Annie Ernaux Ascends

Nobel committee bestows its literary award on an introspective French author

The granting of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature to Annie Ernaux acknowledges the French author’s considerable talent, but Ernaux is far from the only writer out there with a claim to the world’s most prestigious literary award. While the choice is not without basis, it does raise questions about the criteria driving the Nobel committee and about Ernaux’s view of herself as a disadvantaged and marginalized figure.

Until the October 6 announcement, speculation ran high that the prize might go to Salman Rushdie, whose near-fatal stabbing in an attack in western New York in August refocused the world’s attention on his role as a champion of intellectual and creative freedom. David Remnick in the New Yorker made a case that the incident highlights Rushdie’s free-speech absolutism and argued for giving Rushdie the award on those grounds as well as on the merits of his work. Others felt that while what happened to Rushdie was awful and he deserves kudos for standing up for the rights of writers and critics worldwide, you are not more deserving of the prize just because something bad happened to you. Still others held out hope that this would be the year of Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, Michel Houellebecq, Margaret Atwood, or even Stephen King. Hilary Mantel would have been a contender if not for her passing just weeks before. Peter Carey of Australia has more than earned it.

In the end, the committee went with Ernaux, who has turned out slender, subtle, eloquent novels about relationships and love and lust and men and women for nearly five decades, going back to 1974’s Les Armoires vides.

‘Getting Lost,’ a memoir by the Nobel Prize-winning Annie Ernaux.

Ernaux mines her own life for the stuff of fiction. Often narrated from the point of view of a woman who can’t get enough of a man, or feels she has suffered betrayal at the hands of a selfish jerk, or maybe a little of both, her novels present an obsessive take on lust and longing. Her narrators and their significant others romp around Paris, enjoy its café society and cultural offerings, have sex, fight, fall in and out of love, and lose and make contact again repeatedly.

The ending of Ernaux’s 1991 novella Passion Simple holds an interpretative key. Having pursued a young man with an ardor bordering on prurience and pathology over the course of 77 pages, the protagonist tells us in the final lines her outlook has changed. At an earlier stage of life, she believed that fulfillment would come from wearing fur coats and jewels and enjoying the high life at seaside resorts. Then she came to believe that intellectual growth held out the greatest rewards. Finally, she feels that those things are nice but the ultimate satisfaction lies in getting to know and love another person deeply. But giving a back seat to intellectual curiosity is Ernaux’s error.

The Outline as Novel

Ernaux is wry, witty, poignant, and a fine stylist, but at times repeats themes and storylines, without taking the trouble that some of the novelists named above take to develop characters, plots, and situations. Her very short 2002 work L’Occupation is a case in point. The narrator grows obsessed with the girlfriend of an ex-lover whom she feels it is her destiny to be with, and her jealousy drives her to imagine doing pretty crazy things, like pretending to be a patient of the gynecologist who lives in the same building as the usurper, or occupier, in order to get inside and snoop around.

She stalks the other woman online and begins to have strange imaginings in public—or are they?—as when, in the course of a conference where the narrator is speaking onstage, a stranger in the audience rises to ask a question and she cannot convince herself that it is not the new girlfriend of her ex trying to humiliate her. The colleagues seated on either side do not know who the woman in the audience is, and the protagonist is in a state where remote possibilities morph into disturbing likelihoods.

This is compelling stuff, but woefully underdeveloped. The part about using a ruse to get into the other woman’s building, in particular, reads more like notes for a book, as if Ernaux is saying, Wouldn’t it be great to read a story like this? That is, if someone did take the trouble to flesh out the characters and scenarios. Which I’m not going to attempt.

Passion Simple, by Annie Ernaux.

Some of Ernaux’s work has a half-hearted feel, and, given her professed identification with feminism, she is prone to impaling herself on contradictions. For example, the narrator of L’Occupation harshly criticizes her ex for entering a relationship with the new girlfriend, who is 47 while he himself is still in his 30s and has lots of choices. Get your head around this: the feminist Ernaux’s protagonist lashes out at a man for his involvement with a woman who is not as young as some women and whose appeal lies in her intelligence, knowledge, and talent rather than her physical beauty.

