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Annie Ernaux writes about deep pain with cool restraint

This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature writes scorching and closely observed books about experiences that often go unrecorded or unexamined

Annie Ernaux, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature, at a literary festival in Rome in 2016. (Alesia Paradisi/Sipa USA/AP)
8 min

When, not too long ago, I began trying to write the story of a sexual assault at the hands of a person I had once loved, I turned to the genre-defying French writer Annie Ernaux — for permission, for a model, for the rigor needed to neither sentimentalize nor overdramatize nor reductively explain the event I was describing. In particular, I thought often of a line that Ernaux wrote in her novel “A Simple Passion,” about an older woman’s affair with a younger married man: “I do not wish to explain my passion — that would imply that it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify — I just want to describe it.”

Ernaux’s command of sentences and structure makes her work feel at once meticulously crafted and unnervingly heated. Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday, was born in 1940 in Normandy and grew up in the town of Yvetot, where her parents ran a grocery store and cafe in a working-class area. Her mother, she writes in “A Woman’s Story,” “knew all the household tips that lessened the strain of poverty.” Not so Ernaux, a talented student who made her way to university and to a life in literature: “This knowledge — handed down from mother to daughter for many centuries — stops at my generation,” she writes. “I am only the archivist.”

Over her lifetime, that archivist has produced a succession of slender, scorching and closely observed books about experiences that usually go unrecorded or unexamined, including an abortion, an affair, a rape that she is not sure can be called rape, and her own sense of shame at and alienation from her lower-class origins. Ernaux’s novels and memoirs are slim but flashingly deep; they possess the shocking pain of a paper cut. (“How could one sentence hurt so much?” one often wonders while reading her work.)

It would be false to call Ernaux a novelist or a memoirist. Although in the strictest sense she has written both novels and memoirs, her books unstitch our sense of genre, leaving us with threads and messy seams rather than tidy garments. Better to simply call her a writer: a person who must put into words that which preoccupies her; not for therapeutic ends, not for consolation, but with a probing concern about that which wounds us.

Her novels draw on her life; her memoirs are novelistic. “A Woman’s Story,” about her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s, summons up its subject’s life in the early 20th century as immersively as fiction might. It also depicts a formative mother-daughter relationship. Growing up in Yvetot, inhaling books, the young Annie was both doted on and dismissed. Her mother called her “beast” and “slut” as easily as “poppet,” and wanted more for her daughter while simultaneously resenting her: “Look at everything you’ve got, and you’re still not happy!”

What unifies all her writing is its combination of an almost clinical remove with its access to the immediate feeling of great pain. While Ernaux writes explicitly and vividly about herself, she does so as “an ethnologist of myself,” as she has put it. In “Happening,” she describes an illegal abortion she underwent in the 1960s in France. Much of the book concerns her trying to figure who will give her an abortion. She finds a woman who will give her a “probe” to insert. It results in a hemorrhage that almost kills her, landing her in a hospital. As she is anesthetized for an operation to stop the bleeding, her feet strapped in the stirrups, she asks a doctor what he is going to do; he retorts, in more colorful language than presented here, that he is “no plumber!” The next morning, a nurse stiffly asks her: “Last night, why didn’t you tell the doctor that you were like him?” — meaning, why didn’t you let him know you were educated, and not just another lower-class girl from town.

Ernaux debrides the debris from the illusion that we remain a single person our whole life. Reflection on past events, and how they stay with us and change us over time, undergirds her work: The central events of her life are the starting point for a meditation on what remains elusive; she is able to get at the contingency of existence as well its steadiest currents.

In “A Girl’s Story,” she writes about her first foray away from home, as a counselor at a summer camp, where she had a sexual encounter with a boy called “H” that she cannot quite bring herself to call a rape. It induced in her a need to be seen that led to sexual promiscuity; the book is uncomfortable to read for the ways it frankly acknowledges how challenging it is for the author to write it. Ernaux uses the third person to write about “the girl of ’58” she once was, a girl she cannot quite imagine being now: “The girl in the picture is not me, but neither is she a fictional creation. There is no one else in the world I know in such vast and inexhaustible detail.” And yet she is not her. “The girl in the picture is a stranger who imparted her memory to me,” she writes. “This girl is not me, but is real inside me.”

How, the writer asks, did we once end up in situations that do not make sense to the self we now are? Revisiting the camp where she was demonized socially — after a lifetime of success as a writer, after writing about and forcing herself to look at what happened with “H” — doesn’t free her. Rather, it leaves her with an insight: that a writer can simply “explore the gulf between the stupefying reality of things that happen” and, decades on, “the strange unreality in which the things that happened are enveloped.”

Because Ernaux writes so often about stigmatized private experiences, one could imagine turning to her for permission to write confessionally; and yet what distinguishes her exploration of abjection and self-abnegation is that one never feels it is performative, as so much writing of selfhood is. Never in her work do you find the glittery sense of narcissism or self-enthrallment so common in personal writing; rather, the cool restraint is directed compulsively at something else, at trying to understand, or link, or otherwise simply describe, what others might try to explain.

In “A Simple Passion,” she writes that it is a “mistake” to “compare someone writing about his own life to an exhibitionist,” since the latter wants “to show himself and to be seen at the same time” while the writer can describe shameful things only “because of the time which separates the moment when they are written … from the moment when they will be read by other people.”

In every sentence of Ernaux’s books is an intensity of purpose, an urgency: She has to write. The work is something more than self-exploration. It is lived philosophy, prayer, a need to enact. Writing served as “a kind of morality for me,” she writes in “Getting Lost.” “I forgave my husband’s pleasure seeking because he didn’t write. What else is there to do when you don’t write? Eat, drink, and make love.” Or, as she puts it in “Happening”: “These things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing; in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”

It is this quality of synthesized existence, the way she combines narration and thinking, that has me reading her over and over, as if I were looking in the window of her books and seeing a person looking back at me, merging book and life. It is an act of reading in which nothing is restored, but something is gained.

Meghan O’Rourke is a poet, writer and editor of the Yale Review. Her most recent book, “The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness,” is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction.

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