Unorthodox French memoirist Annie Ernaux wins the Nobel Prize in literature

French writer Annie Ernaux
French writer Annie Ernaux, seen here in 2019, won the Nobel Prize in literature for works dealing with autobiography and personal memory.
(Laurent Benhamou / SIPA)
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French author Annie Ernaux, who has fearlessly mined her own biography to explore life in France since the 1940s, was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in literature Thursday for work that illuminates murky corners of memory, family and society.

Ernaux ‘s books probe deeply personal experiences and feelings — love, sex, abortion, shame — within a society split by gender and class divisions. The Swedish Academy said Ernaux, 82, was recognized for “the courage and clinical acuity” of books rooted in her background in a working-class family in the Normandy region of northwest France.

Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, said Ernaux is “an extremely honest writer who is not afraid to confront the hard truths.”


“She writes about things that no one else writes about — for instance, her abortion, her jealousy, her experiences as an abandoned lover and so forth. I mean, really hard experiences,” he said after the award announcement in Stockholm. “And she gives words for these experiences that are very simple and striking. They are short books, but they are really moving.”

One of France’s most garlanded authors and a prominent feminist voice, Ernaux said she was happy to have won the prize, which carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000), but “not bowled over.”

“I am very happy, I am proud. Voila, that’s all,” Ernaux said in brief remarks to journalists outside her home in Cergy, a town west of Paris that she has written about.

Annie Ernaux is ruthless. I mean that as a compliment.

Jan. 18, 2018

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “Annie Ernaux has been writing for 50 years the novel of the collective and intimate memory of our country. Her voice is that of women’s freedom, and the century’s forgotten ones.”

While Macron praised Ernaux for her Nobel, she has been unsparing with him. A supporter of left-wing causes for social justice, she has poured scorn on Macron’s background in banking and said his first term as president failed to advance the cause of French women.

Ernaux is the first female French Nobel literature winner and just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates. More than a dozen French writers have received the literature prize since Sully Prudhomme won the inaugural award in 1901. The most recent French winner before Ernaux was Patrick Modiano in 2014.


Her more than 20 books, most of them very short, chronicle events in her life and the lives of those around her. They present uncompromising portraits of sexual encounters, abortion, illness and the deaths of her parents.

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Olsson said Ernaux’s work was often “uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean.” He said Ernaux had used the phrase “an ethnologist of herself” to describe her approach to her work rather than thinking of herself as a writer of fiction.

Ernaux describes her style as “flat writing” — a very objective view of the events she is describing, unshaped by florid description or overwhelming emotions.

Ernaux worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. Her first book was “Cleaned Out” in 1974. Two more autobiographical novels followed — “What They Say Goes” and “The Frozen Woman” — before she moved to more overtly autobiographical books.

In the book that made her name, “A Man’s Place,” about her relationship with her father, she writes: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral writing style comes to me naturally.”

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“Shame,” published in 1997, explores a childhood trauma, while “Happening,” from 2000 depicts an illegal abortion.


Her most critically acclaimed book was “The Years,” published in 2008, which described herself and wider French society from the end of World War II to the present day. Unlike in previous books, in “The Years” she wrote about herself in the third person, calling her character “she” rather than “I.” The book received numerous awards and honors, and Olsson said it has been called “the first collective autobiography.”

“A Girl’s Story,” from 2016, follows a young woman’s coming of age in the 1950s, while “Simple Passion” and “Getting Lost” chart Ernaux’s intense affair with a Russian diplomat.

Ernaux told the French newspaper Liberation that “Simple Passion” had “brought me a lot of enemies” and riled “the bourgeoisie.” She said she had faced scorn from France’s literary establishment because “I was a woman who didn’t come from their background.”

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The literature prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, as well as too male-dominated. Last year’s winner, Tanzanian-born, U.K.-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was only the sixth Nobel literature laureate born in Africa.

“We try first of all to broaden the scope of the Nobel Prize, but our focus must be on literary quality,” Olsson said.

The prizes to Gurnah in 2021 and U.S. poet Louise Glück in 2020 helped the literature prize move on from years of controversy and scandal.


In 2018, the award was postponed after sex-abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel literature committee, and sparked an exodus of members. The academy revamped itself but faced more criticism for giving the 2019 literature award to Austria’s Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.

A week of Nobel Prize announcements kicked off Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the award in medicine for unlocking secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key insights into our immune system.

Three scientists jointly won the prize in physics Tuesday. California scientist John F. Clauser, Frenchman Alain Aspect and Austrian Anton Zeilinger had shown that tiny particles can retain a connection with each other even when separated, a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement, which can be used for specialized computing and to encrypt information.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to Californians Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless and Danish scientist Morten Meldal for developing a way of “snapping molecules together” that can be used to explore cells, map DNA and design drugs able to target diseases such as cancer more precisely.

The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday and the economics award Monday.

The prizes will be handed out Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896.