Nobel Prize Winner Annie Ernaux Speaks on How Class Shapes Her Writing
- David Broder
This week, French writer Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview, she explains how her class background and the reality of class divides shape her writing.
- Interview by
- Manuel Cervera-Marzal
This week the French writer Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Hailing from a working-class family in Normandy, Ernaux is known for her works of “autosociobiography” such as The Years, in which the struggles of her own background are connected to a wider canvas of postwar French life.
In this interview with Manuel Cervera-Marzal, Ernaux spoke about the barriers working-class writers face, the sociological influences on her thought, and how writing about individual experience can express the violence of class domination.
Your literary studies and your success in the teaching exams offered you an escape from the circumstances you grew up in. But these circumstances remain a decisive factor in your writing. Do you think that your family’s working-class background drove you to write differently than writers from more privileged families?
I’ll make one first observation. Your question basically indicates, by way of implication, that the writer from a working-class background is de facto in a different situation, that is, the situation of the dominated. You probably would not ask the same question of a writer from a bourgeois background. They are in the majority, but they are never asked: “Did your family background make you write differently?” I’ll add that writers of the same origin as me, whom I know, would refuse to answer your question because they don’t want to appear as writers different from the others.
After this preliminary remark — meaning, in a way, that I don’t want to be duped by the complicated situation in which the class defector finds herself — I can answer your question because I am well aware in what space I am situated. So: I don’t know if I was “driven to write differently.” What is for sure is that at first I was not aware of it. It came from the moment my first book Les Armoires vides was published, but not while I was writing it. This is an important nuance. Back then, I knew that what I was writing was rather atypical, but I didn’t pose myself the question of the writing itself or the trace, in my writing, of my working-class background. When I wrote this book, I didn’t know if I would be published. So, it was after the book was published that I got associated with a different way of writing — a violent one, the critics said. Then I totally embraced this way of writing with the book La Place, in which I refuse fiction.
In your interviews with the director Michelle Porte, you confide: “I have never thought, ‘I am a woman who writes.’ I am not a woman who writes; I am someone who writes.” Would you say the same about the social background you come from? In the writer you have become, is there anything left of your peasant grandparents and your working-class parents who became shopkeepers?
These are two questions that come up. I have always answered that being a woman was not the issue. Of course, the social condition and the condition of being a woman — I speak not of an “essence” but of a “condition” — can both be sensed in what I write, and they have shaped me. I can’t cross them off and say they are irrelevant. In my relationship to the world, first of all, there remains something of my peasant grandparents and my worker parents. For example, the fear of not having enough money to live on and not having to rely on anyone to provide it. A general mistrust of others, the powerful but not only them — I don’t know if it’s specific to Normandy, where I come from — and a social pessimism. Something of these fears, of this distrust, passes into the writing, into the coldness of the analysis. The fear of going without played a role in my choice to never quit my teaching work.
Because of the stability it represents?
Yes. I had two children to bring up by myself. And I had another fear — that of being obliged to write.
Being a teacher meant that you didn’t have to write to support yourself, that you were free to write whenever you felt like it?
That’s right. The idea that you have to turn in a manuscript every year or two terrifies me. I felt very quickly that I couldn’t accept this constraint, that I needed time for a text to mature, for it to be written. So, if I made writing my profession, the only one, I would necessarily want my books to sell. It seems to me that this desire, this material necessity, obscurely puts conditions on what one writes, taints it. This may not be the case for everyone, I don’t know.
It is often said that your work is a powerful testimony to reality, that it offers readers a sharp perspective on the violence of social classes and male domination. But for you, as an author, isn’t writing instead a way to escape from reality, to tear yourself away from the assignment of gender and class roles?
No, it is not a way to escape from reality. On the contrary, it is always an immersion in reality. But it is true that it is, at the same time, as for any writer, a way to tear oneself away from gender and class assignments. But the reception by critics often drags me back to it, in an insidious way. I am very struck at the moment by what is said about Édouard Louis, all the interviews drag him back to “you are a UFO!” Somehow, he isn’t legitimate. Louis tells me that he is devastated, unloved, and I answer him “but you will never be loved.” He wasn’t admitted. As Pierre Bourdieu would have said: “Where is his entry ticket?” By writing, you appropriate this legitimacy, but it can be questioned at any moment. For a long time, I had to specify that I had a postgraduate teaching diploma. That provided legitimacy. “She’s one of us,” they thought.
