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Memory, History and the Allure of the Narrative: Introducing Annie Ernaux

The Royal Swedish Academy on 6 October conferred the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature upon the French writer Annie Ernaux, ‘for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory’.

In the brief presentation that followed the announcement, Anders Olsson — Chairman of the Academy’s Nobel Prize committee — touched upon the various hallmarks of Ernaux’s writing that enabled her to join an illustrious lineage of previous Literature laureates. In particular, Olsson remarked on her oeuvre’s dedication to exploring ‘lives marked by great disparities, regarding gender, language, and class’. He also drew attention to the similarities her writing shares with Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu — however, he stressed that in her reconstruction of the past, she forges her own direction, guided by her ability to weave tales in ‘plain language, scraped clean’.

Ernaux was born in France’s Normandy in 1940. Her parents’ struggle to rise above the proletarian way of living left a lasting impression on her, as did the ‘long and arduous’ path she has travelled to become a writer. Her narratives are confident and probing, and they never shy away from navigating the confounding complexity of individual lives, the societies they live in, and the memories that define them. She has long been a beloved figure in the French literary scene a fact that hardly comes as a surprise. Throughout her oeuvre, Ernaux chisels a voice that not only speaks with authority, but with unmatched empathy; a voice that lifts the unseen, the unheard, and the forgotten from obscurity to pedestals the narrative constructs within her readers’ minds. Her vision complements her voice by demonstrating a wise grasp of human emotions and lived experiences. Rage, embarrassment, envy, helplessness, indifference, ennui Ernaux, like Shakespeare, holds up a mirror that returns the society’s gaze with equal ferocity.

In the French circles, Ernaux has, over the years, carved a niche of her own. The themes she addresses in her works often invite comparisons with Proust, only for the lucid clarity of her prose to shut them down immediately. The 1974 publication of Cleaned Out (Les armoires vides) marked her searing arrival onto the literary scene. The novel follows Denise Lesur, a young woman, who after getting an illegal abortion, begins to question and re-examine everything that left her alone and struggling in a terrible situation. Meandering about the twin forces of remembering and forgetting, Ernaux paints an ‘uncompromising’ portrait of a life breaking under the unassailable weight of the past. As the Bloomsbury Review eloquently points out, Cleaned Out is a towering example of ‘the culturally disenfranchised speaking in their own voice’.

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Today Annie Ernaux is famous for collapsing the borders between autobiography and fiction a trademark style that first appeared in her 1983 novel A Man’s Place (La Place). Stemming from the observations of her masterful writer’s gaze, we are given an account of her father – the story of a life much constrained by the pressing concerns of class and social standing. Among other things, A Man’s Place also gives us insightful glimpses into Ernaux’s life as a young girl growing up in France and her subsequent segue towards adulthood. Continuing in the autobiographical vein, Ernaux then wrote A Woman’s Story (Une femme) in 1988 – an attempt to chaperone her mother’s story into the world. Mellifluous and open in its grief, Ernaux uses the memoir to navigate the hyperloop of time, to investigate their mother-daughter relationship, and perhaps most importantly to rescue and restore her mother’s identity as an individual before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s.

At the core of the 1991 Simple Passion is an emotion that isn’t simple at all – love. By telling the story of an unnamed narrator, Ernaux takes her readers on a whirlwind journey through the unbearable throes of passionate love. The narrative doesn’t at any point gloss over reality, and instead produces as faithful an account as possible of a stupendously powerful emotion. Despite being short in length, Simple Passion is guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on whoever reads it (especially those hopelessly in love).

In Happening, first published in English in 2019, Ernaux returns to a theme that is hauntingly reminiscent of Cleaned Out except, this time, she writes of her own abortion in France of the 1960s. A patchwork quilt woven out of her diary and journal entries, Ernaux deftly situates her personal feelings of shame in the midst of a larger socio-political landscape that denied French women of the time safe access to abortions – a tale that takes on renewed relevance in the wake of Roe v Wade in the USA.

Brilliant as all of her works are, it was the 2018 English publication of her 2008 auto-fiction The Years (Les années) that made her a major phenomenon in the global literary world. Ambitiously spanning the years from 1941-2006, in The Years, Ernaux invents the ‘collective autobiography’ through the fashioning of a narrative voice that borrows generously from memories, literature, art, history, language, mass media, and so on, to unite the personal and the private with the shared and the public. In putting together this autofiction-meets-history-and-sociology work together, Ernaux accomplished something supremely radical she rose above rigid classification systems and proved that human lived experiences are too boundless and sacred to be enslaved by any semiotic labels we might place on them.

Some of her other notable works include Exteriors (originally published in 1996), A Girl’s Story (originally published in 2016), and her latest Getting Lost, assumes the form of a tell-all, printed version of her journals in which she captured the details of the affair she had begun with a married Russian diplomat in 1988 – yet again revisiting a theme from one of her earlier works.

The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature joins an already impressive roster of awards and honours that Ernaux has previously won in recognition of her writings, including the 2018 Hemingway Prize, the 2019 Prix Formentor and Premio Gregor von Rezzori. In 2021, she was elected as the Royal Society of Literature’s International Writer. The Years also made it to the shortlist of the 2019 International Man Booker Prize.

In a telephone interview with Claire Paetku, Annie Ernaux called winning the Nobel Prize a ‘great responsibility and at the same time an honour’. She likened receiving the call to ‘being in a desert and receiving a call from the sky’. In her message to young writers, in particular the ones writing in their native language, Ernaux urged them to read a lot in order to write, and to strive towards writing honestly, as opposed to writing perfectly.

Annie Ernaux has always been a force to reckon with, as a writer-memoirist whose commitment to unabashedly voicing human concerns has won her a steady fan following amongst readers and critics alike. So, it would be incorrect to say that the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature has given us a new star if anything, her popularity is unquestionable, and it is only going to increase further.

But what the prize has most certainly given us is a writer whose genre-defying oeuvre has been an inspiring force across decades by constantly redefining the limits of the narrative voice. When you think of all that Ernaux and her oeuvre have come to represent, it is indeed ‘something admirable and enduring’.

Image “Annie Ernaux al Salone del Libro” by 2cordevocali is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.