French author Annie Ernaux, known for her deceptively simple novels drawing on personal experiences of class and gender, was on Thursday awarded the Nobel Literature Prize.
Ernaux, 82, was honoured “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”, the jury said.
Interviewed on Swedish television immediately after the announcement, the feminist icon called it a “very great honour” and “a great responsibility”.
Her more than 20 books, many of which have been school texts in France for decades, offer one of the most subtle, insightful windows into the social life of modern France.
Ernaux is the second woman among the eight Nobel laureates honoured so far this year, with women vastly under-represented in the history of the prizes.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the award, calling Ernaux’s voice “that of the freedom of women and of the forgotten”.
Personal experiences are the source for all Ernaux’s work and she is the pioneer of France’s “autofiction” genre, which gives narrative form to real-life experience.
Above all, her crystalline prose has excavated her own passage from working-class girl to the literary elite, casting a critical eye on social structures and her own complicated emotions.
“Ernaux consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class”, the Swedish Academy noted.
– ‘Special voice’ –
Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean”, it said.
“And when she with great courage and clinical acuity reveals the agony of the experience of class, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or inability to see who you are, she has achieved something admirable and enduring”.
The chairman of the Nobel Committee, Anders Olsson, told AFP the Academy was taken with her “frankness”.
“She is direct and brief and that is something that you never forget. That is very specific to her, it’s her special voice”, he said.
He told Swedish news agency TT that Ernaux had been under consideration “for many years”.
She debuted with the novel “Cleaned Out” in 1974, a cool-eyed but harrowing account of an abortion she went through while a student and which she had kept secret from her family.
But it was her fourth book, “A Man’s Place” from 1983 — a dispassionate portrait of her father and the social milieu that formed him — that started her literary breakthrough.
She went on to write a portrait of her mother in 1987, “A Woman’s Story”, which with “severe brevity” was a “wonderful tribute to a strong woman”, the Academy noted.
Outside France, recognition has come more recently, notably after the English translation of her key 2008 work, “The Years”, which was nominated for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2019.
In it Ernaux used family photographs as well as scraps of popular culture to recall her life and explore the impact of bigger historical events.
– Diversity pledge –
The film “The Happening”, based on another 2000 account of her abortion, won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
The Nobel Prize comes with a medal and a prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $911,400).
Ernaux will receive the award from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.
Ernaux is the 17th woman out of 119 literature laureates since the first Nobel was awarded in 1901.
The Swedish Academy has in recent years pledged to make the prize more diverse, after a 2017-2018 #MeToo scandal led to a revamping of the venerable body.
Famed — and lambasted — for its Eurocentric Nobel picks dominated by men, the jury has repeatedly maintained, however, that its prize is neither political nor subject to gender or ethnic quotas.
It has insisted that its only criteria is the quality of a writer’s body of work.
But perhaps it is no coincidence that the revamped Academy gave the nod to Ernaux, who has been a strong voice supporting the #MeToo movement.
The movement took longer to take off in France, with the likes of actress Catherine Deneuve initially defending male “gallantry” and men’s right to hit on women.
“In France we hear so much about our culture of seduction, but it’s not seduction, it’s male domination”, Ernaux has said.