Admirers of French literature are thrilled to welcome Annie Ernaux to the list of Nobel laureates. Her 2022 award places her among other French luminaries including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Patrick Modiano.

Annie Ernaux in 2017. – Image courtesy of Wikipeda

Ernaux is praised for mining her humble origins to produce gripping memoirs. Her family’s café grocery store and working-class milieu frequently serve as a backdrop to a young woman’s coming of age in a changing France: the post-war 1950s, the uprisings of the 1960s, and the feminist movement of the 1970s.

A brilliant student, Ernaux’s academic success led her away from village life in Normandy and to a career in teaching and writing. Yet her literary accomplishments have often left her uneasy. She explained in a 1995 interview with Claire-Lise Tondeur: “It’s the very uncomfortable position of being between two worlds. My gaze will remain different. I am exiled from my own milieu…. My gaze is formed by this internal exile” (38; translation mine). Such malaise continues to spark Ernaux’s creative outpourings and literary innovation.

From Ernaux’s first publication, “Les Armoires vides” (“Cleaned Out,” 1974), one discerns her willingness to shock her readers and grapple with uncomfortable themes. As Ernaux explained to Carol Sanders, “I wanted to use not the refined style that I use as a teacher of literature, but an idiom that, by being brutally direct, working-class and sometimes obscene, would take issue with the French tradition of the polished sentence, of ‘good taste’ in literature” (qtd. in Sanders, Afterword 125).

The novel, inspired by Ernaux’s experience with an illegal abortion in the 1960s, opens:

“Once an hour I do exercises, pedaling, scissors, sit-ups with my feet against the wall. To hurry things up. Suddenly, a strange hot sensation opens out like a flower in the lower part of my stomach. Purple-tinged, rotten. Not a pain, but heralding the pain to come, a wave that comes from all sides to crash against your hips and die down at the top of the thighs. Almost pleasurable.” (“Cleaned Out” 7)

With such graphic images and fragmented, rambling prose, Ernaux draws her readers into a riveting drama, one in which the heroine almost dies in an effort to avoid motherhood and continue her literary pursuits.

Ernaux would later move to a more sober, straightforward style, writing reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway or Albert Camus, which characterizes much of her output to date. Danièle Mazingarbe discusses “the Ernaux Style…. The precise word, the clear sentence, the minimum. Without emotion.” It is also a style which allows her to distance herself from her subjects and write of them with an ethnographer’s eye. We see this in works like “La place” (“A Man’s Place,” 1983) and “Une femme” (“A Woman’s Story,” 1987), companion texts that honor her father and mother respectively.

Ernaux frequently challenges the limits of genre and interrogates the boundaries of truth and fiction. This is clear in “A Woman’s Story,” which recounts a mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and the relationship between mother and daughter. In that text, Ernaux writes: “Naturally, this isn’t a biography, neither is it a novel, maybe a cross between literature, sociology and history” (91). We see how Ernaux gives context to her mother’s life and places it within a larger social framework: “It is only when my mother – born in an oppressed world from which she wanted to escape – became history that I started to feel less alone and out of place in a world ruled by words and ideas, the world where she had wanted me to live” (91). One sees here again Ernaux’s sense of unease with her success.

Characteristic of many contemporary writers, Ernaux’s writing is frequently an exercise in rewriting. Events from “Cleaned Out” reappear in “L’événement” (“Happening,” 2000). Moments from “A Woman’s Story” are later recast in “‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit‘” (“’I Remain in Darkness,’” 1997). With these revisions, one can also understand Ernaux’s purpose. Whereas “A Woman’s Story” treats the mother’s entire lifespan and the mother-daughter relationship, “I Remain in Darkness” focuses on the mother’s illness and death with only occasional glimpses at past moments in the lives of mother and daughter. It is a more raw, clinical account of loss. In composing “I Remain in Darkness,” Ernaux drew on personal notes and reflections from the time. She tells readers that she transcribed the last moments with her mother “as they were written, in the stupor and the utter distress that I felt then” (“’Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit’” 13; translation mine). As such, she exploits the immediacy of the diary and narrows the gap between lived events and writing.

