Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux draws hundreds of fans at New York bookstore visit

Since Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, the French author’s books have gained enough new admirers that many are out of stock on Amazon.com and brick-and-mortar bookstores, some in a month or more. Can’t buy inside. But at Albertine Books on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, her Monday night appearance was less of an introduction and more of a gathering of old French and American friends.

The event, which can be reached on the second floor via the winding stairs of the French Embassy’s Cultural Services, sold out before the Nobel Prize was announced. A large crowd of attendees lined up around the corner on Monday, eventually filling up with hundreds of people, including a large crowd who watched her on video downstairs.

Ernaux, 82, detailed her career and writing process through her interpreter, with a dynamic rhythm, to a rapturous audience that included fellow writers Garth Greenwell and Rachel Kushner.

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Her broad responses contrasted sharply with the economic style of her famous short autobiographical books, which included 64 pages of “Simple Passion” and 96 pages of “It’s Happening,” her candid recollection of illegal abortion in 1963, It was adapted into a French-language film of the same name last year.

The night was called “The Art of Capturing Life with Writing”. In an interview with author Kate Zambreno, Ernaux likened her work to a long-term exploration of her mind, echoing a common sentiment among authors: They write to discover what they think.

French writer Anna Ernaux answers questions from the media in Paris, France, after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 6, 2022.
(AP Photo/Michelle Euler)

“In my opinion, literature is the only way to what I call truth or reality,” she said. “It’s a way to make things clear, not in a simple way – instead, writing things makes them more complicated. It’s also a way, as long as it’s not written, it doesn’t really exist .”

Ernaux, who grew up in rural Normandy, was named by the Nobel Prize jury for his “great courage and clinical acumen” for revealing “the pain in the classroom, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or the inability to see who one is” commend. Ernaux said Monday night that her goal was never to write a “beautiful book” or to be part of the literary world that now celebrates her, but to express her thoughts and experiences so others would recognize them.

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Zambreno recalls a moment in “It’s Happening” when Ernaux went to the library to study abortion but couldn’t find any books that mentioned it. Books “nurtured and fed” her from an early age, Ernaux explained, and she’s just as sensitive about what it doesn’t include as it does what it does.

“It’s happening” is a correction in itself, and she’s confident it will resonate, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. Ernaux remembers her advocacy for abortion rights, which France decriminalized in 1975, and her appreciation for the “sorority” of peers who could share her story with her.

But even the most intimate discussions don’t have the lasting power of putting words into bound text.

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“Years later, after my abortion, in the 2000s, when I chose to write about what I called ‘events’ or ‘what’s going on,’ people would ask me ‘why are you coming back to this topic?'” she said. “It’s because I feel like there’s something there to undo, to observe, to explore. It’s only through narrative that ‘happening’ can be seen in this way.”

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