Annie Ernaux has had a long writing career, spanning back to the ’70’s. From often brutally honest memoirs to archly observed book-length essays to novels, she continues to be at the vanguard of modern writing, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022. Her newest memoir, The Young Man, was recently published in France and will be released in the United States in September. This month, I’ll be discussing a few of her shorter works from various points in her career and celebrating other women who have won the Nobel.
Do What They Say or Else, Ernaux’s second novel, was published in 1977. It is a brief, stream-of-consciousness journey through a 15-year-old girl’s psyche. Anne lives in a small town in Normandy with her working-class parents. Though the book takes place in the 1970’s, the universals of the teenage experience are timeless. There are few cultural markers to place the book in its decade. (Ernaux briefly mentions the Iran hostage crisis, but it is not germane to the plot.)
The narrative unfolds in a long interior monologue, with few paragraph breaks. The translation by Christopher Beach and Carrie Noland has an elegant flow. Ernaux beautifully captures the caged wildness of the teenage mind, voicing Anne’s frustration with her parents, whom she deliberately antagonizes. She is disappointed with what she sees as their compromised lives and apolitical mindset. Small-town life stultifies her. At one point, her excitement at meeting up with some boys at a fair is dampened by the weather - “On July 14 it rained like cows pissing….”
Anne is smart and inquisitive, has a typical teenager’s cynicism about school and family life, and a blooming curiosity about sex. She uses masturbation as a reward for putting up with her parents or enduring a bad day. She and her girlfriends dabble in sexual exploration, comparing genitals and speculating about boys. When she finally does lose her virginity late in the book, it is more as if she is getting rid of something that no longer serves her than a revelatory experience. The queasy awkwardness of teen sex disappoints and disgusts her. It begins to dawn on her that men and women are not dealt the same cards in life - “I had started to think that I was lacking a code, a set of rules: not the ones made by my parents or by school, but rules for what to do with my body.”
Anne’s ennui and disillusionment pave the way for an uncertain future - “It makes you lose touch with reality when everything seems to be standing still around you.” The death of her cat near the end of the book can be seen as a metaphor for the end of her childhood. The reader is left with the vaguest of hope that Anne can break free of her tightly circumscribed environment.
Happening, published in 2000, is somewhat of a companion piece to Do What They Say or Else. It is Ernaux’s unapologetic, feminist memoir of her 1964 abortion. She opens the book with observations of patients in the waiting room of an AIDS clinic in an unspecified year, which serves as a springboard to memories of her college days, during which she finds herself pregnant. She spends weeks on tenterhooks, waiting for her period to start before finally visiting a doctor to confirm her fears. Procuring abortion services in the early ’60’s was no mean feat. She attempts to end the pregnancy herself, using a knitting needle. When she informs her doctor that she wishes to abort, he struggles with his conscience before basically telling her she is on her own (“Don’t tell me where you’re going, I don’t want to know.”) He does prescribe penicillin for after the procedure, however.
The woman who finally performs the abortion is businesslike and efficient. She inserts a probe and tells her to go about her life and wait for the miscarriage. When the event finally happens five days later, it is grueling, and Ernaux pulls no punches in describing it. Fortunately, she has a friend with her who clumsily guides her through the ordeal. The blood loss that ensues lands her in the hospital, where she is chided by the male doctors who treat her. (“I’m no fucking plumber!”, says one, as she’s sliding into the oblivion of anesthesia.)
Throughout the narrative, Ernaux intersperses self-reflexive parenthetical commentary, defending the choices made by her younger self. She looks back at the event with an almost reverential awe - “I couldn’t decide whether I had reached the outer fringes of horror or beauty.”
The brutal frankness and fearlessness of Ernaux’s account is a gift to future generations of women who have been and will continue to be faced with this choice. “I believe that any experience…,” she writes, “has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by male supremacy.”
