The critically-acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux is fast becoming one of my favourite chroniclers of the female experience. She writes with remarkable honesty, clarity and a note of vulnerability about various aspects of life, including adolescence, lovemaking, abortion and family. Throughout her work there is an interest in broader society, from social development and progression, to the relationship between individual and collective experiences.
In Simple Passion (which clocks in at just under 40 pages), Ernaux reflects on the emotional impact of her two-year affair with an attractive married man in the late 1980s. Ernaux is approaching fifty at this time, while her lover — a smart, well-dressed Eastern European with a resemblance to Alain Delon — is thirteen years younger. The passion she feels for this man – referred to as ‘A’ in the book – is all-consuming, to the extent where virtually everything she does revolves around their liaison.
I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment. (p. 13)
All other activities — work, reading, the routines of day-to-day life — are for Ernaux simply a means of filling in time between their hastily-arranged meetings. He communicates with her by phone, often at short notice, whenever an opportunity arises for him to get away.
What Ernaux does so well here is to convey the emotional impact of living her life almost entirely to fit around the availability of her lover. She captures the uncertainly of waiting by the phone, not knowing when he will call; the rush to get dressed and put on make-up once she knows he is about to come; their pleasurable afternoons of lovemaking; and the overwhelming rush of fatigue she experiences once he’s gone – swiftly followed by the pain of absence.
As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away: I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was – a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum. (p. 16)
Ernaux is not giving us an objective, factual account of a liaison here; as far as she is concerned, the most important thing is to reflect the key determinant of her mood, i.e. the distinction between the absence and the presence of her lover. Similarly, she has no desire to search for the origins of her passion in her past or recent history, nor does she seek to rationalise or justify this experience — only to capture and convey it through her prose.
As ever with Ernaux, the approach is deeply introspective, moving seamlessly between her recollections of the ‘feel’ of the affair and the process of writing about it here. There are times when Ernaux feels she is living out her passion in a similar way to writing a book, channelling her natural determination to capture every scene correctly, with the same attention to detail without lessening or diluting the desire.
During all this time, I felt I was living out my passion in the manner of a novel, but now I am not sure in which style I am writing about it, whether in the style of a testimony, or possibly even the sort of confidence that can be found in women’s magazines, maybe a manifesto or a statement, or perhaps a critical commentary. (p. 21)
Throughout their affair, this man becomes an obsession of sorts for Ernaux, prompting her to actively avoid things that prevent her from basking in the pleasures of passion. Nevertheless, after six months or so, Ernaux becomes convinced that ‘A’ is seeing another woman, to the extent that she cannot enjoy his company in quite the same way when he reappears. In truth, she dreads his eventual departure, and her pleasure in the moment becomes tinged with future pain. On the one hand, there is a longing to end the affair so as not to suffer further, but on the other, the emptiness that ultimately lies ahead proves a powerful deterrent.
In time, ‘A’ leaves France to return to his home nation, leaving Ernaux to pick up the threads of her life. At first, the pain is unbearable and she no longer cares if she lives or dies. While the act of writing doesn’t diminish the impact of her loss, it does offer an outlet for her thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, there is an element of vulnerability here, a slight reluctance to share something private, potentially attracting questions or judgements from others.
To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But now that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, an emotion I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion or writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgement and the ‘normal’ values of society. (pp. 43–44)
As with Happening, her remarkable book on sourcing an illegal abortion in the early 1960s, Ernaux hopes to create something meaningful and universal from her experiences, capturing emotions that may prove useful to others.
Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal. Maybe I would also like them to live out these very emotions in turn, forgetting that they had once read about them somewhere. (p. 41)
Once again, the writing is clear, precise and emotionally truthful. There is a beauty to Ernaux’s prose – a degree of elegance that belies its simplicity.
In summary then, this is an exquisite book by a very accomplished writer – so honest, so insightful, so true. Best read in one sitting to maximise the impact.
Simple Passion is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.
I missed out on Ernaux while living in France and am now slightly hampered by my desire to read her in the original (no disrespect to the translator). Maybe I can find her at my university library. Incidentally, there was an amusing rant about autofiction and its growing popularity in France in the film I saw last night, Victoria by Justine Triet. Labelled as a comedy, it reminded me a little too much of the lives of friends of mine, single mums working so hard and being let down by everyone around them.
Oh, I can totally understand that. If I had your fluency in French I would be keen to do the same. Fingers crossed that your Uni library has some of them. Or there’s The European Bookshop on Gloucester Road, if you decide to buy one or two…
Funnily enough, I watched In Bed with Victoria a while ago – earlier this year, I think, when they had a mini-spotlight on Virginie Efira’s performances. There’s also the Olivier Assayas film ‘Non-Fiction’, which I think you may have seen? That definitely has a lot of fun with the whole autofiction phenomenon – and some nods to Laure from Engrenages/Spiral, too, through Juliet Binoche’s character!
Great review as ever, Jacqui and I totally agree – what a powerful writer she is, and yet as she’s exploring her experiences she always reflects on the effect on her memories that her writing is having. I read it in one sitting too, and emotional impact of her obsession and her experiences was unforgettable.
