By Gaby Wood
For 121 years, the Nobel Prize for Literature
it is traditionally awarded to novelists, playwrights and poets. There have been a philosopher or two (Bertrand Russell, Elias Canetti) and, very occasionally, it has been awarded to non-fiction writers of epic scope: Winston Churchill was awarded in 1 This year marks a turning point: by granting theNobel to Annie Ernaux
82-year-old French writer, the Swedish Academy has considered for the first time the merit of a memorialist and has announced to the world the public value of private life. There have been other firsts recently in the Nobel canon: Alice Munro (2013) is above all a short story writer; Svetlana Alexievich
(2015) is a journalist whose “voice novels” gather the testimony of others; neither form had previously been honored with the award. Together with Ernaux’s triumph, these milestones suggest not only that women, especially, are pushing the boundaries of literature, but that a certain kind of intimate experience, skilfully conveyed, can have repercussions on a magnificent scale.
All three authors focus on what great narratives leave out. When Alexievich first tried to publish his magnificent book War Has No Woman’s Face, a Soviet censor told him, “We don’t need your little story. We need the big story.” Many years later, Alexievich’s record triumphed, and now Ernaux’s Nobel puts the nail in the coffin of that censor and his thought partners: we all need little stories. Literature is made of them. [Los armarios vacíos] Ernaux began writing – secretly, unbeknownst to her then-husband – in the French tradition of autofiction, a term that has now become unrecognizable. The armoires vines [La mujer helada] (1974) and the following two books are novels based on his own life, written in the conventional way. The last one, La femme gelée
(1981), is about a married mother of two who has been “frozen” by domestic life. She offered a vision of women in society that would be her concern for decades and that led readers to assume that she was talking about herself.
At that moment, he made a resounding change from fiction to reality: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony,” he resolved. He wanted to write about his late father, who had run a cafe in Normandy and from whom he had distanced himself in part because of his upbringing. Halfway through writing the novel he began to feel “disgust.” A novel, he later explained, “was out of the question. To tell the story of a life ruled by necessity, I have no right to take an artistic approach.” In his place, she would “collate” the words, tastes and gestures of his father, and would give an account not only of the man, but of his generation and his class.
It is important to understand this about Ernaux’s work: although it is written in the form of memoirs, it appears largely as an observer or as the conductor of a shared emotion.
Despite her modesty and precision (many of her volumes are under 80 pages), the books aim to show something larger than any one self, which is why she is sometimes considered an ethnographer or sociologist. In the book she ended up writing about her father, La place (1983), later translated as The place, she admonishes herself: “If I allow myself personal reminiscences… I forget everything that ties you to your social class … I have to tear myself away from the subjective point of view.”
This point of view was combined with extreme attentiveness and scholarly knowledge of literary style. “This neutral way of writing comes naturally to me,” he declared. “It’s the same style I used when I wrote home the latest news to my parents.” La place was the first of his books that did not seem “false” to him, and it marked the beginning of the work of a lifetime. [Pura pasión]Other volumes were born, among other things, from terror (her mother’s descent into dementia), desire (an affair with a married man), physical pain (an illegal abortion), family pain (the death of a older sister Ernaux never met), shame, pain, and guilt (should I write any of this?). “Literature is so powerless,” he writes. And, in Passion simple
: “Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out if other people have done or felt the same things.” The years constituted another totally different project and, undoubtedly his masterpiece [su] (It was published in French in 2008 and shortlisted for the Booker International Prize in 2019, signaling its large-scale introduction to Anglophone readers.) In that book, Ernaux’s purpose is not so much to retain a particular moment as to “save
circumstance”. The years is the collective memory of a generation, an almanac of experiences in the form of a collage, words, advertisements, graffiti, clothes, movies, habits, beliefs.
Not only milestones are threaded through the text (the end of the war, the birth of the computer, the mobile phone) but also things that society does not know, or does not say, at that time. She feels she missed out on the civil unrest of May 1968 – she was “too settled” at the time – but perhaps she is still a product of it. This sense of being both contiguous and subject to the great sweep of time is a great and humbling achievement of The Years.
Three years ago, I visited Ernaux at his home outside Paris. She told me that the reason she wanted to pass on the collective memory of her generation was that women’s lives had changed dramatically in that era. If I looked back, she told me, from the same age she was when she started, I wouldn’t see the same gap between present and past. This is clearly true. Not only that; we are indebted to those women, and to her in particular, for her account of her constraints, releases, secrets, and lives.
was a journalist for the Sunday newspaper TheObserver and is director of the Booker Prize Foundation.
Source: The Guardian, October 8, 2022Translation:Lucas Anton
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Annie Ernaux’s Nobel Prize or the public value of our intimate stories – 10.17.22 / Bitacora online