Earlier this week, literary Twitter was abuzz with speculation about the Nobel Prize for literature. Someone there mentioned the French writer Annie Ernaux as a candidate—giving her 20–1 odds—among a host of others. I thought Ernaux’s win improbable and responded, “I’m no expert on literary prizes, but with regard to Ernaux—whose work I have followed for decades—I think it’s an uphill battle for women who write about their lives to win the respect they deserve or for their work to be considered ‘universal’ in that way.”

Well, I have never been so happy to have been wrong. Yesterday the 2022 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Annie Ernaux, with the Swedish Academy praising “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.” It’s a great moment for memoir, for women, and for the precise use of language in the service of emotional truth.

I first encountered Ernaux’s work in the 1990s when I was involved in a long affair with, yes, a married man that had me traveling back and forth between Paris and New York. She is the author of more than 20 books, most of them relatively brief accounts drawn from her memories of a life—which doesn’t immediately strike one as the stuff of literature, but that’s where Ernaux, once again, proves us wrong.

Born in 1940, she grew up in Yvetot, Normandy, the daughter of a farm boy and a factory worker who both left school at 12 and who came far enough up in the world to run a provincial café and general store. The first in her family to receive an advanced education, she worked for years as a teacher of literature, eventually becoming part of the French national correspondence school CNED. (Her two slim books devoted to her parents’ lives, A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, are haunted by a sense of the class betrayal that her ascension to the rank of writer meant to her.) The unenviable tasks littering her days in her work include essays to mark, papers to grade. She married, had two sons, and divorced, eventually moving to the modern suburb of Paris where she still lives today, at some remove from the French literary establishment.

Her prose is the opposite of purple. Its heroism lies in its very reserve as it mines experiences that are both intensely personal and, because of their concrete rootedness in material culture, part of collective history. Here’s her description, in A Woman’s Story (ably translated, as are the other works mentioned here, by Tanya Leslie), of the week following her mother’s death: “I would start to cry for no particular reason … I emerged from a heavy slumber remembering nothing of my dreams except that my mother was in them, dead. All I did were the daily chores: shopping, cooking, loading the washing machine. Quite often I forgot how to do things in the right order. After peeling the vegetables, I would have to stop and think before going on to the next stage, that is, washing them.” Is there a more spare yet moving description of the way grief over a loved one’s death throws a wrench into the gears of life?

And at the end of A Man’s Place, she writes, “Now I have finished taking possession of the legacy with which I had to part when I entered the educated, bourgeois world.”

In Happening she recalls, 40 years after the fact, her desperate search as a 23-year-old student in early-1960s France for a back-alley abortion. (A film based upon the book and directed by Audrey Diwan was awarded the Golden Lion at Venice last year.) She is both unsparing and unapologetic—shameless, really—on the subject of female desire. Long ago my favorite book by Ernaux, the lightly fictionalized Simple Passion, restored my will to read after a difficult time in life had robbed me of it. (Full disclosure: I’m far from home right now, but The Years, which some consider her masterpiece, lies unopened on my bedside table.) In that book, she writes of the few years she spent involved with a married foreign diplomat while in her 50s. Stretched upon the rack of time, she waits to have sex with him, and nothing else then seems to matter for her—not even the writing, which is otherwise her most constant companion, her salvation. 

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open,” the poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser wrote. Well, we may still be waiting for the world to split open, but Annie Ernaux has fulfilled that mission. How wonderful it is that a wider audience will now be introduced to this writer of devastating simplicity and experience her work.

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