French writer Annie Ernaux has been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in literature for “the courage and clinical acuity” in her largely autobiographical books.
The 82-year-old author – the first French woman to win the world-famous literature prize – saw her debut novel Les Armoires Vides published in 1974 (in English it was called Cleaned Out), and La Place (A Man’s Place), the book that made her name, released in 1983.
She gained international recognition following the publication in 2008 of Les Années, which was translated into The Years in 2017, and an adaptation of her 2000 novel Happening – about her experiences of having an abortion when it was still illegal in France in the 1960s – won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2021.
Born to a family of grocers from Normandy in the north of the country, Ernaux worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time author.
Known for her frank, direct style about class and how she struggled to adopt the codes and habits of the French bourgeoisie while staying true to her working class background, she has had more than 20 books published.
The Nobel prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were established in the will of Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel and have been awarded since 1901.
Announcing this year’s literature winner, the Swedish Academy said Ernaux “consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class”, and that her “path to authorship was long and arduous”.
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, described her as “an extremely honest writer who is not afraid to confront the hard truths”.
He added: “She writes about things that no one else writes about, for instance her abortion, her jealousy, her experiences as an abandoned lover and so forth. I mean, really hard experiences.”
Ernaux told Swedish broadcaster SVT: “I was very surprised… I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer.
“It is a great responsibility… to testify, not necessarily in terms of my writing, but to testify with accuracy and justice in
relation to the world.”
‘Her voice is that of women’s freedom’
French President Emmanuel Macron was among those congratulating her, tweeting: “Annie Ernaux has been writing for 50 years the novel of the collective and intimate memory of our country. Her voice is that of women’s freedom, and the century’s forgotten ones.”
However, Ernaux hasn’t always been a fan of his; a supporter of left-wing causes for social justice, she has poured scorn on the president’s background in banking and said his first term failed to advance the cause of French women.
She becomes just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates, winning a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (just over £800,000).
Seven Stories Press, Ernaux’s US publisher of 31 years, said it published the English translation of her most recent book, Getting Lost, just two days before her win, and was now rushing several of her backlist titles to press.
Other Nobel Prize winners
The week of Nobel Prize announcements began on Monday, when a Swedish scientist who used DNA sequencing to find the link between extinct people and modern humans was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinger won the physics prize on Tuesday for work showing that tiny particles can retain a connection with each other even when separated – a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.
The chemistry prize was awarded to Americans Carolyn R Bertozzi and K Barry Sharpless, and Danish scientist Morten Meldal, for developing a way of “snapping molecules together” that can be used to explore cells, map DNA and design drugs to target cancer and other diseases.
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday, followed by the economics award on Monday.