“There is this need I have to write something that puts me in danger, like a cellar door that opens and must be entered, come what may.”
Annie Ernaux, Getting Lost
Annie Ernaux has won the Nobel prize in literature this year. So far I have read two books by her, The Happening and Getting Lost. I will definitely read more. The subject matter of her writing is her own life, especially its most painful aspects, which she describes with utmost truthfulness. In her books the reader receives a full-blown confession told with a somewhat cold precision. To explain the way she writes, she quotes Michael Foucault, who said that “the highest good is to make one’s life a work of art.” She has turned her living into writing, albeit without killing its pulsating vitality in the process. An encounter with her prose has been a shattering experience.
What she decides to share with the world, and this is what makes her writing so fresh and original, has probably never been shared with such candidness in any memoir. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” as Kafka famously wrote. Her writing definitely has had that effect on me: as if her honesty could penetrate the shadow or the parts of the psyche I, her reader, have suppressed and disowned. I am reminded of a curious social game that the characters played in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. At a party thrown by Nastasya Filippovna guests were supposed to confess publicly the most evil act they have ever committed. Nobody dared to expose themselves completely. Annie Ernaux, however, writes without any such qualms. And because she is so daring and truthful, I, the reader do not feel the need to judge her. Perhaps this is a too far-fetched analogy if I quote Krishnamurti here, who said, “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” Reading Annie Ernaux equals observing how her life and her passion unfold. There is no need for evaluation, no need to pass ethical judgments. Just first-hand experience.
In conclusion, I would like to offer you a passage from an article I came across in The New York Review of Books. I include the link, though there is a paywall. There Sigrid Nunez also ponders the theme of Ernaux’s raw honesty:
“‘I have always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward,’ Ernaux writes in Shame, ‘the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others.’ This calls to mind Orwell’s famous dictum that the only kind of autobiography to be trusted is the kind that reveals something disgraceful about its author. At the end of Getting Lost, Ernaux speaks of ‘this need I have to write something that puts me in danger.’ Here I thought of her countryman and fellow autobiographer Michel Leiris, who likened literature to bullfighting and for whom the only writing worth doing demanded that the writer be a matador, willing to risk being gored. The means to this end, as stated in a preface to his confessional memoir Manhood (1939)—’To expose certain obsessions of an emotional or sexual nature, to admit publicly to certain shameful deficiencies or dismays’—are central to Ernaux’s literary project.”
Thank you. Very much appreciated.
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I am glad to hear it. I think the committee made a fantastic decision this year.