Annie Ernaux: the 2022 Nobel literature laureate’s greatest works

<span>Photograph: Francesca Mantovani-Editions Gallimard/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Francesca Mantovani-Editions Gallimard/Reuters

For once, the rumours have proved true. Annie Ernaux, the 82-year-old French writer, who for the last couple of years has been touted as a favourite, has been announced as the winner of the 2022 Nobel prize for literature – only the 17th woman out 119 laureates in the award’s history.

The Swedish Academy is famous for its secrecy and its often apparently obscure choices. The October announcement frequently has journalists and editors frantically Googling that year’s recipient – and perhaps a decade ago, Annie Ernaux might have received the same treatment. But, while her work has been well known and well received in France since the 1970s, and published in English translation from 1991, it is only since around 2019, when The Years, her monumental work of fiction-memoir was shortlisted for the International Booker prize, that Ernaux has made a big impact on the anglophone world.

The Years covers six decades of social and personal history, from Ernaux’s working-class childhood in wartime and postwar Normandy – where she was born in 1940 – through the 1968 student uprisings, initial joy and later disillusionment during the long presidency of François Mitterand in the 1980s and 90s and on into the new millennium. It spans politics, literature, music, television, education, marriage, divorce, advertisements, popular slogans – all recounted through a narrator who never once uses the word “I’.

The book, which ends in 2006, was celebrated in France as a modern In Search of Lost Time. In terms of prose style, however, Ernaux has little in common with the more flamboyant Proust – her writing is more austere, the sensuality more analytical. Her work as a whole is reflective, intimate – but also impersonal and detached. The Nobel committee described her oeuvre on Thursday as “uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean.”

Nowhere is uncompromising style more apparent than in Ernaux’s account of the illegal abortion she had in 1963 as a student in Rouen. This episode of her life, which first appeared as the short, sharp book Happening in France in 1999, was crafted – like much of Ernaux’s work – from the diaries she kept at the time. Her family was solidly religious, and Ernaux was the first to attend university. Matter-of-factly she states: “Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as stigma of social failure.”

Related: ‘It plunged me back to waiting for a period’: Annie Ernaux and Audrey Diwan on abortion film Happening

The sense of shame, of the intransigent hierarchy of society, abounds in her brilliant scrutiny of her father’s life, A Man’s Place, first published in 1983. Ernaux’s father died two months after she passed her teaching exams. (She would go on to teach in schools and university, from 1977-2000, alongside writing books.) A Man’s Place is very much part of what Ernaux calls the “lived dimension of history” – it is dispassionate about the life of a working-class man of his time, a struggling grocer with minimal education: “no lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony,” she warns us. Similarly, her brief, electric, I Remain in Darkness, about her mother’s dementia and subsequent death, with Ernaux by now divorced and middle-aged, is – while neutrally and starkly written – saturated throughout with a daughter’s grief.

Passion and grief often exist side by side. Ernaux’s twin books Simple Passion – the story of her affair with a younger, married Soviet attaché in Paris in the months before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and her most recently published English translation, Getting Lost, the diary of that affair, are incendiary works which remind us how close we are in life to death – whether it be morally, physically, existentially. Margaret Drabble has commented that “Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation” – now the great chronicler been justly rewarded with the greatest of literature prizes.