The Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.
Ernaux, who writes novels about daily life in France as well as non-fiction and is one of her country’s most acclaimed authors, had been among the favourites to win the prize. The Nobel said that they had not yet been able to reach her on the phone, but expected to be able to speak to her soon.
Ernaux is the first French writer to win the Nobel since Patrick Modiano in 2014. She becomes the 16th French writer to have won the Nobel to date.
Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, said that in her work, “Ernaux consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class”.
Ernaux was born in 1940 and grew up in the small town of Yvetot in Normandy. She studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Olsson said her “path to authorship was long and arduous”.
Her debut was Les armoires vides, published in 1974 in France and as Cleaned Out in English in 1990. It was her fourth book, La place or A Man’s Place, that was her literary breakthrough.
A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, which was originally published in 1988 in French, have become contemporary classics in France. Ernaux won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008 for her autobiography The Years, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2019 when it was translated into English by Alison L Strayer.
Ankita Chakraborty in the Guardian said Ernaux’s Getting Lost, a book recording her obsessive affair with a Russian diplomat, would “become a kind of totem for lovers: a manual to help them find their centre when, like Ernaux, they are lost in love”.
Chakraborty wrote: “The quality that distinguishes Ernaux’s writing on sex from others in her milieu is the total absence of shame. Desire in her brings forth more desire, the impulse of death, happiness, and even past trauma, like her abortion, but never humiliation. Reading her is to thoroughly purge yourself of the notion that shame could be a possible outcome of wanting sex.”
Olson said Ernaux “manifestly believes in the liberating force of writing”.
“Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean,” he continued. “And when she with great courage and clinical acuity reveals the agony of the experience of class, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or inability to see who you are, she has achieved something admirable and enduring.”
Ernaux’s work was first published in English by Seven Stories Press in the US, which was founded in 1995 by Dan Simon. The press is named for the seven authors Simon first published at Seven Stories Press; among them was Ernaux.
In the UK, independent publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions has published eight of Ernaux’s books, with another two on the way. Shame will be released next year, as will Ernaux’s latest book Le jeune homme.
Publisher Jacques Testard described Ernaux as a very important feminist writer, and said The Years, the first book of hers he read, was “an absolutely phenomenal book, undoubtedly a masterpiece”.
With The Years, Testard said Ernaux “invents a form, does something genuinely new with literature; it’s an intersection of the novel and autobiography and non-fiction”.
Testard said Ernaux’s “literary project has been to write about her life and to get at the truth of it somehow … I think she’s written about every important event in her life, from becoming aware of what social classes are as a child, to the death of her father and the death of her mother, to the illegal abortion she had in France in the 1960s, to her first sexual experiences and then to writing about love and passion and desire,” he said. “She’s been doing this for 50 years and there is a very genuine clarity to her work.”
With her interest in memory and in writing a life, said Testard, “Proust is quite an obvious antecedent” for Ernaux. She is also influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, although the two women have very different social backgrounds. Ernaux came from a working-class community, like French sociologist, public intellectual and writer Pierre Bourdieu, said Testard.
The Nobel prize in literature is worth 10m Swedish krona (£840,000), and goes to the writer deemed to be, in the words of Alfred Nobel’s will, “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
Last year the prize was awarded to Abdulrazaq Gurnah, for “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. Previous winners include Bob Dylan, cited for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, and Kazuo Ishiguro “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.