Nobel Prize in Literature 2022 awarded to French author Annie Ernaux

Swedish Academy cites ‘the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory’

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 has been awarded to Annie Ernaux, the French novelist whose intensely personal books have highlighted incidents from her own life, including a backstreet abortion in the 1960s and a passionate extramarital affair.

Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Committee, announced the decision at a news conference in Stockholm at noon on Thursday, saying she had received the award “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.

The committee had not been able to reach Ernaux by telephone, Malm said, but he “expected her to become aware of the news soon”. They intend to present her with the prize on December 10th.

Ernaux, who is 82, becomes only the 17th woman to have won the prize, widely considered the most prestigious award in world literature, since it was created, in 1901. She is the second woman to be given the prize in three years, after Louise Glück, who was awarded the 2020 prize for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.

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Ernaux’s books include her debut, Cleaned Out, a bracing account of her working-class youth, including the abortion, carried out when the procedure was still illegal in France, and A Simple Passion, a bestseller in France about Ernaux’s affair with a married foreign diplomat.

Outside France she is perhaps best known for The Years, an experimental autobiography that weaves together events from more than 70 years of Ernaux’s life with events from French history. In 2019 The Years was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, the big British award for fiction translated into English. “This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read,” Edmund White wrote in a review of that book for the New York Times.

Annie Ernaux first tried writing in college, but her book was rejected by publishers as ‘too ambitious’. She didn’t take up writing again until she was in her 30s, when she was a married mother of two, working as a French teacher

Her works have long been praised by critics. Ernaux’s autobiographical novels defy “the demands of her genre — the desire for melodramatic intimate revelation and the smoothness of fictional tale-telling”, Claire Messud wrote in 1998. The books instead “offer a searing authenticity and reveal the slipperiness of much that we call memoir”.

Ernaux first tried writing in college, but her book was rejected by publishers as “too ambitious,” she told the New York Times in 2020. She didn’t take up writing again until she was in her 30s, when she was a married mother of two, working as a French teacher.

She wrote Cleaned Out in secret. “My husband had made fun of me after my first manuscript,” Ernaux said. “I pretended to work on a PhD thesis to have time alone.” After the book was published, her husband reacted badly again. “He told me: If you’re capable of writing a book in secret, then you’re capable of cheating on me,” Ernaux said. Soon she was writing about her unhappy marriage.

Later books detailed her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and Ernaux’s experience of cancer, as well as happier events, such as her affairs.

Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions, her British publisher, said he was “shaken, to be honest” by the news. He described Ernaux as “an exceptional and unique writer” who has for decades chronicled what it is like to be a woman in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her books are socially and politically relevant inside and outside France given events such as the United States supreme court’s recent overturning of Roe v Wade, he added.

Ernaux has long been a favourite for the prize, although before Thursday’s announcement Salman Rushdie had been expected to take the accolade. Rushdie, the Booker Prize-winning author of Midnight’s Children, was stabbed in August on stage at a books festival in New York in what prosecutors said was a premeditated attack.

The Nobel Prize, which is given for a writer’s entire body of work, is regarded as the foremost prize in world literature. Past winners have included Toni Morrison, JM Coetzee and even Bob Dylan. It comes with an award of 10 million Swedish krona, or about €900,000.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, has in recent years tried to increase the diversity of authors considered for the award, after facing criticism that, before today’s announcement, 95 of the past 118 Nobel laureates have been European or North American, and only 16 of them have been women. Last year’s award went to Abdulrazak Gurnah, an author who was born in Tanzania and whose novels focus on experiences of migration. He was the first black writer to receive the prize since Morrison, in 1993, and the first African to win in more than a decade. — This article originally appeared in The New York Times