Published 4 July 2023
French paperback with flaps, 48 pages
Where to begin? I have asked myself this question dozens of times, gazing at a blank page. As if I needed to find the one, the only sentence that would give me entry into the writing of the book and remove all doubts in one fell swoop – a sort of key. Today, as I confront a situation which, the initial stupor having passed – ‘is it really me this is happening to?’ – my imagination represents in a way that instils a growing terror, I am overwhelmed by the same necessity. Finding the sentence that will give me the freedom and the firmness to speak without trembling in this place to which you have invited me this evening. To find that sentence, I don’t have to look very far. It instantly appears. In all its clarity and violence. Lapidary. Irrefutable. Written in my diary sixty years ago. ‘I will write to avenge my people, j’écrirai pour venger ma race.’ It echoed Rimbaud’s cry: ‘I am of an inferior race for all eternity.’ I was twenty-two, studying literature in a provincial faculty with the daughters and sons of the local bourgeoisie, for the most part. I proudly and naively believed that writing books, becoming a writer, as the last in a line of landless labourers, factory workers and shopkeepers, people despised for their manners, their accent, their lack of education, would be enough to redress the social injustice linked to social class at birth. That an individual victory could erase centuries of domination and poverty, an illusion that school had already fostered in me by dint of my academic success. How could my personal achievement have redeemed any of the humiliations and offences suffered? That’s not a question I ever asked myself. I had a few excuses.
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2022
‘I will write to avenge my people.’ It was as a young woman that Annie Ernaux first wrote these words in her diary, giving a name to her purpose in life as a writer. She returns to them in her stirring defence of literature and of political writing in her Nobel Lecture, delivered in Stockholm on 7 December 2022. To write of her own life, she asserts, is to ‘shatter the loneliness of experiences endured and repressed’; to mine individual experience is to find collective emancipation. Ernaux’s speech is a bold assertion of the capacity of writing to give people a sense of their own worth, and of one writer’s commitment to bearing witness to life, its joys and its injustices.
‘Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman
‘Annie Ernaux is one of my favourite contemporary writers, original and true. Always after reading one of her books, I walk around in her world for months.’
— Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood
‘I find her work extraordinary.’
— Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
'The author is one of the most important oeuvres in French literature. Annie Ernaux's work is as powerful as it is devastating, as subtle as it is seething.'
— Édouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy
‘Annie Ernaux writes memoir with such generosity and vulnerable power that I find it difficult to separate my own memories from hers long after I’ve finished reading.’
— Catherine Lacey, author of Pew
'Reading her is like getting to know a friend, the way they tell you about themselves over long conversations that sometimes take years, revelealing things slowly, looping back to some parts of their life over and over, hardly mentioning others.'
— Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books
‘Her work attests to the ways in which an individual story is linked to shared histories and her documentation of personal oppression is part of a struggle for collective freedom.’
— Jessica Andrews, Elle UK
Born in 1940, Annie Ernaux grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work. In 2022, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Alison L. Strayer is a Canadian writer and translator. Her work has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Literature and for Translation, the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal, and longlisted for the Prix Albertine. Her translation of The Years was awarded the 2018 French-American Prize, shortlisted for the Man Booker International in 2019, and awarded the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, honouring both author and translator.
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