Special Edition: When Was the Last Time This Happened: I Publish a Review on Monday, the Writer Wins the Nobel Prize on Thursday? (It’s Annie Ernaux)


The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Annie Ernaux, the French novelist whose intensely personal books have spoken to generations of women by highlighting incidents from her own life, including a back-street abortion in the 1960s and a passionate extramarital affair.

Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which decides the prize, announced the decision at a news conference in Stockholm, lauding the “courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

Ernaux, 82, becomes only the 17th female writer to have won the prize, widely considered the most prestigious award in world literature, since it was formed in 1901.

Outside France, she is perhaps best known for “The Years,” which weaves together events from over 70 years of Ernaux’s life with French history. In 2019, “The Years” was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, a major British award for fiction translated into English. “This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read,” Edmund White said in a review of that book for The New York Times.

President Emmanuel Macron of France praised Ernaux as the voice of “women’s freedom” and of “the century’s forgotten.” Mr. Macron said on Twitter that “for the past 50 years, Annie Ernaux has been writing the novel of the collective and intimate memory of our country.”

Here, again, my review.

As a reader, I’m prone to sudden, extreme enthusiasms — they’re like crushes. With Annie Ernaux, that first happened in 2004, when I read “Simple Passion,” a novel-that-read-like-a-memoir. Even better, it filled just 80 pages. It was the #1 bestseller in France for 8 months, with more than 400,000 copies sold.

“Simple Passion” is a monologue. A woman in Paris is waiting for the phone to ring. To keep her anxiety in check, she files her nails — she can’t leave marks on her married lover. She sets drinks out, ice, his favorite snack. Then the door opens, and her life begins. They barely speak, this isn’t that kind of relationship. Later, he looks at his watch. She sighs. He showers, dresses. A final touch, and he’s gone. Her life once again turns to waiting.

A book mostly about waiting? Yes. And that’s its appeal: how matter-of-fact it is. Writing, Ernaux tells us at the start of the novel, should be like sex. That is, there should be “a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction. a suspension of moral judgment.” [To read my review of “Simple Passion” and buy it from Amazon, click here.]

When “The Years” was published in English in 2017, once again I swooned. It’s the story of Ernaux’s life, from 1941 to 2006. It was, I wrote, “the best book I read this year. For me, that means the writer is in my head — I can connect to the characters, I find their thoughts and actions credible, and more, their thoughts and actions resonate with my life experience.” [To read my review and buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

Excuse me: “my life experience?” Annie Ernaux was 79 in 2019. She grew up in Normandy, where her parents ran a café. After the University of Rouen, she taught, wrote a novel, then switched to autobiography. She’s won prize after prize. “The Years” was shortlisted for the Booker.

So what was the bond? “The Years” is the story of a generation. For all our differences, Ernaux and I shared much the same history — politics and media and whatever gets lumped into “culture.” School. Early fumbling. Suddenly, the pill. The Vietnam War. Couples. Marriage. Children. Divorce. And then? “The future is replaced by a sense of urgency.” To read this book, I concluded, is to become more alive. [For my review and to buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

There’s a new book “Getting Lost,” a journal she kept during the year and a half she had a secret love affair with a younger, married man, a Russian diplomat. “Simple Passion” was based on this affair, but here she’s even more naked and vulnerable. The reviews are breathlessly enthusiastic. Dwight Garner, in the Times:

S, as she refers to him, is a younger man. He’s in his mid-30s. Ernaux is approaching 50 and fearful of aging out of the game — the only game, to her mind, alongside writing. Kissing S reminds her of being “kissed at age 18.” He gives her back “my 20-year-old self.”

Young flesh as renewal: It’s a perennial theme in the work of male writers and their nifty alter egos. It’s rarer, and has more amperage, the other way around: Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, Harry Styles and Olivia Wilde.

The almost primitive directness of her voice is bracing. It’s as if she’s carving each sentence onto the surface of a table with a knife. She is, in her writing, definitely not the sort of girl whose bicycle has a basket.

“Getting Lost” is a feverish book. It’s about being impaled by desire, and about the things human beings want, as opposed to the things for which they settle.”

[To read an excerpt, click here and here. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. ]

Garner concludes that “Getting Lost” is “one of those books about loneliness that, on every page, makes you feel less alone.” That makes it a public service.

This post was previously published on headbutler.com.


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