By Toby Smollett, Niina Bailey and Amy Strong
Background and Influences
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 in France into a working-class family. She studied to become a teacher and earned a degree in modern literature. Throughout her career, she has published dozens of books, most of which have been translated into English.
Ernaux published her first book Cleaned Out (Les Armoires Vides) in 1974. It is an autobiographical novel detailing the illegal abortion she had in 1964. Autobiography is a substantial mark of her literary career as most of her work is autobiographical. Ernaux started out by publishing three autobiographical novels, which were fictionalised, (Cleaned Out, Do What They Say or Else, A Frozen Woman) but shifted away from fiction with A Man’s Place (La Place) in 1983. It focuses on her relationship with her father and her childhood in a small town in France.
Ernaux is an acclaimed author and has won several book awards. She draws inspiration from her own life but combines that with history. The Years (Les Années) is widely considered to be her best work. It is a historical memoir written in third person, a first for Ernaux. It details a changing society in France from after the Second World War to the early 2000s. Ernaux is still writing today at the age of eighty two and she has just published a new book this year, Le jeune homme.
Cleaned Out by Annie Ernaux. Translated by Carol Sanders. Published in 1974 by Dalkey Archive Press.
Annie Ernaux’s debut novel Cleaned Out, published in 1974, is a semi-autobiographical story. Distinct similarities can be perceived between its protagonist, Denise, and Ernaux herself, from having shop-owning parents, to attending Catholic private school, to studying literature at university.
Cleaned Out opens with Denise recalling a backstreet abortion she has recently undergone and from which she is still recovering. Alone in her room at university, she attempts to understand her present reality by reflecting back on her life so far, her childhood and her upbringing. Denise distils her life up until this moment into three stages: “First I was the storekeeper’s daughter… Then a great big lump wearing socks on Sundays, the scholarship student. Then screwed up by a back-street abortionist, and that might be the end of it.”
In this debut novel, Ernaux can be seen exploring for the first-time themes that will become staples of her later work, such as family, womanhood, sexuality, education, and social class. In particular, Cleaned Out examines the feeling of not belonging to a social class. Through academic success, Denise finds herself moving up social classes, but this brings complicated emotions with it. She begins to feel ashamed of her background, but also resentful towards those with privilege: “I didn’t always hate my parents, the customers, the store… I hate the others too now, those with education, the professors, the respectable people.” An unromanticised and honest coming-of-age story, Cleaned Out exemplifies the raw and candid nature of Ernaux’s writing which would one day earn her the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Years by Annie Ernaux. Translated by Alison L. Strayer. Published in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
If every Nobel Laureate has their definitive work (Paradise for Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Stranger for Albert Camus, The Golden Notebook for Doris Lessing), then Annie’s Ernaux iconic work would be, unequivocally, The Years.
A memoir unlike most others, this jumps between dreams and reality, and is less a memoir of a person than of eras. This autobiography is not told through the “I,” but rather through the “we” (in the original French, the pronoun “on” was used – it’s closest equivalent in English is “one.”) In this sense, it is highly reminiscent of Monique Wittig’s L’Opoponax, but rather than focusing on the universal to shatter gendered pronouns and attack the straight mind, this universality is much wider. The scope of The Years means it is often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and this comparison is not without merit. The Years is a story of epochs, covering technological and linguistic developments over sixty five years.
This is, ultimately, not a facile work. The story/ies told is/are complex, the narrative is unstable and worms its way between realms. The reward, however, is immense. This section on The Years began by calling it a definitive Ernaux work; this was underselling it. This is a definitive work of literature by a truly great author at the height of her powers. Annie Ernaux’s newfound status as a Nobel Laureate is the perfect reason to acquaint yourself with this incredibly powerful memoir, rich with social commentary.