In light of her modest social background, the Nobel prize awarded to Annie Ernaux sounds like a social miracle. She was born in 1940, in Yvetot, a little town in the Northern French province of Normandie, to former workers who held a small café-grocery. Her trajectory is one of upward mobility through education in a period of strong belief in meritocracy. Her mother sent her to a private Catholic school and encouraged her to invest in her studies. A good pupil, after high school Ernaux studied Literature and Sociology at the University of Rouen. She became a secondary school teacher in French literature and married a man from a higher social milieu.
However, even when successful, upward mobility is not devoid of symbolic violence. According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, class transfuges (defectors) experience into a “double bind”: if you fail to realise your parents’ dreams, you betray their dreams, but if you realize their dreams, you betray them. Such an experience of betrayal is reflected in Ernaux’s first novel, Les Armoires vides (1974), translated into English as Cleaned out (1990).
Sociology offered her conceptual tools to understand what she was living. Ernaux had read Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron’s book Reproduction shortly after it was published in 1970 and was struck by their sociological analysis of the Symbolic violence exerted through education, which contributes to legitimise class domination. Their claim was that the apparently meritocratic system in reality masks the social conditions for success at school and the social gap between children endowed with inherited cultural capital and those deprived of it (the chance to access higher education multiplied by 60 when comparing the children of high professionals or managers as compared to those from the working class).
Symbolic violence is a soft violence, misrecognised as such because it is exerted with the complicity of the dominated: having internalised the dominant categories of thinking through education, they participate in their own domination. Bourdieu was later to use this concept to also describe how masculine domination functions.
Annie Ernaux began using the literary medium to explore forms of Symbolic violence experienced in daily life in both class and gender relations. The relations between Literature and Sociology go back to the nineteenth century. Realist authors like Dickens, Balzac or Zola depicted the social relations and forms of power in their respective societies. However, when Ernaux started writing, Sartre’s conception of committed literature had been, like socialist realism, discredited by the nouveau roman, a literary avant-garde whose model was Samuel Beckett’s minimalist literature. Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969. To introduce Sociology in Literature was going against the tide.
While literature can contribute in the reproduction of Symbolic violence, it can also unveil its functioning. Ernaux had to find a literary form for that. She first began exploring forms of Symbolic violence in her first three autobiographical novels, before inventing a new form that she has called “autosociobiography”.
Written as an interior monologue, her first novel, Cleaned Out is the story of a little girl, Denise Lesur, who experiences shame and humiliation in a private Catholic school, when she discovers she does not resemble her classmates because of her social origins reflected in her “rude”, “vulgar”, and “disgusting” manners and way of speaking. She feels “heavy”, “sticky”, compared to the other girls’ ease. Symbolic violence is produced when Denise interiorises the bourgeois norms she learns in school and begins to judge and despise her parents. This typical experience for a class transfuge torn between two worlds generates resentment: Denis hates herself for not being kind to them. This powerful novel was daring for another reason. Cleaned Out opens with an abortion at a time when it was illegal in France. Only in 1975, a year after the novel was released, did abortion become legal.
Her second novel, Ce qu’ils disent ou rien (1977), translated as Do What They Say or Else (2022) is narrated from the standpoint of sixteen-year-old Anne, who rebels against her working-class parents and their narrow-minded lifestyle. In a summer camp, Anne meets a trainer with whom she has her first sexual experience. Although this is a sexually and morally violent experience, she seems to accept it as the natural law of the dominant.
Her third novel, La Femme gelée (1981), translated as The Frozen Woman (1995), closely analyses the mechanisms of masculine domination in the life of a married woman who realizes that her efforts to rise socially through education led her to experience the “double burden” as a school teacher and mother, and to feel alienated in her new class status.
Fiction allowed Ernaux to lay bare the mechanisms of Symbolic violence she experienced through class and gender relations. But fiction was not satisfactory. It did not free her from the Symbolic violence she was revealing in her novels. She turned to autosociobiography.
Contrary to fiction, where the narrator may be distinct from the author, autobiography implies a kind of pact between author and reader: the author is the narrator and commits to sincerity truth. Memoirs were usually written by authors from high society about public life, political and social matters. Published in 1782, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions secularised the religious ritual of the confession and made public the intimate life that was usually kept secret. With The Confessions, autobiography became a literary genre. In his life story Si le grain ne meurt published in 1924, (translated as If It Die), André Gide resorted to psychoanalysis as an intellectual frame of reference to recount his discovery of his homosexuality as a teenager, at a time it was taboo in France. Ernaux chose to use Sociology, and to borrow from the ethnographic method in order to describe her family’s lifestyle and her own experience of class, gender and sexuality, taking her own memories as materials.
