Nobel Prize in Literature Annie Ernaux: “I’m a woman who writes”

The recently crowned winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Annie Ernaux on the past, social advancement and writing as a process of reflection.

Annie Ernaux, 2020, at her home

taz: Madame Ernaux, fame came to you late as a writer. But what made you start writing in the first place?

Annie Ernaux: I developed my desire and interest in writing early on, at the age of 20. A few years later I wrote my first book, which I finished, but never published.

The fact that I continued to write ten years later and actually published my first novel had a lot to do with the fact that I was thinking more and more about my own life. I had changed social class, suddenly I was no longer the girl from a humble background, but a well-dressed teacher with a husband and a neat home. I wanted to reflect on exactly how it came about and what it actually meant. And I did that by writing it down.

In your work you repeatedly deal with your autobiography, with memories and diaries. Does dealing with your own past sometimes make you wistful?

No, I don’t get sentimental or emotional when I think about events that happened so far back. Not even when I last saw all my family’s old Super 8 recordings again, from which my son David and I made the film “Les années Super 8”. The distance is simply too great, after all, an incredible amount of time has passed since then.

But it is precisely this distance that allows me, of course, to transform and condense my memories into a narrative. The focus is then on a woman who I once was but am no longer, and that in a context that is different from my current one. That’s important, that distance has to be there. I probably wouldn’t be able to write about things that were only ten years ago.

Said movie consists only of these old recordings, for which you wrote a text. Did you see this as a kind of continuation of your literary work?

It was sort of both an extension of what I’ve always done and something completely different. Of course, I worked with my life memories again for the film, just as I did for my books.

At the same time, of course, I have a lot more freedom in literature, whereas when I was writing the text for the film I was tied to the images. It was unusual to have such a requirement, which brought with it certain limitations. Even if, of course, I have repeatedly tried to take the Super 8 film recordings as a starting point in order to develop thoughts beyond that and to create larger contexts.

But the text was created like your other works?

Yes. I was completely free and independent there, there were no guidelines from my son as to which topics I should undertake. Of course, I knew what we were filming back then, and it was also clear how long the film should be.

Everything else was up to me, and that’s the only way I can work. Our travels, for example to Albania or Chile, our everyday life, but also being a woman in France in the seventies, all of this flowed into the text for the film, which also made me think of my book “The Years” again and again, in which this time had already taken up a lot of space.

Have you ever been interested in the medium of film?

As a viewer, of course, and I would say that New Wave cinema certainly had an influence on how and why I started to write. Even more so than the Nouveau Roman, the movement that changed a lot in French literature from the mid-1950s. But as an artist?

no I am a woman who writes. That’s enough for me. When I write, I work with my own inner images, with the images from my memory. Writing for the cinema, the process of writing a screenplay, has never interested me.

Do you sometimes long for the past?

Not really, because I live in the now, and as much as yesterday and tomorrow are a part of the present, the moment is important. But when I think back to the 1970s, the difference to today is like day and night. Today there is a hopelessness that I could never have imagined before. At that time we thought that the whole world was actually open to us and that there were no limits, that we could change everything and everything would get better. Even when it comes to politics.

The world, nature, everything was initially our playground. Until it became clear quite early on that the resources are not endless and that our freedom is not unlimited either. So I understand where today’s hopelessness comes from. But I still wish very much that it is just a phase that will pass. What tomorrow will bring is impossible to predict, so why not be a little hopeful.

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