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Author and Nobel Prize Laureate Annie Ernaux discusses her genre-bending work


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: On Wednesday, in Stockholm, Sweden, French writer Annie Ernaux delivered her Nobel lecture, and spoke of how she hopes that her work, which mixes fiction and memoir, has affected others.

Tomorrow, she and this year's other Nobel laureates will formally receive their awards.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with her for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In a new documentary titled "The Super 8 Years," we see a young French woman named Annie Ernaux, a wife and mother, a high schoolteacher, in the early 1970s.

What we don't see taking place at this time secretly off-camera, the book she's working on, her first. The film, based on home movies and produced many years later by Ernaux and her son, captures the early inner struggles of a woman, as she says, tormented by the need to write of her life, to become what she would later call an ethnologist of myself.

Annie Ernaux, Nobel Prize in Literature Winner (through translator): I truly hoped to transmit an individual personal experience, but in such a way that it would be received by others.

It was really that desire that motivated me to write. To be an ethnologist of myself means to speak from my being, from my experience, but looking at it from a great distance, approaching it from the exterior of myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Many books later, Ernaux would win literature's biggest prize.

Speaker: The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 is awarded to the French author Annie Ernaux.

Jeffrey Brown: Soon after the announcement, Ernaux, now 82 and living outside Paris, came to New York.

We spoke at the office of her longtime U.S. publisher, Seven Stories Press, and I asked about mining the past, and a line that begins "The Years," one of her best-known books. "All the images," she writes, "will disappear."

Annie Ernaux (through translator): I do think that, in each of us, images disappear when we die. And perhaps that's what made me write, to think of this moment when all the images I have seen would disappear, this feeling of the loss of things.

But I also think that the true reality of the world is forgetting. We forget a great deal, from a collective perspective. For instance, we're always surprised when war arises again, as we are seeing now. So, it's more a question of forgetting than of memory. And to write is to fight forgetting.

Jeffrey Brown: In some 23 volumes, 16 of them translated and published in English, she's written one woman's story, a woman who is both her and not her. She's been described as genre-defying, her books not quite novels, but not traditional memoirs.

Annie Ernaux (through translator): I don't try to define myself in terms of a genre. For me, the most important thing is to find the form of the writing that fits with what I'm writing. So, to me, the right term is writer.

Jeffrey Brown: One constant theme, her working-class roots in Normandy, where her parents ran a grocery, far outside France's traditional literary culture, her move through education and writing into a more intellectual world, and the distance that created from her family and within herself..

Annie Ernaux (through translator): I remain divided between two world's. Writing is the place where, with these tools I have acquired, I see the world, but always from the world of my youth, which I never could erase, what the writer Albert Camus called "The First Man."

Well, there is the first woman in me, which means that I will always write from that separate place.

Jeffrey Brown: Has it been important to you as a woman to tell stories that perhaps are less told?

Annie Ernaux (through translator): It's obvious that these stories haven't been told, especially because they haven't been told in the way I wanted them to be told.

Jeffrey Brown: Without sentimentality, but with finely crafted language and probing honesty, always working from memory, she's written of deeply personal and traumatic experiences. In "Happening," first published in 2000 and recently turned into a feature film...

Speaker (through translator): Does it hurt?

Speaker (through translator): Yes, the whole procedure.

Jeffrey Brown: ... she looks back to a 1963 pregnancy and abortion, an almost barbaric procedure that nearly killed her, at a time when abortion was still illegal in France.

The story, she knows, has a new relevance.

Annie Ernaux (through translator): It is a problem that wasn't ultimately resolved. I think my book "Happening" reveals the savagery of abortion for women when it is banned. But those things are forgotten.

Jeffrey Brown: Are you surprised that what you experienced so long ago and then wrote about could perhaps be with us again?

Annie Ernaux (through translator): Above all, I'm horrified and outraged that this could happen again. At the same time, I think that there is something about the power of women to bring children into the world that men wanted to appropriate and once again want to appropriate.

Jeffrey Brown: Sometimes, in the books, you seem to be trying to understand what you're writing.

At the end of "A Woman's Story," you write; "This isn't a biography. Neither is it a novel, maybe a cross between literature, sociology and history."

Annie Ernaux (through translator): The sentences that you quoted from "A Woman's Story," the book about my mother, were indeed about trying to situate myself in relationship to what I'd just written.

It's work to write. And I want the reader to understand that I'm asking myself questions. For me, to write is to go looking for what I don't even know myself before I write it.

Jeffrey Brown: In her Nobel lecture, Annie Ernaux spoke of her hope that her work can -- quote -- "shatter the loneliness of experiences endured and repressed and enable beings to reimagine themselves."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

Judy Woodruff: And we celebrate her, along with the many others who do.

And thank you, Jeffrey.

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