Annie Ernaux: feminist icon, committed to the left… Who is this Nobel-winning “woman who writes”?

For years, the French Annie Ernaux monopolized the top of the ranking of potential “nobelisables”. After several more confidential pen awards (Louise Glück, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Peter Handke…), the Swedish Academy has chosen Annie Ernaux, figure of French auto-fiction and committed feminist writer.

Annie Ernaux has been writing for decades a remarkable radiography of the intimacy of a woman who has evolved according to the upheavals of French society since the post-war period. Books hailed by literary critics, academics attached to questions of feminism, sociology and, above all, a loyal, largely female audience.

Renaudot Prize in 1984 for The place and finalist of the prestigious International Booker Prize in 2019, this professor of literature at the University of Cergy-Pontoise wrote about twenty stories in which she dissects the weight of class domination and amorous passion, two themes that have marked her itinerary as a woman torn because of her popular origins.

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Writer claimed from the left (she supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s campaign in 2022 before voting for Macron in the second round, explaining that it was “heartbreaking”), Annie Ernaux feeds on Bourdieusian sociology, the discovery of which in the 1970s allowed her to identify the “social malaise” that gnawed at her as soon as she entered a private school in the 1950s. Born in 1940, she lived until she was 18 in the “dirty” grocery store , filthy, ugly, disgusting” from her parents in Yvetot in Haute-Normandie, from which she will extract herself thanks to an aggregation of modern letters obtained by dint of intense intellectual work.

Of the empty cupboards (1974) to Years (2008), this tall and beautiful blonde woman will follow a writing trajectory that leads her from a harsh and violent first little novel to this generous historical autobiography. In The empty cupboardsher heroine describes with rage the two incompatible worlds in which she evolves during her adolescence: on the one hand, ignorance, filth, the vulgarity of drunken customers, the petty little habits of her parents’ grocers and the another “the ease, the lightness of the girls of the free school” from the petty bourgeoisie.

A clinical style, deliberately “flat”

Over the stories all published by Gallimard, the author will repair the betrayal that she considers to have committed towards her parents by devoting to them a reconciled portrait in The place and A woman (1988). His clinical style, devoid of any lyricism been the subject of many theses. By this “flat writing”, she summons the universal in the singular story of her existence. Very quickly abandoning the novel, she renews the story of filiation and invents the “impersonal autobiography”.

With Years, she evokes her life to trace the novel of a whole generation, that of the children of the war marked by existentialism in the 1950s and sexual liberation. Through the allusion to objects, words, songs, television programs, she restores a truth of her time.

In 2022, she resumes this story with dozens of family movies filmed by her former husband between 1972 and 1981. The super 8 years are presented at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs in Cannes. “I consider myself very little as a singular being but as a sum of experiences, of determinations also, social, historical, sexual, of languages ​​and continually in dialogue with the world (past and present)”, she writes in writing like a knife.

From then on, writing becomes a means of reaching and saying with authenticity the intimate experience of her feminine condition modeled by Simone de Beauvoir: her failed defloration in Shame (1997) then in girls memory (2018), her illegal abortion lived in 1963 as a social emancipation in The Event (2000), the failure of her marriage in The frozen woman (1981) or her breast cancer in The use of photography (2005). Judged by her detractors as an obscene and miserable writer, she shocks by the crude description of amorous alienation in easy passion (1992).

“A woman who writes, that’s all”

Installed since 1977 in Cergy-Pontoise, she has devoted many writings to this new town in the Parisian suburbs describing the life of her fellows whom she meets in supermarkets or the RER. In The outside newspaper (1993), outdoor life (2000) or Look at the lights my love (2014), she introduces banal subjects into literature, always with the same ethnographic rigor. In 2021, she appears in I liked living therea documentary film dedicated to Cergy.

Octogenarian, she knows a strong media exposure with the adaptation to the cinema of The Event (Lumières and Golden Lion Prize in Venice) and easy passion. This 20th century author who claimed in 2022 to “feel a little illegitimate in the literary field” remains a reference for a whole new generation of artists and intellectuals. A true feminist icon for several generations, Annie Ernaux confided in May that she simply felt “woman. A woman who writes, that’s all”.

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Annie Ernaux: feminist icon, committed to the left… Who is this Nobel-winning “woman who writes”?