This semester, I’m teaching an undergraduate seminar at Yale entitled “Fictions of Consumer Society.” After Émile Zola’s landmark novel on department stores, Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Delight, 1883), we were preparing to study Annie Ernaux’s stunning first novel, Les Armoires vides—literally, The Empty Wardrobes. Unfortunately, bookstore shelves were empty, too: Barnes & Noble informed me, on October 5th, that Dalkey Archives had decided not to republish the book. On October 6th, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize. My joy about the Nobel is enhanced by the certainty that all her books will be accessible from now on.
Annie Ernaux was born Annie Duchesne in 1940 to a family of peasants, workers, and shopkeepers. Her parents—who left school at the age of 12—owned a grocery store-café on the outskirts of a small town in Normandy. Besides writing, Ernaux taught in high schools at the beginning of her career and quickly joined the National Center for Distance Education where she worked until her retirement. She has been living for years in the suburbs of Paris, in a “new town” built in the 1970s, Cergy. Her attention to the details of ordinary life and the importance of trains and supermarkets as memory spaces are particularly potent in her “extimate diaries” of this city, Journal du dehors (Exteriors, 1993) and La Vie extérieure (Things Seen, 2000). In 2023, Yale University Press will publish the translation of her “diaristic meditation on the uniquely modern phenomenon of the big-box superstore,” Regarde les lumières, mon amour (Look at the Lights, My Love, 2014). Ernaux’s social and geographical trajectory, from Normandy to Cergy and from her parents’ corner store to suburban malls, constitutes an important strand of her oeuvre.
Influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Simone de Beauvoir, Ernaux is an “ethnologist of herself” who publishes “auto-socio-biographies,” most notably La Place (A Man’s Place, 1983) and Une Femme (A Woman’s Story, 1987), brief and powerful narratives on social emancipation and the death of her parents. She invented a specific language at the crossroads of literature, history, and sociology. Her “flat writing,” later called a “detached” or “factual” writing, is an egalitarian style, a potential vector of class mobility that makes it possible to address the greatest number of readers by fusing the language registers of her original social class and of her class of arrival. Her accessible yet highly crafted prose has the power to overcome social estrangement and generate a stylistical leveling that aims to do away with hierarchies. She decenters herself to find history and community within the singular details of her biography as in Les Années (The Years, 2008), a memoir retracing the life of a woman and of an entire generation from the 1940s to today.
The Nobel Prize also foregrounds Ernaux’s unswerving fight against inequality and for the rights of those she calls “the dominated,” most recently Yellow Vests protesters and undocumented migrants. In the book-long interview Le Vrai lieu, she defines herself not as “a woman who writes,” but as “someone with a woman’s history who writes” and demonstrates an unflinching feminism in book after book: La Femme gelée (A Frozen Woman, 1981), a scathing narrative on how a girl raised to be independent ended up in a normative relationship; a precise account of her backstreet abortion in L’Événement (Happening, 2000) at a time when abortion and contraception were both illegal in France, and particularly hard to access for working-class women; and a narrative and reflection on rape and consent in Mémoire de fille (A Girl’s Story, 2016). Another aspect of her feminist prose has to do with her explicit explorations of sex and desire: her affair with a Russian diplomat in Passion simple (Simple Passion, 1991) and her relationship with a man thirty years her junior in Le Jeune Homme (2022).
Ernaux has spent her life upending classifications; her writings have enlarged and tilted the stakes of literature.
Morgane Cadieu is Associate Professor of French at Yale. Her next book, On Both Sides of the Tracks: Social Mobility in Contemporary French Literature, centered on the works of Annie Ernaux, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.