Celebrated French author and new Nobel Prize recipient Annie Ernaux explored truth, shame, and her creative process in a highly anticipated discussion Wednesday at Barnard College.
Annie Ernaux needed no introduction when she arrived to speak at Barnard College Wednesday night.
Standing upon a monumental body of work, the 82-year-old French writer’s reputation precedes her. Ernaux has written over 20 texts across the past half century, beginning with her first novel Les Armoires vides (Cleaned Out) in 1974. Most recently, Getting Lost, a translation of her 2001 work Se Perdre, was published this year.
Her books, such as L’événement (Happening) and La Place (A Man’s Place), have become classroom staples in Columbia and Barnard French courses. Through her singular writing style—and unwavering dedication to the truth—Ernaux has garnered the respect and adoration of generations of young readers, budding writers, and critics alike.
An enthusiastic audience began lining up an hour in advance to attend the sold-out discussion, which was hosted by the Barnard English Department’s Creative Writing Program. The event was co-sponsored by the Barnard French Department, Barnard Center for Research on Women, Columbia English Department, and Columbia University School of the Arts.
Ken Chen, Barnard’s Associate Director of Creative Writing, gave introductory remarks, praising the author for her commitment to addressing “unspeakable” topics in her works. Over the decades, Ernaux’s œuvre has pierced through topics commonly resigned to privacy: abortion, sex, family life, marriage, motherhood, cancer, and the shame that clouds these experiences. For her courage to write—and write truthfully—about these topics, she was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in literature.
“[Ernaux] is a writer who operates on the knife edge of public and private life,” Chen said, highlighting the nakedness of her works, “which do not function as conventional memoirs.”
“The internal consciousness is revealed but not for the reader,” Chen continued, noting that Ernaux’s works produce the sensation that “no one else was meant to read them.”
Chen put Ernaux’s book L’événement (Happening)—which grapples with the author’s harrowing experience receiving an illegal abortion in 1963—in conversation with living in a post-Roe America. Ernaux’s writing, which details her experiences over half a century ago, still hauntingly echoes in our present.
Hari Kunzru, the author of works such as Red Pill and White Tears, led the discussion with the help of Ernaux’s interpreter. He pushed Ernaux to further elaborate on the growing importance of L’événement in contemporary America.
“[L’événement] is a book that sadly is becoming extremely relevant in the current context. The situation you faced is now a situation that is faced by many American women,” Kunzru said.
Ernaux described her “stupeur” after learning that Roe v. Wade had been overturned. To Ernaux, the United States was the first country in the world to grant women the right to “ne plus mourir” (to no longer die), when her own country had not yet done so. She described the recent decision as a “retour à la sauvagerie vis à vis les femmes” (a return to savagery toward women).
The conversation also touched on Ernaux’s writing practice and style, in which honesty and truth are given the highest priority. Ernaux is hesitant to classify her works or confine them to a genre, avoiding often-ascribed labels of memoir or autobiography or autofiction. To Ernaux, it is dangerous to define the kind of writing you do. She avoids writing “une fiction de soi” (a fiction of the self) so as to not betray her pact with the truth.
“Fiction is a form. Writing is a form. As time goes by, different forms emerge… but truth does not change,” she explained.
Ernaux also elaborated on her signature l’écriture plate (flat writing) as exemplified in her 1983 book La Place, in which she delves into her father’s death and strives to trace his life with objectivity. In her own words, l’écriture plate is “une écriture sans affectation, une écriture des faits” (a writing without affectation… a writing made of facts). The result is a work that is non-ornate, unromanticized, and piercingly honest.
This style of writing was integral to the book’s project, which grapples with Ernaux’s feelings of guilt for her own class mobility, her parents belonging to the working class while she herself went on to university. L’écriture plate is what allowed her to explore the experience of belonging to “une classe dominée” (a dominated class).
Ernaux said the decision to write in this style is a political one, so as to not expose the life of a man of the classe dominée to the privileges of the classe dominante, “the class who reads.” It is the choice to avoid a populist, aggrandizing portrayal of the working class as well as a refusal to focus on their suffering.
She also elaborated on the image of her writing as “un couteau… une écriture qui décharne des choses” (a knife… a writing that strips the flesh off of things). Ernaux writes because she wants to go further, au cœur, to the heart of things.
This directness in Ernaux’s writing is exemplified in a passage from La femme gelée (A Frozen Woman), read in translation at Wednesday’s event by Professor Karen Santos Da Silva. In the excerpt, Ernaux describes childbirth not through a romanticized lens, but with clinical austerity:
“Instead of a big chaise percée there are the glaring lights, the hard table, orders given from the other side of my belly. The worst, my public body—that part like a queen’s delivery, anyway. The water, the blood, the stools, the cervix dilated in front of everyone. Listen, that’s not important at such a time, it’s not the same, just an innocent passageway for the child. Even so. He has to see this whole debacle, get a good eyeful of my misery, has to know what it’s like, ‘participate,’ decked out in a white gown and cap as though he were a doctor. But to be this liquefaction, this thing writhing in front of him—will he ever forget this sight?
… I’m abruptly emptied out, all pain gone, with the doctor scolding me—you’ve torn yourself; it’s a boy. For an instant, the vision of a skinned rabbit; a cry. Often, afterwards, I watch this film again, trying to make sense of this moment. I was in agony, I was alone, and suddenly—this little rabbit, the cry, so unimaginable one minute before. There’s still no meaning, simply that there wasn’t anyone, then there was.”
At the end of the event, Ernaux was given a prolonged standing ovation, the audience’s adoration for her craft palpable. But the most arresting image was Ernaux herself, standing on stage, visibly moved by the audience’s display of appreciation.
Despite the countless awards and praise she has received for her work, she continues to use her voice to go to the heart, to advocate for women’s rights, and to take the time to speak face-to-face with les jeunes. Ernaux may carry an immense legacy, but she has not risen above us.
Hari Kunzru and Annie Ernaux via Bwog Staff