The news of a new Nobel Prize in Literature tends to divide amateur readers into two camps: those who have never heard of the author and those who have, vaguely. There are, of course, more familiar names that sometimes arise from the oracular mists of the Swedish Academy, particularly over the past few decades, when, though tainted by scandal, the Nobel Committee became, off and on, more, uh, hip—both Bob Dylan and Kazuro Ishiguro come to mind. But these are exceptions. For the most part, we look up in October, say “Abdulrazak who?,” and make a vow to find a book by the author and read it.
Sometimes, to be sure, the prize introduces someone worthy but a bit dull—or else, reading the work promptly explains the obscurity in which the writer had previously been plunged. But, once in a while, the author rises from regional importance to become a world figure: Wisława Szymborska, the laureate in 1996, was this kind of writer, passing from Polish specificity to not merely enduring but endearing importance, not just an “impressive” poetic figure in English but a beloved one, the source of countless wedding toasts and epigraphs.
Annie Ernaux, the newly minted French winner of the prize is, a gambling-minded reader would suggest, likely to register as the second kind, on her way to becoming a permanent writer to those who read for the love of it, not the game of it. Certainly, she’s more the second kind than other recent French laureates, who are more easily appreciated as an obligation than a pleasure: the honorable J. M. G. Le Clézio, a man of impeccable globalism whose work can nonetheless sound like the narration to a UNESCO documentary, or the very French Patrick Modiano, whose admirable novels of the Occupation are both retrospective and formally conventional.
Ernaux’s is a voice. So, though it would have been good and well deserved for Salman Rushdie to win the prize this year, Ernaux’s work, which I first began to respond to in Paris in the mid-nineties, is, that best test of merit, haunting—once read not easily forgotten, capturing something important to its time not only in its overt or implicit political concerns but, more importantly, in the shape of its sentences and the murmur of its incantations.
Just last month, with no thoughts of Stockholm abiding in my head, I had mentioned Ernaux, in a piece about Georges Simenon, as being part of a peculiarly French tradition of minimalist “exteriority”—sharing with the Belgian crime novelist, though on utterly different grounds, an emphasis on a stripped-down inspection of the mundane surface of French life as a means to penetrate its secrets. When I encountered Ernaux’s writing in France, she seemed arresting in this way, exactly as an urban imagist. She was able to concentrate on fragmentary ordinary scenes—on the Métro, in popular department stores, on commuter trains—that had the persuasive tang of actual experience, outside the abstractions or affectations of more conventionally ambitious French fiction. (And, indeed, Ernaux comes from a working-class family in Normandy, very much outside the usual run of French literary ascension.)
In the years since, she has become famous for pushing the boundaries of memoir, most memorably, or controversially, in an account of her own abortion, published in English as “Happening.” Yet, though her work is engagé, her style is in many ways désengage—she writes of herself, but in a flat, observational, reportorial way that relentlessly inventories the surface of things, even in the midst of the maddest of motives and the cruellest of fates.
She invests in images in a way few other writers have. She trusts them to offer a more reliable encyclopedia of meanings than a conventional registry of feelings could. In “Happening,” she writes:
Above all I shall endeavor to revisit every single image until I feel that I have physically bonded with it, until a few words spring forth, of which I can say, ‘yes, that’s it.’ I shall try to conjure up each of the sentences engraved in my memory which were either so unbearable or so comforting to me at the time that the mere thought of them today engulfs me in a wave of horror or sweetness.
Just like in Simenon, the opening of Ernaux’s memoir achieves a sense of plangent emotion in its very mutedness: “As I got off at Barbès métro station, like last time, men were idly waiting, clustered at the foot of the overhead subway. People were trudging along the sidewalk with pink shopping bags from the discount store Tati. I turned into the Boulevard Magenta and recognized the clothing store Billy with its anoraks hanging outside. A woman was walking toward me—plump legs sheathed in black stockings with a bold pattern. The Rue Amboise-Paré was almost empty until you reached the vicinity of the hospital.” It is, of course, in the “vicinity of the hospital” that the story of a woman’s obstetric fate begins.
This commitment to registering the surface of life, and the subsurface, the exactly-that of each missed period and stained underwear, extends to her remarkable study of the generations of French life since the Second World War, titled, in an echo of Virginia Woolf, “The Years”—a memoir in which a loving, attentive, at times sardonic detail of the advertisements and false hopes and sheer thingness of time passing is offered. She reflects, at one point, on the memories and speech patterns of a generation of older people who have passed through poverty and the German Occupation, and made its lessons into a set of words and repeated incantations:
When one first noticed Ernaux, she seemed oddly congruent with the much younger and more talked-about Michel Houellebecq. Though the younger novelist wrote in a hysterical and fantastical register, and she in a subdued and specific one, the desire to make an inventory of the non-literary or anti-literary parts of French life, the bits left out of “culture” or “civilization” or the Académie Française, was an ambition held in common. (Though people evoke Houellebecq for his politics, no good reader will forget Houellebecq’s rapt soliloquy on Pif Gadget, a French kids’ magazine popular in the sixties and seventies.)