Ohen future ethnographers want to study what it was like to be a woman in Europe in the decades between World War II and today, they could do worse than take the collected works of Annie Ernaux, who has become this week the first French woman writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ernaux already describes herself as “the ethnographer of my own life”, but she has also always insisted that she is a writer of fiction rather than memoirs. The power of her personal observation is such that some mistakenly considered her a historian of her own life. Far from being a writer of the me-me-me school, her gift to literature has been to find the collective in the particular. His relentless recreations of his own working-class experience have faced many great taboos, from sexual desire and illegal abortion to cancer and dementia. Less solipsistic than Simone de Beauvoir (one of the great failures of the Nobel Prize), she nevertheless followed her to anatomize the rise of feminist consciousness and the many challenges she had to face.
She has just turned 82, has been publishing for almost 50 years and has long been celebrated in France, where she is one of the few female authors to feature in school curricula. What is extraordinary is the time it took for the English-speaking world to catch up. Despite a flurry of translations around the turn of the millennium, it wasn’t until 2019 that his masterpiece The Years (Years) was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, which she began to gain wide notice.
The usual response to such a situation is to lament the alarming state of literature translated into English, and it is certainly no coincidence that it is published not by one of the big players but by a small press. independent. She offered the publishing house Fitzcarraldo its second Nobel Prize in four years, after the Polish Olga Tokarczuk. More surprisingly, however, since Fitzcarraldo also publishes Elfriede Jelinek and Svetlana Alexievich, the publisher owns almost 25% of the 17 women to have won since 1901.
It is to this great picture that Ernaux belongs. The jury congratulated her for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she discovers the roots, the distances and the collective constraints of personal memory”. His work is part of a European tradition of autofiction which has since produced Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgård and his young compatriot Édouard Louis.
The Nobel Prize column calls for “outstanding work in an ideal direction”. For all their differences, the four Fitzcarraldo winners are deeply political writers who play by their own rules. In the case of Ernaux, it was a question of pushing back the intimate experience of women in the world of men. While it would be unwise to overstate the significance of his victory, it does suggest that the notion of “ideal direction” may be changing. And about time too. At a time of renewed repression of women’s rights in so many parts of the world, any increase in the visibility of the fearless Ernaux can only be a good thing.