The Birdcage Archives

Sunday, 9 October 2022

Post-Nobel Prize in Literature 2022 Thoughts

Hello Gentle Reader,

This years Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the French writer, Annie Ernaux, who the Swedish Academy praised:

“for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

Subsequently, Ernaux is the first female French writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and is also the 17th women to receive the Literature Prize since it was originally awarded in 1901.

Once again, this year’s announcement followed the same formula that has been in place since the announcement in 2019 for the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize(s) for Literature. First, at the chiming bell of 1:00 ‘O’clock (CET), those white and gold accent doors of the Swedish Academy open into a beautiful ballroom—where at long last—a full house of journalists wait for the announcement. With the chime, out comes the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Mats Malm, who stands behind his barricade, rattles off the standard welcome before announcing this years Nobel Laureate. Unlike last year, when Mats Malm announced the laureate as Abdulrazak Gurnah in mumbled and hushed tones, which made it difficult to make out; this year’s enunciation was clear and concise, Annie Ernaux could be easily understood in Swedish, while waiting for the citation details in English. After the quick announcement, once again, Mats Malm bowed out, while Anders Olsson and Ellen Mattson, Chairman and member of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee, came through the doors, to once again deliver a dry sermon and brief overview of Annie Ernaux’s life and work, and take questions from the assembled journalists, while Mats Malm lurked in background.

I am not entirely sure what role the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy holds now, or what function it performs. Obviously in previous years and decades, the Permanent Secretary announced the years Laureate along with their citation, afterwards answering questions from journalists. The current format has divided these functions between the Permanent Secretary and the Chairman of the Swedish Academy’s internal Nobel Committee. At risk of sounding like a broken record: this current format doesn’t work very well. It convolutes matters; its tightly orchestrated, controlled, and scripted; in addition to being rather unceremonious—even boring. If the Permanent Secretary’s role is to fulfill the public relations role of the Swedish Academy, among other administrative tasks (I presume), then the role should be provided the agency to fulfill those obligations. Dividing functions to other members of the academy, specifically one in this repeated instance, muddies the waters continually. I don’t find either Mats Malm or Anders Olsson particularly warm or ‘cozy,’ individuals (and there is nothing wrong with that), however, the current fashion in which the news is being delivered does take the excitement out of the atmosphere. All the anticipation, all the eagerness, deflates when the award announcement becomes increasingly formal, orchestrated, scripted, and controlled in scope. There is no cheering or applause, just silence. The changing of the guard, however, between Mats Malm and Anders Olsson I find in particular, the most frustrating component. Pick a lane. Pick a role. Pick a function, and just do it. I wonder if Mats Malm’s fumbling as the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, truly comes down to Anders Olsson seeking to retain and maintain his grasp on the role he held in a temporary fashion, which ultimately leads him to eclipse Mats Malm, reducing Malm’s exposure and ability to conduct the very public component of his position. Even with Ellen Mattson joining Anders Olsson this year as he read out his usual script, and then decided to answer some questions, which once again, Anders Olsson truly takes up the air and maintains himself as the focal point. Poor Ellen Mattson needed to exert herself in order to be able to participate, while Mats Malm lurked in the background.

The heightened role of the Nobel Committee, an otherwise internal structure within the academy whose main focus is to assist in the development of the first semi-shortlist of nominated candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature for the year, which is the presented to the academy at large. This takes place in the spring, where I am sure discussions and appraisals take place between the academy at large for the Nobel Committee to present a shortlist, with the Swedish Academy’s approval to begin the good work throughout the remainder of the spring and summer, that by the time September rolls around the hard work begins, when the academy deliberates, debates, and eventually decides on a laureate. At least this is my understanding based off of the Nobel Prize website. Unless I am mistaken and instead, the Nobel Committee is charged with crafting the entire shortlist with each committee member pushing a favoured candidate, and the greater Swedish Academy accepts the writers presented and reads their work and then deliberates.

