French author Annie Ernaux, who mined her own biography to explore life in France since the 1940s, was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday for work that illuminates murky corners of memory, family and society.
The Swedish Academy said Ernaux, 82, was recognised for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.
She is the first French literature laureate since Patrick Modiano in 2014.
Ernaux told Swedish broadcaster SVT by telephone that the award was “a great honor” and “a very great responsibility”.
Ernaux started out writing autobiographical novels, but quickly abandoned fiction in favour of memoirs.
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, said Ernaux had used the term “an ethnologist of herself” rather than a writer of fiction.
Her more than 20 books, most of them very short, chronicle events in her life and the lives of those around her. They present uncompromising portraits of sexual encounters, abortion, illness and the deaths of her parents.
Olsson said Ernaux’s work was often “uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean”.
“She has achieved something admirable and enduring,” he told reporters after the announcement in Stockholm, Sweden.
Ernaux describes her style as “flat writing” — aiming for an very objective view of the events she is describing, unshaped by florid description or overwhelming emotions.
In the book that made her name, “La Place” (A Man’s Place), about her relationship with her father, she writes: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral writing style comes to me naturally.” Her 2000 novel “Happening,” depicts the consequences of illegal abortion.
Her most critically acclaimed book is “The Years” (Les annees), published in 2008 and describing herself and wider French society from the end of World War II to the present day.
Unlike in previous books, in “The Years,” Ernaux writes about herself in the third person, calling her character “she” rather than “I”. The book received numerous awards and honours.
“A Girl’s Story,” from 2016, follows a young woman’s coming of age in the 1950s.
Ernaux is just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates. Last year’s winner, Tanzanian-born, UK-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was only the sixth Nobel literature laureate born in Africa, and the prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, as well as too male-dominated.
“We try first of all to broaden the scope of the Nobel Prize, but our focus must be on literary quality,” Olsson said.
The prizes to Gurnah in 2021 and US poet Louise Glück in 2020 helped the literature prize move on from years of controversy and scandal.
In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel literature committee, and sparked an exodus of members.
The academy revamped itself but faced more criticism for giving the 2019 literature award to Austria’s Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.
A week of Nobel Prize announcements kicked off Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the award in medicine for unlocking secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key insights into our immune system.
Three scientists jointly won the prize in physics on Tuesday. Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F. Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinger had shown that tiny particles can retain a connection with each other even when separated, a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement, that can be used for specialised computing and to encrypt information.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, and Danish scientist Morten Meldal for developing a way of “snapping molecules together” that can be used to explore cells, map DNA and design drugs that can target diseases such as cancer more precisely.
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics award on Monday.
The prizes carry a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly USD 900,000) and will be handed out on December 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.