In honoring Annie Ernaux, the literature Nobel Prize gets it exactly right

On the one hand, it couldn’t be more up-to-date. Annie Ernaux, the 82-year-old French writer who received the Nobel Prize in Literature this morning, is perhaps best known — at least in the United States — for her 2000 book Happening, which chronicles the illegal abortion she undergoes underwent in 1963 at the age of 23 and inspired Audrey Diwan to direct her film of the same name. The film was released here last May, not long before the Supreme Court turned on its head nearly half a century of federal protections for reproductive rights by throwing down Roe vs. Wade.

In that sense, it hardly seems an exaggeration to say that the Swedish Academy, which administers the Nobel Prize and has in the past used its selection process to make poignant political statements – Harold Pinter’s 2005 acceptance speech, for example, framed a scathing critique of American foreign policy in the apron the invasion of Iraq – does something similar here.

At the same time, and much as I support this intention, the choice of Ernaux as this year’s laureate is a victory for literature. First and foremost, it’s a long-overdue acknowledgment of an author whose idiosyncratic brilliance has seldom been as refreshing as it has been throughout his nearly 50-year career. As I once wrote in these pages, Ernaux is ruthless, which is the highest praise I can give. In more than 20 books, 15 of which have been translated into English, she has effectively deconstructed not only the memoir as a form, but also the question of memory and identity. “Perhaps the true meaning of my life,” she notes in “Happening,” “is that my body, my feelings, and my thoughts become writing.”

What Ernaux is getting at is the idea that we all, whether we write or read, recreate ourselves in the language, in the stories through which we seek to shape our lives. The fact that these stories are conditional and subjective is central to Ernaux’s work. She is not interested in taking the narrative at face value or using it to blur or soften it; there is not a single sentimental sentence in her oeuvre. Rather, she resists the notion that memory can be comforting—or even containment. “My mother died on Monday, April 7th, in the nursing home attached to the hospital in Pontoise, where I had placed her two years earlier,” she begins her 1987 throwback A Woman’s Story, which begins Albert Camus’ opening line in “The Stranger”: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

I use the word memory instead of memoir for a reason; Ernaux also resists the simplification of form. Memoir comes with a set of baked-in expectations: that it will somehow arc around or build to resolution, which is the last thing on the writer’s mind. As a person and as a writer, she knows that Epiphany is a fiction, that writing works at best as an excavation, as a confrontation – not least with all that we cannot overcome. Such an intention is evident in her first book, Cleaned Out (1974), which bills itself as a novel, although it is an early exposure to the material to which she would return in Happening.

Books by French author Annie Ernaux are on display after she was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Books by Annie Ernaux in a library window in Paris. The 82-year-old was cited for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she exposes the roots, alienations and collective limitations of personal memory,” the Nobel Prize committee said.

(Michel Euler/Associated Press)

All of these memories, all of these experiences are swirling around in her imagination. “Retrace everything,” she writes in “Geputzt”, “retrieve everything, put everything together, a conveyor belt, one after the other. Explain why I’m locked here in a lousy dorm, afraid of dying and what’s about to happen. Find out, get to the bottom of it between contractions. Find out where the whole mess started.” Life writing – autofiction in other words – call it what you will.

Ernaux is not the first autofictionalist to win a Nobel Prize. That would be Patrick Modiano, another French writer whose sleek, impressionistic narratives draw a line between memory and place. But if Ernaux’s work is somewhat reminiscent of his, her writing is characterized by the enduring atmosphere of complicity. In a world where memory itself is conditioned, how can we know anything? How do we know who we are? Ernaux’s books move within the space opened up by these questions, framing the narrative as inquiry rather than statement.

Both A Woman’s Story and its companion volume A Man’s Place (1983) are case studies. On one level it is about the death of a parent. On the other hand, they are idiosyncratic explorations of grief. A Man’s Place is composed in retrospect, thoughtfully, if not exactly backward-looking. “It took me a long time to write,” admits Ernaux. (Her father died in 1967.) “In choosing to unveil the web of his life through a selected set of facts and details, I feel I am gradually moving away from the character of my father. The skeleton of the book takes over and the ideas seem to develop on their own.”

A similar puzzle motivates A Woman’s Story, which, unlike A Man’s Place, unfolds almost entirely in real time. One way Ernaux develops this book is to return to the opening sentence more than once, using it as a kind of echo that underscores the narrative. “Tomorrow three weeks have passed since the funeral,” she writes at one point. “Only the day before yesterday I overcame the fear of writing ‘My mother has died’ on a blank piece of paper, not as the first line of a letter, but as the beginning of a book.”

Such a move underscores not only the immediacy of writing as an act, but also the emotions that Ernaux cannot resolve. “I will never hear the sound of her voice again,” she writes in the closing paragraph of A Woman’s Story. “It was her voice, along with her words, her hands and the way she moved and laughed, that connected the woman I am to the child I once was. The last tie between me and the world I came from has been severed.” I think it’s the only way to end the book with such an adamant word.

A woman holds the book "the years" by Annie Ernaux in their hands at a bookstore in Leipzig, Germany, Thursday October 6, 2022.

A woman opens “The Years” by Annie Ernaux in a bookstore in Leipzig, Germany. The avoidance of the first-person perspective in this memoir “changes the game,” writes David Ulin in a fitting keystone of her career.

(Jan Woitas/Associated Press)

But even after the author has been severed, her story—her memory—remains. What to do about it? In “The Years” (2008), Ernaux addresses the issue directly, seeking “a language that nobody knows”. The solution she enacts shatters our preconceived notions of voice and person, slipping between singular and plural and using pronouns like “we” and “they,” while avoiding the memoir’s defining stance: “I.”

Do I have to say how exciting this is? How does this change the game? In abandoning the “I,” Ernaux effectively abandons her own centrality as well, and writes for a perspective that’s more collaborative—or at least more shared. A chorus in which individual experiences are rendered as collective and we are all involved in good and evil.

This is what makes her selection as an awardee so intoxicating. It feels (don’t know how else to put it) like an existential win. “No lyrical throwbacks, no triumphant displays of irony,” she insists in A Man’s Place. Simplicity of expression and clarity of voice. This is the source of her genius, along with her reluctance to take anything for granted, to let herself or anyone off the hook.

“It’s not going to be a commemoration work in the usual sense,” Ernaux reminds us in “The Years.” “It will be a slippery narrative written in an uninterrupted continuous tense.” She might as well describe her entire body of work.

Ulin is a former book editor and critic for The Times. In honoring Annie Ernaux, the literature Nobel Prize gets it exactly right

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