Annie Ernaux’s Writing Has Given Dignity to the Lives of the Working Class
Last week, Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her courage in interrogating France’s collective memory. Her work has been concerned with the lives of working-class women, which her books have treated with an uncommon dignity and respect.
Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last Thursday, was not on the other end of the telephone when the committee rang to deliver the news. Last year, she received a prank text telling her she had won the illustrious award, which might be one reason why her first response when the committee did get through to her was incredulous: “Are you sure?”
Unlike Philip Roth who sat on tenterhooks waiting for a call that never came, Ernaux, at eighty-two, was never too fussed about prizes. Certainly she didn’t wait in expectation of them. When she didn’t win the Man Booker International in 2019, she went to see the Dorothea Tanning show at the Tate Modern instead, had lunch with the view of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and drank in a pub frequented by Amy Winehouse. She preferred her own company to the heavy, uncharming world of prize culture. On receipt of the Nobel, Ernaux, however, recognized the responsibility that came with it: to continue fighting “everything that is a form of injustice against women.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon congratulated Ernaux in a Tweet: “Annie Ernaux, Literary Novelist. We are in tears with happiness. Francophone letters speaks to the world in a delicate language which is not that of money.” On other corners of the internet, fans responded by celebrating a win for “girlies” and “hotties,” as if the subject matter of Ernaux’s prose — the lives of women — was not the most serious, universal subject of all. Hers is unmistakably a victory for the working class, for whom prize culture has never been particularly favorable.
Ernaux, who has written twenty-three books over a fifty-year span, grew up Catholic and working class in the small town of Yvetot, Normandy. Her parents were factory workers. Born to farmers, they had, by the time Ernaux was young, saved up and bought a small shop, above which the family lived and ran a grocery and café. Initially, this enterprise was an auspicious one, but soon, the necessity of selling on credit and later the encroachment of supermarkets left the family small business little more favorable than factory work. Her father, who often had to take on other work and was not part of a union, “was both a worker and a shopkeeper,” Ernaux writes, “and, as such, was doomed to a life of solitude and distrust.”
In writing about her father in her fourth book, A Man’s Place (1983), Ernaux abandoned the conventional scaffolding of fiction, which she saw as betraying the reality of his life, and devised the style of writing for which she is now known. “In order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity,” she cautions herself in retrospect, “I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.” Eschewing “lyrical reminiscence” and “triumphant displays of irony,” Ernaux bypasses the lynchpins of middle-class narrative, offering in its place a starkly honest representation of the violent endurance of an ordinary, working life, which is also one of the most devastating explorations of grief. Writing of the mixed blessings of her class ascendence, she observed that her father’s “great satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’être of his existence was the fact that [she] belonged to the world which had scorned him.”
As her parents transitioned from manual laborers to small business owners, Ernaux was able to continue attending school and later university in Rouen and become a teacher. The postwar era was one of welfare and social progress. In the subsidized world of French social democracy, Ernaux had a place carved out for her that would safeguard the young writer from her parents’ fear of falling. It was in this space that she met her former husband Philippe, who belonged, unambivalently, to the world of the middle class. He introduced her to that class’s ironicized quips, which linger in the tight air of family dinners, and the idea of Europe as home to a sophisticated culture to which education granted her membership. The couple settled in Cergy-Pontoise, a suburb forty kilometers to the north of Paris, and started a family in the late ’60s there, a place, as she writes in Exteriors (1993), which, like many suburban towns drawn from a blank map, “sprung from nowhere” to cater for an emergent, displaced, cosmopolitan middle class.
Initially, though, Ernaux dropped out of her teaching qualification and went to live in London, at the height of the swinging ’60s, “simply,” she writes, “because I wanted to be free.” As a young woman from a working-class background, to live independently and to write literature was to move on uncharted, risky ground. Novels — Rosamund Lehmand’s Dusty Answer, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse — provided models, but those books were written by middle-class women. In the first letter, from April 1963, in a recently published edition of Ernaux’s work, she writes to her friend, with the urgency of young desire overrun with expectancy, to borrow her typewriter so that she might draft her first novel.
Writing as the feminist movement gathered momentum, Ernaux would invent an entirely new language for speaking directly about women’s lives and desires. Far from much of the 1970s strand of French feminism, which sought to make sense of women’s experience by appealing to the abstract language of philosophy or the turns of phrase of so-called cultured literature, Ernaux kept her language grounded in the everyday. In her later work The Years (2008), she reflects on returning to her local dialect on visits to her hometown: “The language that clung to the body, was linked to slaps in the face, the Javel water smell of work coats, baked apples all winter long, the sound of piss in the night bucket, and the parents’ snoring.” It is not simply that she plumbs her own life for material — what writer doesn’t? — but that she radicalizes the genre of memoir by using it to link her own individual experience with that of other members of her class, generation, and sex. She shows how memoir, as the most direct expression of individual subjectivity, is inextricable from the historical social formations that it gives rise to.
In A Woman’s Story (1987), Ernaux writes that her mother “spent all day selling milk and potatoes so that I could sit in a lecture hall and learn about Plato.” In the book, which reads as a strange mirror of A Man’s Place, Ernaux seeks to understand the woman who raised her apart from her existence as a caregiver. Her aim is to “capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me, born on the outskirts of a small Normandy town, and who died in the geriatric ward of a hospital in the suburbs of Paris.” In I Remain in Darkness (1997), Ernaux returns to examine her mother’s life, with the guilt that comes from writing about someone who is intimate and the clarity of observing their life as a whole; the title is the last words that her mother spoke.
