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Annie Ernaux: ‘Women have not become the equals of men in terms of liberty and power’

Writer reacts to becoming the 17th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and 16th French citizen to do so

The French writer Annie Ernaux, whose autobiographical oeuvre is marked by the themes of social class domination and amorous passion, is the 17th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the 16th French citizen.

France has won more Nobels in literature than any other country, but this is the first time the prize has gone to a French woman.

Ernaux’s simple, crystalline style shuns lyricism in its exploration of the social dynamics and emotions of modern French life, while maintaining a thirst for social justice. “I am a woman who writes. That is all,” she said last May.

Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, praised the “courage and clinical acuity with which [Ernaux] uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.

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The 82-year-old writer told reporters outside her home in the working class Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise that she first heard of her award on the radio.

At a press conference held by Gallimard, her publisher, Ernaux promised “to continue to fight injustice in all its forms”. The prize creates “a responsibility towards women and towards those who are dominated”, she said.

Nearly four months after the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, Ernaux said she would fight until her last breath for the right to abortion. “Women have not become the equals of men in terms of liberty and power. There is still this domination,” she said.

The far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted, “Annie Ernaux, Nobel Prize in Literature. We are weeping with happiness. Francophone letters speak to the world in a delicate language which is not the language of money.”

Ernaux grew up in a small town in Normandy where her working-class parents purchased a local cafe-grocery shop, which she described as shabby and dirty. Ernaux earned a doctorate in literature at the universities of Rouen and Bordeaux and became a teacher in the 1970s.

Ernaux first tried writing while at university, but her books were rejected by publishers. She lied to her husband while writing her first book, Cleaned Out (1974), in which her heroine contrasted the ignorance and vulgarity of the world she came from, including the drunken clients who frequented her parents’ grocery store, with the carefree world of the middle-class girls she attended school with.

Ernaux’s husband mocked her earlier writing, so she lied and told him she was working on a doctoral thesis. He told her that if she could write a book in secret, she was capable of cheating on him. The marriage ended in divorce.

In Happening (2000), Ernaux recounted the illegal abortion she underwent in 1963. A feature film based on the book, directed by Audrey Diwan, won the Lion d’Or at the Venice film festival last year.

Simple Passion (1992), about Ernaux’s two-year affair with a Soviet diplomat, created a scandal when it was published. The obsessed narrator is reduced to waiting for her lover’s visits. It was made into a feature film by Danielle Arbid.

“I think these films could not have been made by a man,” Ernaux told the Agence France Presse last year.

Sophistication

Other Ernaux books recount the failure of her marriage, her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and her own battle with breast cancer.

The Years (2008), Ernaux’s most ambitious book, is an autobiographical novel set against the backdrop of post second World War France, from existentialism in the 1950s to the sexual liberation of the May 1968 revolution.

Ernaux’s prose manages to be at the same time intimate and impersonal. Speaking at the Cannes film festival last May, she said The Years was “my life but also that of thousands of women who have also sought freedom and emancipation”.

Ernaux’s most recent novel, The Young Man (2022), goes back to her love affair with a man 30 years her junior, when she was in her 50s. Ernaux revisits her past without nostalgia, but with all the sensuality and emotional charge of the present moment.

Critics have called Ernaux’s fiction self-obsessed, depressing and obscene. But French president Emmanuel Macron reacted to the award saying that “Annie Ernaux has been writing the collective, intimate novel of our country for 50 years. Her voice is that of the liberty of women and those forgotten by our century”.

France’s culture minister, Rima Abdul Malak, said the Nobel “crowns an intimate oeuvre” characterised by “dense and honed writing which has revolutionised literature, but also a life of courage and liberty which has been an endless source of inspiration”.

Also reacting to the Nobel attribution, the French novelist Delphine de Vigan called Ernaux’s style “extremely demanding and extremely coherent” and praised “the sophistication that underlies the apparent simplicity of her writing”.

Ernaux won the Prix Renaudot for A Man’s Place in 1984 and was a finalist for the Booker International in 2019.