For decades, the French writer Annie Ernaux has dissected the most humiliating, private and scandalous moments from her past with almost clinical precision: “I shall carry out an ethnological study of myself,” she wrote in her 1997 memoir “Shame.”
On Thursday, she was awarded one of literature’s highest honors, the Nobel Prize, for her body of work. Ernaux’s writing has spoken particularly to women and to others who, like her, come from a working class seldom depicted with such clarity in literature: She has described her upbringing in a small town in Normandy, an illegal abortion she had the 1960s, her dissatisfaction with domestic life, and a passionate extramarital affair.
It was a striking choice by the Nobel committee to honor a writer whose work is woven from intensely personal and often ordinary experiences. 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.”
At a news conference at the Paris offices of her publisher, Gallimard, Ernaux, 82, promised to keep writing. “To receive the Nobel Prize is, for me, a responsibility to continue,” she said.
She felt compelled, in particular, to keep examining the inequality and struggles that women face. “Speaking from my condition as a woman,” she said, “it does not seem to me that we, women, have become equal in freedom, in power.”
Ernaux becomes only the 17th woman to have been awarded the prize, which has been given to 119 writers since it was formed in 1901. She is the second woman to receive the prize in three years after Louise Glück, the American poet, was given 2020’s award.
While early on in her career Ernaux wrote autobiographical fiction, she quickly cast off any pretense that she was inventing a plot and began writing memoirs, though she has often resisted labeling her work as either fiction or nonfiction.
“Everything she writes, every word, is literal and factually true,” said Dan Simon, the founder of Seven Stories Press, which has been publishing Ernaux in English for 31 years. “And yet these are tremendous works of the imagination.”
The experiences she wrote about in the 1980s and 1990s — an unwanted pregnancy and abortion, her love affairs, her ambivalence about marriage and motherhood — were considered shocking by some social conservatives, but resonated deeply with a broad readership.
Ernaux has described her writing as a political act, one meant to reveal entrenched social inequality, and has compared her use of language to “a knife.” She was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and by the social upheaval of May 1968, when there were weeks of demonstrations, strikes and civil unrest in France. She has described her prose as “brutally direct, working-class and sometimes obscene.”
She often situated her own private experiences and memories within the context of French culture and society, drawing parallels between her life and more universal struggles of women and working class people. Her work captured a moment of intense social change in France, away from traditional Catholic values and toward more secular, permissive and sexually liberated mores.
“When she started out, it was very challenging to the establishment, the way she put herself and her life at the center of large questions about social change in France,” said the novelist Hari Kunzru, who often teaches Ernaux’s work to his writing students at New York University. “For the literary establishment, a working class woman from the north of France is not supposed to do that, and yet she makes herself a very powerful stand-in. She wants to speak in a general way through the particular.”
Ernaux was born in 1940 and grew up in a working-class Catholic family in Yvetot, a small town in Normandy where her parents had a grocery store and cafe. Her father was violent and abusive, and when she was 12, she saw him try to kill her mother, an event she writes about with shocking directness in “Shame”: “My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon,” the first line reads.
She tried writing in college, but publishers rejected her book as “too ambitious,” she told The New York 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.
That effort led to her 1974 debut, “Cleaned Out,” a deeply autobiographical novel that she worked on in secret from her husband, who belittled her writing. After she sold the book to a prestigious publishing house, Gallimard, her husband was incensed that she had concealed the project, pretending that she was working on her Ph.D. thesis. The marriage unraveled shortly after the publication of her third book, “A Frozen Woman,” in 1981, which explored her discomfort with marriage and motherhood. After their divorce, Ernaux never remarried, and said she preferred the freedom of living alone.
She found broad commercial success in France in 1992, when she released “Simple Passion,” a book that detailed her affair with a married foreign diplomat. It incensed social conservatives for its unapologetic depiction of female desire, but struck a chord with readers for its frank portrayal of sexual longing without moral approval. The book sold 200,000 copies in its first two months.
“Men and women confided in me, told me they wish they’d written that book,” Ernaux told The Times in 2020.
Ernaux has frequently examined and re-examined the same events in her life from different angles. Her 2000 memoir, “Happening,” is a stark account of her abortion in 1963 as a college student, a pivotal event that she first attempted to address in fiction, with “Cleaned Out.” After chronicling her affair with the diplomat in “Simple Passion,” she later gave readers an unfiltered glimpse of that relationship when she released her diaries, which includes entries from 1988 too 1990, in a volume titled “Getting Lost.”
“The almost primitive directness of her voice is bracing,” the Times critic Dwight Garner wrote in his review of the book. “It’s as if she’s carving each sentence onto the surface of a table with a knife.”
It took her decades to write about one of the most agonizing events of her life — a confusing sexual experience she had in the summer of 1958, when she was 18, which left her feeling ashamed and abandoned, and resulted in depression and an eating disorder . “I am endowed by shame’s vast memory, more detailed and implacable than any other, a gift unique to shame,” she wrote in that memoir, “A Girl’s Story.”
Scholars, critics and fellow authors have praised her work for the way she connects individual memory to collective experience, particularly for women and for members of the working class. Ernaux also upended assumptions about what literature could be, said the French writer Édouard Louis, the author of “The End of Eddy.”
“She achieved a hugely important formal revolution in literature, away from metaphors, pretty sentences and characters,” said Louis, who writes about his own working class roots. “Annie Ernaux didn’t try to fit into existing definitions of literature, of what is beautiful: She came up with her own.”
While Ernaux has long been celebrated in France, and has been widely translated for decades, she didn’t gain much recognition in the English-speaking world until her memoir “The Years” was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2019. The book serves both as an account of Ernaux’s experience and as a generational memoir of postwar France, and captures the shift toward sexual liberation and consumerism.
“This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read; you might call it a collective autobiography,” Edmund White wrote in The New York Times.
Fans of Ernaux say that part of what makes her work so extraordinary is the ordinariness of the experiences she chronicles. She writes about the tedium of marriage and motherhood, the confusion and ambivalence over her first sexual experience, the grinding sadness of watching an elderly parent deteriorate.
“Her tone is remarkably unsentimental, even when she’s talking about very difficult material,” said the writer Francine Prose, who said she’s been a reader of Ernaux’s work for decades. “I can’t think of anyone quite like her, period. You can’t really say what the genre is, it’s not autofiction, it’s not, strictly speaking, memoir. It’s as if she invented her own genre and perfected it.”
Ernaux has long been a favorite for the Nobel Prize, which is given for a writer’s entire body of work, and comes with an award of 10 million Swedish krona, or about $911,000. Past winners have included Toni Morrison, JM Coetzee and even Bob Dylan.
The Swedish Academy has 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 on Thursday that there had been a dearth of female laureates, and that “our focus must be on literary quality first of all. ”
For Ernaux, memory and personal experience isn’t something to be mined and written up once, but something to be constantly revisited and reinterpreted.
“For me, writing was and remains a way to shed light on things that one feels but are unclear,” she said at the news conference. “Writing is a path to knowledge.”
Elizabeth A. Harris contributed reporting from New York.