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St Hugh's College

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French writer Annie Ernaux was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in December 2022, “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.” Born in 1940 to a relatively low-income family in provincial France, Ernaux was able to experience upward social mobility thanks to her parents’ encouragement, successful studies, and access to higher education. She became what is called a ‘transfuge de classe’ (‘class migrant’). Her numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, as well as the political stances that have punctuated her almost 50-year career, bear witness to this experience and to key preoccupations of her generation and gender. Her writing scrutinises the manifestations and interiorisation of social determinism and symbolic violence, the hurdles that thwart upward social mobility, women’s alienation within the domestic sphere, the experience of illegal abortion, the limits of sexual consent, the gaze that a disease or female sexual desire may elicit in Western society, and the living places and sites of consumption, such as new towns and superstores, that numerous people use today. Ernaux is known for the originality of her ‘life-writing’, which dissects deeply personal, and sometimes taboo, subjects in an often-minimalistic language, sometimes using what she calls ‘a transpersonal I’. Many of her narratives are thereby faithful to a goal she set for herself in her youth: ‘to avenge [her] people’. As a public figure, she has regularly taken sides in contemporary debates through interviews, petitions, and open letters, acting as an outspoken feminist and left-wing intellectual.

This exhibition aims to introduce Annie Ernaux’s life and works to students and to the general public by shedding light on the crucial intersectional dimension of her writing. It draws on a number of unpublished manuscript letters, signed copies of Ernaux’s books, and documents that alumna Lyn Thomas has promised to bequest to the College. Lyn, a first-generation university student, read French and German at St Hugh’s from 1971 to 1975. Almost 20 years after graduating from Oxford, having embarked on a teaching career, she discovered Ernaux, whose first novel came out in 1974. Lyn, who was well-placed to understand both Ernaux’s class migration and literary project, started to research her œuvre. She went on to become a prominent Ernaux specialist, authoring the first monograph in English on this writer in 1999. She got to know Ernaux personally in the course of her research and eventually became close friends with her.

Curated by Prof. Ève Morisi (St Hugh’s College, Oxford) and Prof. Lyn Thomas (U of Sussex), in collaboration with Nora Khayi (St Hugh’s College, Oxford).

With the support of St Hugh’s College.

This exhibition is part of a series of events organised by Prof. Ève Morisi (St Hugh’s College, Oxford), following the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Annie Ernaux in December 2022.

Photograph by ©Duncan Fraser, 1997

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