Personally, I find it concerning (in the event that) the Nobel Committee and its members hold that much influence and sway within the Swedish Academy. I am sure, the work itself is laborious, difficult and even tiring, truly, but to invest in the thought that five members of an already relatively small academy of just 18 members in total, can weight, measure and adjudicate the expansive, diverse, and breathtaking reality of world literature, seems unplausible to me. In fact, if that’s the case that five members of the Swedish Academy, direct and steer the direction of the Nobel Prize for Literature for the year, I would think the credibility of the Swedish Academy’s ability to truly preside and hold the role of defacto international literary connoisseurs and experts, would fall into disrepute. This position is already weakened and hangs perilously by a few frayed threads. Regardless, in my humblest of opinions, Anders Olsson needs to step back and relinquish this persistent public relations involvement, while in turn, allow Mats Malm to do his job, however, good or bad it may be; but the continued muddying of the waters with the announcement is not appreciated. I hope and even think, given the opportunity, Mats Malm would may even thrive in the role of Permanent Secretary without being routinely managed or ducking out for Anders Olsson to upstage, and then only to read out a long tedious dry discounted sermon. If I am interested in the information I will read it on the Nobel Prize website, I’m not interested in having it dispassionately disseminated to me. I am far more interested in someone who is excited and is interested in engaging with the assembled journalists to have an interview and just tell us what they think about this year’s laureate, be it Horace Engdahl commenting on Doris Lessing’s autobiographies as a second wind in her sails, but also pointing out her talent with the short story form; or Peter Englund referencing and emphasizing Herta Müller’s remarkable literary language; or Sara Danius’s marvelous recipe allegory describing Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing, as a combination of Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, with a pinch of Marcel Proust, with a slight stir—but not to much(!); oh, I do miss Sara Danius. In turn, once again for another year, this current forum proves to be dispassionate and uninspired, which in turn, leaves those viewing the proceeding with equal lukewarm reactions.

As for Annie Ernaux, I think she is a welcomed and worthy laureate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, though admittedly, I was expecting her to be last years Literature Laureate, which may explain my lack of surprise that she won this year. I think Annie Ernaux is a deserving Nobel Laureate, who fits with equally good company with previous Nobel Laurates. As a writer, Annie Ernaux does take a different approach to literature in form, rather then the conventional forms of: poetry, prose (novel, short story), and dramatic writings; Ernaux instead writes in a chimeric fashion, incorporating elements of fiction, memoir, and social criticism, to craft her alchemical work that remains both intensely personal in its ethnographic excavation and examination, but feathers out to encompass a much broader purview beyond the insularity of the exclusively intrapersonal.

Annie Ernaux’s masterpiece: “The Years,” was my first introduction to Ernaux, both her writing style and literary proclivities. “The Years,” is a masterful work of a generation or collective biography, as it traces the anonymous ‘She,’ and ‘We,’ (though its safe to presume its Ernaux), through the end of the Second World War, into the first decade of the 21st Century. The social progress through the decades and generation were exemplary in their palpability, providing a cartograph of the social evolution and changing dynamics of society after the Second World War. Education, in particular, proved to be both the scales in which one could ascend to a higher social elevation, or be routed in a respectable but less prestigious direction. The clinical analysis of the indignity that is learned early on via the cruelty of how ones ‘capability,’ is assessed, in this instance that of a student’s academic acumen, is reminiscent livestock being assessed either for market or those spared the butcher’s block. In the politics and political events—beyond the May ‘68 student protests—discussed within the book often went over my head. I am not informed nor am I well versed in any capacity into the finer nuances of French political science or governance infrastructure. Yet, when the niche elements fade away, universal elements, tropes and realities become more apparent. In an increasingly small and globalized world, the rise of capitalism and consumerism, inevitably means everyone within the developed western world will be accustom to advertisements; the rise of supermarkets; changing social orders, which both dissolved old ingrained social views on class differences, while instituting new ones in turn. The whiplash inducing rapid development of the later half of the 20th Century and early 21st Century, truly flies by and encompasses not just the Cold War or the advent of the morning after pill, but the disenchantment and bitterness of those now castaway and lost within a world that revels in the novelty of the new, but is so lacking in soul, character, or virtue. To quote the remarkable German poet Durs Grünbein “The Years,” is truly a “sociological epic,” piece of writing.