Ernaux has always been a keen observer of the minutiae that combine to make up a human life. Look at the Lights, My Love is her paean to the unlikely subject of big box stores. Written in 2014, and beautifully translated by Alison L. Strayer this year, it is a year-in-the-life diary of the Auchon superstore in Cergy, France. The title is a quote from a young mother to her child marveling at the display of Christmas lights in the store, but it could just as easily refer to the relentless glare of the fluorescent lighting. Ermaux writes poetically about everything from the sounds of the beeping cash registers to the ennui of the customers and staff to the rigidly binary toy displays.
The author uses trips to Auchon as a break from writing, calling it “…an effortless distraction in a familiar place.” This is a mecca of shopping where one can procure a bottle of champagne for 6 euros, a mass-market bestseller, electronics, or a bunch of grapes. She begins her yearlong journey in November, just before the Christmas rush. The changing of the seasons and the brutal ephemera of their accoutrements is nowhere more obvious than in a superstore.
She visits the book department, with its ten-foot-wide display of the ten top sellers. A few of her books are shelved in a tiny section where “literature” is grouped in with games, travel, and religion. She and an elderly woman are the only customers in the book department that particular day. She feels ambivalent about buying books at a superstore: “…I always feel bad placing a book on the conveyer belt, as if it were a sacrilege. Though I’d be happy to see one of mine pulled from a shopping cart and slid onto the belt between a pound of butter and a pair of tights.”
Ernaux delights in voyeuristic observations of her fellow customers. She notes the changing demographic depending upon the time of day - retirees in the early hours, mothers with young children mid-afternoon, college students in the later hours. Customer behavior fascinates her - a woman places her items on the conveyor belt in a meticulous arrangement, a young couple shopping together for the first time discover each others’ preference in cheeses, a man approaches her for advice on dog food. She is empathetic to the pressure that the cashiers endure with impatient and difficult customers, yet is aggrieved by the potential job obsolescence threatened by automated checkouts.
While there is some attraction to the anonymity that comes with shopping in a big box store, Ernaux finds a the same time a tenuous sense of community growing among the piles upon piles and rows upon rows of cheap merchandise, a community of lower-income bargain-seekers. “Upon leaving the superstore,” she writes, “I was often overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and injustice. But for all that, I have not ceased to feel the appeal of the place and the community life, subtle and specific, that exists there.”
The Nobel Prize at large has not been without its controversies over the years. Henry Kissinger was honored with the Peace Prize despite his alleged support of war crimes by U.S. allies during his tenure as Secretary of State. Barack Obama’s win in 2008 seemed to be based on nothing more than being elected the first Black U.S. President. The win puzzled Obama himself, but not enough for him to refuse the prize.
The committee has often been accused of Eurocentrism, especially in the literature category. And of course, sexism has reared its ugly head over the years. Since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded 119 times. A mere 17 women have won the prize, belying the rich output of women authors in that time period. Those seventeen women are -
Selma Lagerlöf (1909) - The Swedish novelist and short story writer received the first Nobel in Literature "in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”
Grazi Deledda (1926) - Sardinian author Deledda wrote novels, short stories, articles, plays, and poems. She was awarded the prize “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general”
Sigrid Undset (1928) - Norwegian Undset is best know for her Kristen Lavransdotter novels. She won the prize "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages."
Pearl S. Buck (1938) - Buck’s iconic The Good Earth had a place on school reading lists for decades. She was awarded the Nobel "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”
Gabriela Mistral (1945) - The Chilean poet and scholar was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize. She won”for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world." (see poem below)
Nelly Sachs (1966) - The German Jewish poet who escaped the Nazis with the help of Selma Lagerlöf won the prize “for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.” (see poem below)
Nadine Gordimer (1991) - South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Gordimer, “who through her magnificent epic writing has -- in the words of Alfred Nobel -- been of very great benefit to humanity,” was awarded the prize after a 25-year gap in women winners.
Toni Morrison (1993) - Ohio’s own Toni Morrison, "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality,” wrote lyrical and powerful novels about the Black experience in the United States.
