The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

Born in Normandy in 1940, Ms. Ernaux has declared that she is an “ethnologist of herself” in her autobiographical approach to writing. She often refers to Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu,” and the Swedish Academy described her style as “uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean.”

Her breakthrough came with her fourth book, 1983’s “La place,” or “A Man’s Place.” It was a spare portrayal of her father and the society that formed him. In a slim hundred pages, she sharpened her approach, taking a dispassionate voice to distance herself from what she has described as the poetry of memory. In the subsequent book, “La honte,” or “Shame,” she began with the unvarnished line to describe her father’s sudden rage: “My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.”

Other works include the similarly spare first-person narrative of the 23-year-old narrator’s abortion, “L’événement,” or “Happening,” before it became legal in France, in 1975. It was made into a movie of the same title, winning the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film Festival last year.

“It is a ruthlessly honest text, where in parentheses she adds reflexions in a vitally lucid voice, addressing herself and the reader in one and the same flow,” the academy said. “In the spaces in between, we are in the time of writing, 25 years after the ‘event’ took place, making even the reader intensely part of what once happened.”

Ms. Ernaux wasn’t aware that she had been awarded the prize when it was announced. The academy said she couldn’t immediately be reached, but expected that the news would reach her soon.

Last year’s winner was Zanzibar-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.