Annie Ernaux, the 2022 Nobel Prize winner who does not respect taboos

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“The most extraordinary thing, in jealousy, is to populate a city, the world, with a being with whom we may never have come across.” The phrase is from The occupation, the book where annie ernaux tells of her obsession with her ex-lover’s new partner. But that person with whom we have never come across, and who suddenly seems to be everywhere, will be, for many readers, the very winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2022little known in Uruguay despite the numerous Spanish translations of his work.

The days before the reveal of the laureate They were, like every year, full of speculation. Some ventured that the Swedish Academy would award the prize to a writer from Ukraine, thus taking a stand against the Russian invasion. Others risked the usual names of Murakami, Amis or Kundera. The name of Salman Rushdie, the victim of a recent homicidal attack that caused him serious injuries, sounded strong. Patricio Zunini thinks in Infobae that “this was the year in which Salman Rushdie should receive it. After the attack he suffered a few months ago—and after living under threat for three decades!—He deserved unrestricted and unconditional support. The Nobel is too important not to intervene. Maybe he lacked courage.”

This is not the occasion to discuss whether or not the Nobel should be awarded based on ideological or political issues. Be that as it may, in Stockholm —as in the Vatican—, whoever enters a pope usually leaves a cardinal. While Ernaux was on some lists of Nobel bookies, he was not one of the most obvious candidates.

Memory that doesn’t stop

The images of a life, says Ernaux, “will all vanish at once, as have the millions of images that were behind the foreheads of grandparents who died half a century ago, of parents who were also dead. Images where one appeared, a girl, in the midst of other beings who had already disappeared before one was born, just as in our memory our little children are present together with our parents and our schoolmates. And one day one will be in the memory of her children in the midst of grandchildren and people who have not yet been born. Like sexual desire, memory never stops. She unites the dead with the living, real beings with imaginary ones, dreams with history”.

These words evoke those of the historian GM Trevelyan, according to whom the magic of history lies in the permanent substitution of some people for others on the same ground, in the same corner of the world, with each generation giving way to the next and fading away, in his memorable phrase, “like ghosts when the rooster crows”.

In the face of this inevitable disappearance, Ernaux’s power lies in his ability to cut out these images of an ordinary life—that of a working-class French woman, transformed and pierced by her university education—against the backdrop of French history, its mutations and processes over several decades. And to weave, with these materials, a chronicle of the lived world.

Interviewed in 2019 by The Guardian about her book The Years, Ernaux said: “In the autobiographical tradition, we talk about ourselves and the facts are the background. I have turned this around. This is the story of facts and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence, but transmitted through the ‘us’ and the ‘them’. The facts in my book belong to the whole world, to history, to sociology.”

However, paradoxically, this review of a generation or a cluster of individualities that coincide in similar space and time is profoundly intimate. The absence of the first person singular in The Years cannot erase the feeling of being faced with a unique, certain and determined existence: that of Annie Ernaux.

everything has to happen

“Everything will be erased in a second. (…) It will be silence and there will be no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth. Neither me nor me. (…) In the conversations around a party table one will be just a name, increasingly faceless, until it disappears in the anonymous mass of a distant generation”.

For this chronicler, the certainty of her near extinction does not abrogate the awareness of integrating a long lineage of human beings with whom she feels connected. She walks through the medieval streets of Montpellier, from where her ancestors came to the Banda Oriental, recovering that proximity, that blood bond that unites each link in the chain with all the others. Annie Ernaux, born in Lillebonne —at the other end of France and a long way from sunny Occitania— also reveals these connections and extends them to an entire community: neighbourhood, city, country. For her, “the ways of walking, sitting, talking and laughing, calling in the street, gestures to eat, to take objects, transmitted the past memory from body to body from the depths of the French and European fields. An invisible inheritance on the photos that, beyond individual disparities, the distance between the goodness of some and the evil of others, united the members of the family, the inhabitants of the neighborhood and all those who were said to be people like one”.

An identity, moreover, clearly French: “The rest of the world was unreal.”

The overwhelming present

In the French bookstore on Córdoba Avenue on the corner of Suipacha, in Buenos Aires, the row of white spines of the Folio editions reminds this chronicler of the hours spent choosing titles in France, her father’s patience, the August heat in the streets of the country of their ancestors, the happy weight of the books in the portfolio.

