When Annie Ernaux was announced as the 2022 winner of Nobel Prize in Literature, the 82-year-old French writer from a modest working-class background – the first French woman to win the prize – was reportedly surprised. Karin Schwerdtner was not.
A Western French Studies professor, Schwerdtner has studied Ernaux’s critically acclaimed body of work for many years and thought that this level of recognition was overdue. Though she understands why it may have taken so long.
For major literary awards such as the International Man Booker Prize (the most prestigious prize for foreign literature in the UK), or, indeed, the Nobel Prize in Literature, it appears that translation is most often a condition, if not a requirement. Despite her every-growing reputation, it’s only been in recent years that some of Ernaux’s novels have been made widely available for non-French readers. A belated translation of 2001’s Se perdre (“Getting Lost”) has just appeared and as the French newspaper Le Monde recently reported, recognition from the general public was achieved (only) during the 2010s, with the English translation of Les Années (“The Years”).
“Annie Ernaux has garnered and continues to garner international attention. Her readership is growing internationally because of English translations of her work. But this success can be attributed also to the universality of the issues she addresses. Although drawing from her own life experiences, Annie Ernaux writes for a wide audience,” said Schwerdtner, who teaches Ernaux’s works in her French literature courses “whenever I can.”
A clear indication that something bigger was a very real possibility for Ernaux was when the 2018 English-language version of Les Années was a finalist for the International Booker Prize in 2019.
But apparently even Ernaux didn’t expect a phone call from the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. At the time of their announcement, the members of the Swedish Academy noted that they had not yet been able to reach Ernaux to convey the news directly to her. The academy praised Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
However, their selection surprised many including, evidently, the author herself. Some critics believed Salman Rushdie to be the obvious choice for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. And as the Washington Post recently reported, at least one media source felt that Ernaux was “becoming a perennial front-runner who never quite crosses the line.”
Having enjoyed (and sometimes braved) a writing career which dates to the 1970s, Ernaux has experienced the ups and downs of a shared collective of people. She has lived through not only such common life experiences as illness, ageing and the loss of one’s parents but also France’s post-World War II period, the Vietnam War years and the Yellow Vest Protests.
Ernaux addresses topics that have typically been unrecorded or un(der)examined such as generational and class alienation, breast cancer and sexual desire, puberty and what has been termed women’s condition. Undoubtedly because of the way in which her writing leaves a place for the reader, many see themselves in Ernaux’s largely autobiographical work and have connected with the writer over the past five decades through letters, photos and emails to share their personal stories, thoughts, struggles and praise.
“Famously, Annie keeps much of the correspondence she receives,” said Schwerdtner. “And, as many fellow writers, ordinary readers and literary critics have highlighted, she is very generous, spending a great deal of time helping other people, reading manuscripts and answering letters.”
Schwerdtner’s hope is to continue exploring the relationship between Ernaux and her readers, along with other colleagues who have had the opportunity to access some of the Nobel laureate’s personal archives of letters. The professor will visit briefly with the author in an upcoming trip, having first met Ernaux early in her academic career, at a conference held in Canada.
“I agree with what many have said about the author’s generosity in supporting others (researchers, writers, readers), about the affection she conveys as a person, above and beyond being a renowned writer,” said Schwerdtner. “Annie Ernaux is, and is known as, a non-elitist writer, receptive to helping others and moreover, openly engaged in various social causes.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Nobel laureate reportedly recently announced that she dedicates her Nobel Prize to “all those who suffer from injustice and who hope for more freedom and justice.”