Annie Ernaux: This year it’s easy to get enthusiastic about the Nobel Prize for Literature

The academy has honoured a courageous writer. Ernaux has been unfailingly honest about life as a late 20th century woman

The award of the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature to the French writer Annie Ernaux will come as welcome news to her many admirers worldwide. She is the author of singular body of work that marries acute psychological observation with an incisive understanding of social change.

Ernaux has used her version of autofiction — writing from personal experience — to offer a detailed and unsparing vision of what it was to be a young woman growing up in postwar France, steeped in a particular kind of patriarchal complacency.

The first work that will bring her to wider attention is A Man’s Place (1984), a closely observed account of the heartbreak of social mobility. As the narrator embraces a career in teaching and a new lifestyle, she moves farther and farther from the familiar rituals of childhood and the values of her working-class parents. Ernaux’s language is precise, unadorned, and remarkably effective in picking up on the micro-shifts that track both personal change and discreet modulations in mood in the wider society.

In works such as A Frozen Woman (1995), Happening (2001), or A Woman’s Story (2003), Ernaux deals unflinchingly with difficult topics such as marital breakdown, abortion, and the death of a mother. Her prose in these works shuns sentiment and seeks to bring out the unsaid and the intolerable.


Her most remarkable work, The Years (2018), first published in French in 2008, took 10 years to make its way into English translation, and covers the years from the author’s birth in 1940, to 2006. The use of memory to follow the growth of a woman from childhood to adulthood in a France that is constantly shape-shifting is utterly compelling. Ernaux draws on apparently insignificant details, from an advertising slogan to a minor song lyric, to capture with unerring accuracy the spirit of a moment in ways that, at times, are reminiscent of another great French postwar writer: Georges Perec.

The Years may be based on the specific story of one person living through those years, but Ernaux’s consummate skill lies in her ability to make it in some sense the biography of a whole society. Self-reflection has never collapsed into self-absorption for Ernaux. Her relentless curiosity in others — parents, partners, lovers, perfect strangers — means her writing is always trying to understand how the self is inescapably and endlessly mediated through people who are not the narrator.

In awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Annie Ernaux, the Swedish Academy is honouring a writer who has been unfailingly honest and courageous in bearing witness to life lived as a woman in the late 20th century. The academy is also acknowledging the work of a scrupulous stylist who is forever attentive to the expressiveness of her native language.

There have been occasions in the past where it has been difficult to feel enthusiasm for the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is not one of them.

Michael Cronin is 1776 Professor of French in Trinity College Dublin