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October 19, 2022

Annie Ernaux’s Nobel Shows Women’s Stories Matter Too

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“I am very surprised. Are you sure?” Annie Ernaux asked the Swedish news agency TT, upon hearing that she had become the first French woman (and the 17th female writer of any nationality) to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The French newspaper Le Monde reports that she had not been checking her phone at all on Oct. 6, the day the winner was to be announced, preferring to focus on other things. The year before, a hacked Twitter account had falsely declared her the winner, and surely, she was still reeling from the trauma of dashed hopes. This time, however, there was no doubt: the Nobel Committee had chosen her “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

Annie Ernaux has long been a household name in France. Over the span of almost four decades, she has published around twenty books (many of which have been turned into films and plays) and has been recognized with numerous prestigious literary prizes (including the Renaudot Prize in 1984). Most tellingly, her books are regularly taught in school, a sign of true respect in a country where the national canon mostly consists of old white guys à la Victor Hugo or Emile Zola. Ernaux, who grew up in the small town of Yvetot (Normandy), is commonly hailed as a figurehead of French autofiction, the literary genre that mixes aspects of both fiction and autobiography. Indeed, she often depicts her native Normandy and her upbringing in post-World War II France, a country that was deeply divided over (amongst other things) the War in Algeria and the changing role of women in society. In her books, Ernaux captures both the grand sweep of national history and the mundane experiences of everyday life, with everything from descriptions of her parents’ small grocery store and her town’s annual dances to the quintessentially French tradition of writing a dissert for the national baccalaureate exam. This, for many critics, has made her a pioneer of collective autobiography — simply put, Ernaux has written “the novel of French collective and intimate memory,” as President Macron wrote in a tweet.

While deeply rooted in a specific French context, Ernaux’s work also touches on many universal themes — from class and upward mobility to family and first love — rendering it well-suited for international audiences, too. In 2019, her book The Years was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Ernaux has repeatedly cited sociology, especially that of Pierre Bourdieu, as an influence, and she is particularly interested in the ideas of social alienation, domination and class. She grew up in a factory town and was the first in her family to attend college. This decision, to which many readers can relate, ultimately drove a wedge between Ernaux and her parents and caused family friction.        

For me, what makes Annie Ernaux’s work so powerful (and enjoyable) is that she writes unflinchingly about the female experience, a perspective that is often overlooked in mainstream literature. In her books she touches on everything from her first sexual experience and her illegal abortion in 1963 France to her teenage eating disorder and her battle against breast cancer. As she lifts the veil on taboo topics like female sexual desire, adultery and violence against women, she is brutally honest and direct. As critics have put it, she is “sharp like a knife.” Reading Ernaux can be an uncomfortable experience: there are times when you will need to set the book aside. But her work — because it is so frank and unsettling — will compel you to act and to demand change. This year, as women everywhere from Tehran to Washington, D.C. have taken to the streets to fight for their rights, the Nobel Committee’s decision to pick Ernaux is a powerful and inspired choice that shows that women’s stories matter, too. As for Ernaux herself, when she was recently asked about her status as an icon, she casually replied in the following manner, downplaying her achievement: “I’m just a woman, a woman who writes — that’s all.” Something only a woman would say, of course.

Rafaela Uzan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].