The announcement of a new Nobel Prize for Literature tends to divide amateur readers into two camps: those who have never heard of the author and those who vaguely have. There are, of course, more familiar names that sometimes arise from the oracular mists of the Swedish Academy, particularly in recent decades when, albeit marred by scandal, the Nobel Committee has become, intermittently, more , uh, hip… Bob Dylan and Kazuro Ishiguro come to mind. But these are exceptions. Most of us look up in October, say “Abdulrazak who? and make a wish to find a book by the author and read it.
Sometimes, to be sure, the award presents someone worthy but a bit dull—or reading the book quickly explains the obscurity in which the writer was previously plunged. But, from time to time, the author rises from regional importance to become a global figure: Wisława Szymborska, laureate in 1996, was such a writer, rising from Polish specificity to not only enduring but endearing, not just an ‘impressive’ poetic figure in English but beloved, source of countless wedding toasts and epigraphs.
Annie Ernaux, France’s newest winner of the prize, would suggest an avid gambling reader, likely to enroll as a second type, on her way to becoming a lifelong writer for those who read for love, not gambling .of this one. Admittedly, she is more of the second kind than other recent French laureates, more easily appreciated as an obligation than as a pleasure: the honorable JMG Le Clézio, a man of irreproachable globalism whose work can nevertheless sound like the narration of one UNESCO documentary, or the very French Patrick Modiano, whose admirable novels on the Occupation are both retrospective and formally conventional.
that of Ernaux is a voice. So while it would have been well and well deserved for Salman Rushdie to win the prize this year, the work of Ernaux, which I first began to react to in Paris in the mid-1990s, is, that best merit test, haunted– once read not easily forgotten, capturing something significant for its time not just in its overt or implied political concerns but, more importantly, in the shape of its sentences and the whisper of its incantations.
Just last month, without thinking of Stockholm in my head, I had mentioned Ernaux, in an article on Georges Simenon, as part of a particularly French tradition of minimalist “exteriority” – sharing with the Belgian novelist , although quite different motifs, the emphasis on stripped-down inspection of the mundane surface of French life as a means of penetrating its secrets. When I encountered Ernaux’s writing in France, it struck me as striking in this sense, exactly like an urban imagist. She was able to concentrate on fragmentary ordinary scenes—in the metro, in popular department stores, on commuter trains—that had the persuasive flavor of real experience, apart from the abstractions or affectations of ambitious French fiction. more conventional. (And, indeed, Ernaux comes from a working-class family in Normandy, far outside the usual race of French literary ascent.)
In the years that followed, she became famous for pushing the boundaries of memoir, more memorably or controversially, in an account of her own abortion, published in English as “Event.” Yet, although his work is engagehis style is in many ways disengage– she writes on her own, but in a flat, observational way, reporting that relentlessly surveys the surface of things, even in the midst of the craziest motives and cruelest fates.
She invests in images like few other writers have. She trusts them to offer a more reliable encyclopedia of meanings than a conventional register of feelings could. In “Happening”, she writes:
Above all, I will strive to revisit each image until I feel that I have physically connected to it, until a few words come out, from which I can say “yes, that’s it”. I will try to evoke each of the phrases etched in my memory that were either so unbearable or so comforting to me at the time, that the mere thought of them engulfs me today in a wave of horror or candy.
Just like with Simenon, the opening of Ernaux’s memoirs reaches a resounding emotion in its very silence: . People were trudging along the sidewalk with pink shopping bags from the Tati discount store. I turned into Boulevard Magenta and recognized Billy’s clothing store with its anoraks hanging outside. A woman was walking towards me, chubby legs sheathed in boldly patterned black stockings. Rue Amboise-Paré was almost empty until you reached the vicinity of the hospital. It is of course in the “neighborhood of the hospital” that the story of a woman’s obstetric destiny begins.
This desire to record the surface of life, and the basement, the exact one of each missed period and soiled underwear, continues in his remarkable study of the generations of French life since the Second World War, titled, echoing Virginia Woolf, “Years“-a memoir in which an affectionate, attentive, sometimes sardonic detail of advertisements and false hopes and pure thing passing time is offered. She reflects, at one point, on the memories and speech patterns of a generation of older people who lived through poverty and the German occupation, and turned her lessons into a set of repeated words and incantations:
When Ernaux was first noticed, she seemed oddly attuned to the much younger and better-known Michel Houellebecq. If the young novelist wrote in a hysterical and fantastic register, and she in a muffled and precise register, the desire to inventory the non-literary or anti-literary aspects of French life, the entrenchments of “culture” or “civilization” or Académie French, was a common ambition. (Although people refer to Houellebecq for his politics, no good reader will forget Houellebecq’s impassioned soliloquy on PIF Gadgeta French children’s magazine popular in the sixties and seventies.)