By DAVID KEYTON, JILL LAWLESS and MASHA “MACPHERSON
STOCKHOLM (AP) — French author Annie Ernaux, who has fearlessly mined her experiences as a working-class woman to explore life in France since the 1940s, won this year’s Nobel Prize in literature Thursday for work that illuminates the murky corners of memory, family and society.
Ernaux ‘s books probe deeply personal experiences and feelings – love, sex, abortion, shame – within a society split by gender and class divisions.
The author strongly defended women’s rights to abortion and contraception in some of her first comments after winning the prize.
“I will fight to my last breath so that women can choose to be a mother, or not to be. It’s a fundamental right,” she said at a news conference in Paris. Ernaux’s first book, “Cleaned Out,” was about her own illegal abortion before it was legalized in France.
Ernaux also spoke about the importance of continuing to fight for women’s rights, and her hope for peace because of her childhood during World War II.
The Swedish Academy said Ernaux, 82, was recognized for “the courage and clinical acuity” of books rooted in her small-town background in the Normandy region of northwest France.
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, said Ernaux is “an extremely honest writer who is not afraid to confront the hard truths.”
“She writes about things that no one else writes about, for instance her abortion, her jealousy, her experiences as an abandoned lover and so forth. I mean, really hard experiences,” he told The Associated Press after the award announcement in Stockholm. “And she gives words for these experiences that are very simple and striking. They are short books, but they are really moving.”
One of France’s most-garlanded authors and a prominent feminist voice, Ernaux said she was happy to have won the prize, which carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) — but “not bowled over.”
“I am very happy, I am proud. Voila, that’s all,” Ernaux told journalists outside her home in Cergy, a working-class town west of Paris that she has written about.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “Annie Ernaux has been writing for 50 years the novel of the collective and intimate memory of our country. Her voice is that of women’s freedom, and the century’s forgotten ones.”
While Macron praised Ernaux for her Nobel, she has been unsparing with him. A supporter of left-wing causes for social justice, she has poured scorn on Macron’s background in banking and said his first term as president failed to advance the cause of French women.
Ernaux is the first female French Nobel literature winner and just the 17th woman among the 119 Nobel literature laureates. More than a dozen French writers have captured the literature prize since Sully Prudhomme won the inaugural award in 1901. The most recent French winner before Ernaux was Patrick Modiano in 2014.
Her more than 20 books, most of them very short, chronicle events in her life and the lives of those around her. They present uncompromising portraits of sexual encounters, abortion, illness and the deaths of her parents.
Olsson said Ernaux’s work was often “written in plain language, scraped clean.” He said she had used the term “an ethnologist of herself” rather than a writer of fiction.
Ernaux worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. Her first book was “Les armoires vides” in 1974 (published in English as “Cleaned Out”). Two more autobiographical novels followed – “Ce qu’ils disent ou rien” (“What They Say Goes”) and “La femme gelée” (“The Frozen Woman”) – before she moved to more overtly autobiographical books.
In the book that made her name, “La place” (“A Man’s Place”), published in 1983 and about her relationship with her father, she wrote: “No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral writing style comes to me naturally.”
“La honte” (“Shame”), published in 1997, explored a childhood trauma, while “L’événement” (“Happening”), from 2000 dealt with an illegal abortion.
Her most critically acclaimed book is “Les années” (“The Years”), published in 2008, which described herself and wider French society from the end of World War II to the 21st century. Unlike in previous books, in “The Years,” Ernaux wrote in the third person, calling her character “she” rather than “I.” The book received numerous awards and honors, and Olsson said it has been called “the first collective autobiography.”
“Mémoire de fille” (“A Girl’s Story”), from 2016, follows a young woman’s coming of age in the 1950s, while “Passion Simple” (“Simple Passion”) and “Se perdre” (“Getting Lost”) chart Ernaux’s intense affair with a Russian diplomat.
Ernaux told the newspaper Liberation that “Simple Passion” had “brought me a lot of enemies” and riled “the bourgeoisie.” She said she had faced scorn from France’s literary establishment because “I was a woman who didn’t come from their background.”
The literature prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, as well as too male-dominated. Last year’s prize winner, Tanzanian-born, U.K.-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was only the sixth Nobel literature laureate born in Africa.
Olsson said the academy was working to diversify its range, drawing on experts in literature from different regions and languages.
“We try to broaden the concept of literature but it is the quality that counts, ultimately,” he said.
A week of Nobel Prize announcements kicked off Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the award in medicine for unlocking secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key insights into our immune system.
Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F. Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinger won the physics prize on Tuesday for work showing that tiny particles can retain a connection with each other even when separated, a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, and Danish scientist Morten Meldal for developing a way of “snapping molecules together” that can be used to explore cells, map DNA and design drugs to target cancer and other diseases.
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics award on Monday.
The prizes will be handed out on Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.
Macpherson reported from Clergy, France, and Lawless from London. John Leicester in Le Pecq, France, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Naomi Koppel in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.
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