Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Annie Ernaux - a reading list
The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to French writer Annie Ernaux (1940). In an explanation, the Swedish Academy praises Ernaux 'for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory'.
All books in the list below come from the collections of Leiden University Libraries (UBL) and can be borrowed through the Catalogue.
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 in the Normandy village of Yvetot. Her parents, of humble origins, would eventually become cafe owners. Much of her work is autobiographical in nature, but at the same time transcends her personal life. Ernaux repeatedly shows in her work how the personal is embedded in a larger collective story. She regularly returns to experiences in the environment in which she grew up. She was influenced by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His Distinction Theory teaches that a person's cultural taste is not simply the result of personal preference, but often an expression of the group to which a person belongs.
Ernaux started her literary career in 1974 with the book Les armoires vides (Cleaned Out). Her work Les Années (2008) is considered by many to be her magnum opus and was showered with praise and awarded many literary prizes. In 2020, Les Années appeared as De jaren in the Dutch translation by Rokus Hofstede. This publication serves as a reintroduction of Ernaux in the Dutch-speaking region. In 2022, no fewer than three titles followed in Dutch translation: De schaamte, Meisjesherinneringen, en Het voorval. Many of Annie Ernaux' books were translated to English. Several of these will soon be available via the Catalogue.
Les Années is often considered the magnum opus of Annie Ernaux. In the United States, this book was published as The Years and in the Netherlands as De jaren. Both translations had an enormous impact and were received favourably. Les Années is considered by many to be one of the most important literary works of the 21st century. On the back cover of the Dutch translation, the book is called a ’collective autobiography of our time’, a form of writing that one could call a ‘mixture of autobiographical fiction and sociology’. Using language, photographs, cultural habits, commercials, and headlines taken from newspapers, Ernaux describes the period 1941-2006 in France. The result is an account of this period in France in which her personal and ‘larger history’ are often intertwined.
This relatively recent work of Ernaux can almost be considered a diary. It describes her experiences in the period between 1993 and 1999. However, she does not simply and solely narrate her own life, but also illustrates how her life is embedded in a social, political and economic reality. Characteristic of her work is her eye for detail: she notices someone in a train, describes a cashier in the supermarket. These descriptions of people, both close by and far way, who suffer from grievous injustices, are characteristic of Ernaux’ gaze. The anger upon seeing suffering without remedy is alternated with another frustration: reality is often too complex to describe in a page-long essay, especially when said reality is atrocious. The book is ultimately as much a historiographical one as an ego document. In that sense, this work is typical of the autobiographical nature of Ernaux' oeuvre.
Ernaux’ debut novel recounts a gruesome episode in her life. At a young age, she underwent an illegal abortion. At the time, the book broke the taboo of abortion, but it simultaneously ponders on socio-economic inequality, the position of her parents in society and the hypocrisy of the upper class to which she gained access because of her ‘good mind’. She looks back on the years of her youth and lives between guilt and hatred: her parents, after all, did everything to enable her to study. The book is an ongoing stream of thoughts on the Sunday afternoon on which she was waiting for salvation, with pain in her stomach. A fascinating account of the innermost world of a young Annie Ernaux. The book was translated into Dutch in 1990, by Marijke Jansen, and was published as Lege kasten.
Jealousy and obsession are the central themes in L’occupation. After recently splitting up with her partner of six years, the narrator discovers that her former partner has moved in with another woman. This discovery unexpectedly releases a feeling of jealousy she was unaware she was capable of feeling. She becomes obsessed with this other, unknown woman. During a period of 6 months she can barely think of anything else. This novel, which is often described as short but intense, is the painful, honest and oftentimes analytical account of the thoughts and feelings that occur after a failed love affair.
La honte is the autobiographical story of a twelve-year-old Annie Ernaux. The central theme of the book is the harrowing memory of the time her father tried to kill her mother; an event that would have lasting impact on her life. The main emotion connected to this event, for her, is one of shame. The question of where this sense of shame came from is the central concern in this book. To answer this question she invites the reader to join her as she shares her memories and experiences of living in the French village ‘Y’ in the early 1950’s. In doing so she demonstrates how our environment and our personal feelings – of shame in this case – are related to one another.
In her debut Les armoires vides, Annie Ernaux describes a painful event in her life. In the years that followed, the theme was still haunting her. ‘For years, I have anxiously evaded writing about this event from my life. Reading a novel about abortion causes dismay without images or thoughts, as if the words simultaneously get something violent.’ In the autumn of 1963 - Ernaux was a student writing her thesis - slept with a man and got pregnant unintentionally. In L’événement Ernaux dares to write about her abortion, which she underwent in a shady alley in Paris. The Dutch writer and critic Marja Pruis writes in an essay on Ernaux: 'The event is a shocking book. It’s not "big", none of Ernaux' novels are voluminous, and yet it has the weight of a brick.'