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Annie Ernaux's mastery of the memoir

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Annie Ernaux writes in a tone that is crisply unsentimental

French author Annie Ernaux. Image via Reuters

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In the last few years, the Swedish Academy has chosen several unexpected names for the Nobel Prize in literature. Some were a happy surprise, like Alice Munro, who is best known for the short story, a genre that has, historically, never had as much pull as the novel, either over readers or over the market. Others, like Bob Dylan, whose music I admire but not any claim to his literary excellence, were something of a shock.

This year’s winner, the French writer Annie Ernaux, squarely belongs to the former group, a name I have only recently discovered, thanks to the British indie publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. Founded in 2014, the latter has already become an icon in the world of books, having not one, not two, but three Nobel Laureates in its roster during its short existence. With its sparsely designed covers and signature font, Fitzcarraldo has carved out a unique identity for itself, much like the legendary French publisher, Gallimard. It was due to the discerning eye of its editors that Ernaux was retrieved from relative obscurity and reinstated with full honours before Anglophone readers in translations by Tanya Leslie and Alison L. Strayer.

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At 82, Ernaux is one of the most respected living writers in France, whose fame has been built upon her mastery over the memoir, a tricky genre if any. In our times, alongside the pervasive hold of social media, coupled with a culture of “me, myself and I”, the ascendance of the memoir might appear like a foregone conclusion. Yet, given the economics of publishing, with its popular bias towards novels and weightier non-fiction, Ernaux’s rise seems more of an anomaly.

Memoirists not only have a tougher deal, in that they must put themselves out in the world shorn of the protection of fiction, but they must also respect the line between confessional and self-indulgent prose, often a blurred territory. Ernaux navigates this slippery domain with elan and a brazen confidence. Almost all of her books are short—several of them under 100 pages—written in a tone that is crisply unsentimental. The narrator, who is of course Ernaux herself, is divested of roiling emotions in spite of the often harsh realities she must deal with. She is an impersonal observer, looking from outside in, who is as much a spectator to her own life as the lives of others.

In a sense, Ernaux reminds me frequently of one of my favourite film-makers, the French auteur Agnes Varda, though without her lightness of touch. Instead of the quirkiness of the people around her, which Varda documents with her unfailingly empathetic eye, Ernaux is far more interested in the erotics of writing, the rough edges and spiky corners of real life.

“I am visited by people and their lives—like a whore,” as she writes in Exteriors. In another passage, she contemplates a couple on the Métro, making out with each other “as if they were alone in the world”. “But they know that’s not true: every now and then they stare insolently at the other passengers,” Ernaux adds. “My heart sinks. I tell myself that this is what writing is for me.” In Simple Passion, the sentiment is stretched further. Writing, as Ernaux explains in the opening page, “should replicate the feeling of witnessing sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.”

This statement, in the case of Ernaux’s books, holds equally true if you replace “writing” with “reading”. To read her is to sit in on a masterclass on empathy. The “I” in her books, though very much identifiable with Ernaux, is closer to a transpersonal singular pronoun. The feelings that cross your mind while reading her tend to stir up moments of truth, or self-reflection, that you may have carefully tucked away under the carpet. So, while you may not share Ernaux’s anxieties about her working-class background, her ambivalent feelings of shame and affection towards her parents are viscerally relatable. Many of us have harboured similar sentiments towards our own and silently, often belatedly, chastised ourselves, as much Ernaux does, though without the benefit of her clinical prose.

For a writer who has been frequently described as Leftist, and co-opted by the far left in France, Ernaux opts for a style that is perhaps best described as elliptical realism. Her books are mostly classified as “essay”—a truly homegrown genre for Ernaux, tracing its origins back to the French word essai and championed by masters like Montaigne. Her subject is herself and her world, into which she must essay forth to excavate truths known and unknown to her.

Cobbled together using fragments of observation, in short bursts of prose, Ernaux’s books are imagistic, much in the way a photograph is. A Man’s Place, a memoir of her difficult relationship with her late father as well as a potted biography of a complicated but kind man, is like a family album rendered in words. In all her books, Ernaux takes us on a journey, as she does in her most ambitious work The Years, tunnelling into the self and out into the world at large.

Recording the sure-footed passage of time, the changes in public speech and deportment, and the way we live now, Ernaux’s prose is never without the grace of her tender gaze. If, at times, it reads too chiselled, it is deliberately so. As she describes her style in A Man’s Place, “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally, it is the same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.”

This unostentatious tone of a dispassionate writer, who is simultaneously an observer of their own life and the lives of others, has an illustrious precedence in European history, especially in France, the land of Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Ernaux not only shares her stylistic affinities with this august line of writers, but she is also ideologically closer to these figures than she often lets on. Her books abound with the homeless, drunks and beggars, who scrap together a living seeking alms on the RER (commuter rail) and the Métro, jilted by the welfare state, and consigned to a life of squalour and poverty. Almost as ubiquitous are the ethnic minorities, Arab and Asian men and women shopping at the Franprix, floating along the sea of humanity like spectral presences.

In spite of her sympathies, which partly hark back to her own humble origins, Ernaux is far from being a political theorist or an ideologue. As Adam Gopnik recently wrote in The New Yorker, her “far left (views are) touched less by Marxist dogma than by a kind of perpetual humanistic protest”. This unique ability to straddle the personal and political makes Ernaux a chronicler of the self and the world like few others, a writer who sets towering standards for these self-obsessed times.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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