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French author Annie Ernaux uses her life as the source of her complex, distilled body of prose. By Philippa Hawker.

2022 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux.
Annie Ernaux.
Credit: Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images

In Australian bookshops, the works of French writer Annie Ernaux are generally shelved in the biography section. It’s an understandable decision that also feels misleading. Where her writing belongs – how to place it, read it and respond to it – has never been straightforward. Her life might be her raw material but there’s so much more at play in her distilled, remarkable works.

They have a distinctive, singular quality, but they also accumulate meaning, cross-referencing and illuminating each other explicitly and in passing. Her first three works were novels, but thereafter her writing took a different direction. There was a moment, she says, when she started to look for something that was “beneath literature”, for a way to avoid literary effects and to “write the real”.

Ernaux, 82, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, is speaking from her home in Cergy, a new town on the outskirts of Paris, where she has lived since 1977. She is measured, generous and thoughtful as she talks about her approach to writing. Her latest work to be published in English is Getting Lost (Se Perdre), the unedited, uncut journal of a time in the late 1980s when she was involved in an intense, consuming sexual relationship with a Russian diplomat based in Paris. She wrote a book about it shortly afterwards: Simple Passion (Passion Simple), published in France in 1991.

Getting Lost has its own specific context, very different from that of the earlier book. The journal, she says, “is that which is experienced in the present; Simple Passion is about the past”. She didn’t consult the journal for the 1991 book, but several years later she read it again and saw “something raw and dark, without salvation” in its pages. She has kept journals of various kinds since the age of 16. Several have been published, both writer’s diaries and intimate journals.

Ernaux, born Annie Duchesne in Normandy in 1940, grew up as an only child in a small country town. Her parents ran a combined grocery store and cafe. She was a diligent student, a source of family pride tempered with anxiety. She married, had two sons and became a teacher. In her early twenties she had sent a fiction manuscript to a publisher but it was rejected. Ten years later she began to write the first of three novels with strongly autobiographical elements. By the time the third was published – about a woman trapped in bourgeois conformity – her marriage had broken up and she was starting to take a new literary direction. She remained a teacher, however, first in high school and then in distance education, until she turned 60. It gave her the freedom not to depend on writing for income.

The breakthrough she speaks of came with A Man’s Place (La Place), published in 1984. It is an account of the life of her father, who died in 1967. She made several false starts before deciding that it couldn’t be a novel, that this would be a betrayal. Instead, she resolves, as she explains in the book, to “collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared”. She used the phrase écriture plate – translated in the book as “this neutral way of writing” – to describe her approach.

People often misunderstood what she meant by écriture plate, she says. “I think they thought it was a simple, almost basic kind of writing. But it’s not. It’s extremely demanding.” Over time, attitudes began to change. “Gradually, they started to understand what I was doing.”

A Man’s Place was an immediate sensation, a bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot. But it’s the public response rather than the judgement of the literary establishment that Ernaux likes to emphasise. “It really went off, to my great surprise, first by word of mouth, then through the critics and TV. I remember doing a signing at Galeries Lafayette in Paris, and a man who arrived, out of breath. He had crossed Paris for this, because the book had moved him deeply, because it was his story. That was something that stayed with me.”

She received “a flood of letters” from readers who felt she had written about them. Her approach meant “there wasn’t a barrier between the readers and their own stories … there wasn’t the barrier of Literature with a capital L.”

Ernaux’s mother, who died in 1986, was the subject of the next book, A Woman’s Story (Une femme). “I wrote it in the same way,” she says, “and it might seem like a matching piece to A Man’s Place, but the relationship with my mother was different, as I tried to explain in the book.” Her father was more recessive, her mother a forceful, demanding figure. They had both left school at 12, but Ernaux’s mother was an avid reader, ambitious for her child yet keen to define the limits of Annie’s success.

For Ernaux, becoming educated meant becoming a transfuge de classe, a deserter: no longer a member of her parents’ class but not at home in the comfortable world of the dominant class. Yet the woman at the centre of Simple Passion is in demand for overseas literary festivals and social events. In Getting Lost, we discover, Ernaux was a guest at a dinner at the Élysée Palace for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, a development she reflects on in the journal. “I wrote in A Woman’s Story: ‘She spent all day selling milk and potatoes so that I could sit in a lecture hall and learn about Plato.’ And yesterday I thought: ‘They lived and died so that I could attend a reception at the Élysée.’ ”

Simple Passion also found its audience. As there had been with A Man’s Place, there were lots of letters from the public, but “they were not the same readers”, Ernaux says, laughing. There was some hostility from the literary establishment. Simple Passion, she says, was often talked about and reviewed in a way that a book from a male writer would not have been. It was partly the subject matter – female sexual desire, frankly explored – and partly that there are still people who believe literature is a male preserve. The connection between the act of writing and sexual desire is a strong, recurring theme in her writing.

