Voices: Annie Ernaux just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. You should read her abortion book

Annie Ernaux reacts during a press conference after she won the 2022 Nobel Literature Prize, at the Gallimard headquarters in Paris on 6 October 2022 (JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)
Annie Ernaux reacts during a press conference after she won the 2022 Nobel Literature Prize, at the Gallimard headquarters in Paris on 6 October 2022 (JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

Annie Ernaux has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you haven’t heard of her until now, this is amazing news! You have so many masterful books to look forward to.

Ernaux, a French writer born in Lillebonne, Normandy, has been published since the 1970s. Her work has been translated into English extensively. (For a French author writing in French, being translated into English is generally a sign that this author is a big f***ing deal, as I believe the academic parlance goes.) She grew up in a working-class family in Yvetot, where her parents owned a café and grocery shop. Her first book, Cleaned Out, is – per Ernaux’s own website – “a fictionalized account of the illegal abortion she underwent in 1964, and her move from working-class to middle-class culture through education.”

The Swedish Academy on Thursday commended Ernaux for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”, which, yes, absolutely. Upon learning she had won the Nobel, Ernaux reacted by asking the only good question of the Swedish journalist who had broken the news to her by phone: “Are you sure?”

Then, according to French journalist Anne-Françoise Hivert, a correspondent for Le Monde based in Sweden, Ernaux was asked to choose one of her books as particularly representative of her oeuvre. In the end, she picked two: The Years, her 2008 autobiography and a literary masterpiece, and A Girl’s Story, her 2016 account of her first sexual encounter with a man, an encounter whose – I’m quoting from her French publishing house Gallimard here – “shockwave propagated itself violently on her body and on her existence for two years.”

It’s hard to go wrong when picking from Ernaux’s back list, but if I may make a third suggestion, I’d urge you to read her 2000 L’Événement, an account of the abortion she had in the 1960s, when the procedure was still illegal in France. It was published in English the following year, under the title Happening, and was adapted into a movie of the same name last year, by director Audrey Diwan. (L’Événement is an autobiographical account that focuses entirely on the abortion, while Cleaned Out is a work of fiction that draws from a myriad of her life experiences, including the termination.)

“L’Événement” in French means “the event.” In Ernaux’s sharp, tight book (the original edition comes at just over 120 pages), an abortion is just that: an event. It is factual and emotional. It is something that needs to happen, and a moment that will in some ways transform the book’s narrator, without defining her.

“I did not feel any apprehension at the prospect of aborting,” Ernaux writes at first. Then, she recounts the story of a woman who said her own abortion hurt so much she was “clinging to the sink” in pain. “I was ready to cling to the sink too,” Ernaux writes. “I did not think I could die from it.”

Ernaux recounts her quest for a doctor willing to perform an abortion. “Girls like me ruined doctors’ days,” she writes. “Without money and without connections – or else they wouldn’t have ended up blindly in their offices – they forced them to recall the law that might send them to prison and prevent them from doing their job forever.”

After realizing she’s pregnant, and as she attempts to figure out how to get an abortion, Ernaux realizes she has become unable to continue writing the academic dissertation she has been working on. The unwanted pregnancy takes an unexpected psychological toll. “I had ceased being ‘intellectual,’” she recalls. “I don’t know if this is a widespread sentiment. It causes indescribable pain.” This disconnection from herself seems to have been brought on by the treatment of the doctors and other officials around her who prevented her from safely accessing a legal abortion.

Ernaux’s prose is, by her own description, unflinchingly factual. But there is devastation, joy, fear, and relief to be found in her incisively pared-down sentences.

Within the pages of Happening is the quiet terror of a woman who has found herself pregnant and does not want to be, in a country that won’t allow her to easily, safely make the choice to terminate. I wish everyone on the planet would read it. I am loath to even bring up the Republican party and the Supreme Court’s assault on women’s rights through the overturning of Roe v Wade in June, and the ripple effects of this brand of conservatism around the world. But I must, of course, because the literary marvels of Ernaux’s work and the cruelty of those who deny women the space to be fully fledged human beings exist in the same world. Because books can be both beautiful and powerful. Because Happening is a breathtaking literary work, and because its portrayal of a woman, her ambitions, her contradictions, her hopes, and her fears is needed.

The Swedish Academy just placed a feminist literary powerhouse – and an exhaustive chronicler of female desire and suffering – in the international spotlight. Maybe there is hope for us all.