Wislawa Szymborska (1996) - The Polish poet and essayist won the Nobel "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." (see poem below)
Elfriede Jelinek (2004) - The Austrian playwright, novelist, and staunch feminist wrote truth to the patriarchy. She was awarded the prize "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."
Doris Lessing (2007) - British writer Lessing’s The Golden Notebook was an influential text for the feminist movement in the 1970’s. The Nobel committee called her "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny."
Herta Müller (2009) - The Romanian poet and novelist, who was outspoken against Ceausescu, and "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” won the prize for her politically-charged work that stretches the boundaries of reality.
Alice Munro (2013) - Known for her incisive, insightful short works Canadian writer Munro was called "master of the contemporary short story” by the Nobel committee.
Svetlana Alexievich (2015) - The Belarusian journalist and advocate for the underserved was awarded the prize "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time"
Olga Takarczuk (2018) - The Polish writer’s inventive prose won her the Nobel "for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life"
Louise Glück (2020) - The American poet won the Nobel "for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” Her spare, pastoral poetry has become iconic. (see poem below)
Annie Ernaux (2022) - A writer of elegant economy, French novelist and memoirist Ernaux won the prize "for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory"
Here are a few poems by past Nobel Prize winners -
Poems of the Mothers
I was kissed, and I am othered: another,
because of the pulse that echoes the pulse in my veins;
another, because of the breath I feel within my breath.
My belly, now, is as noble as my heart …
And now I feel in my own breathing an exhalation of flowers:
all because of the one who rests inside me gently,
as the dew on the grass!
~ Gabriela Mistral
the earth will be
just a cloud of evening’s love
when the stone, released as music,
flees the land.
and rocks that squat
like a nightmare
on the human breast
blast the weights of melancholy
from your veins.
the earth will be
yes, a cloud of evening’s love
when blackburnt revenge
drawn magnetically by the Angel of Death
is dead in its snowrobe
silent and cold.
the earth will be
just a cloud, an evening cloud
when star-marks fade
with a rose’s kiss
~ Nelly Sachs (from Flight and Metamorphosis)
stripped all the leaves from the trees last night
except for one leaf
to sway solo on a naked branch.
With this example
that yes of course —
it likes its little joke from time to time.
~ Wisława Szymborska (from Here)
Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring—
afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.
~Louise Glück (from The Wild Iris)
Coming in June -
Tar Hollow Trans: Essays by Stacy Jane Grover
In her elegiac debut, Grover gives us a poetic collection of essays on growing up trans in Appalachian Ohio. From 4-H fairs to hex signs on barns to funeral rites, she weaves memory and metaphor, empathy and longing, always with the persistent snag of her outsider status. The sense of yearning for a safe space and the necessity of leaving home to find it are the threads that tie these insightful pieces together.
Reproduction by Louisa Hall
Louisa Hall’s novel is a lacerating commentary on conception, pregnancy, and motherhood in the United States today. Her protagonist is writing a novel about Mary Shelley while trying to conceive a child. Her enigmatic friend Anna, a geneticist, wanders in and out of her life, leaving havoc in her wake. The book is written in three parts - “Conception” draws parallels between the narrator’s and Shelley’s frustrations in conceiving and childbearing; “Birth” is a feral howl of pain describing the excruciating birth of her daughter; “Science Fiction” lays out her consternation with Anna’s genetic meddling in her own attempts at conception. The parallels to Frankenstein will be lost on no one. While It is thematically similar to Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s luminous A Ghost in the Throat, it lacks that book’s urgent poetic drive. Still, it is a complex, feminist examination of the ongoing struggle for bodily autonomy, and thus a timely read.
For further reading -
Click here to read an interview with Alison Strayer, translator of Look at the Lights, My Love.
Click here to read a conversation between feminist writers Annie Ernaux and Yuko Tsushima.
Click here to read Rachel Cusk's analysis of Ernaux's literary boldness.
Click here to read John West's thoughts on the art of the experimental memoir.
Feminist memoirs are as varied and interesting as the women who write them. Click here for some recommendations.