French author Annie Ernaux, known for her deceptively simple novels drawing on personal experiences of class and gender, was on Thursday awarded the Nobel Literature Prize.
Ernaux, 82, was honoured “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”, the jury said.
Interviewed on Swedish television immediately after the announcement, Ernaux called it a “very great honour” and “a great responsibility”.
Her more than 20 books, many of which have been school texts in France for decades, offer one of the most subtle, insightful windows into the social life of modern France.
Personal experiences are the source for all of Ernaux’s work and she is the pioneer of France’s “autofiction” genre, which gives narrative form to real-life experience.
Above all, Ernaux’s crystalline prose has excavated her own passage from working-class girl to the literary elite, casting a critical eye on social structures and her own complicated emotions.
“In her writing, Ernaux consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class”, the Swedish Academy noted.
“Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean”, it said.
“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”.
– ‘Under consideration for years’ –
The chairman of the Nobel Committee, Anders Olsson, said Ernaux had “been under consideration for her books for many years”.
“We have had very intensive discussions about her”, he told the Swedish news agency TT.
She debuted with the novel “Cleaned Out” in 1974, a cool-eyed but a harrowing account of an abortion she went through in her youth and that she had kept secret from her family.
But it was her fourth book, “A Man’s Place” from 1983 — a dispassionate portrait of her father and the social milieu that formed him — that started her literary breakthrough.
She then went on to write a portrait of her mother in 1987, “A Woman’s Story”, which with “severe brevity” was a “wonderful tribute to a strong woman”, the Academy noted.
Outside France, recognition has only come in recent years, notably after the English translation of her key 2008 work, “The Years”, which was nominated for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2019.
In it, Ernaux used family photos as well as scraps of popular culture to recall her life and explore the impact of bigger historical events.
– Diversity Pledge –
The Nobel Prize comes with a medal and a prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $911,400).
Ernaux will receive the Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prize in his last will and testament.
Last year, the award went to Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose work focuses on the plight of refugees and exile, colonialism and racism.
Ernaux, whose name has circulated in Nobel speculation for several years, is the 17th woman to win the prestigious prize, out of 119 literature laureates since the first Nobel was awarded in 1901.
The Swedish Academy has in recent years pledged to make the prize more diverse, after a 2017-2018 #MeToo scandal that left it in tatters and led to a revamping of the venerable body.
Famed — and lambasted — for its Eurocentric Nobel picks dominated by men, the jury has repeatedly maintained, however, that its prize is neither political nor subject to gender or ethnic quotas.
It has insisted that its only criteria are the quality of a writer’s body of work.
But perhaps it is no coincidence that the revamped Academy gave the nod to Ernaux, who has in recent years been a strong voice supporting the #MeToo movement.
The movement took longer to take off in France, with the likes of actress Catherine Deneuve initially defending male “gallantry” and men’s right to hit on women.
“In France, we hear so much about our culture of seduction, but it’s not seduction, it’s male domination”, Ernaux has said.
The Nobel season continues on Friday with the highly anticipated Peace Prize, the only Nobel announced in Oslo.
Punters have suggested this year’s prize could sound the alarm over the war in Ukraine or the climate.
The Economics Prize wraps up the 2022 edition of the awards on Monday, October 10.