Ethnography tries to understand a social group from inside, to reconstruct its worldview and values, to objectify them without judging them, in a distanced and objective mode. In the books dedicated to her father (La Place, 1983 / A Man’s Place, 1992) and mother (Une femme, 1987 / A Woman’s Story, 2003), she used ethnography to reconstitute her parents’ world, their beliefs and values, in their own dignity and not through bourgeois lenses. Dignity and pride are the Symbolic capital of the underprivileged. This was her attempt to leave the cycle of Symbolic violence she participated in as a class transfuge.
Like the ethnographer, Ernaux also questioned her own position as an observer, in her effort to get rid of the categories of judgement she had acquired as an educated school teacher. This questioning also concerns the language of description, how to ‘translate’ words, expressions, attitudes in the most faithful possible way, all the while maintaining an objectifying distance. She called this style ‘flat writing’, a minimalist language devoid of any ornament and restraining the violence present in her first three novels, a style that allowed her to delve into the world she was describing.
A Woman’s Story echoes Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams that attempts to reconstruct his mother’s life story after she passed away, and Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death that narrates her mother’s physical decline during the short period before she died. Later on, Ernaux also described her mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s in Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit (1987 translated into English as I Remain in Darkness, 1999).
Ernaux then turned to her self-ethnography, to explore emotions such as shame, humiliation, passion, and jealousy with the same sincerity and objectivity. La Honte (1997) translated into English as Shame 1998) addresses the shame that she felt when, at twelve, she saw her father almost kill her mother, an experience that radically changed her perception of her parents and provoked her critical judgement on their lifestyle. Turned into a film in 2020, Passion Simple (1992 / Simple Passion) recounts her affair with a younger, married Russian diplomat (Getting Lost is the diary of this story). L’Occupation (2002 / The Possession) deals with jealousy, trying to capture all aspects of this sentiment through self-observation.
Among the most dramatic episodes of Ernaux’s life is her experience of clandestine abortion, depicted in L’Événement (2000 / Happening 2001). The narrative reconstructs her loneliness, despair and humiliation as a student trying to find a way of aborting in France in 1963. While she was achieving her efforts to rise socially, writing a Masters thesis on women in surrealism, being pregnant brought her back to her body and lower class status.
More recently, in Mémoire de fille (2016 / A Girl’s Story 2020), Ernaux revisited the episode of her first sexual relationship with a trainer, but in a non-fictional mode. Written in the context of #MeToo, this narrative opens with the question of consent and submission to a man’s will. By responding to the male gaze and desire, and by performing the ritual of possession, the girl accomplishes her destiny as a girl. While she explains she still cannot call it rape (unlike de Beauvoir, who defines all first intercourse as rape), Ernaux feels retrospectively ashamed for having felt proud at the time of being considered an object of desire. As she explains, “To have received the key to understanding shame does not give one the power to erase it” (my translation). Her shame indeed stems from the pride that made her an accomplice to this act of possession by submitting her own desire to his and accepting the humiliation he inflicted on her afterwards as natural, instead of feeling outraged.
Ernaux’s latest book Le Jeune homme (2022) (The Young Man, not yet translated into English), is a response to this experience of shame by narrating an affair she had with a man twenty-six years younger in the late 1990s, a relationship she conducted openly, confronting the reproachful glances of people in the street or in restaurants. This short book also responded to Camille Laurens’ splendid novel on the social and self-perception of ageing women, Celle que vous croyez (Who You Think I Am, 2017) about a 48-year-old divorced woman who has an online affair with a younger man, dissimulating her true identity and age behind a 24-year-old avatar. Beyond its transgression of social norms, Le Jeune homme is a meditation about time, and a journey into the memories of her past brought back by the relationship with this young man, including the abortion she had in the hospital she could see from his apartment.
One of her most critically acclaimed books is Les Années (2011) translated into English as The Years, in 2017) and shortlisted in 2019 for the Man Booker International Prize. The Years is her life story told in the third person, in an impersonal mode, combining individual and collective memories through a collage of newspapers, photographs and diary entries, among other artefacts. Her diaristic reflection on the big-box superstore as a common experience not yet the province of fiction, as well as a place where social resignation is produced, will soon be released in English by Yale University Press.
Ernaux’s voice is a very special one, distinct from autobiographical novels, and also from autofiction, which became a literary genre in France in the 1990s. With her “autosociobiography”, Ernaux has invented a form of writing that became a model for other class transfuges, such as Didier Eribon and Edouard Louis, while her writing ethics is a standard for female authors like Camille Laurens or Virginie Despentes. Ernaux’s work is highly praised by the younger generation, in the context of the fourth feminist wave. A feminist herself, she is also a committed intellectual, taking a stand against inequalities, social injustice, and racism. And never compromising.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Annie Ernaux: Ethnographer of Symbolic Violence")
(Views expressed are personal)
Gisèle Sapiro is Professor of Sociology, EHESS, Paris and Research Director, CNRS, Paris