Critics laud “Les Années” (“The Years,” 2008) as Ernaux’s most important work. It is once again a personal story within a collective context, but this time a sweeping view of the French society she inhabited over the years. As in much of her life writing, Ernaux explores memories through photographs, news headlines, popular songs, and sayings, all in an effort to recapture “lost time,” to invoke Marcel Proust. “The Years” also outlines significant historical and cultural events, such as the War in Algeria and the May ’68 uprisings. In his article on Ernaux, Andrew Limbong calls it “an expansive look at the society that created her.”

With regard to pressing current issues, Ernaux’s Mémoire de fille (“A Girl’s Story,” 2016) tackles debates surrounding consent and power dynamics. As she recalls a sexual encounter with H while she was a counselor at a summer camp in 1958, Ernaux explores the seeming inevitability of their liaison, one in which he would dominate and she would abandon herself to him. Reflecting back on this period years later, the seasoned narrator understands both the naïveté of her younger self and our changing sense of gender relations. “A Girl’s Story” thus becomes a very timely piece for an author adept at exploring identity, sexuality, and womanhood. Indeed, women’s rights remain crucial for Ernaux, and she vowed to fight for them, including access to contraception and abortion, after winning the Nobel Prize (Schaeffer, Keyton, and Lawless).

Annie Ernaux’s Nobel Prize lecture delivered on Dec. 7, 2022. The transcript of the English translation can be downloaded here.

Works by Annie Ernaux

Les années.” Paris: Gallimard, 2008.

Les armoires vides.” Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

Cleaned Out.” Trans. Carol Sanders. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1990.

L’événement.” Paris: Gallimard, 2000.

Une femme.” Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

A Girl’s Story.” Trans. Alison L. Strayer. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2020.

Happening.” Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.

‘I remain in Darkness.‘” Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

‘Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit.‘” Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

A Man’s Place.” Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1992.

Mémoire de fille.” Paris: Gallimard, 2016.

La place.” Paris: Gallimard. 1983.

A Woman’s Story.” Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991.

The Years.” Trans. Alison L. Strayer. Seven Stories Press, 2017.

Sources and Further Reading

Bacholle, Michèle, curator. “E-musée Annie Ernaux: Visite guidée des (vrais) lieux ernaliens.” 2021. https://www.easternct.edu/bachollem/e-mus%C3%A9e-annie-ernaux.html. For those who read French, Eastern Connecticut State University’s Michèle Bacholle has created this “Electronic Museum” on Ernaux which offers an introduction to the author through a study of significant locations, quotations from her texts, and images. Bacholle’s faculy page can accessed at https://www.easternct.edu/faculty-directory/bacholle.html

Limbong, Andrew. “French Writer Annie Ernaux Wins Nobel Prize in Literature.” 6 October 2022. npr.org.

Mazingarbe, Danièle. “Récits: La Honte, Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit d’Annie Ernaux.” Madame Figaro Jan. 1997.

Proust, Marcel. “À la recherche du temps perdu.” Paris: Grasset and Gallimard, 1913-1927.

Sanders, Carol. ‘Afterword.’ “Cleaned out.” By Annie Ernaux. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1990. 124-127.

Schaeffer, Jeffrey, David Keyton, and Jill Lawless. “French Writer Annie Ernaux Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature.” apnews.com. 6 October 2022. Web. 28 December 2022.

Tondeur, Claire-Lise. “Entretien avec Annie Ernaux.” The French Review 69.1 (1995): 37-44.


Claire Marrone is Professor of French and Italian at Sacred Heart University, where she teaches courses in French/Francophone and Italian language, literature, culture, and film. She holds a Ph.D. in French and Italian from the University of Pennsylvania, and joined Sacred Heart in 1992 after teaching at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Paris X, the Frères Lumière University in Lyons, France, and the Bryn Mawr College/University of Pennsylvania Italian Studies Summer Institute in Florence, Italy. In addition to her book “Female Journeys: Autobiographical Expressions by French and Italian Women,” Dr. Marrone has published numerous articles on works from the nineteenth century to the present.

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