STOCKHOLM (AP) — French author Annie Ernaux, who fearlessly harnessed her experiences as a working-class woman to explore life in France since the 1940s, won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for work that illuminates the dark recesses of memory, family and society.
Ernaux’s books explore deeply personal experiences and feelings – love, sex, abortion, shame – within a society divided by gender and class divides. The Swedish Academy said Ernaux, 82, was recognized for the “courage and clinical acumen” of the books rooted in her small-town background in the Normandy region of north-west France.
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Literature Committee, said Ernaux is “an extremely honest writer who is not afraid to face hard truths”.
“She writes about things that no one else writes about, like her abortion, her jealousy, her experiences as an abandoned lover, etc. I mean, really difficult experiences,” he told the Associated Press after the award was announced in Stockholm, “And she gives words to these experiences that are very simple and striking. They’re short books, but they’re really moving.”
One of France’s most awarded authors and a leading feminist voice, Ernaux said she was happy to have won the prize, which comes with a cash reward of 10 million Swedish crowns (nearly 900 000 dollars) – but “not upset”.
“I am very happy, I am proud. That’s it,” Ernaux told reporters outside her home in Cergy, a working-class town west of Paris that she has written about.
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 the freedom of women and of the forgotten of the century.
While Macron congratulated Ernaux on his Nobel Prize, she spared no effort with him. A supporter of leftist causes for social justice, she scorned Macron’s background in banking and said her first term as president had failed to advance the cause of French women.
Ernaux is the first French woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and only the 17th woman among the 119 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. More than a dozen French writers have won the literature prize since Sully Prudhomme won the inaugural prize in 1901. The last French winner before Ernaux was Patrick Modiano in 2014.
His more than 20 books, most of them very short, chronicle events in his life and the lives of those around him. They present uncompromising portraits of her parents’ sexual encounters, abortions, illnesses and death.
Olsson said Ernaux’s work was often “written in plain, scratched language”. He said she used the term “an ethnologist of herself” rather than a writer of fiction.
Ernaux worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. His first book was “The Empty Cabinets” in 1974 (published in English under the title “Cleaned Out”). Two more autobiographical novels followed – “What They Say Goes” and “The Frozen Woman” – before moving on to more overtly autobiographical books.
In the book that made her famous, “La place”, published in 1983 and on her relationship with her father, she wrote: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant irony. This neutral writing style comes naturally to me.
‘Shame’, published in 1997, explored childhood trauma, while ‘The Event’, from 2000, dealt with an illegal abortion.
Her most critically acclaimed book is “Les Années” (“The Years”), published in 2008, which describes herself and wider French society from the end of World War II into the 21st century. Unlike previous books, in “The Years” Ernaux wrote in the third person, calling his character “she” rather than “I.” The book received numerous awards and accolades, and Olsson said it has been called “the first collective autobiography”.
“Mémoire de fille” (“A Girl’s Story”), from 2016, follows a young woman’s coming of age in the 1950s, while “Passion Simple” (“Simple Passion”) and ” Getting Lost” (“Getting Lost”) Ernaux’s intense affair with a Russian diplomat.
Ernaux told the Liberation newspaper that “Simple Passion” had “brought me a lot of enemies” and annoyed “the bourgeoisie”. She said she had been looked down upon by the French literary establishment because “I was a woman who didn’t come from their background”.
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 winner, Tanzanian-born, UK-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was just the sixth African-born Nobel laureate in literature.
Olsson said the academy is working to diversify its offering, drawing on literature experts from different regions and languages.
“We try to broaden the concept of literature, but it’s the quality that ultimately counts,” he said.
A week of Nobel Prize announcements kicked off on Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the prize in medicine to unlock the secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key insights into our immune system.
Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F. Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinger won the physics prize on Tuesday for his work showing that tiny particles can maintain a connection with each other even when separated, a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, and Danish scientist Morten Meldal for developing a way to “glue molecules together” that can be used to explore cells, map DNA, and design drugs to target cancer and other diseases.
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics prize on Monday.
Prizes will be awarded on December 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.
Macpherson reported from Clergy, France and Lawless from London. John Leicester in Pecq, France, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Naomi Koppel in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.
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