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Winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in literature goes to French writer Annie Ernaux

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

French writer Annie Ernaux has won this year's Nobel Prize in literature. NPR's Neda Ulaby joins us now to tell us all about the winner. So, Neda, who is Annie Ernaux?

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Well, she is an 82-year-old writer and professor who grew up in the French countryside after World War II. Ernaux was the daughter of grocers, and she's written more than 20 books that plumb deeply in her own life experience. When the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy made the announcement this morning, he had this to say about her selection.

(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.

ULABY: So, A, Annie Ernaux's life is her intellectual project. She writes memoirs and autobiographical novels. She returns to her own experiences over and over and over, holding them up like gems, looking for new facets and insights into her life, which include her mother's death, her mother's dementia, her coming of age, her sexual experiences at summer camp, her affair with a Russian diplomat and, maybe most notably right now, her illegal abortion in 1963, which she wrote about in her book, the "Happening."

MARTINEZ: And I love the description of her writing style - written in plain language, scraped clean. Now, do you think the Swedish Academy was making some sort of larger point by picking a writer who was centered - who was the center of the story of her own abortion?

ULABY: No, absolutely not. The Swedish Academy makes a giant point every year of loftily removing itself from the concerns of whatever is happening in the world. So, for example, it would - every year, people predict that the Syrian writer Adunis is going to win - he's a celebrated poet, and it would obviously speak to what's happening in the world - nope, nope, nope. They love political literature, but they are always very careful to make clear they are not reacting to whatever is happening in the world at the moment.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, what's the reaction been to her selection?

ULABY: Annie Ernaux is a tremendously well-respected writer, hugely admired, and unlike, for example, last year's winner, her work is widely available in translation. You can go to any good bookstore and probably find at least one of her books. Last year, a movie based on her book about her abortion won The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Ernaux is a wonderful choice in many ways. I think she's the 17th woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. But it should also be noted that she is the third French writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature in less than 15 years. So we are definitely seeing what has been described as a certain kind of laziness on the part of the Swedish Academy. It's very focused on Euro writers. There's a kind of Francophilia here. And the permanent secretary was asked about this this morning, and he said something along the lines that - well, it basically amounted to, well, you know, it's not our fault that the rest of the world's literature does not meet our high standards.

MARTINEZ: All right. So let's just say one of our listeners is paying attention, says, I want to read an Annie Ernaux book. What book should they start with?

ULABY: I - honestly, her books are so gorgeous, I don't think you could go wrong with any of them. The "Happening" is certainly the one that's most in the news. And her novel, "A Girl's Story," is a contemporary feminist classic. Her influences, just to sort of give your - our listeners a sort of sense of what to expect, they range from Simone de Beauvoir to Marcel Proust. Her book "The Years" intertwines her own story with the post-war history of France that goes all the way through the introduction of the internet and into the 21st century.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Neda Ulaby. Neda, thanks a lot.

ULABY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.