Portrait of Annie Ernaux, Torino, Italy, 21st May 2022. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

A study in radical rhetoric

We can disagree with Annie Ernaux’s politics while saying she deserves her Nobel Prize

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One school of thought claims that all literature is political: what matters in a work is the worldview it reflects. It may not be the way most people enjoy books, but it is an academic approach. 

But that political prism is relevant — indeed inescapable — when a writer claims it for herself — as is the case for Annie Ernaux, who last October became the first Frenchwoman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Regarded as a master of autofiction, she has written about her life and times for almost five decades. In her acceptance speech in Stockholm in December, Ernaux highlighted the activist nature of her art: coming from a humble background — her parents ran a provincial café-cum-grocery shop — she vowed early on to “avenge my race”.

By that phrase, which crops up throughout her work, she means the line of “landless peasants, workers, shopkeepers despised for their accent and their lack of culture” from whom she is descended. After her promotion to the cultured classes, she saw herself as a “defector” with a duty to weaponise her literary powers. 

This sense of obligation went beyond sticking up for her forebears. In her Nobel speech she described publishing her first book in the early 1970s, a fictionalised account of her illegal abortion, as a feminist act. “From then on,” she said, “avenging my race and avenging my sex would be one and the same.”

She is fond of quoting Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist who revived Marx’s class struggle idea as a dichotomy between “dominant” and “oppressed” groups. Having escaped the world of the downtrodden, Ernaux once said, she learned the “language of the enemy, that of the dominant”. 

She has carried on the fight beyond literature, in the public arena. She is a staunch supporter of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn. Mélenchon, who has stood in the last three presidential elections, is a believer in state spending and multiculturalism and is a political reincarnation of Bourdieu.

Like many progressives, Ernaux is a fierce critic of Israel. She does not see the Jewish state as a democracy surrounded by authoritarian powers, but solely as a dominant entity that oppresses Arabs. In 2018, she loudly condemned a series of French cultural events marking the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s creation. A year later she called for a boycott of the Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv.

Even more controversially, Annie Ernaux has signed petitions backing the French-Algerian activist Houria Bouteldja. A critic of interracial marriages that dilute black identity, Bouteldja is also a strident opponent of “philo-Semitism” and “Zionism”. Ernaux defended Bouteldja’s assertion that “you cannot innocently be Israeli”.

For Bouteldja, as for Ernaux, the dominant can do no right and the oppressed no wrong. In The Years (2008), a chronicle of recent decades that many regard as her masterwork, Ernaux has this to say about the 9/11 attacks on the United States:

All of a sudden, our representation of the world was turned upside down. A few fanaticised individuals from backward countries, armed only with knives, had felled the symbols of American might in less than two hours. This prodigious feat inspired awe … People remembered the assassination of Allende on another 11 September. It was payback time.

This is a study in radical rhetoric: from rationalising terror to Bin Laden avenging the “assassination” of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973 — all foes of US imperialism standing shoulder to shoulder across time and space.

Hatred of the West and fascination with the Communist East are key themes in another of Ernaux’s books, Getting Lost. Published in 2001, it is the diary of an affair she had with a Soviet diplomat a dozen years earlier. “What I love about him is the USSR, which has always fascinated me and seems to me to be the most crucial question in the world,” Ernaux wrote. She is haunted by the thought that the Soviet bloc — like her love — is doomed: “West and East Germany reunified? USSR … How can my head and my heart not be in that country, in Moscow.”

In her Nobel speech she resorts to a classic anti-Western trope, which consists in recognising crimes committed by other countries — only to draw parallels with misdeeds attributed to the West. Thus the “imperialist war waged by the dictator ruling Russia” masks an “ideology of closure” gaining ground in democracies. The underlying logic of this non sequitur is: we all know A beats his whole family — how convenient for B, who beats his wife.

Likewise, after highlighting the revolt of Iranian women against the “most archaic form” of male power, she points to some men in France who “pretend that books written by women simply do not exist”. Ernaux does not say who the chauvinist literati are. But her overall message is clear: it is true that women in Iran are forced to wear headscarves by the morality police, but I know what it means to be oppressed too.

