Annie Ernaux Replaced a 6-Year Old Girl

The wholeheartedly congratulates the French Author Annie Ernaux on receiving the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature for her life-time work. According to the BBC news, Anders Olsson, chair of the literature committee, said the 82-year-old’s work was “admirable and enduring,” that she used “courage and clinical acuity” to tell largely autobiographical stories that uncover “the contradictions of social experience [and] describe shame, humiliation, jealousy or the inability to see who you are.”

What some of the laudations I have read so far omit is this: 

Annie Ernaux is a replacement child. Hence, I believe, her writing about the difficulties to see “who you are” is a life-long search.

In 2011, at 71-years-old, Annie Ernaux wrote “L’autre fille” (in English, “The Other Girl”), a short story in the form of a letter addressed to her dead sister. In that story, she writes that she was shown a photo of a baby, and “when I was little, I must have been told, that this was me. It wasn’t me, it was you!”

Annie Ernaux
Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux chronicles her deepest feelings and her memories of how her dead sister was bestowed sainthood. She is angry and tells her dead sister that she never was her sister, that they have never played together, that she had always been dead. Annie Ernaux was born two and a half years after her sister’s passing. She finds her own voice, her own life, her own self-esteem in this long letter to her deceased sister. 

From “L’autre fille” (“The Other Girl”):

“And naturally you must have been roaming around me, surrounding me by your absence in the dampened sounds of my early years, in the conversations with other women in the shop, on park benches…but this left no trace in my consciousness… I only remember that discussion that I wasn’t supposed to hear, that wasn’t meant for me.” 

And there are these searing memories of her mother saying: “she was nicer than that one there, that one there was me!”  

Annie Ernaux writes she felt she represented “hope” for her parents, that she represented “the future,” that she wanted to live, that she had extra energy, a fever for life, yet sadly she also felt as if “excluded.” “My life is for all eternity given to me due to your demise.” At the end of her letter, she writes, “Maybe I wanted to get rid of my imaginary debt to you by giving you an existence which your death had granted me. Or I wanted to make you live and die again in order to be free from you, to leave your shadow behind. To escape.”

It takes one’s breath away if one imagines how Annie Ernaux, as a little child, had to battle with that kind of ghostly presence undermining her own self-value, and that she now has been recognized, at the age of 82, by the Nobel Prize in Literature 2022 worth more than £ 800,000. 

Also American poet Louise Gluck won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she too a replacement child, who has explored her family and childhood issues in a candid manner, examining how her life was impacted by the death of her sister which overshadowed her life.

This fate of being received into a family struck by grief and having to make up with one’s life for an absent sibling affects millions of people. Not all replacement children can become writers or can dream of receiving a Nobel Prize. But they can read these works and feel recognized in their searching for a life of their own.