It’s perhaps even more complicated with the assignment of gender roles, because it crosses all social classes and is a component of the sexist reception of literature. This can be seen, for example, in the selection of books for prizes, where men are sometimes the only ones present! When Passion simple was published, I was attacked as a woman who writes in a supposedly “unfeminine” way, but also, cryptically, as the class defector who had written La Place.
La Honte (Shame), which you published in 1997, opens with this traumatic scene — “My father wanted to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon” — and concludes with this confession — “I have always wanted to write books which it would then be impossible for me to speak about, which would make others’ gaze unbearable.” How is shame a driving force in the desire to write?
The sentence you quote continues: “But what shame could I get from writing a book at the level of what I experienced in my twelfth year?” This is a process — the desire for shame, but also the impossibility that the written shame could be equal to the real shame — which I have confirmed with many of my books, including the next one, Mémoire de fille (A Girl’s Story). Each time I am prey to an illusion: it is before the writing, when I am planning it, that there is shame. Then I do the book, somehow I am obliged to do it, and there is no shame in the writing of it. I always think I’m going to die of shame when it comes out, but nothing ever happens. I have never died of shame because, precisely, writing is not life. Shame is a driving force in the desire to write, but it does not correspond to shame as it fills you, as it acts and remains, despite everything, after writing. It remains inerasable, but having been written, it is as if dissolved, shared with others, in a way. I write shame with the idea that it will find even one person to understand it. That’s the feeling that drives me. In my first book, Les Armoires vides, I had no shame to overcome in writing it because I didn’t know if it would be published. That changes everything. When two publishers accepted the manuscript, I was devastated, suddenly realizing what I had written. La Place was a turning point, because for the first time I embraced an “I” outside of fiction, and I never went back on that, as I decided to confront reality — and thus, in a sense, shame — head-on.
You mentioned Édouard Louis. In 2014, the publication of his The End of Eddy resurrected the debate between miserabilism and populism, between those who treat the dominated as victims and those who consider them heroes. Are we condemned to walk a tightrope between these two pitfalls? Can we find the right tone to talk about workers?
This will always remain an open question. The thread between the two pitfalls is extremely tenuous. The End of Eddy raised this question, but the problem is not in this work itself. If Louis had written the same thing about people who were not his parents, the reception would have been different. That’s what he’s being criticized for, what he said about his family. I had the same experience with Les Armoires vides. This type of criticism came in particular from communist newspapers: “She is attacking the very people who allowed her to study.” So, can we find the right tone? It has been said that I found it when I spoke about my father in La Place, but I’m not sure I got it right. Maybe later they’ll find I didn’t have it right. It depends on the era in which the judgement is made.
During the writing process, do you take into account the potential accusations of miserabilism? Do you think about the right way to talk about workers, or is that just a question that society imposes on you, that comes from outside?
It’s not a small question. . . . I situate my writing in the present, in relation to my time. I am obliged to take into account the beliefs of my era, to situate myself in relation to them. I do that more or less consciously. It’s not the first thing I think about when I write, but it’s there, implicitly. In [A Girl’s Story] I write about the late 1950s and the present. Between the two, society has undergone a total sexual revolution. What is expected of girls, of women, has completely changed. I couldn’t help but reflect on this, and I clearly address this issue at various points in the book. In Regarde les lumières mon amour, I talk a lot about veiled women in order to change the reader’s view on them, in the context of a French society that is currently very hostile to them. So, in my writing there is always this present-day aspect.
Your work gives a certain dignity to phenomena which are usually ignored by literature, such as abortion, domestic violence, the anonymous crowds on public transport, and supermarket customers. This way of undermining literary hierarchies seems to have a political significance. How do you see the relationship between literature and political engagement?
