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Annie Ernaux’s Moving Clarity

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Annie Ernaux's Moving Clarity

(CTN News) – The Nobel Prize for Literature was the topic of literary Twitter this week. The French writer Annie Ernaux was mentioned as a candidate, with 20:1 odds among others.

My response to Ernaux’s win was, “I’m not an expert on literary prizes, but I think women who write about their lives face an uphill battle to gain respect or to be considered universal.”

I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

The Swedish Academy awarded Annie Ernaux the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2022 for her courage and clinical acuity in revealing the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.

This is a moment of great memoir, women, and the use of language to convey emotional truth.

Ernaux’s work first caught my attention in the 1990s, when I was involved in a long affair with, yes, a married man.

In over 20 books, Ernaux recounts memories of a life which doesn’t immediately strike one as the stuff of literature, but that’s where she proves us wrong once again.

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 and grew up in Yvetot, Normandy, the daughter of a farm boy and a factory worker who both left school at 12 and went on to run a café and general store.

For years, she taught literature as part of the French national correspondence school CNED, the first in her family to receive an advanced education.

(Her two slim books devoted to her parents’ lives, A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, are haunted by a sense of class betrayal.) The unenviable tasks littering her days include marking essays and grading papers.

Having married, had two sons, and divorced, she eventually moved to the modern suburb of Paris where she remains today, somewhat removed from French literature.

As she writes at the end of A Man’s Place, “Now I have taken possession of the legacy with which I had to part.”

It recounts her desperate search for an abortion in early 1960s France as a 23-year-old student. Her subject of female desire is both unsparing and unapologetic-shameless, really-in a film based on her book.

After a difficult time in life, my favorite book by Annie Ernaux, the lightly fictionalized Simple Passion, restored my will to read. The Years, which some consider her masterpiece, lies unopened on my bedside table.

It describes her experiences with a married foreign diplomat in her 50s. When she waits for sex with him, nothing else matters to her-not even the writing that is otherwise her constant companion, her salvation.

What would happen if one woman told the truth? Muriel Rukeyser wrote that the world would split open.

While we wait for the world to split open, Annie Ernaux has fulfilled her mission. A wider audience will now be introduced to this writer of devastating simplicity.

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