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Disputed & Biased

Her works are based mainly on personal memories. Annie Ernaux (b. September 1, 1940), one of the most popular figures in contemporary French literature who is famous for her autobiographical fictions, is the recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature. Announcing the 82-year-old Ernaux’s name in Stockholm on October 6, Chair of the Nobel Committee (Literature) Anders Olsson said that the French author used “courage and clinical acuity” to tell largely autobiographical stories that uncover “the contradictions of social experience (and) describe shame, humiliation, jealousy or the inability to see who you are“. He stressed: “Through bold and precise writing, Ernaux unearths history with a razor-sharp pen, bringing together the roots of personal memory.

Ernaux was born on September 1, 1940 at Lillebonne in the French city of Normandy, and brought up in nearby Yvetot. After pursuing a Master’s Degree in Modern Literature, she started her professional career as a school teacher. In 1977, she joined the National Centre for Distance Education (Centre national d’enseignement à distance or CNED) as a Professor. Ernaux, who had been employed there for 23 years, started her literary works in her 30s. In a recent interview, she said that it was a bit difficult for her to become a writer.

Les Armoires vides‘ (‘Cleaned Out’), the first autobiographical novel of Ernaux, was published in 1974. Soon after the publication of this novel, readers appreciated her bold style of writing. She touched various social issues, like growing up in a lower middle class family, having an illegal abortion at teenage, etc., in this novel.

Her fourth novel, ‘La Place‘ (‘A Man’s Place‘, 1983), helped Ernaux secure her place among the noted French novelists. She had won the Renaudot Prize in 1984 for this autobiographical narrative, which focussed on her relationship with her father, her experiences growing up in a small French town, her subsequent process of moving into adulthood, and staying away from her parents’ place of origin. Once, Ernaux said that La Place was a tale of her relation with her mother, youth and age, and dreams and reality. Upon her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s, she made an attempt to “capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me, born on the outskirts of a small Normandy town, and died in the geriatric ward of a hospital in the suburbs of Paris” in this novel. She further explored “the bond between mother and daughter, tenuous and unshakable at once, the alienating worlds that separate them, and the inescapable truth that we must lose the ones we love“. This novel is considered as Ernaux’s quietly powerful tribute to her mother. “I believe I am writing about my mother because it is my turn to bring her into the world,” she wrote.

Les Années‘ (‘The Years‘, 2008), a historical memoir, is the most popular work of Ernaux. In this novel, she portrayed the daily life, challenges and dreams of French girls from the post-Second World War to the first decade of the 21st Century in a large canvas. Most importantly, the author wrote about herself in the third person (‘elle‘ or ‘she‘) in Les Années in a rare first.

Despite being quite popular in France for many decades, Ernaux got global recognition as an author in the 1990s. René-François-Armand Prudhomme (March 16, 1839 – September 7, 1907), popularly known as Sully Prudhomme, was the first to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature for his works on Leo Tolstoy in 1901. French historical author Patrick Modiano had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. With Ernaux becoming the recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, the number of French Nobel Laureates (in Literature) stands at 18, which include Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined the Nobel Prize that he was awarded in 1964. Meanwhile, the number of Nobel laureates in English literature is 29, and in German literature is 14.

Once again, the Nobel Committee has been accused of Eurocentrism. As expected, the Committee has claimed that it considered only literary excellence, and not caste, colour, language or gender, before announcing the name of the recipient. Incidentally, only 17 out of 119 Nobel laureates in Literature are women.

Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British-American novelist, was stabbed multiple times by a man when the former was about to deliver a public lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York on August 12, 2022. He was the first bet in the list of potential recipients in 2022. However, the Nobel Committee did not consider his name. As of 2022, there are only eight Asians who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. They are Rabindranath Tagore (British India, 1913), Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1968), Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan, 1994), Gao Xingjian (China, 2000), V S Naipal (Indian origin, born in Trinidad and Tobago, 2010), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey, 2006), Mo Yan (China, 2012) and Kazuo Ishiguro (Japan, 2017).

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron congratulated the first Frenchwoman to receive the Nobel Literature Prize, saying that Ernaux was the voice “of the Freedom of Women and of the Forgotten“.

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