‘Palimpself’: exploring the work of Annie Ernaux through art

Victoria Lee
Friday 23 February 2024

Coming to the Byre Theatre in October 2024 is an art exhibition entitled ‘Palimpself’, exploring the relationship between language, memory, and materiality in the work of Nobel prize-winning French author Annie Ernaux. The exhibition will feature artwork by sculptor and academic Susan Diab, and will coincide with the first English-speaking conference on Ernaux’s works – Annie Ernaux’s Years: A Global Perspective (1974-2024) – as well as the School of Modern Languages’ Festival of Languages. The project is developed by Dr Elise Hugueny-Léger of the School of Modern Languages, in collaboration with Dr Fabien Arribert-Narce of the University of Edinburgh.


Annie Ernaux is a contemporary French author who has received global acclaim – and the 2022 Nobel prize for literature – for her explorations of themes such as social inequality, intimate relationships, and time and memory, as well as how to write about these themes. From A Man’s Place (1983), a bittersweet account of her father’s life, to The Years (2008), a sweeping ‘hybrid’ memoir and socio-cultural history of France over the course of her lifetime, Ernaux’s work has resonated with vast audiences, generating a significant readership and body of scholarship. 

Annie Ernaux. Image credit: Catherine Hélie, Gallimard.

Hugueny-Léger is a world-leading expert in the autobiographical works of Annie Ernaux: she has been invited to every major conference on Ernaux, created and runs the bilingual website www.annie-ernaux.org, and has discussed Ernaux extensively in the media and public events. Arribert-Narce’s expertise is in the relationship between text and visuals in Ernaux’s photographic work, and Diab’s sculpture highlights the concepts of experience and representation through visual and verbal forms. As such, their combined backgrounds prompted a discussion about how to visually represent the themes of materiality and authorial position in Ernaux’s work to broad public audiences.

Exhibition and influence

The exhibition will feature artwork by Diab that is created in response to Ernaux’s writing and related scholarship and research. Beyond its visual appeal, the artwork aims to inspire viewers to consider their relationship to objects, places, and how their life experiences are both affected and reflected in this relationship. In this way, the exhibition seeks to bring the complexities of Ernaux’s writings to broader general audiences without over-simplifying her ideas: through transforming literature into a visual form, visitors regardless of literary or language background can experience a sense of Ernaux’s writing, perhaps even inspiring them to explore her work further. To that end, accompanying the display will be a behind-the-scenes illustration of the creative process, as well as a ‘Meet the Artist’ talk with Diab on the 9th of October. Finally, public writing workshops will be run by Hugueny-Léger, which aim to inspire viewers of all ages and backgrounds to explore their own creativity as well as Ernaux’s works.

Image: ‘Palimpself: a sculptural investigation into materiality in the works of Annie Ernaux’, ©Susan Diab 2024

Beyond the general public, the exhibition will also serve as a reference for the coinciding conference on Ernaux’s work, as well as a potential teaching resource in the School of Modern Languages, in which academics and students can gain insight into how Ernaux’s works can be read and interpreted through visual forms.

Much acclaim for Ernaux’s writing has been due to its ‘universal’ quality, with her autobiographies reaching wide audiences as she bridges personal experiences with wider socio-political contexts. In expressing this sense of connection, Diab’s exhibition at the Byre has potential to speak to a range of diverse viewers, encouraging them to reflect on their memories, life, and art. 

Feature Image Credit: Catherine Hélie, Gallimard

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