French author Annie Ernaux won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday for combining fiction and autobiography in books that fearlessly explore her experiences as a working-class woman to explore life in France since the 1940s.
In more than 20 books published over five decades, Ernaux has explored deeply personal experiences and feelings (love, sex, abortion, shame) within a society divided by gender and class divisions.
After half a century of championing feminist ideals, Ernaux said “it doesn’t seem to me that women have been equal in freedom, in power,” and she strongly defended women’s rights to abortion and contraception.
“I will fight until the last breath so that women can choose to be a mother or not to be. It is a fundamental right,” she said at a news conference in Paris. Ernaux’s first book, “Cleaned Out,” was about her own illegal abortion before it was legalized in France.
The Swedish Academy that awards the prize said Ernaux, 82, was recognized for the books’ “courage and clinical acumen” rooted in her small-town setting in the Normandy region of north-western France.
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, said Ernaux “is not afraid to confront hard truths.”
“She writes about things that no one else writes about, for example, her abortion, her jealousy, her experiences as an abandoned lover, etc. I mean, really tough experiences,” she told The Associated Press after the award announcement in Stockholm. “And she gives words for these experiences that are very simple and striking. They are short books, but really moving.”
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “Annie Ernaux has been writing for 50 years the novel of the collective and intimate memory of our country. Her voice is that of women’s freedom, and that of the forgotten of the century”.
While Macron praised Ernaux for his Nobel, she has been ruthless with him. A supporter of left-wing social justice causes, she mocked Macron’s background in banking and said her first term as president failed to advance the cause of French women.
Ernaux’s books present uncompromising portrayals of life’s most intimate moments, including sexual encounters, illness, and the death of his parents. Olsson said that Ernaux’s work was often “written in simple, clean language”. She said that she had used the term “ethnologist herself” rather than fiction writer.
Dan Simon, Ernaux’s longtime US editor at Seven Stories Press, said that in the early years, “she was adamant that we not categorize her books at all. She didn’t allow us to refer to them as fiction and she didn’t allow us to refer to them as non-fiction.”
Ultimately, he said, Ernaux has created “a genre of fiction in which nothing is invented.”
“She’s a great storyteller of her own life,” Simon said.
Ernaux worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. His first book was “Les armoires vides” in 1974 (published in English as “Cleaned Out”). Two more autobiographical novels followed: “Ce qu’ils disent ou rien” (“What they say goes”) and “La femme gelée” (“The Frozen Woman”), before moving on to more overtly autobiographical books.
In the book that made her famous, “La place” (“The place of a man”), published in 1983 and about her relationship with her father, she wrote: “Without lyrical reminiscences, without triumphant displays of irony. This neutral writing style comes naturally to me.”
“La honte” (“Shame”), published in 1997, explored childhood trauma, while “L’événement” (“Happening”), from 2000, dealt with illegal abortion as “Cleansed”.
Her most critically acclaimed book is “Les années” (“The Years”), published in 2008. Described by Olsson as “the first collective autobiography,” it describes Ernaux herself and French society in general from the end of the World War II to the 21st century. century. Its English translation was a finalist for the International Booker Prize in 2019.
Ernaux’s 2016 “Mémoire de fille” (“Story of a Girl”) follows a young woman’s coming of age in the 1950s, while “Passion Simple” (“Simple Passion”) and “Se perdre » (“Getting Lost”) traces Ernaux’s intense romance with a Russian diplomat.
Ernaux has described facing scorn from France’s literary establishment because she is a woman from a working-class background.
“My job is political,” he said at the news conference. She described growing up in a non-elite environment, a world of “people above you” and the seeming impossibility of becoming a famous writer.
The literature prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, as well as too male-dominated. Last year’s prize winner, Tanzanian-born, UK-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was only the sixth African-born Nobel laureate in literature.
More than a dozen French writers have won the prize for literature, although Ernaux is the first French woman to win, and only the seventeenth woman among the 119 Nobel laureates in literature.
Olsson said the academy was working to diversify its range, drawing on literary experts from different regions and languages.
“We try to broaden the concept of literature, but it’s the quality that counts, ultimately,” he said.
Ernaux said she wasn’t sure what she would do with the 10 million Swedish kronor ($900,000) Nobel prize money.
“I have a problem with money,” he told reporters. “Money is not a goal for me. … I don’t know how to spend it well.”
A week of Nobel Prize announcements started on Monday with the Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the prize in medicine for uncovering secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key information about our immune system.
The Frenchman Alain Aspect, the American John F. Clauser and the Austrian Anton Zeilinger won the physics prize on Tuesday for their work showing that tiny particles can maintain a connection with one another even when they’re apart, a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to the Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, and the Danish scientist Morten Meldal for developing a way to “bind molecules” that can be used to explore cells, map DNA, and design drugs to attack cancer and other diseases.
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the one for economics on Monday.
Prizes will be awarded on December 10. The prize money comes from a legacy left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.