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French writer Annie Ernaux wins the 2022 Nobel Prize in literature

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

French writer Annie Ernaux is the newest Nobel laureate in literature. She is a forceful writer of memoir, as described this morning by the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATS MALM: Annie Ernaux manifestly believes in the liberating force of writing. Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language scraped clean.

SUMMERS: Ernaux is widely admired in France and among those who love French feminist literature, but she is little-known outside of those circles. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Annie Ernaux was just beginning to find more of an audience in the United States before her Nobel win. She was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2019 for her novel "The Years."

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ANNIE ERNAUX: (Reading in French).

ULABY: That's Ernaux reading from "The Years" at the storied Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris when the French version came out in 2008. It's a radical sweep of a novel, a half-century of one woman's intimate history, studded with recollections of her own lower-class childhood in Normandy.

ALISON STRAYER: (Reading) Living in a house with a dirt floor, wearing galoshes, playing with a rag doll, washing clothes in wood ash, sewing a little pouch of garlic inside children's night shirts near the navel to rid them of worms, obeying parents and getting boxed on the ears anyway - just think if I'd given them lip.

ULABY: That reading was by Ernaux's translator Alison Strayer. Ernaux has written more than 20 books, neither fiction nor non-fiction, she says, but something that has been called autosociobiography. Ernaux's passionate subject is her own life, and she has excavated her marriage, her cancer, her parents' deaths and her illegal abortion that nearly killed her. Ernaux wrote about it in her first book in 1974, then reconstructed the experience more than 25 years later in a novel called "Happening."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking French).

ULABY: "Happening" was made into a movie that last year won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking French).

ULABY: "I would like a child but not instead of a life," she says. The novel is only 96 pages long - not unusual for Ernaux's work.

DAN SIMON: These books are breathtakingly short.

ULABY: That's Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press. He's Ernaux's U.S. publisher. He describes each of her books as a richly detailed fragment.

SIMON: It is kind of like a puzzle. And each book is a piece of the puzzle. And there's a sense in which all of Annie's books collectively tell one story.

ULABY: Even though Annie Ernaux is a celebrated author in France whose name has been floated as a Nobel contender for years, her publisher did not wake up this morning convinced that she would win.

SIMON: There's a lot of very visceral sex in her books. She very unapologetic, unabashedly describes sex. And I said, yeah, the Nobel Prize Committee isn't going to be up for that.

ULABY: When Ernaux won this morning, the permanent secretary was asked if the Swedish Academy was sending a larger message about reproductive freedom.

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MALM: We concentrate on literature and literary quality. And we don't have any more message to the world.

ULABY: No message, he said, beyond a celebration of what the committee called the courage and clinical acuity with which Annie Ernaux uncovers the roots and restraints of personal memory. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAREN MORRIS SONG, "THE FEELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.