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Ernaux And Despentes: How Two French Writers Reveal Women's Liberation So Differently

French writer Annie Ernaux's Nobel prize in literature took many by surprise, after a career spent largely in the shadows. A different kind of surprise comes in comparing her to another French writer, iconoclast media star Virginie Despentes.

Photos of Nobel in Literature recipient Annie Ernaux and "Grit Lit" queen Virginie Despentes
Literature Nobel recipient Annie Ernaux and "Grit Lit" queen Virginie Despentes
Odile Tremblay

MONTREAL — When Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Oct. 6, becoming the 17th woman to do so, I was completely taken aback, as this French writer had led a discreet career, never causing much commotion. But I am absolutely delighted to see her clean, clinical, intimate and fascinating work, consecrated in high places.

As early as the 1970s, her minimalistic, bare prose had allowed many women to get a better grasp of the fragility of their own condition.

For she, as a true auto-entomologist who observed the woman within herself, and saw a mirror of all others, is well-deserving of this crown. This now octogenarian author has always despised deception. Did she write novels? Yes and no: Rather, she laid her life bare — her childhood, her fears, her loves, the oppression and shame, all recorded in her perpetually updated diary.

Last year, the film adaptation of Happening ("L'événement") by Audrey Diwan, about her clandestine abortion put her back in the limelight, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. So did Simple Passion, her book about a blind, all-consuming kind of love, which was adapted for the screen by Danielle Arbid.

Same torch, contrast in styles

French female writers, such as Colette and Simone de Beauvoir, have paved the way in guiding the "second sex" towards reclaiming their identities. And for that, we thank them. But they did it in wildly different ways and during such different times ...

And such diversity continues today: I've just finished reading Virginie Despentes's Cher connard("Dear Asshole"), a bookstore hit in France and Quebec alike. There couldn't be a deeper chasm in tone, a time-space abyss between the restraint of Ernaux and the shocking sentences of a seething novelist like Despentes.

Yet, both carry the torch of women's liberation, and shine a light on their society's perspective.

The author of Baise-moi ("F*ck Me") may never win a Nobel Prize — too grating, too raw! But Despentes understands her time well, masters her modes of communication and knows in which tone to speak. In her work, stylistic devices are always clearly visible. She’s often irritating and always playfully provocative. I have been following her since her beginning, making sure never to take the bait too much ...

Despentes, the maestra of despair

Cher connard
translates contemporary anxieties that transcend generational rifts, borders and genders. This epistolary novel tells the story of a 21st century looking for itself, as she topples the statues of secular machismo and the mirages of modernity, dealing blows to the social media age along the way: "You quickly come to understand that the most effective way to intervene is insult." Such is life today.

Despentes does not dive into the depths of the individual psyche, but surfs on her era with feline agility and a good deal of nerve. The brazen sexuality that marked her previous works is no longer at the center of her universe. Her violence is fumbling in the dark, looking for the light, finding it in this collection of letters that build bridges. It makes her more human. Less thorny, too.

I salute her talent for diagnosis. Like when she says, through the voice of a young man: “The emotion that sweeps over my generation is despair. It is collective. It thunders, at the bottom of the earth. It is the same one that lifts us all.”

Annie Ernaux - La Place

Timeless Ernaux

Virginie Despentes shares traits with Michel Houellebecq: Their X-ray vision of a world on the brink of collapse, their allergy to positive thinking, their sexual descriptions without fanfare. Because they don’t pull their punches. Even if it means being dropped by the critics when they push the envelope too far.

None of that bothers them. We are miles away from the inner world of Annie Ernaux.

One will be considered too dry, another too verbose. Who cares?

But so what?! Even Despentes, with her Cher connard, is unlikely to shock the bourgeoisie as much as she did in the past. Embalmed as she is in a sarcophagus loaded with incense and aromatics. Her title of goddess of transgression earned her the privilege of being read by both sexes — a precious advantage for any writer.

Her fame, above all, allows her to produce bestseller after bestseller. True, in Cher connard, she writes that celebrity begets stupidity. But that is an exaggeration: If her vociferous marginality has lost some of its teeth, it may be partly due to the eroding ebb-and-flow of trends. There is, in the end, something more timeless in Annie Ernaux's works.

One may be considered too dry, another too verbose. Who cares? Whether they sell like hotcakes or earn the highest honors, these novelists are both gifted with clairvoyance, seers of the pitfalls along the road we share. On opposite ends of the spectrum, hand in hand — "faraway, so close," as Wim Wenders would put it. I see their beacons lighting the way.

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