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French writer, Annie Ernaux, has been announced the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, for what the Nobel committee chair submitted was an ‘uncompromising’ 50-year body of work exploring ‘a life marked by great disparities regarding gender, language, and class.’
Africa Daily News, New York reports that the prestigious honour is awarded by the Swedish Academy and is worth 10 million Swedish kronor (£807,000). Prof. Carl-Henrik Heldin, chair of the committee, said the 82-year-old’s work was ‘admirable and enduring.’
He said she used ‘courage and clinical acuity’ to tell semi-autobiographical stories that uncover “the contradictions of social experience and describe shame, humiliation, jealousy or the inability to see who you are.”
Reacting, Ernaux said it was ‘a great honour,’ adding that ‘writing is a political act, opening our eyes for social inequality.’
For this purpose, she uses language as ‘a knife’, as she calls it, to tear apart the veils of imagination.
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Her books, including A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, are considered to be contemporary classics in France. She is the first French woman to win the literature prize, and told Swedish broadcaster SVT it was “a responsibility.”
To her, ‘I was very surprised… I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer. It is a great responsibility… to testify, not necessarily in terms of my writing, but to testify with accuracy and justice in relation to the world.’
She was born in 1940 in Normandy, where the setting for her early life was “poor but ambitious”, Prof Heldin said. Her parents ran a café and grocery shop, and when she encountered girls from middle-class backgrounds, she experienced the “shame of her working-class parents and milieu for the first time,” according to her website.
That would later feed into her novels. Her official biography said the main themes of her work were “the body and sexuality; intimate relationships; social inequality and the experience of changing class through education; time and memory; and the overarching question of how to write these life experiences”.
Ernaux studied literature, having worked as an au pair in London, and was married with two children and teaching in a French secondary school when her first book was published in 1974.
Cleaned Out was a fictionalised account of the illegal abortion she had in 1964, which she kept secret from her family.
Her work is largely autobiographical. She revisited that trauma 25 years later for the book Happening, in which she “sifts through her memories and her journal entries dating from those days”. It was turned into a film that won the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival.