NEW YORK – Since Annie Ernaux won the Nobel literature prize last week, the French author’s books have gained enough new admirers that many titles are out of stock on Amazon.com and at physical bookstores, some unavailable for a month or more. But at Albertine Books on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, her appearance Monday night felt less like an introduction than a gathering of old friends, French and American alike.
The event, reachable on the second floor via a winding staircase within the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, had sold out well before the Nobel was announced. On Monday, an early line of attendees extended around the corner, with hundreds eventually packed inside, including an overflow crowd that watched her through a video feed from the floor below.
Greeted by an ovation from a standing-room-only audience that included fellow authors Garth Greenwell and Rachel Kushner, the 82-year-old Ernaux spoke at length and at an energetic pace, through her translator, about her career and the writing process.
Her expansive answers contrasted with the economical style of her famously short, autobiographical books, among them the 64-page “Simple Passion” and the 96-page “Happening,” her candid recollection about having an illegal abortion in 1963 that was adapted last year into a French-language film of the same name.
The night was billed “The Art of Capturing Life in Writing.” Ernaux, interviewed by author Kate Zambreno, likened her work to a long-term exploration of her mind, echoing a common sentiment among authors: They write to discover what they think.
“Literature appeared to me as the only means to reach what I call either truth or reality,” she said. “It is a way to make things clear, not in a simple manner — on the contrary to write things makes them more complex. It is a way, also, that so long as something has not been written it doesn’t really exist.”
Raised in rural Normandy, Ernaux was praised by Nobel judges for showing “great courage and clinical acuity” in revealing “the agony of the experience of class, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or inability to see who you are.” Ernaux said Monday night that her goal was never to write a “beautiful book” or be part of the literary world that now celebrates her, but to articulate her thoughts and experiences and make them recognizable to others.
Zambreno recalled a moment in “Happening” when Ernaux goes to the library to research abortion yet can find no books that mention it. Ernaux explained that books had “nourished and fed” her since childhood, and that she was as sensitive to what they didn’t include as to what they did.
“Happening” was itself a kind of corrective, and one she was confident would resonate, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. Ernaux remembered her advocacy for the right to an abortion, which France legalized in 1975, and her gratitude for the “sorority” of peers with whom she could share her story.
But not even the most intimate discussions had the lasting power of placing words within a bound text.
“Years later, after I had an abortion, in the 2000s when I chose to write about what I called an ‘event’ or a ‘happening,’ people would ask me ‘Why are you returning to this?’” she said. “And it’s because I had the feeling that there was something there that needed to be undone, to be look at, to be explored. And it was only through narrative that that ‘happening’ could be looked at that way.”
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