In essence, she says, it was a book about passion, and the objective signs of what it was to experience. “This book was a challenge, I asked myself, ‘How do you write this?’ ” In broad terms, this is a central question posed in virtually every book as part of her rigorous search for clarity.

At the same time, elements of the process almost feel beyond her control. “My projects can appear, disappear, and then they can reappear. I’ve written most of my books that way,” she says. “One book imposes itself over the others, and at that moment I pursue it – steadily and with desire.” It wasn’t until 2001 that she published Happening (L’évènement), about an illegal abortion she had during college, an experience that had been referred to in several of her books but never explored in such unflinching detail.

Another aspect of her life – her first sexual experiences at the age of 18, when she was working at a summer camp – has been “appearing and disappearing” for more than 50 years. It was the subject of the first manuscript she completed. “I began to write by wanting to write about what happened to me,” she says, “but greatly watered down. I wrote around it, and it wasn’t accepted by the publisher.”

The summer camp events stayed with her, “pushed away, but never forgotten. Never forgotten”. Finally, in A Girl’s Story (Mémoire  de fille), published in 2016, she found a way to put this material at the centre of a book, and to examine remembering and writing the past. A Girl’s Story is an extraordinary, sometimes harrowing work written in the first person, but with a figure often referred to as “the girl”.

“It wasn’t possible to have a traditional narrative,” she says. “There was an interrogation that had to be carried out at the same time as the writing. There were two registers.”

Alison L. Strayer, who has translated Getting Lost, A Girl’s Story and The Years, values this double register. “I love the simultaneous endeavour to tell the story of ‘what happened’ and at the same time seeking the means of telling the story as precisely as possible in relation to memory, sensation, the living truth of it,” she says. “As she repeatedly writes in A Girl’s Story, the real of ‘then’ is still vibrantly alive in the present – that is, in the ‘now’ of writing). In other words, the author’s search for those ways of telling is an integral part of the narrative, and the adventure (of reading, of translating). The reader is involved in the ‘recherche’ and the excavating.”

The Years (Les Années), which preceded A Girl’s Story, is a more expansive, almost symphonic work of broad scope and tactile detail. Ernaux chose to avoid the first person “je”, to use “nous” and “on”, translated as “we” and “they”, as well as the recurring figure of a woman invoked in the third person. It is “personal but also collective”, she says, following a generational thread of a woman’s life in France, from 1940 to 2006, during a time of transformation. It might seem like researched work but it was a process of recollection.

As is often the case, photographs are a recurring feature in Ernaux’s prose: not images themselves, but descriptions, evocations, responses to what can be seen and inferred in them. Words or phrases in italics often connote collective language, received ideas. White space on the page is part of the experience of the text: space as punctuation, rhythmic element, a moment of silence.    

In 2019 The Years was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, an award for fiction. How to categorise Ernaux’s work became a source of contention. The judges’ chair, Bettany Hughes, told The Guardian there were “heated conversations” about its eligibility, before settling on the idea that “fiction in the international sense is much broader, particularly in France”.

For Ernaux, 2022 has been a busy, consuming year. A volume in the distinguished Cahiers de l’Herne series was dedicated to her work. A new book, Le jeune homme, about a relationship from the 1990s with a much younger man, was published in May.

This year she was also involved in a film, The Super-8 Years (Les Années Super-8), with her younger son, David Ernaux-Briot, which screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes. It is made up of material shot by her then husband, Philippe Ernaux, footage of travels abroad and events at home, with a voiceover that Annie wrote and spoke. She describes the experience of reconnecting with these images as “a kind of immersion in these years, in terms of history and of the personal. This was the time when I began to write again, in secret, about things I would never have thought I would write about”.

There is a new work in progress, she says. “Three years ago I started something, but I’m not happy with the form.” The year has been busy, and she has put it aside for now. “I will certainly take it up again at the beginning of next year; I’ve arranged things so there won’t be anything else except that.

“I can’t say anything more, but what matters is the form, the voice. There are always questions I ask myself before the book can really take off.”

It is of course a work of memory, she says. How could it be anything else?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "Writing the real".

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