Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in December 2022, “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.” Born in 1940 to a humble family in provincial France, Ernaux bears witness to key experiences and preoccupations of her generation, class, and gender in the numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, and through the political stances that have punctuated her almost 50-year career: her writing scrutinises the manifestations and interiorisation of social determinism and symbolic violence, the hurdles that thwart upward social mobility, women’s alienation within the domestic sphere, the stark realities of illegal abortion, the limits of consent, the gaze that a disease or female sexual desire may elicit in Western society, and contemporary places and sites of consumption, such as new towns and superstores. Ernaux sheds light on these realities in her early autobiographical novels and later autosociobiographical récits and diaries. As a public figure, she has also regularly taken sides in urgent contemporary debates through interviews, petitions, and open letters. Over the past five years, these interventions have concerned the #metoo movement, the Islamic headscarf debate in France, the ‘yellow vests’ protests, the contemporary rise of the extreme right, the way in which Emmanuel Macron has managed public services, the Covid pandemic and his pension reform, and, on the international stage, the Israeli government’s policy in the Occupied Territories and the treatment of women by the Iranian state authorities in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death in custody in September 2022.
While the specific paradigm of ‘engagement’ in Ernaux was the subject of a colloquium organised in Cergy-Pontoise nearly ten years ago and while, over the last decade, critics have often focused on the sociological dimension of her work, the many forms taken by the political in her writing, and notably her more recent production, call for renewed academic scrutiny. This conference aims to focus on this multidimensional interface of writing and the political in Ernaux by analysing the commitment of her texts to some of the above socio-political questions as well as more oblique ways in which politics manifests itself in what she terms ‘writing life’. It will also interrogate her crafting of forms that convey individual and collective experiences of the polis from within and the critique – if not the contestation – of literature that may emanate from Ernaux’s representations of domination. Lastly, it will consider her participation in national and international political debates through non-literary texts over the past 10 years and her multi-layered identity as an innovative author, a ‘transfuge de classe’, an outspoken feminist, and a left-wing intellectual now having achieved global recognition through the Nobel Prize.
Aurélie Adler (Université de Picardie), Carole Bourne-Taylor (University of Oxford), Raissa Furlanetto Cardoso (University of Bologna/Tours), Maryline Heck (Université de Tours), Élise Hugueny-Léger (University of St Andrews/CY-Cergy Paris Université 2022-23), Ann Jefferson (University of Oxford), Shirley Jordan (Newcastle University), Simon Kemp (University of Oxford), Lyn Thomas (University of Sussex)
In a keynote lecture entitled ‘Returning to Oxford with Annie Ernaux: Casting Light on Class Migrant Experience’, Lyn Thomas (the author of the first study in English on Annie Ernaux, Annie Ernaux, an introduction to to the writer and her audience, 1999, and alumna of St Hugh’s College) reflected on her own experience of class mobility through education and through the reading of Annie Ernaux’s works.
The programme of the colloquium is available here. On the occasion of this event, a bilingual exhibition entitled ‘Annie Ernaux, Nobel Laureate: Class, Gender and Life-writing’ is organised at St Hugh’s College library, until 8 November 2023 (free and open to all).