[Seven Stories Press; 2022]
Tr. from the French by Alison L. Strayer
Annie Ernaux is having a good year, at least career-wise. She won the Nobel Prize for literature and soon after visited New York City for a sold-out event at Albertine bookstore on the Upper East Side. When I showed up an hour early, the line was already snaking around the side of the building. Once inside, there were rooms upon rooms set up with large screens, climbing up from the foyer and first floor to the bookstore itself, and beyond. I snuck into the bookstore and gathered an armful of the French versions of her books that I had not read yet. I sat down and watched Ernaux, small and dressed mostly in black with an elegant coiffed strawberry blonde bob, lean her head in the direction of her interpreter, Nicholas Elliot, as Kate Zambreno posed questions. Once Zambreno and the interpreter finished, Ernaux would look up at Kate, take a moment to compose herself, and look out into the distance as she explained herself in French. Her interpreter waited for her to finish and then translated for the largely English-speaking audience, while Ernaux watched him carefully.
Early in the conversation, Zambreno asks Ernaux about a moment in her book The Happening, in which the narrator goes to the library searching for abortions written about in literature. She does not find anything. Zambreno says that Ernaux had to write into this void. Ernaux replies, as translated by Elliot:
My desire to write never had anything to do with writing a beautiful book or being part of the literary world. Not at all. What I wanted to do was succeed in saying something that belonged to me. No, I don’t want to say belonged to me . . . something that happened to me. This idea that the happening is something that is exterior to me and traverses me, goes through me, and at the same time is not unique, it can traverse other living beings. Writing, for me, has always been to bring to light what happened to me and in a way belongs to me and also traverses me, goes through me. I am the place where an experience demands to be written.
Her newest title out in an English translation from Seven Stories press, Getting Lost (Se perdre), reflects this preoccupation. The book is a translation directly from her diaries, an experience that demanded to be written about, and it covers another notable year in Ernaux’s life—the affair with a Soviet diplomat that inspired the book Simple Passion.
Of publishing her diaries, Ernaux writes:
I perceived there was a “truth” in those pages that differed from the one to be found in Simple Passion—something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation . . . I neither altered nor removed any part of the original text while typing it into the computer. For me, words set down on paper to capture the thoughts and sensations of a given moment are as irreversible as time—as time itself.
She also notes that “the outside world is almost totally absent from these pages.” It’s true. The time period of the affair is 1988–1989, and there is very little world news included in the diary. It’s this absence that makes it a type of “oblation.” The passion is captured on the page—this affair is Ernaux’s entire world in this moment. It obliterates all else. The outside world no longer exists. The reader becomes enveloped in this tunnel vision, losing track of the years and months passing by in Ernaux’s entries. Save for the start of each month, each entry is titled with only the day of the week and the numeric date: Wednesday 25, Thursday 26, Friday 27. We, too, start to see each entry as just a countdown to the next appearance of Ernaux’s lover—referred to only as S.
I smiled to see references to Anna Karenina in the pages of Getting Lost, as it is the same book that I reference in my own diaries from a past in which I thought what I was experiencing was love but was in reality a simple passion. Vestiges of this passion pop up in my own writing even now. Anna Karenina is a decent lens through which to weigh a passion—there’s Anna, a married woman with children, brought low by passion and there’s Vronsky, young and free to live without the consequences of his affair. Ernaux’s S is married, but one gets the impression that even if he were to be caught by his wife, there may not be any repercussions. He is chiefly worried about his career as he is presumably involved with cultural affairs between France and Russia, and Ernaux is an established writer, a guest at cultural Russian embassy events.
Like Anna, Ernaux is older than her lover. She’s a mother, she’s had a life before him. This distinction is important throughout the book. In Getting Lost, mothering and sex are frequently mentioned on the same page. Ernaux is the older, more experienced woman to S. She teaches him about sex. She gives herself over to him selflessly, not unlike a mother to her son. She loves him, puts her life on hold for him, attends to his every need. As a reader (and a mother) myself, I can’t help but see the lines blur in Ernaux’s gaze upon S. She writes, “I sense he has rediscovered a state of mind from adolescence, maybe earlier—a fantasy. I’m happy to help him relive it, plunge back into his childhood with him . . . Role of the initiatrix, the mother who dispenses pleasure.” And in a later entry: “I’m both mother and whore. I’ve always liked to play all the roles.” This dynamic is vulnerable. Ernaux pines for S and thinks of him nearly constantly between their trysts (the proof of which is the book itself), but we don’t really know what S is doing. It’s never clear to Ernaux if she means anything to him. In the preface to Getting Lost that she wrote in 2000, she states that if asked about her, it’s possible that S would say, “I only saw her to get my rocks off.” S is thirty-five at the time of their affair but there is a juvenile aspect to him, down to his ill-fitting underwear and tendency to leave his socks on during sex. At the time, Ernaux’s two sons are young men, perhaps not far off in age from S himself, and though they live on their own now, S has stepped into their places as the center of Ernaux’s focus and she resumes a mothering role by assuming some caretaking of S. She worries about him. She makes sure that she always has the liquor that he likes, and the cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. She allows him to be selfish in lovemaking and asks nothing of him in return. Between their meetings, she waits for him to call, consumed by it. Not unlike a mother left bereft by her empty nest.
If you haven’t read Simple Passion yet, read Getting Lost first. I read them one after another and was fascinated to see laid bare the way that Ernaux’s life and diaries evolved into her art. Though she told S that she would not write about him, she is drawn back in and fictionalizes him as A in Simple Passion. She writes, “when I began to write, I wanted to stay in that age of passion, when all of my actions—from the choice of a film to the selection of a lipstick —were channeled towards one person.” Ernaux’s lover—S, later A—remains unknowable. We will never know his side of their affair and we don’t need to. What Ernaux unfurls in both books, though, especially in Getting Lost, is the vulnerability and excitement in losing oneself in living for another. Everyone should be so lucky to be wholly consumed at least once in life, and if you have been, then Getting Lost will bring you back there for better or worse.
Kaycie Hall is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn, NY by way of Jackson, MS. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Bennington College. Her work has appeared in Autofocus, Neutral Spaces and Triangle House Review among other places.
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