The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
Born in 1940, Ernaux lived in a small town of Yvetot in Normandy, where her parents had a combined grocery store and café. Her setting was poor but ambitious, with parents who had pulled themselves up from proletarian survival to a bourgeois life, where the memories of beaten earth floors never disappeared but where politics was seldom broached.
In her writing, Ernaux consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class. Her path to authorship was long and arduous.
Her memory work dealing with her rural background appeared early as a project attempting to widen the boundaries of literature beyond fiction in the narrow sense. Despite her classic, distinctive style, she declares that she is an “ethnologist of herself” rather than a writer of fiction.
Annie Ernaux’s debut was ‘Les armoires’ vides (1974; ‘Cleaned Out’, 1990), and already in this work she started her investigation of her Norman background, but it was her fourth book, ‘La place’ (1983; ‘A Man’s Place’, 1992), that delivered her literary breakthrough. In a scant hundred pages she produced a dispassionate portrait of her father and the entire social milieu that had fundamentally formed him.
The portrait employed her developing restrained and ethically motivated aesthetics, where her style has been forged hard and transparent. It flagged a series of autobiographical prose works one step beyond the imaginary worlds of fiction. And even if there is still a narrative voice, it is neutral and as far as possible anonymised.
Moreover, Ernaux has inserted reflexions about her writing, where she 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 concept écriture plate is related to le nouveau roman in France from the 1950s and the striving towards what Roland Barthes called a “zero degree of writing”. There is however also an important political dimension in Ernaux’s language. Her writing is always shadowed by a feeling of treason against the social class from which she departs. She has said that writing is a political act, opening our eyes for social inequality. And for this purpose she uses language as “a knife”, as she calls it, to tear apart the veils of imagination. In this violent yet chaste ambition to reveal the truth, she is also an heir of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
A masterpiece from her production is the clinically restrained narrative about a 23-year-old narrator’s illegal abortion, ‘L’événement’ (2000; ‘Happening’, 2001). It is a first-person narrative, and the distance to the historical self is not stressed as in many other works. The I is made an object anyway through the moral restrictions of a repressive society and the patronising attitude of people she is confronted with.
It is a ruthlessly honest text, where in parentheses she adds reflexions in a vitally lucid voice, addressing herself and the reader in one and the same flow. In the spaces in between, we are in the time of writing, 25 years after the “event” took place, making even the reader intensely part of what once happened.
Annie Ernaux manifestly believes in the liberating force of writing. Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean. And when she with great courage and clinical acuity 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.