The use of the term sociological is not an uncharacteristic term to use to describe Annie Ernaux or her writing in general terms. The Swedish Academy, followed more in line with Ernaux’s own description of her work, which she referrers to as a personal ethnography. Both descriptions can be used to describe Ernaux’s literary work with equal application, yet both represent two very different components of her work. The intrapersonal ethnographic excavation and examination of personal history, private life, and subsequent consequences, are the foundational base of all of Ernaux’s work. Personal experience and memory are the pools of genesis which spawn her literary works. It is here, Ernaux can combine both autobiography and fictional elements to study with laser intensity the elements of a major event or foundational altering experience. For Ernaux this has often be attributed to a couple of events, the first being her devasting illegal abortion at the age of 23, which almost killed her as she ends up in the hospital. This event is a catalyst which explodes and ricochets leading into further explorations into topics of socially instituted shame; societal perspectives on pre-marital sex and sex in general; the subjugation of the woman’s body through a social and political context, which in itself has influenced, caricaturized, even mythologized a woman’s body through a variety of different lens, including biblical, political, and aesthetically; then there is the nature of sex, infatuation, and desire, a dissertation on the natures of desire and infatuation, the intoxicating loss of oneself in the thralls of physical and emotional obsession. Ernaux’s personal experience is the first excavation site from which with nova intensity her narratives and books begin the change to examine, in a greater context the social and societal implication of the collective’s governance and influence over the individual. In another book, Ernaux traces her first sexual experience and awakening into the realms of the physical pleasures and the carnal consequences. As gossip circulates about the teenaged Annie Ernaux, the social ramifications are immediately presented and felt. She is categorized as that kind of girl; then there are the slurs; then comes the social ostracization. Ernaux viciously vivisects the scenario with a clinical coldness, avoiding the pitfalls of melodramatic sentimentality and tabloid sensationalism, Ernaux instead employee’s sterile scrutiny to provide a nuanced portrait of reality, which ensures her social criticism maintains a scienced and scholarly approach and casting off the unnecessary histrionics.

Annie Ernaux’s break through, which Anders Olsson recommends and points out in his sermon, is her condescended social examination of her father’s life. It should be noted, Annie Ernaux’s upbring was provincial and working class. Her parents in particular were hardworking individuals, who came from extraordinary working-class background themselves, and though they forged a decent life, by owning and operating a grocer and café, all the while escaping the proletariat realities of working in a factory as basic labour, they maintain bourgeois ambitions (or so I read) and prepare the ground for their daughter, Annie to fashion and even better life for herself. In her book “A Man’s Place,” Annie Ernaux sketches and condenses her father’s life with both impressionistic shadowing and colour, along with exacting accuracy, providing the personal details required to understand her fathers desire for a different life; a more refined life, which within the context of the early 20th Century carried the airs of respectability and genteel virtue, from his otherwise humble working-class background. These virtues are the undercurrents of Ernaux’s childhood, the invisible driving force propelling her father from continuing the legacy of the proletariat and in turn be able to run a grocery store and café within a small northern France community. Through stoic and uncompromising observation, Annie Ernaux becomes an exacting sociological examiner, dissecting the life and social pursuits of her father. The examination of her father, evolves into a critical social analysis of the social trends of French society, the changing airs, the changing guard, the progressing realities, as the lower and working classes began their climb for material comfort and social understanding. This would be a life completely different from the one their parents had experienced or enjoyed, and even more alien than the ones their grandparents had endured.

Annie Ernaux’s greatest success and even talent is her ability to fixate with microscopic intensity on the intrapersonal and otherwise immediately private experience of herself or observations conducted exclusively as her own. With a swift and graceful touch, Ernaux moves beyond the confines of exclusive solipsism and take on a greater more breathtaking social panoramic view of the greater social issues and complications of the era and perspectives. How the criminality of an abortion not only almost killed her, but what of all the others who did not make it? Why must sex be attributed to shame? Furthermore, why does the man or boy get absolution—borderline praised—whereby they can walk away with the prideful airs of conquest and sated appetite; while the woman or girl is nothing more than a tramp, a mongrel, a trollop? It’s this analysis and critique within the sociological realm, and the clinical acuity (to quote the Nobel citation) which makes Annie Ernaux such a striking and worthy Nobel Laureate. Ernaux’s ability to include the personal and private in relation to the public and external. Personally, I think Ernaux is by far more successful when surveying and analyzing the social changes from the anchored point of view of the personal, which is why perhaps I enjoyed “The Years,” is its veiled anonymous intimacy with the impersonal narrator, who provides a personal guided tour of the progress and rapidly changing world of the 20th Century French society. When the book opens, the shadow of the Second World War still lingers even though celebrations are had. Memories of fighting, resistance, rationing, are all discussed around the dinner table. After the war there is another societal shift: the prominent role of education. Children are no longer excused from school to assist their rural agricultural working families with the harvest or other chores. They stay and they study. Despite its readily availability and mandated requirement for attendance with no exceptions, the distribution of education is meager. As aforementioned, students who have been found academically incapable are rerouted to alternative directions in which to make of their life. This creates a new notion of social systems, a replica hierarchy of previous established social principles. It is always Annie Ernaux’s ability to encompass the competing realities and perspectives of the individual and the collective, examining with uncompromising and stoic firmness the often, bitter truths and consequences that exist behind them.

