Annie Ernaux | Language as a ‘knife’

Be it gender, class, female behaviour or desire, the French author, who won this year’s Nobel Prize, pursues her favoured themes as if she is seeking the truth

Published - October 09, 2022 01:44 am IST

“I want perfection in love, as, I believe, I attained a kind of perfection in writing with A Woman’s Story. That can only happen through giving, while throwing all caution to the wind.” A diary entry from September, 1988, excerpted in The Paris Review, perhaps explains the fearlessness that marks the work of French writer Annie Ernaux, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022, “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

For the 82-year-old Ms. Ernaux, who hails from a small town in Normandy where her parents ran a grocery store and café, success came with her fourth book in 1983, La Place (A Man’s Place, translated by Tanya Leslie, 1992). It’s a slim memoir about her roots, written in pared-down prose after her father’s death. “My mother closed the business just for the funeral. The body of my dead father was lying upstairs as she served pastis and red wine downstairs. In distinguished society, grief at the loss of a loved one is expressed through tears, silence and dignity. The social conventions observed by my mother, and for that matter the rest of the neighbourhood, had nothing to do with dignity.”

This recollection may prompt readers to ask if Ms. Ernaux had moved on from her humble beginnings or did she take recourse in writing for having strayed from, and thus betrayed, her social class.

In a series of autobiographical works — on her mother (Une Femme, A Woman’s Story, 1987/1990), more on her past (La Honte, Shame, 1996/1998), an illegal abortion (L’événement, Happening, 2000/2001), an affair (Passion Simple, Simple Passion, 1991/1993) and so forth — Ms. Ernaux sifts through memory, reconstructing the past in many ways. The Nobel citation mentions her “raw type of prose... beyond the imaginary worlds of fiction.”

Her influences are varied, ranging from the writer of the quotidian, Marcel Proust, to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who stood up for the marginalised. The epigraphs of her books can be from Paul Auster (The Invention of Solitude, a memoir on fatherhood after his dad’s passing) or Anton Chekov (They’ll forget us. Such is our fate…”) or Japanese fiction writer Yuko Tsushima who once said, “I write fiction, but I experience the fiction I write.” Gender, class, female behaviour, desire — Ms. Ernaux pursues her favoured themes as if she is seeking the truth.

Also read: Explained | The works and views of Annie Ernaux, literature Nobel laureate 2022

Political act 

In his appraisal of Ms. Ernaux’s oeuvre, Anders Olsson of the Nobel Committee says her writing, “a political act,” opens our eyes for social inequality. “And for this purpose she uses language as ‘a knife’, as she calls it, to tear apart the veils of imagination.” In Shame, which begins with the devastating line, “My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon”, she explains, “I have always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward, the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others.”

“From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man…” thus begins Simple Passion, where Ms. Ernaux blurs the line between fact and fiction to write about a two-year relationship with a Russian diplomat, who was married.

During that time, she is indifferent to everything else but actions related to this man, called A. in the novel, and S. in her journal. She would read newspaper articles about his country, write letters to him, choose clothes and make-up, change the sheets, arrange flowers, jot down things that might interest him, buy whiskey, imagine their time together, and thus fill “in time between two meetings.” The liaison, she writes, made her feel pain, sympathy and compassion for other people. When the affair ends, and she is torn asunder, Ms. Ernaux has an overriding urge one day to visit a building where she had had an abortion two decades back, “as if hoping that this past trauma would cancel my present grief.”

Asked in the Nobel interview which book of hers she would recommend as a starting point, she said The Years “could bring together everyone.” Translated by Alison L. Strayer and shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, Ms. Ernaux puts her life from 1941 to 2006 under the scanner in the ambitious book, because “all the images will disappear.”

She uses language to put that world into words. In a universe living an Orwellian nightmare, where the past is being erased, the words of a French memoirist who devotes her art to truth-telling become all too important.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.