The 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature


Beerendra Pandey
Professor & Dean, KIIT School of Language

Annie Ernaux (1940–), whowasborn in Yvetot, Normandy in France to a family of moderate income, has been conferred the Nobel Prize in Literature for the Year 2022. 

Her parents had difficulty in giving her a comfortable upbringing. They, however, helped her get higher education which made her attitude to life swerve far away from that of theirs. The modest background of her childhood and adolescence informs much of the nine autobiographical works which she wrote in between 1970s and 1990s—works such as Cleaned Out (1974), They Say Nothing (1977), A Frozen Woman (1981), A Man’s Place (1983), A Woman’s Story (1987), Simple Passion (1991), Exteriors (1993), Shame (1997), and Happening (2000).

Ernaux first received the critical limelight when the Renaudot Prize was conferred on her in 1984 for A Man’s Place. In this autobiographical work, she ostensibly bids her farewell to her departed father but actually dramatizes the strains in a father-daughter relationship brought about by the daughter’s mobility to a higher social status conduced to by the opportunity to education. In a way, A Man’s Place harps on the same theme which is available in her writings from Cleaned Out to They Say Nothing—exposé of the double standards that females, especially if they come from the working class, face when looking for the same physical, intellectual, and professional pursuits as their male coequals.

Ernaux is quite combative in the autobiographical A Frozen Woman which thematizes a woman’s oppression in a patriarchal marriage and affectingly critiques phallic metaphors used in academic discourses.  A Woman’s Story, which gives a poignant account of the life and death of her mother who had been the model for her own individuality, energy and strength, comes out as a consummate synthesis of literature, sociology and history to yield a commentary on not only women’s lives, but also on the predicament of the French working-class people in the middle of the twentieth century.

Simple Passion,which straightforwardly reveals her sojourns into sex ruled by an adulterous passion, is a classical confession of what has been tabooed. Her act of writing, distinguished by her explicit vocabulary, is as much aimed at involving her reader in the intensity of libidinousness, as it is at enunciating her self-transformation into a militantly bold feminist. She feels no shame in writing about her adulterine behaviour. Shame surfaces only when the narrator becomes a reader of her text: the narrator of Exteriors, for example, remarks, “I embarrass the reader”. This narrator’s experience of zero shame, however, runs counter to that of the experience of the narrator of Shame, for this latter narrator feels shame as well as terror while witnessing her father’s attempted murder of his mother. The shame accruing from this experience is linked to her social class—the habitus of the working-class father critiqued from a bourgeoisie standpoint. This ethnographic perspective, which draws on the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the socialized body, is an artistic crystallization of her autobiographical experiences with wider historical forces. She uses the artful fusion to explicitly explore power relations vis-à-vis the centre (bourgeoise) and the margin (working class), and to implicitly interrogate the legitimacy of bourgeoise way of life as the standard for society.

Even in the 21st century, Ernaux’s autobiographical writings continue to border on the Bourdieusian as her artistic attention remains focused on the body. Because a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character are nothing but the tendencies fashioned by the body’s orientation to the world, the dispositions exist as the interstices of the social world. A text which lends a cogent credence to the validity of the Bourdieusian body is Ernaux’s Happening which underscores the affinity between self-exposure and the ongoing social structuring of the self. The “happening” of the title is back-street abortion, the experience of a twenty-three-year-old woman faced with the age-old social stigma and the entailing desperation and fear, particularly given the social pressures of the French society in the mid-1960s when there was a ban on the procedure. Writing about such an event is politicization of anxiety which both lays bare and expounds the unspeakable that the patriarchy-driven society prefers to see swept under the carpet, rather than told.

Ernaux’s ouvre, thus, occupies a space that intervenes between the fictional and the autobiographical. The term entre-deux (in-between) aptly qualifies it because of the use of the autoethnographic “I” becoming the universal, interplay between the poetical and the political, and her mobility between classes. Finally, it is for a dexterous rendition of the personal as political for which Annie Thérèse Blanche Ernaux has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, in the words of the Committee, “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.

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