Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to Annie Ernaux
By Alex Marshall and Alexandra Alter
The Nobel Prize in literature was awarded last Thursday to Annie Ernaux, the French novelist whose intensely personal books have spoken to generations of women by highlighting incidents from her own life, including a back-street abortion in the 1960s and a passionate extramarital affair.
Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which decides the prize, announced the decision at a news conference in Stockholm, lauding the “courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
The committee had not been able to reach Ernaux by telephone, Malm said, but the author quickly learned of the news. On Thursday afternoon, she emerged from her home in a Paris suburb to talk briefly with reporters. Looking overwhelmed, she said had she learned of the award on the radio. “I’m very happy — I’m proud,” she added as her neighbors did construction work on their house, oblivious to the fuss.
Ernaux, 82, becomes only the 17th female writer to have won the prize, widely considered the most prestigious award in world literature, since it was formed in 1901. She is the second woman to be given the prize in three years after Louise Glück, the American poet, was awarded the 2020 prize.
Ernaux’s books include her debut, “Cleaned Out,” a bracing account of her working-class youth, including the abortion, carried out when the procedure was illegal in France, and “A Simple Passion,” a bestseller in France about Ernaux’s affair with a married foreign diplomat.
Outside France, she is perhaps best known for “The Years,” which weaves together events from over 70 years of Ernaux’s life with French history, and in 2019 was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, a major British award for fiction translated into English.
“This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read,” Edmund White said in a review of that book for The New York Times.
Her works have long been praised by critics. Ernaux’s autobiographical novels defy “the demands of her genre — the desire for melodramatic intimate revelation and the smoothness of fictional tale-telling,” Claire Messud wrote in the Times in 1998. The books instead “offer a searing authenticity and reveal the slipperiness of much that we call memoir.”
On Thursday, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, said on Twitter that Ernaux’s books had “lifted the veil on the intimacy of women with great modesty, but without embellishment.”
Ernaux first tried writing in college, but publishers rejected her book as “too ambitious,” she told the Times in 2020. She didn’t take up writing again until her 30s, when she was a married mother of two, working as a French teacher.
She wrote “Cleaned Out” in secret because her husband had mocked her early attempts at writing. “I pretended to work on a Ph.D. thesis,” Ernaux said. After the book was published, her husband reacted badly again. “He told me: If you’re capable of writing a book in secret, then you’re capable of cheating on me,” Ernaux said. Soon, she was writing about her unhappy marriage.
Later books detailed her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and Ernaux’s experience of cancer, as well as happier events, such as her affairs.
Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions, her British publisher, said in a telephone interview that Ernaux was “an exceptional and unique writer” who had for decades chronicled what it is like to be a woman in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her books are socially and politically relevant inside and outside France given events such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, he added.
Audrey Diwan, the French film director who adapted Ernaux’s 2000 novel “Happening,” about a 23-year-old woman’s illegal abortion, into an acclaimed movie, said in a telephone interview that her writing had a “raw sincerity” that “speaks to so many and becomes a ‘we,’ a collective voice beyond borders.” The prize “turns a well-deserved spotlight on an immense body of work,” she added.
Ernaux has long been a favorite for the prize, although before Thursday’s announcement, Salman Rushdie was expected to take the accolade. Rushdie, the Booker Prize-winning author of “Midnight’s Children,” was stabbed in August on a western New York stage in what prosecutors said was a premeditated attack.
The Nobel Prize, which is given for a writer’s entire body of work, is regarded as the foremost prize in world literature, with past winners having included Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee and even Bob Dylan. It comes with an award of 10 million Swedish krona, or about $911,000.
The Swedish Academy has in recent years tried to increase the diversity of considered authors, after facing criticism that before Thursday’s announcement, 95 of the past 118 Nobel laureates were European or North American, and only 16 women.
Anders Olsson, the chair of the academy’s Nobel Committee, defended the choice of another European writer, saying at a news conference Thursday that there had been a dearth of female laureates. “Our focus must be on literary quality first of all,” he said.