She doesn’t remember whether The Years or The Occupation was the first of Annie Ernaux’s books she read, but she does remember the feeling that, in some undeniable way, though difficult to describe, Ernaux was France: a way of being in France or of understanding France. its ways and its idiosyncrasy. Although, as the author says, “the main character is time and her passage, that she takes everything with her, including our lives.” A time that is measured with different instruments depending on the historical moment in which we try to catch it: “The jumping and fast click of the mouse on the screen was the measure of time. (…) The search for lost time went through the web. (…) The memory had become inexhaustible, but the depth of time —whose sensation was given by the smell and the yellowing of the paper, the murmur of the pages, the underlining of a paragraph by an unknown hand— had disappeared. One was in an infinite present”.

One wonders how to stand up to this overwhelming “infinite present” if not through the loving evocation of the past in retreat, of the past that, as Ernaux well knows, will end with her. The collective memory helps to preserve the memory, but the individual experience —the one that was also behind the dead grandparents’ foreheads— will end with the physical extinction of each person. That is why it is necessary to write. Even about abortion —“a total human experience, of life and death, of time, of morality and the forbidden, an experience lived from one extreme to the other through the body”. Even about the sexual degradation and humiliation of jealousy.

the unforgiving gaze

“My first gesture when I woke up was to grab his erect sex from sleep and stay like that, as if holding on to a branch. She thought: ‘As long as I have this, I’m not lost in the world.’ If I reflect today on what this phrase meant, it seems to me that it meant that one could not wish for more than that, to have a closed hand on that man’s sex. Now he is in another woman’s bed. Perhaps she will make the same gesture of reaching out and grasping the sex. For months, I looked at that hand and had the impression that it was mine.”

Ernaux’s autobiographical writing does not recognize taboos. She is also brave and honest in confronting her trials and tribulations. In The Event, a chronicle of the clandestine abortion that the author carried out in the 1960s —when it was still illegal in France—, she observes: “The first to pursue higher education in a family of workers and small merchants, I had escaped the factory and counter. But neither the baccalaureate nor the bachelor’s degree in letters had been able to remove fatality from the transmission of a poverty of which the pregnant girl was, like the alcoholic, an emblem. They had caught me by the ass and what grew in me was, in some way, social failure.

This perceived gap between Ernaux and his family, due to his university status, is the subject of Empty Closets, the novel he published in 1974, where he tells the story of a young woman torn between the proletariat to which her family belongs and the bourgeois world. which she accesses, first, as a student at a private school (where her social origin is a source of ridicule), and then at the university.

The social extraction and the desire to detach from her also emerge in the interview with The Guardian, where she attributes the impulse that led her to study to the strong personality of her mother, who loved reading. It was precisely this impulse to overcome what the unwanted pregnancy put at risk: “Time ceased to be an insensitive continuity of days to be filled with courses and conferences, with stays in cafes and the library, which led to exams and exams. summer vacation, to the future. It became a formless thing that was advancing inside me and that it was necessary to destroy at any cost.

The intellectual DNA

Reviewing these ideas, this chronicler thinks that the fact of having been born in a family of university graduates with sacrifice, of voracious readers who bought books almost obstinately, is what allows her to have been standing there in front of the white spines of Folio, in bookstores in France, in the French bookstore on Córdoba Avenue, sniffing titles, mentally adding prices and evaluating which ones to buy; It is what has given her the love for literature, but also languages, which are her tool to enjoy and understand it. The configuration of this intellectual DNA, of a vision of the mind as a center of irradiation of potentialities, and the generosity of transmitting them to the next generation, are in themselves a gift; Annie Ernaux grew up in a different context that, without her mother’s encouragement, might have taken her to a very different place.

And yet, there he is, lucidly dissecting his own trajectory and, at the same time, that of that living and changing organism that is his homeland. It is a narrative that “must have an appeal that goes beyond that of a simple history of France,” he says. “Although I don’t say it directly, it is clearly history through an individual life, mine, and through my memory. I am telling this collective story through my feelings and memories.”

By awarding the Nobel to Ernaux, the Swedish Academy made a wealth of “courage and clinical acuity with which he discovers the roots, estrangements and collective restrictions of personal memory.” That interweaving between the collective and the personal, told without morality or reluctance, is perhaps its greatest attraction.

NOTE: The translations of the French texts are by Laura Chalar.

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Annie Ernaux, the 2022 Nobel Prize winner who does not respect taboos