In A Girl’s Story (2016), Ernaux turns her attention to her eighteen-year-old self — “the girl of ’58” — her burgeoning desire, the violent expectancy of the world around her — and to the first night that she spent with a man at a summer camp: her first trip away from home. A moment that might have been an exhilarating sexual and emotional awakening is contained by the power of the older man, a head instructor at the camp. In the book, the sexual encounter unfolds against a swiftly drawn portrait of the feeling of being young and living through the newness of the history of the postwar years. This, Ernaux tells us, was “the summer of De Gaulle’s return, the new franc and the new Republic . . . and Dalida’s Historie d’un amour.” It was also the summer when “thousands of servicemen left France to restore order in Algeria.” Caught within the maelstrom of history and desire, “the girl of ’58” finds herself abandoned and left “with the real, for example a stained pair of underwear.”
What Is Remembered, What Remains
Ernaux seeks to draw her reader into the psychic space of someone possessed both by their own desire and the violence of its consequences. Unlike most French women of her generation, she has declared herself fervently on the side of #MeToo — of the generation of contemporary feminists who recognize the historic imbalance of power between men and women that underlies the inadequacy of present work and sex relations. In her writing, Ernaux gives free rein to desire, taking it to its furthest limits, a self-shattering, ecstatic desire that she sees as not incompatible with the necessity for consent; it is in fact rather its precondition. Desire, a subject that Ernaux returns to throughout her life, and speaks of with a disarming clarity, as it is released from its historical prohibitions, is wrenching, exhilarating, and transformative.
In A Simple Passion (1991), she chronicles the solipsistic intensity of her feelings for a younger, married Russian diplomat, whom she met in Leningrad in 1988. A decade later she returned to the subject in diary form in Getting Lost (2001), which gives a more explicit, unadulterated version of the throes of passion that eclipsed the rest of her life for an eighteen-month period. The lover is object, not subject, of the story: a stranger whose strangeness only intensifies over time. Ernaux does not seek to contextualize or moralize the affair; instead, she simply describes it. The persons involved in the story of passion, the most individualizing of experiences, seem merely incidental to its telling.
It would not have passed the Nobel Committee by that Ernaux has written one of the greatest accounts of abortion in literature. Happening, published in 2000 in France and in England the following year, was made into a film by Audrey Diwan earlier this year. It is also one of the greatest accounts of writing: of transforming an experience into writing and writing into an experience. It was the first subject Ernaux wrote about in her 1974 novel, Cleaned Out, and to which she continued to return, as the focus of her writings shifted from fictionalized, personal, clandestine female experience to history. The narrative, which centers on her struggle to obtain an abortion, revolves around the difficulty of leaving a class position and of making a life for oneself, as a woman, in 1963. A decade later, French feminists would take to the streets, publicizing their own abortions, forming a collective narrative that paved the way for its legalization.
The Years, published in French in 2008 and in English in 2017, which is widely recognized as Ernaux’s masterpiece, opens with an image of a woman squatting, in Yvetot after the war, and charts the sounds, sights, idioms, lyrics, and feeling of the middle decades of the twentieth century. It asks the question of what will remain, what will be carried forward, and what will be consigned to history. It shows how memory lives at once inside and outside of us, at the interstices of which the material texture of the quiet, suppressed dreams of ordinary people are collectively felt. What is remembered: a first kiss, a wall dividing Europe, The Magic Roundabout, Saturday shopping, monthly bills, Dr Spock, revolution. What remains: a woman’s body, the same yet different, nothing like its representation in pornographic and women’s magazines; workers continuing to undertake the labor that makes writing possible; a narrative of postwar progress that stutters and falters as it approaches the present: “February half-term the steel workers . . . who burned tyres on the train tracks, while she read The Order of Things in her seat on the immobilized TGV.” This ability to link together her own personal memory and collective history is the most radical aspect of Ernaux’s work. As The Years moves toward its closure, she resumes a first-person perspective, taking herself out of the story, ceding space to the generation to come.
At a meeting of the Union Populaire in support of Mélenchon as a presidential candidate in January 2022, Clémentine Autain, a member of the left-wing political party La France Insoumise, launched in 2016 by Mélenchon, read from Ernaux’s 2013 book about her hometown, Return to Yvetot. There Ernaux describes the shame she experienced as a young girl when the smell of Javel water, which marked her out as a belonging to the working class, was detected by an optician’s daughter. Passages from Ernaux’s book were contained in a collection of extracts that also included words from Angela Davis, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Jaurès, and Lola Lafon. Together these insurgent voices were meant to articulate what a new movement directed toward creating a more just world might look like. Ernaux declared that she was supporting Mélenchon “because she’s ashamed of seeing neoliberalism destroy individuals and their environment, listening to messages of hate against a part of the population, ashamed of saying nothing, doing nothing.”
As the twentieth century came to a close, many working-class organizations also fragmented, taking with them the identities and cultures that they had held together. Within this context, Ernaux’s attentiveness to how members of the working class lived through these long periods of decline has the effect of restoring agency to those deprived of it. Writing of her grandfather, who worked on a farm from the age of eight, she observes that “his meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family read a book.” By looking around her and giving space to “anonymous figures glimpsed on a street corner or a crowded bus, unwittingly bearing the stamp of success or failure,” Ernaux carves out a language for collectivity at the heart of the self — a literature that gives shape to the transmission of memory, the impossible choices faced by individuals and political movements, and the desire to revive the subdued feeling of revolt.