When I was twenty years old, I imagined writing, I spoke of writing, “to avenge my kind” — it was already something political, but in a misunderstood, very naive way. I thought that if a worker’s daughter wrote a novel, whatever it is like, then this makes it a political act. I didn’t see that, in a way, this reinforces cultural hierarchies. But ten years later, when I wrote Les Armoires vides, I sought to unveil how educational institutions participate in the dominant world and tear the children of the dominated classes from their world of origin. At that same moment, I became a teacher, and I felt all the cultural violence that is done to these children in school. With this first book, I was writing politically, that is to say, questioning what we live and see. I cannot conceive of writing that does not engage me and the reader at the same time.
Your Regarde les lumières mon amour is a diary of your visits to the Trois-Fontaines shopping center in Cergy, a new town northwest of Paris. Where did you get the idea to write about the superstore?
The big superstores are places that fascinate me. Perhaps it comes from my childhood, from a familiarity with what my parents, grocers, called “the clientele”, and which for me was a community of people, with their stories, with their oft-meager financial means. And also, a certain familiarity with the “merchandise” that filled all the space, or almost all the space, of the house with things. Hence a perspective — charged with childhood memory — on the commercial spaces whose transformation I have lived through, from the 1960s to today, from the small self-service store to the superstore several thousand square meters in area. I really consider them as places of memory and places of life. That’s where the political commitment comes in: to refuse the bourgeois-bohemian and elitist imaginary that denigrates the superstores, that doesn’t find them interesting. Their target is not this object itself; it is the crowd that disturbs them, the people they meet — the close, promiscuous contact. In Paris, there are mostly smaller supermarkets, such as Monoprix, which, having once embodied the lower end of the market, are now very chic. The superstore is a reality in the provinces and the suburbs. This book [Regarde les lumières mon amour] is, of course, an ancillary work, as prompted by Pierre Rosanvallon, but it has the sense of a political reaction to a contemptuous imaginary, of a rehabilitation of a space frequented by all social classes. I don’t know if I necessarily succeeded. But it has been read a lot.
During a scene in front of the fish stall of an Auchan superstore, you write: “A black woman in a long flowery dress stops in front of it, hesitates, goes away again.” In the very next paragraph, you admit that you hesitated to specify her skin color. What do you think this type of dilemma tells us?
If I had been shopping in a superstore in Bamako, a Malian writer would have described me as “a white woman.” So, I decided to write the skin color of this woman. But it’s complicated, because the two situations are not completely identical. In the present-day superstore — in 2012 [in this book] — in the context of the time, which has become even harder since then, people will immediately answer: “Ah, but obviously, in such places, there are only immigrants or descendants of immigrants.” Whereas in fact there are people from a Caribbean background, so French people. But this is racism. In 1989 in an Auchan, a rather elderly woman said out loud of a young black woman, “She should go back to her own country.” My reaction — “But Madame, she may be French!” — seemed to leave her stunned, or incredulous. You see, these things are not new. In this context, I also spoke about women who wear a veil, not because they are so many in number, but to introduce the legitimacy of their choice. To ask to remove it is a resurgence of colonialism. Strangely, literary critics have carefully avoided mentioning this aspect of the book. In fact, there is something of a trap in describing the multiethnic reality of society today, whether or not you mention a person’s skin color. This is symptomatic of the worrying turn France is taking.
Your books have an unmistakable sociological dimension. You put your own intimate existence in service of unveiling more general collective mechanisms. How do you conceive the articulation between subjectivity and society? How do you ensure that the “I” does not encroach on the “we,” and vice versa?
I think that this is a question of the posture one takes, of distance. It means considering that what happens to me — what has happened to me — is likely to be situated sociologically, historically, even as I start out from the personal, perceptual element, that makes me write things. It means getting out of the singular, in every sense of the word. Perhaps it is easier for class defectors, who have lived in one world and then in another — for them, more than others, their identity is in question. Even in a field as intimate as passion, I could not write other than in a clinical way, observing what I do and experience as if it were done and experienced by someone else.