Moreover, there is a palpable contradiction between Ernaux’s worldview and her claim to represent her “race”. Intersectional feminism and concern for marginalised communities play much better on university campuses than in deprived banlieues. People in small towns like the one in Normandy where she grew up are more likely to vote for the far-right than for Mélenchon. When Ernaux joined the world of culture, she did not go underground as a defector: she went native.

In her speech she quotes Albert Camus, who also rose from modest origins to become a Nobel laureate. But there ends any similarity between them. Camus grew up in a much poorer household than Ernaux — he was raised by an illiterate single mother. Unlike Ernaux, he was never conflicted about his roots or felt the need to idealise them. 

Nor did he regard his education as a betrayal. After learning about the prize, Camus wrote to his old schoolmaster, Monsieur Germain: “Without the affectionate hand you extended to the impoverished child I was, without your teaching and your example, none of that would have happened.”

Camus cultivated gratitude and nuance. He stood against a brand of revolutionary absolutism embodied in his day by Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom a just cause demanded unconditional backing and an anti-communist was “a dog”. Ernaux’s vindictive zeal and binary outlook owe nothing to Camus and everything to Sartre. 

None of this suggests that her oeuvre should be dismissed as propaganda. She may root it in her political convictions, but readers can appreciate it for other reasons. Authors are not always the best interpreters of their own work. Many critics have hailed Ernaux as a worthy Nobel winner while violently disagreeing with her ideas.

… in her books, she wears her radicalism lightly

That is possible because in her books, she wears her radicalism lightly. She never allows the zealot to shout out the artist. The early accounts of a studious schoolgirl growing ashamed of her parents, and then ashamed of her shame, are deeply moving. The anatomy of her affair with the Russian apparatchik, both in Getting Lost and Simple Passion, is painfully honest. 

In her trademark pared-down style, Ernaux delves into the intricacies of obsessive love without a shred of self-pity or sense of victimhood. Such subtlety stands in contrast to the “male domination” view of sex relations she embraced in public comments about the #MeToo movement.

You could even defend her elegy for the USSR and ode to jihadist fearlessness on literary grounds. Ernaux does not so much preach as describe attitudes towards current events. Plenty of people, notably among the French intelligentsia, looked on the collapse of the Soviet empire with trepidation; ten years on, many welcomed the humbling of the American empire. In that sense, she succeeded in her ambition to provide a faithful, if partial, record of her time.

Does Ernaux’s Nobel Prize signal a healthy recognition that political considerations should not affect artistic judgement? Hardly. In its statement, the Swedish Academy praised her for her emphasis on “writing as a political act” and for “opening our eyes to social inequality”. It is difficult to infer a systematic stance from the Nobel jury’s platitudes. But the fact that many widely acclaimed authors have been passed over point to the possibility that some opinions — perceived misogyny for Philip Roth or denunciation of radical Islam for Salman Rushdie — rule you out of consideration.

Annie Ernaux herself has often inveighed against fellow writers for spreading the wrong ideas. Take Michel Houellebecq, whom she regards as a macho reactionary: before receiving the award in Stockholm, she said she was “delighted” he had not won it. “If someone gained a platform with this prize,” she told a newspaper, “frankly I’d rather it was me.” Quite apart from the stunning lack of grace this gloating betrays, it is as pure an exhortation for politicised literature as you will ever read. 

Houellebecq, of course, does not need Ernaux’s imprimatur to publish books. He has nothing to fear from her, apart from, perhaps missing out on the Nobel Prize. But less prominent authors are vulnerable to politically driven cancellation efforts. 

In 2012, Ernaux unleashed an intellectual lynch mob on Richard Millet. The French-Lebanese writer, a former winner of the Académie Française Essay Prize, had penned an essay, “Literary Eulogy for Anders Breivik”. The piece blamed multiculturalism for the anger expressed by the Norwegian Neo-Nazi, while condemning his murders. 

Millet’s aesthetic take on terrorism was just as silly as Ernaux’s own reaction to 9/11. But it came from the wrong side and Millet paid dearly for it. Ernaux’s campaign got him fired from Gallimard, a major publisher. Since then, he has been confined to small right-wing presses.

“There is always a temptation to claim that any book whose tendency one disagrees with must be a bad book from a literary point of view.” Almost eight decades after George Orwell wrote these words, Annie Ernaux is a prime illustration of their enduring relevance. 

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