French author Annie Ernaux wins Nobel Prize in Literature

French writer Annie Ernaux is shown speaking at a literary event in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Dec. 4, 2019. (Ulises Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
French writer Annie Ernaux is shown speaking at a literary event in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Dec. 4, 2019. (Ulises Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

French author Annie Ernaux, who has fearlessly mined her own biography to explore life in France since the 1940s, was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for work that illuminates the murky corners of memory, family and society.

The author strongly defended women's rights to abortion and contraception in some of her first comments after winning the prize.

"I will fight to my last breath so that women can choose to be a mother, or not to be. It's a fundamental right," she said at a news conference in Paris. Ernaux's first book, Cleaned Out, was about her own illegal abortion before it was legalized in France.

Ernaux also spoke about the importance of continuing to fight for women's rights, and her hope for peace because of her childhood during the Second World War.

The Swedish Academy said Ernaux, 82, was recognized for "the courage and clinical acuity" of books rooted in her background in a working-class family in the Normandy region of northwest France.

Ernaux's autobiographical books explore deeply personal experiences and feelings — love, sex, abortion, shame — within a society split by gender and class divisions.

Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, said Ernaux is "an extremely honest writer who is not afraid to confront the hard truths."

"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," he said after the award announcement in Stockholm.

"And she gives words for these experiences that are very simple and striking. They are short books, but they are really moving."

17th woman among 119 Nobel literature laureates

One of France's most-garlanded authors and a prominent feminist voice, Ernaux said she was happy to have won the prize, which carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.2 million Cdn) — but "not bowled over."

"I am very happy, I am proud. Voila, that's all," Ernaux said in brief remarks to journalists outside her home in Cergy, a town west of Paris that she has written about.

Ernaux is the first female French Nobel literature winner and just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates. She worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. Her first book was Cleaned Out in 1974.

In the book that made her name, A Man's Place, published in 1983 and about her relationship with her father, she writes: "No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral writing style comes to me naturally."

Shame, published in 1997, explored a childhood trauma, while Happening, from 2000, depicts an illegal abortion.

Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency via The Associated Press
Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency via The Associated Press

Her most critically acclaimed book is The Years, published in 2008, which described herself and wider French society from the end of the Second World War to the 21st century.

"It is her most ambitious project, which has given her an international reputation and a raft of followers and literary disciples," the Academy said of that book, which received numerous awards and honours.

Diversity pledge

The literature prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, as well as too male-dominated. Last year's prize winner, Tanzanian-born, U.K.-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was only the sixth Nobel literature laureate born in Africa.

Olsson said the academy was working to diversify its range, drawing on experts in literature from different regions and languages.

"We try to broaden the concept of literature but it is the quality that counts, ultimately," he said.

In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel literature committee, and sparked an exodus of members. The academy revamped itself but faced more criticism for giving the 2019 literature award to Austria's Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.

While many previous literature winners were already widely read before landing the prize, the award generates huge media attention and can catapult lesser-known authors to global fame while spurring book sales even for literary superstars.

Accurately predicting the winner of the literature award is educated guesswork at best and favourites to win this year's prize included a string of authors who have been considered to be high in the running for years, including Canadians Margaret Atwood and Anne Carson.

Some prizes have gone to writers from outside mainstream literary genres, including French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1927, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1953 and American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016.

Canada's Alice Munro won the award in 2013, while last year's prize was awarded to Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.