In 1972, reading Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron’s book The Inheritors made a strong impression on you. After several years of inactivity, you felt “authorized” to write again. You began a long postponed literary project, which resulted two years later in the publication of Les Armoires vides. At the beginning, there is thus an influence of sociology on literature. Forty years later, the relationship has been inverted: sociologists are devoting their research to the work and life of Annie Ernaux. Does this inspire you?
I am happy about it. In a way, it was logical that what came from sociology should return to it, but in another way — incarnated, if I may put it like that, in the diversity and texture of a singular life, and in the form of a felt truth. My texts are not demonstrations of the accuracy of the sociology of domination, but they bring to it elements drawn from personal experience.
Some people interviewed in research projects have a violent feeling of being “objectified” under the sociologist’s pen. In an extreme case, some say that the sociologist has treated them like “lab mice” . . .
Yes, in this respect the advantage of the writer over the sociologist is that her readers are free to recognize themselves, or not, in her book. The recognition can however be violent. Several readers of my books have told me that they couldn’t sleep, that they were shaken up. But, for them, it was very liberating. And I believe that this is the advantage of literary works: you can accept what is being narrated, because it is another person who is narrating herself, who is getting to the bottom of things. The analysis does not go through [the reader] but through someone else. So, there isn’t this same objectification. This is the advantage of my books over purely sociological works.
Is this kind of testimony — “I didn’t sleep all night — and, at the same time, what a relief to read this” — the most gratifying thing for a writer?
Of course it’s the most powerful. It’s proof that literature is not useless. You know, it’s hard to write. So, to see that it is useful to something, to someone, is important. That sense of usefulness means a lot to me. I was very much influenced by my mother, whose credo was always “be useful.” For my mother, women at home, especially middle-class women, represented uselessness par excellence. I was raised with a kind of mystique of work. It is something that has never left me. In this respect, the testimonies of the readers, who show that my work has been useful to them, are essential. These kinds of letters move me a lot. It’s something quite new to you: someone you don’t know writing to you that your book has changed their life. . . . I have read testimonies from Japanese readers — translated for me, of course — who said they recognized themselves in La Place and Une Femme, and in Passion simple too. It was a great surprise and a great gratification.
Class defectors often experience a situation that is described as difficult, even painful: they feel out of place in their new environment and that they were more in place in their original environment. Does this dislocation give them a privileged view of the world, a particular social intelligence?
Yes, they often have a more acute and distanced view of the social world. But they must also embrace their situation as a class defector, and first of all they must be aware of it and not be in denial. Otherwise, one remains left with feelings, emotions: shame for example, self-denigration, or, conversely, the overvaluation of one’s individual merit. There is a sentence by Jean-Paul Sartre in The Search for Method that seems to me to define this class defector who is not aware of his situation: “In a world of alienation, the individual victor does not recognize himself in his own victory.”
The philosopher Chantal Jaquet advanced the term “transclass,” which is less stigmatizing than “defector,” with its connotation of deliberate treachery. This connotation bothered me, thirty years ago, when I had to explain what a class defector was, because this sociological notion had not yet penetrated wider society. I was forced to point out that it’s not like you decide one morning to escape your social class; that this is accomplished through processes — success in studies, the company of people from a higher social class, etc. — which, to a large extent, do not depend on individual decision and responsibility. So, I think this shift in vocabulary is quite legitimate. That said, even before I knew the word “defector,” which a sociologist taught me, I felt my passage from the working-class world to the petty-bourgeois world in terms of betrayal. I formulated this by choosing, as an epigraph for La Place, this sentence by Jean Genet: “I hazard an explanation: writing is the last resort when one has betrayed.”
Is writing about the working class a way of preserving a link with those you have left behind, of making up for the feeling of betrayal? Can we interpret your books as a contribution to the collective memory of, in the words of Saint-Simon, “the most numerous and poorest class”?
