Since the 1940s, French author Annie Ernaux has bravely mined her experiences as a working-class woman to explore life in France. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday for work that illuminates the murky corners of memory, family, and society.
Ernaux’s books delve into deeply personal experiences and feelings – love, sex, abortion, shame – in a society divided by gender and class.
In some of her first comments after winning the prize, the author strongly defended women’s rights to abortion and contraception.
Ernaux also discussed the importance of continuing to fight for women’s rights, as well as her hope for peace as a result of her childhood during WWII.
The Swedish Academy said Ernaux, 82, was honored for the “courage and clinical acuity” of her books, which were inspired by her small-town upbringing in the Normandy region of northwest France.
The Nobel literature committee chairman, Anders Olsson, described Ernaux as “an extremely honest writer who is not afraid to confront the hard truths.”
Ernaux, one of France’s most lauded authors and a prominent feminist voice, said she was pleased but “not bowled over” to have won the prize, which carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000).
“Annie Ernaux has been writing the novel of our country’s collective and intimate memory for 50 years,” French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted. Hers is the voice of women’s liberation and the forgotten ones of the century.”
While Macron congratulated Ernaux on her Nobel, she has been harsh with him. As a supporter of left-wing social justice causes, she has slammed Macron’s banking background and claimed that his first term as president failed to advance the cause of French women.
Ernaux is the first female French Nobel laureate and only the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel laureates. Since Sully Prudhomme won the first award in 1901, more than a dozen French writers have won the literature prize. Before Ernaux, the most recent French winner was Patrick Modiano in 2014.
Her over 20 books, the majority of which are very short, chronicle events in her life as well as the lives of those around her. They present uncompromising portraits of sexual encounters, abortion, illness and the deaths of her parents.
According to Olsson, Ernaux’s work was frequently “written in plain language, scraped clean.” He claimed she referred to herself as “an ethnologist of herself” rather than a fiction writer.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Ernaux worked as a teacher. In 1974, she published her first book, “Les armoires vides” (translated as “Cleaned Out” in English). Before moving on to more overtly autobiographical books, she wrote two more autobiographical novels: “Ce qu’ils disent ou rien” (“What They Say Goes”) and “La femme gelée” (“The Frozen Woman”).
“No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony,” she wrote in the book that made her name, “La place” (“A Man’s Place”), published in 1983 and about her relationship with her father. This neutral writing style comes naturally to me.”
“Les années” is her most critically acclaimed book “(“The Years”), a 2008 book that described herself and French society from the end of WWII to the twenty-first century. Unlike her previous books, Ernaux wrote in the third person in “The Years,” referring to her character as “she” rather than “I.” The book won numerous awards and honors, and Olsson described it as “the first collective autobiography.”
According to Ernaux, “Simple Passion” “brought me a lot of enemies” and enraged “the bourgeoisie.” She claimed she was mocked by France’s literary establishment because “I was a woman who did not come from their family.”
The literature prize has long been criticized for being overly focused on European and North American writers, as well as being overly male dominated. Last year’s Nobel laureate, Tanzanian-born, U.K.-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was only the sixth African-born Nobel laureate.
Olsson stated that the academy was working to broaden its scope by bringing in literary experts from various regions and languages.