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Do You Know Annie Ernaux, the newest Nobel Laureate in Literature?

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

One more writer to add to my to-be-read list!

Annie Ernaux. Photo: Simple Wikipedia

You can never read enough or know enough!

I have been a voracious reader since the time I could hold a book. Many literature classes in college required me to read one book a week. Reading is my joy and my passion.

So I think I know a lot of authors, but in the scheme of things, I know very few.

Do you know Annie Ernaux?

I did not, and she is yet another author of influence that I'll be adding to my reading list. If the world has named her body of work as worthy of note, I need to know it.

(It made me feel slightly better to have been ignorant of Ernaux's work when I read a Twitter post from Alex Marshall who reported that the Nobel Board had asked readers how many had read a work by Ernaux, and only 15.8% of 4000 respondents answered "yes." Apparently, that's a pretty good number for Nobel prize winners! And it doesn't hurt as much to know that I'm in the 84.2% who haven't read her before!)

Nobel-Prize winner for literature

On October 6, 2022, Annie Ernaux was named the year's Nobel Prize winner for literature.

She is a French writer, eighty-two years of age who made her first "splash" in the literary world of books with Cleaned Out, an autobiographical novel looking at her life to that point, and the decisions that led her to make the choices she did. Based on her own life, the book included details of an illegal abortion.

She is, perhaps, best known for Happening, published in 2000, a brutally honest account of the abortion which was later made into a film. It encouraged women all over France to share their stories. In 2001, Emily Eakin, a critic for the New York Times described Ernaux's brutally honest writing techniques as that of a military strategist:

"With the dispassion and efficiency of a military strategist, she ambushes her past, prying it from its refuge in nostalgia and oblivion and holding it up naked for all to see.''

Annie Ernaux doesn't skirt issues and doesn't ask for sympathy. She candidly writes of shame, of her failing marriage, and of her hot and tempestuous affairs. Critics applaud her unique approach to memoir, saying

"Ernaux’s autobiographical novels defy “the demands of her genre — the desire for melodramatic intimate revelation and the smoothness of fictional tale-telling,” Claire Messud wrote in The Times in 1998. The books instead “offer a searing authenticity and reveal the slipperiness of much that we call memoir.”

Combining her story with the history of a country

One of Ernaux's most beloved books is The Years. Shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2019, The Years is both a personal and a public memoir, combining seventy years of the author's life with the corresponding events of the country as a whole.

Edmund White in a review said that The Years was

"an autobiography unlike any you have ever read."

I have to admit I'm intrigued by the idea of juxtaposing the personal trajectory of your life with that of your country's. Sounds interesting.

Publishers can reject great talent

Writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers, take heart!

When Ernaux was in college, she prepared a book proposal for a publisher. She was told that her work was "too ambitious."

Sadly, Ernaux put aside her author ambition until she was working as a French teacher, balancing marriage and raising two children. Then she began to tackle head-on her past abortion, writing her book in secret because she was sure her husband wouldn't approve.

He didn't. He suggested that if she was capable of writing an entire book in secret while doing her other duties, she was capable of doing all kinds of other nefarious things, like cheating on him.

All is fair in love and war.

Ernaux went on to write and publish about her failing marriage.

Women winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature

The Nobel prizes were first given out in 1901. The prize recognizes not a single work, but an author's lifetime "oeuvre." Since the first Nobel was awarded 121 years ago, only seventeen women have won the prize, with Louise Glück, the poet from the United States winning in 2020.


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