There is all this in my writing, I think. To reestablish a link that I began to refuse in my adolescence — hating, for example, that my mother openly flaunted to the head of the boarding school the fact that she had been a worker through her whole youth, “You know, Sister, I’m not ashamed of it!” And I thought, inside: “But she doesn’t need to say that,” as if she were admitting her inferiority, in spite of herself. To write is precisely to give myself the right, not only to say that, but also to denounce the hierarchies, the cultural domination that implicitly put a working woman at the bottom of the social scale. It is to want to turn social indignity into dignity, to give justice to the dominated.
When you were about twenty, you wrote on a notebook page: “I will write to avenge my kind,” to do justice to the suffering of the dominated. Did writing manage to quell this need for revenge?
No, that would mean that there is no more social suffering to avenge, or that I consider I have “done enough” by writing a few books. I remain inhabited by anger and, it must be said, impotence, in front of the chasm that separates whole population categories and the absence of a political solution to this. What I want to say is that, of all the options available to me, for how to make use of my life, writing is, it seems to me, the most extensive thing I could do, reaching beyond the singular and the familial. It means being the chronicler of a history doomed to indifference and oblivion.
No doubt, when I was a high school and college teacher, I considered that I was standing, if not at the origin of inequalities, at least at the site of their reproduction, and that there was a struggle to be waged there. I never gave prestigious classes in “well-reputed” schools in the city center, but always technical classes in schools on the outskirts of medium-sized cities, and I was aware of the difficulties involved in acquiring a language and codes that were not those of their environment, as I had experienced myself.
But nothing seemed able — it still doesn’t seem possible — to shake this selection system, which produced little more than one or two “miracles” per class. I would say that, in a way, I displaced in writing what I could not do as a teacher, that I would not have written the books I wrote, and as I wrote them — Les Armoires vides especially — if I had not been a literature teacher in those classes.
In La Place, you say that your father’s death was a triggering event that gave you the desire to write about your life, his life, and “the distance that came between him and me, as an adolescent.” Writing is, then, a way of examining the gap that developed with your family. But isn’t it also a way to open up this gap?
If we are talking about the real gap with my family members, writing did not widen it. Quite the contrary, in that they felt that something was being repaired in their lives, that their existence was being recognized in a book. The gap between us opened up early on, from the moment I was the one who didn’t “get my school-leaving certificate” but continued studying — the gap that we all felt, and I was the first, between the manual and the intellectual. But my family — my extended family — was aware of this gap before I was. I was very close to a cousin who was three years older than me and who, after her school-leaving certificate, became a shorthand typist, which was a highly esteemed occupation compared to the blue-collar condition.
One day — I was in the eighth or ninth grade — she said to me: “You are going to continue your studies and we won’t talk anymore.” I was stunned: “What are you talking about?” Ultimately, she was right. We had less and less in common. Back then, as we both wanted to share our likes with each other, she made me read a story that had moved her to tears. I felt only boredom. On the other hand, I had given her a novel that I had liked and which touched me enormously, by an Englishwoman, Marghanita Laski, Little Boy Lost. She hated it. At that time, I was not aware that our tastes were already induced by a difference in schooling and that — as I confirmed when I reread this novel a few years ago — I could be sensitive to its literary force. We gradually stopped seeing each other. She got married and I went to university.
For my folks, the fact that I write books only confirms the gap created by my studies. For them, all this refers to the same universe, which is not their own, and towards which there is a great ignorance. We need an example. After I received the Renaudot Prize and was on “Apostrophes” [a talk show hosted by Bernard Pivot], another of my cousins who was a geriatric nurse said to me: “Oh, you must know a lot of people! You see Collaro?” Stéphane Collaro was the creator of the “Bébête show”, an entertainer who had nothing to do with Pivot. But for my cousin, Collaro and I were from one same “other world.” Today, there are a few other class defector — or transclass — relatives, second cousins. With them, I share a kind of double bond.
By becoming a writer, you forced your mother to admire you. Did this also introduce a kind of jealousy or resentment into your relationship, in the sense that you fulfilled a dream that was always unattainable for her?
Regardless of the cultural difference, there was a lot of violence and at the same time connivance between my mother and me. Throughout her life, until her Alzheimer’s, we fought.
