One is briefly irritated when, late on Wednesday afternoon, Abdulrazak Gurnah, last year’s Nobel Prize winner for literature, enters the picture and takes his place in the reading room of the Swedish Academy. Wrong year? Is the technology of the online Nobel Prize portal going crazy? But Gurnah’s presence is a beautiful, noble gesture. He wants to follow the Nobel Lecture of his successor on site, who comes on stage a few minutes later and reads her speech in French while seated.
Her mother gave her literature
Annie Ernaux begins by saying that this beginning is difficult for her, as is so often the case when writing her books. Basically, she didn’t have to search long for the first sentence for this noble speech: “J’écrirai pour venger ma race”. She wrote this sentence in her diary sixty years ago. With “race” in this case, echoing a saying by Rimbaud, she meant “her people” or “her class”, and she still understands it that way today.
Ernaux tells how she came to literature: through the books that her mother, the small shopkeeper and avid reader, gave her, be it “Don Quijote” or Camus’ “The Stranger”; She describes that when she was studying literature, she didn’t realize at first that the centuries of “humiliation and insults” could hardly be compensated for by her achievement of being the first of her generation-spanning poor family to complete a course of study. And she mentions the difficulties she faced as a teacher, wife and mother of two, and how that life removed her from her desire to write.
When the unspeakable is brought to light, it is political.
Annie Ernaux on Wednesday in Stockholm
Some factors (the death of her father, her job teaching young people from her milieu, the protest movements around the world) then encouraged her literary ambitions, ranging from “objective”, “flat”, “emotionless”, “neutral” to write, despite the first-person perspective, at least since their fourth book, the one about their father, “La Place”. Her intention: “To understand the inner and outer reasons that led me to move away from my origins.”
With the book about her father, she changed her writing
She got to the bottom of this change in milieu and class in most of her books – and she circles it in her speech. She compares her fate in terms of language with that of migrants, no matter where they come from, because they no longer speak the language of their parents either. “Doesn’t the rebellious writing, with its violence and its mockery, reflect the attitude of the ruled?” asks Ernaux, to state that writing is suitable for “reinventing oneself.” And: “When the unspeakable is brought to light becomes, it is political.”
Ernaux had announced a “committed political speech” at the beginning of October, immediately after the Swedish Academy’s decision. This speech is indeed committed and political, without Ernaux going into detail about her position in the Middle East conflict. She repeatedly reflects on her existence as a woman in a still male-dominated world and mentions the revolt of women in Iran.
She speaks of the “uncovering of the socially unspeakable”, denounces the exclusion of refugees and the economically weak and outlaws the “surveillance of women’s bodies”. One is amazed at who Ernaux thinks she is representing with her books – although she is doing things in advance: she in no way confuses literature and direct political positions as a reaction to social changes. Finally, Ernaux ends her speech with a hint of art religion: cheers for literature, which she still sees as “a space of emancipation”. In their case, this emancipation has succeeded.
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