Ernaux appears to see no contradiction between this passage and others in her work, like for example a scene in Passion Simple where the protagonist, a worshiper of the beauty of the male form, relishes Michelangelo’s David and wonders why such ardent appreciations of men’s beauty are not more widely available from female artists and writers. The answer, she tells us, has to do with the “dominated” condition of women. There are those who wonder how Ernaux would reconcile her belief in such oppression with her long-running success.

“Recently, she complained that women were not recognized in literature while she herself was showered with formal recognition and prizes in France,” Gaëtan Brulotte, an author and professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told Book and Film Globe.

“Having said that, maybe she does deserve this ultimate recognition, but she does not need that huge amount of money, as she is very rich thanks to her royalties, including for film adaptations,” Brulotte added.

Indeed, when faced with many choices, including hugely accomplished male authors whose winning of the award would not have raised eyebrows among discerning readers and critics, the Nobel committee chose to confer the world’s most prestigious literary prize on Annie Ernaux. Oppression sucks.

The Critical Divide

Ernaux has passionate advocates, including Alexandra Destais, a literary scholar and the author of a work on erotic fiction. In Destais’s view, the granting of the award to Ernaux is great news and the only minor issue, for Destais and others, is not that Ernaux is too political but that she does not go quite far enough in that direction.

“Certainly, there are those who find that her work is not political enough to merit this immense honor, but she is one of those who, along with Marguerite Duras, know how to dignify their writing with something more profound and revolutionary than politics: desire. She has found words for the desire of women, its indefinable character, and its expressions in the female body, as well as the impact of physical lust on an individual destiny. In my view, she has known how to conjure immanence and transcendence in our anchoring in the temporal,” Destais said.

Brulotte finds much to admire in Ernaux’s books, and teaches Passion Simple in his courses, but notes that they are brief and perhaps a bit too easy to read. He goes so far as to call her work an example of a kind of prose known as écriture blanche, or, as he puts it, a flat style.

“Is it a supreme aesthetic achievement? Honestly I don’t think so, but her works are humanly compelling,” Brulotte said.

Yet another view comes from Roger-Michel Allemand, a literary scholar and critic and the editor, most recently, of a book of interviews with poets and novelists of the last two centuries.

In a discussion with Book and Film Globe, Allemand described Ernaux as manifesting a tendency that characterizes much French literature over the past half-century, namely choosing the self as subject. Her writing holds up moments of her life for retrospective examination in order to understand them better and derive lessons from them, Allemand noted. Ernaux views herself as the sum of her experiences along with an array of social and historical facts and circumstances, and her fictional project is an attempt, to use a modish phrase, to achieve the universal through the particular, he said.

Ernaux’s fictions succeed to the extent that she is able to bring this off. The ending of Passion Simple, described above, illustrates the universality of Ernaux’s themes.

If you look at the early work of Stephen King, who on one level would seem to have nothing to do with Ernaux and indeed to inhabit a different fictional galaxy, you will find affinities, for example in his early “Richard Bachman” novel The Long Walk. A hundred boys in a dystopian America undertake a forced march where the winner gets to have whatever he wants for the rest of his life, but the price of failure is death. In the course of their hellish trek, the boys grow acquainted and begin to develop strong feelings for or against one another just as the soldiers kill them off one by one. The point is that coming to know another person is worth as much as or more than having your own island somewhere or a mansion or any of the other things that a teenage boy might wish for, and the tragedy is that this realization would come after they have submitted to the Long Walk and its horrific rules.

Given this relatability, it is a shame that Ernaux has decided to dive into the trenches and become another devotee of a highly specific way of construing social reality, repeating clichés about subjugated and marginalized people who in reality are often nothing of the sort. The tendency of even highly gifted authors to make cheap grabs for relevance is a tragedy of our time.

“The work of Annie Ernaux is in line with rampant woke-ism,” stated Allemand, who sees a shift in her writing over time from the best to the worst tendencies.

“After having been studied, and celebrated, by academics, and having after been belatedly and almost universally encouraged by the cultural press since the publication of her novel Les Années, here she is now crowned with the Nobel Prize, which thereby rewards one of the most prominent pens of the literature of collective egotism,” he said.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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