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French writer Annie Ernaux sitting on a bench in front of flowers.
French writer Annie ErnauxImage: CATI CLADERA/EPA-EFE
LiteratureEurope

Nobel Prize: Annie Ernaux wins award for literature

October 6, 2022

The Swedish Academy gave the award to French memoirist Annie Ernaux. An icon of autobiographical fiction, the author of "The Years" joins the ranks of other prestigious figures in the literary scene.

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From Ernest Hemingway to Mario Vargas Llosa, the greatest names in literature have been recipients of the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature. French author Annie Ernaux now joins this list of greats as the 2022 laureate, as announced on Thursday by the Swedish Academy.

Ernaux is renowned for her autobiographical prose works that examine "a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class," according to the Swedish Academy.

For the French memoirist, "writing is a political act, opening our eyes for social inequality. For this purpose she uses language as 'a knife,' as she calls it, to tear apart the veils of imagination," stated Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee.

An chronicler of social inequality and sexuality

According to the author's own description, the main themes found in her body of work, which spans over four decades, are "the body and sexuality; intimate relationships; social inequality and the experience of changing class through education; time and memory; and the overarching question of how to write these life experiences." 

The personal and intimate experiences she writes about "are always understood as shared by others, and reflective of the social, political and cultural context in which they occur," states Ernaux on her website. 

Abortion in postwar France

Born in 1940, Ernaux started her literary career in 1974 with "Les armoires vides" (published in English as "Cleaned Out" in 1990), which already explored autobiographical aspects of her working-class background, her childhood and her youth.

A defining masterpiece among her more than 30 literary works, "The Years" ("Les Années," published in French in 2008 and in English in 2017) revisits postwar French history from a woman’s perspective.

A chilling example of her prose is her 2000 book, "Happening" ("L'événement"), which tells the story of an illegal abortion she had in the 1960s in unsparing detail. Adapted into a film of the same name by director Audrey Diwan in 2021, it follows a 23-year-old literature student who faces numerous barriers as she seeks to have an abortion in order to save her future. 

She recently published the English translation of her diary "Getting Lost," which along with the novel "Simple Passion" details an intense love affair she had with a married Russian diplomat after they met in 1988 when he was 35 and she 48. Ernaux describes being in the throes of love, intense sexual passion and living in fear of being dumped over the one and a half-year period of their dalliance. 

An icon of feminism in France

In France, she has long been a star writer of her generation. Ernaux has already won various prestigious awards, including the French Prix Renaudot in 1984 for her book "A Man's Place" ("La Place"), an autobiographical narrative that reconstructs the life history of her father as seen through her own memories. It also discusses her process of moving away from her parents' home in provincial France. 

The 2008 Prix de la langue française and the 2018 Premio Hemingway recognized her entire body of work. She was also elected a Royal Society of Literature International Writer in 2021.

Salman Rushdie was among Nobel Prize favorites

The Nobel Prize in literature is given out each year by the centuries-old Swedish Academy, an elite group of 18 people consisting of literary scholars, historians, linguists and Swedish writers, among others.

Since its initial year in 1901, the Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded 118 times (yet notably only 17 times to women writers). 

In 2018, the Swedish Academy suspended the prize-giving following a scandal involving French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, married to a then member of the institution.

This year, many in the literary field expected novelist Salman Rushdie to take home the prestigious prize. Rushdie was stabbed earlier this year shortly before giving a public lecture in New York City. Rushdie is the author of "The Satanic Verses” which was banned in several Muslim countries.

The award winners throughout the Nobel Prize in literature's history have been diverse. The original winner of the prize was French essayist and poet Sully Prudhomme.

Last year's winner was Tanzanian-born British writer Abdulrazak Gurnah for his "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents." 

Other recent winners include Kazuo Ishiguro, Louise Glück and Olga Tokarczuk. Even Bob Dylan took home the prize in 2016 "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

In addition to fame and glory, winners take home prize money totaling 10 million Swedish kroner (about €920,000; $914,000). According to the Swedish Academy, the award goes to "the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction." A ceremony for the winners will be held in Stockholm in December.

 

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

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