We probably had a lot in common. Writing books was indeed a dream for her, which she confessed to me, almost blushing, when I was twenty-two and I told her that I had sent a manuscript to a publisher: “I would have liked it too, if I had been able to.” To write. But she had left school at thirteen. That said, I never sensed, nor did I suspect, any jealousy or resentment in her about my writing. Quite the contrary. The dominant thing was pride, and pride came from a certainty that it was thanks to her, to her education — encouraging my studies, my taste for reading, not raising me for marriage — that I had become a writer. I believe that the conflict was elsewhere, that it was of an oedipal nature, as I perceived it in the reaction of my mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s — an antisocial disease, where everything gets out of hand — when a nurse told her that I had received a great literary prize, the Renaudot Prize.
I’ll quote what she said, as reported by the nurse: “She has always had a way with words! But you shouldn’t tell her father, he was always at her knees!” It is important to know that at that point, it had been seventeen years since my father had died. My mother was a very exclusive, possessive woman and she must have thought that he loved me too much, that he let me do anything.
Your mother had a kind of devotion to books, which she never picked up without washing her hands first. Your father, on the other hand, said that books were good for you but that he “didn’t need them to live.” What is your own relationship to this singular object?
For me, the library has always been the symbol of the educated class. Books, as soon as I could read, were the object of an almost unquenchable desire. Until the age of eighteen, this desire was difficult to satisfy because books were expensive and we didn’t dare to go to the public library — which was only open, to tell the truth, two hours a week! It was not a place for us. There were still bookstores, where my mother took me very early on. She gave me books whenever she could.
As I explain in Les Armoires vides, I lived in books. They were a great source of knowledge and probably gave me this famous way with words. In fact, this was a way with the written word, not with speech: for a long time I spoke like everyone else around me, while I tried to write like in books, and the words in books seemed wonderful to me. With a certain cruelty and a lot of self-importance, I sometimes used some of these words that I was sure the girls in my class or, worse, my father, would not understand.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that my life became mixed up very early on — in both reality and in my imagination — with books in general. But, precisely because of this familiarity, I don’t think I ever had the same attitude of reverence toward them that my mother did, even if for a long time I forced myself to read a book I started to the end, driven by the hope that I would eventually find interest in it and also by a respect for the work of writing. Today, no. I don’t have that unconditional respect anymore. I’ll abandon without hesitation a book — often a novel — that I think took a lot of presumption on the part of its author to write, and weakness on the part of its publisher to publish. But at twenty, I must have had the same presumption . . .
My father’s attitude was diametrically opposed to my mother’s. He ticked off my mother for reading novels — “even at your age,” he said. I remember his protests, referring to me, “she is too much into books!” He often said, “books are not reality,” or “it’s not real.” I think that these words have marked me a lot. Maybe I wanted to write to show my father that this is reality. Maybe I want the writing to be the reality.
Are your books annotated, scratched, or do you take as much care of them as your mother?
Not as much, but I annotate my books with a pencil, which fades away. I don’t like stained books or fingerprints on the cover. That’s why I’m reluctant to lend my books out, except to people who are used to taking care of them. I don’t understand why anyone would dare to return a dirty book. So, I maintain a form of respect for this object. Above all, I attach so much value to what a book is, that I am able to throw one away when its content disgusts me. It’s a symbolic gesture: it won’t change anything about its circulation, but I don’t want to keep this book at home, to become its unwitting courier.
So, I recently threw away Gabriel Matzneff’s last book, his Journal. A few years ago, I repurchased online a novel I had read as a child at my mother’s house, called La petite reine de l’impasse au Coq, published in a Catholic book series, which I had liked very much. It was the story of a little girl from a working-class background and I identified with her a lot. I remembered one detail: just like me, she made caramel with sugar in a spoon, set on the stove. When I reread it, I was amazed to realize that this text from the 1930s was chock full of antisemitism from start to finish. I threw it in the garbage — not the recycling, by the way! I did that with an anger and an upset that I’d attribute to the feeling that as a child I’d loved a story whose ideology it was impossible for me to perceive at the time. Like when you learn that the object of your love is despicable.