As a Nobel Laureate, Annie Ernaux will be reviewed in a multifaceted context be it literary, political and sociological in nature. Where Svetlana Alexievich became the cartographer of the Soviet and Post-Soviet heart and soul through interviews and collecting the oral history of the Soviet and Post-Soviet landscape and individual; Ernaux has exercised a more intrapersonal review of French society’s evolution after the Second World War, turning herself into the canary entering the mine, rather then interviewing the miners themselves. Herta Müller pulled extensively from her own experiences and those within her immediate orbit, to write about the landscape of the disposed within Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, depicting it as a land of cruel absurdity, of grey shadows and rampant corruption; yet Müller’s greatest renown is her style of ‘living in details,’ thriving within the acute metaphors and Kafkaesque world of distrustful language; Ernaux in turn, built the foundations of her literary career from both personal and interpersonal relationships, but her language is by far more clinical and blanched in style. Doris Lessing is often described as the great social critic and epicist of the 20th Century, whose literary work, opinions, and personal life ebbed and flowed with a variety of political and social causes, which are equally reflected and refracted within her monumental novels. Her famous novel “The Golden Notebook,” is a psychological exploration of the fragmented realities and facets of a woman, both her political life, emotional life, creative outlet, and personal life. Annie Ernaux in turn exhumes and explores the complexities of memory, emotional realities, sexual awakenings and yearnings with equal frankness. Of course, who can forget the controversial and unapologetic Elfriede Jelinek, whose work are psychosexual and politically vitriolic, exploring the subjugation of women within a capitalist society commodifying them further in part and parcel with consumerist tendencies. Yet, Jelinek is renowned for her strictly gallows humour and linguistic acrobatics; Ernaux in similar fashion will encompass the realms of political discourse and discussion, which the author herself has recognized, and even the Swedish Academy has commented on, referencing the inherent political dimensions of her work as they explore matters of social inequality. In a fashion similar to Louise Glück, who turned the personal into the universal by writing her intensely austere poetry through a diverse colour spectrum of voices and motifs; Ernaux carves out the personal within the collective, and in this juxtaposition between these facets provides commentary on the universal experience of the human condition, which become accessible and available for others through exposure and empathy.

In reference to the political discourse of Annie Ernaux, there is a curiosity of whether or not the Swedish Academy has decided to engage in political message with this years award. Ernaux’s win comes during the shifting social context of women’s rights in various parts of the world, with the Supreme Court of the United States of America, overturning ‘Roe v. Wade,’ and the recent suspicious death of Mahsa Amini who was being detained by the Iranian morality police on grounds her hijab was being worn too loosely. What has resulted is an extensive and persistent protest against Iran’s clerical theocratic oppression. Even though, Ernaux’s work aligns itself within the context of feminism (which Ernaux has vocally confirmed support for), it is important to limit the conjecture of an explicit political decision regarding Annie Ernaux’s Nobel within the mercurial and shifting realities of the political context. There is certainly a political dimension to Annie Ernaux’s Nobel, but it is not the inspiration for the award. The Swedish Academy did not base its decision on the United States of America’s repeal of ‘Roe v. Wade,’ or the current protests within Iran. Then again, for the sake of contrary perspective, Annie Ernaux herself (from what I am reading and gathering) views writing as a act of great responsibility, be that responsibility is social in nature or political. Though if the award is to be framed within the context of the political as in the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the literary quality in itself must surely exceed the political dimensions. 

Congratulations are in order for Annie Ernaux, a truly deserving and remarkable writer!

Thank-you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read


M. Mary

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