a married foreign diplomat, has become a best-seller in France, according to The Telegraph.
Reviewing her work in The Guardian, Ankita Chakraborty wrote Ernaux “becomes a kind of totem for lovers: a manual to help them find their centre when, like Ernaux, they are lost in love”.
“The quality that distinguishes Ernaux’s writing on sex from others in her milieu is the total absence of shame. Desire in her brings forth more desire, the impulse of death, happiness, and even past trauma, like her abortion, but never humiliation. Reading her is to thoroughly purge yourself of the notion that shame could be a possible outcome of wanting sex.”
Olson said Ernaux “manifestly believes in the liberating force of writing”.
Her 2000 novel Happening, depicts the consequences of illegal abortion.
An adaptation the novel, 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.
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.
A Girl’s Story from 2016 follows a young woman’s coming of age in the 1950s.
However, she only gained international recognition after the publication of Les Années (2008) was translated in 2017.
The book describes herself and wider French society from the end of World War II to the present day.
Unlike in previous books, Ernaux writes about herself in the third person, calling her character “she” rather than “I”. The book received numerous awards and honours.
“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.
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.
Ernaux describes her style as “flat writing” — aiming for an very objective view of the events she is describing, unshaped by florid description or overwhelming emotions.
According to her website, “Her works overall have received the French language prize and the Marguerite Yourcenar prize, as well as publication of her almost complete works to date in the Quarto edition by Gallimard in 2011 (Ernaux is the first woman writer to be published in this series in her lifetime). In 2014 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cergy-Pontoise.”
‘A woman who writes’
Ernaux described herself to AFP earlier this year as “a woman who writes — that’s all”.
Ernaux was speaking in Cannes where she was presenting “The Super 8 Years”, a documentary drawn from home videos of her family life during the decade that made her one of the leading voices in French literature.
The recordings were made between 1972 and 1981 by her ex-husband, now deceased, and show Ernaux torn between married bourgeois living, and her burgeoning calling as a writer.
“These 10 years were the crucial years of my life because they confirmed my desire to write,” she told AFP.
“And also because I gained my freedom. I suffered without that freedom, even if I was in a loving marriage.
“It is the story of my life but also that of thousands of women who have also been in search of freedom and emancipation.”
“The Super 8 Years” was Ernaux’s directing debut, but her books have long served other filmmakers.
“The Happening”, based on another account of her youthful abortion, won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
The same year also saw an adaptation of her romance “Simple Passion”, as well as a documentary, “I Have Loved Living Here”, about new towns in France that uses her writings as a voiceover.
Annie Ernaux at Cannes on 23 May. AFP
But Ernaux said she was not interested in working in film herself.
“I write with internal images, the images of memory,” she said. “The process of writing for cinema is very different.”
“The Happening” proved very timely, released just as the United States Supreme Court reversed its ruling on abortions, and allowing them to once again be criminalised.
Ernaux was not shocked.
“One could expect this conservative wave, because when women take power — or when their voices are elevated — men close ranks with each other,” she said.
But she was pleased to see the impact of the film, since the original book, published in 2000, “didn’t make many waves at the time of its release when feminism was in a dip”.
Though many would argue otherwise, she does not see herself as an icon.
“I’m just a woman, a woman who writes — that’s all,” she said.
She rejoices, however, at the wave of feminism triggered by MeToo and other movements.
“Women are no longer willing to let things happen to them,” she said.
She spoke of her “real joy” at this new generation of activists.
“When the political scene is not too joyful, one thing that gives life, that pushes the boundaries, is feminism.”
‘A courageous woman’
“It’s a long path that she makes in her life,” Swedish Academy member Anders Olsson told Reuters.
“She’s a courageous woman.”
Publisher Jacques Testard, speaking to The Guardian, described Ernaux as a very important feminist writer, and said The Years, the first book of hers he read, was “an absolutely phenomenal book, undoubtedly a masterpiece”.
Testard said Ernaux “invents a form, does something genuinely new with literature; it’s an intersection of the novel and autobiography and non-fiction”.
Testard said Ernaux’s “literary project has been to write about her life and to get at the truth of it somehow … I think she’s written about every important event in her life, from becoming aware of what social classes are as a child, to the death of her father and the death of her mother, to the illegal abortion she had in France in the 1960s, to her first sexual experiences and then to writing about love and passion and desire,” he said.
“She’s been doing this for 50 years and there is a very genuine clarity to her work.”
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”.
Similarly to when Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize, the recognition given to Ernaux’s work would attract readers in English who may have overlooked her in the past, he said.
“She’s been a very important contributor in terms of memoir and autobiographical work,” he 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 US 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, and was now rushing several of her backlist titles to press.
Publisher Dan Simons said in a statement Ernaux “has stood up for herself as a woman, as someone who came from the French working class, unbowed, for decade after decade”.
Annie Ernaux describes herself as a ‘woman who writes.’
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 was “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”.
Ernaux is just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates.
Last year’s winner, Tanzanian-born, UK-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was only the sixth Nobel literature laureate born in Africa, and the prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, as well as too male-dominated.
“We try first of all to broaden the scope of the Nobel Prize, but our focus must be on literary quality,” Olsson said.
The prizes to Gurnah in 2021 and US poet Louise Glück in 2020 helped the literature prize move on from years of controversy and scandal.
In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel literature committee, and sparked an exodus of members. The academy revamped itself but faced more criticism for giving the 2019 literature award to Austria’s Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.
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.
While many previous literature winners were already widely read before landing the prize, the award generates huge media attention and can catapult lesser known authors to global fame while spurring book sales even for literary superstars.
Some prizes have gone to writers from outside mainstream literary genres, including French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1927, Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1953 and American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016.
With inputs from agencies
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