Annie Ernaux

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

Annie Ernaux plays a dominant role in contemporary French literature. Her minimalist style of writing and her presentation of women and people of the working class have endeared her to French readers for many years. The manner in which she blurs the lines between fiction and autobiography have earned her credit as one of France’s avant-garde contemporary authors who is changing the face of literature. In the past decade, Ernaux’s work has won readership in countries outside of France, as her books are being translated into English. The topics of all of her books somewhat resemble one another as Ernaux returns to her childhood and early adult memories to search for the most honest and objective observation of the events that have molded her life.

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Ernaux was born September 1, 1940, in Lillebonne, France, the daughter of Alphonse and Blanche Duchesne. Her parents were simple country folk who worked their way up the social ladder through their success as small business owners. Ernaux’s parents, intent on giving her a better education than they themselves had received, saved their money so they could afford to send their daughter to private schools, a privilege usually reserved for the upper-class citizens of their small town. Ironically, it was her education that would eventually create a wedge between Ernaux and her parents, creating a gap that Ernaux would later try to understand through her writing.

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When Ernaux graduated from high school, she enrolled at Rouen University, outside of Paris, an area where she has remained ever since. Upon earning her college degree in teaching literature, she became a high school teacher and then a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondence. In addition, she has worked as a visiting instructor at U.S. colleges, where she taught French literature, conducting her classes in her native tongue.

Ernaux has published fourteen books, with eight of them translated into English. Her most critically acclaimed works include her first novel Les armoires vides (1974), translated in 1990 as Cleaned Out, which recounts an illegal abortion that her protagonist undergoes while a college student. Two memoirs that she wrote, La place (1984), translated as A Man’s Place and Une femme (1987), translated as A Woman’s Story, focus on her relationship with her father and, in the second book, on her memories of her mother. In 1984 A Man’s Place won the Prix Renaudot, one of France’s most important literary awards. The publication of these books solidified her success, winning her much critical attention and a wider readership. Ernaux’s book La Honte (1997), translated as Shame (1998), reviews Ernaux’s relationship with her parents through very specific childhood memories that took place one day in the summer of 1952. Two more recent books return to the theme of her mother and Ernaux’s abortion.

Ernaux was married to Philippe Ernaux in 1964 but divorced him in 1985. She has two sons, Eric and David, and currently lives outside Paris.

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