French writer Anne Hernaud received the Nobel Prize for Literature

STOCKHOLM — French author Annie Hernaud, who mined her own biography to explore life in 1940s France, won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday for work that illuminates the murky corners of memory, family and society.

Ernaux’s autobiographical books explore deeply personal experiences and feelings—love, sex, abortion, shame—in a shifting web of social and class relationships. Much of her material comes from her experience of being raised in a working-class family in the Normandy region of northwestern France.

The Swedish Academy said Erno, 82, was recognized for the “courage and clinical acuity” of her writing.

Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Literature Committee, said Erno was “an extremely honest writer who is not afraid to face hard truths.”

“She writes about things that no one else writes about, like her abortion, her jealousy, her experiences as a jilted lover and so on. I mean, really tough experiences,” he said after the prize was announced in Stockholm. “And she puts words to these experiences that are very simple and overwhelming. They are short books, but really exciting.”

Ernaud is only the 17th woman among the 119 laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the first French literature laureate since Patrick Modiano in 2014. One of France’s best-known authors and a prominent feminist voice, she expressed surprise at the award, asking a Swedish journalist who contacted her on the phone: “Are you sure?”

“I was working this morning and the phone rang all the time but I didn’t answer,” she told news agency TT.

Erno told Swedish broadcaster SVT that the award was a “great honour” and a “very big responsibility”.

Olson said Erno used the term “ethnologist of herself,” not fiction writer.

Her more than 20 books, most of them very short, describe events in her life and the lives of those around her. They present uncompromising portraits of sexual intercourse, abortion, illness and the death of her parents.

Olsson said Erno’s work is often “written in plain language, clean.”

Ernaud describes his style as “flat writing” – striving for a very objective view of the events he describes, unshaped by kitsch descriptions or overwhelming emotions.

Ernaux worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. Her first book was Cleaned Out in 1974. Two more autobiographical novels followed – What They Say Goes and The Frozen Woman – before she moved on to more overtly autobiographical books.

In the book that made her name, La Place (The 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 naturally to me.”

Shame, published in 1997, explored childhood trauma, while 2000’s Happening chronicled an illegal abortion.

Her most acclaimed book is The Years, published in 2008, which describes herself and wider French society from the end of World War II to the 21st century. Unlike the previous books, in “The Years” Erno writes in the third person, calling his character “she” and not “I”. The book has received numerous awards and honors, and Olson said it has been called “the first collective autobiography.”

2016’s A Girl’s Story follows the coming of age of a young woman in the 1950s.

The Nobel Prize for Literature has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers, and that it is too male-dominated. Last year’s winner, the Tanzanian-born UK-based writer Abdulrazak Gurna, was only the sixth African-born winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“We are trying first and foremost to broaden the reach of the Nobel Prize, but our focus must be on literary quality,” Olson said.

Gurna’s 2021 and American poet Louise Glück’s 2020 awards have helped the literature prize move after years of controversy and scandal.

In 2018, the award was suspended after allegations of sexual abuse rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel Committee for Literature, and caused an exodus of members. The academy renewed itself but faced more criticism for awarding the 2019 literature prize to Austrian Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.

A week of Nobel prize announcements began on Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the medicine prize for unlocking the secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provide key insights into our immune system.

Three scientists jointly won the physics prize on Tuesday. Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F. Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinger have shown that tiny particles can maintain a connection with each other even when separated, a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement that can be used for specialized computing and for information encryption .

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded Wednesday to Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and C. Barry Sharpless and Danish scientist Morten Meldahl for developing a way to “assemble molecules together” that can be used to study cells, map DNA and designing drugs that can more precisely target diseases such as cancer.

The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics prize on Monday.

The awards carry a cash prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on December 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.

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Jordan reported from Berlin and Lawless from London. Naomi Koppel in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

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