As any Barnard student, past or present, can attest to, one of the most exciting reasons to be at the College is the chance to learn from bold, brave women. On October 12, Annie Ernaux, one of the boldest and bravest to put pen to paper, visited campus to discuss her latest work, Getting Lost. The sold-out event — An Evening with Annie Ernaux: In Conversation with Hari Kunzru — which was presented by the Barnard English Department’s Creative Writing Program, brought together two dynamic, award-winning authors in an unforgettable exchange.

annie ernaux book stack

The rare appearance by one of the most acclaimed writers in international literature was co-sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, Barnard’s French Department, and Columbia’s Creative Writing, English, and French departments. 

“Her books do not function as conventional memoirs whose goal is to synthesize and abstract,” said associate director of creative writing Ken Chen about Ernaux, in introductory remarks for the discussion. “It's a great privilege to share with you all a small sample of the work [that] I have been teaching for many years. Each year, [it] remains obstinately relevant.”

Ernaux is the author of more than 20 books. Many are accounts, some fictionalized, of deeply personal moments in her life, told passionately, honestly, and with a sexual frankness that is often absent in women’s literature. Titles include the coming-of-age memoir A Girl’s Story; I Remain in Darkness, about her mother’s dementia; Happening, which takes a philosophical perspective on an abortion she had; and The Years, described by The Guardian as “a masterpiece memoir of French life.”

annie ernaux book signing

Earlier this month, Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming just the 17th woman of 119 writers in total to have been awarded the prestigious honor since it was created in 1901. The Swedish Academy, which selects the recipient, praised Ernaux for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.”

As Ernaux told The New York Times, “To receive the Nobel Prize is, for me, a responsibility to continue. … Speaking from my condition as a woman, it does not seem to me that we, women, have become equal in freedom, in power.”

Getting Lost, which was published last month, is the diary Ernaux kept in the 1980s during a year-and-a-half secret love affair with a younger, married man who was a Russian diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in Paris. This same relationship was the material for her 2003 novel Simple Passion, but there it was fictionalized — Getting Lost brings with it the urgency and candid vulnerability that the diary format allows. 

annie ernaux panel

Prompted by Kunzru (above) to explain how she created distance and intimacy in her published diary, Ernaux, who spoke exclusively in French, said through her translator, “[I write my] life and [live my] book. Another way to look at it is through the lens of the mixture, the combination of life and writing, but also the absolute necessity of a life of writing, which is to pursue what is not accomplished in life. The text reaches a reality that cannot be accessed through living.”

Kunzru — a British novelist and author of Red Pill, White Tears, and Gods Without Men — was also interested if Ernaux had specific thoughts to share with women in the U.S. regarding the current battle for abortion rights, considering the subject of her book Happening. “When she heard this news, she was absolutely stupefied, shocked to hear that the U.S., which first allowed abortion, first prevented women from dying, when France had not yet done it, that this country would return to the brutality and savagery towards women. It is shocking,” said Ernaux’s translator, on her behalf, to the rapt audience. “Women’s bodies and voices must be respected.”