Yes, I love the way she intertwines the two. In the hands of another writer, that could come across as ponderous or self-indulgent, but that really isn’t the case here – it all feels so natural and driven by a curiosity to understand rather than narcissism or self-importance. I’m keen to read the accompanying diary now as it’s bound to add more layers!
Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
Sounds like a passionate and deeply engaging read- these Fitzcarraldo Editions are good.
Yes, exactly! And you’re right about Fitzcarraldo. Whoever makes their selections is doing such a terrific job. They all sound so fascinating, the non-fiction titles in particular.
This sounds so powerful! And I didn’t know there was a European Bookshop – do you happen to know if it does children’s / YA as my Spanish is not quite There yet …
I don’t know, Liz, but here’s a link to their website if you’d like to have a browse:
Thank you and it looks like they do, and graded readers and all sorts. Brilliant!
Cool. I’m glad it’s useful.
This sounds incredibly powerful and emotional. It’s testament to a good writer that she manages to do so much in so few pages. I have read several reviews now of Ernsux’s work. I will keep her in mind for future reading.
Yes, I had to double check the page count at the end because it felt more like 60 pages in terms of impact. (The book actually starts on page 11, so you have to take that into account when looking at the page numbers.)
As for Ernaux, I think she’s a remarkable writer –very clear-eyed and unflinching — but her style might not be to everyone’s tastes. Maybe download a sample on your kindle if you’re thinking of trying her at some point? Then you can see how you get on. I also found The Years quite different in style to her other (shorter) books, such as this one and Happening. The Years feels more distanced in certain respects as it’s partly a collective biography of Ernaux’s generation and their lives in France from a variety of perspectives – social, political, cultural and sexual. So, while it does touch on some of Ernaux’s own experiences, they’re set with in the broader context of her generation as a whole. It’s beautifully written, but the style is quite particular and takes a bit of getting used to. In truth, I actually prefer these shorter, more personal accounts of various experiences in her life (e.g. Simple Passion and Happening), but both styles are worth sampling to see what might suit.
Oh dear, l am out of it. I hadn’t heard of Ernaux. This sounds powerful but it also almost too intense. It doesn’t come across as self-indulgent? Or is that the point?
It’s definitely intense, but I didn’t find it self-indulgent. She has a way of writing about these experiences without making them seem narcissistic or egocentric. Naturally, there’s a certain degree of self-absorption, but that’s true of pretty much any memoir that focuses on the writer’s own life or personal experiences, especially when they’re as intimate as this. But the way Ernaux writes about them, while also reflecting on the acting of writing itself, suggests a genuine curiosity to me – and a desire to convey the universal in the personal. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that she hopes readers will find something that resonates with their own personal experiences? Either way, I think she’s a very skilled writer!
Thanks Jacqui … I need to check her out obviously. I do like writers who also reflect on the act of writing,
She’s worth trying, for sure.
I loved The Years and admired the way she linked her own life to the events of history. I’d have to say I feel rather uneasy about the full confessional writings.
That’s fascinating to hear, as I actually prefer these shorter, more personal accounts of certain aspects of her life to the collective biography approach of The Years. The latter is incredibly skilled and accomplished, but I prefer the more objective (less lyrical?) style of these confessional pieces – a good way of describing them, Gert! Still, I think we agree that she’s a very gifted writer :)
Annie Ernaux is a writer I read for the first time this past summer and as you describe so well, found her intense and frank about experiences that wouldn’t be all that easy to share with people she knows, much less write down and publish them. There’s a part of me that worries about her being so honest in this age of SM, and part of me admires her bravery.
Yes, good point about the social media age. I just checked the timeline on this one, and it was first published in French in 1991, with Tanya Leslie’s translation following in 2003. As you say, were in a completely different age now in terms of social media, but also in terms of sexual attitudes, perceptions of female desire and readers’ responses towards autofictional accounts of this nature. I suspect she would still have the desire to write about these things today. As you say, there’s a bravery to being this honest about such intimate experiences, and she strikes me as being steely enough to do it. Plus, the environment is probably more receptive to it now than in the early ’90s. I wonder what the reaction was on publication back then!
I’m just about to read Getting Lost, the diary she kept of the affair described in Simple Passion – it will be interesting to compare the two. It also reminds me of Doris Lessing’s Love, Again about falling on love when you are older (a much longer book of course!)
Oh, excellent. I’ll be interested to hear how you think it compares! It’s my ‘to read’ pile (now dangerously out of control), but I really wanted to start with Simple Passion as it was published first. Thanks, also, for the tip on the Lessing. I still haven’t read her, but maybe it’s best to start elsewhere – possibly her book On Cats, which really appeals!
She’s definitely an author I want to try. The passages you chose are so crystalline, just stunning. Wonderful review Jacqui!
Crystalline, what a great description of her style! Thanks, Madame Bibi. I’m glad you feel like trying her at some point. Her slim books are quite easy to get into, so plenty of possible starting points there.
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I’ve been curious about Annie Ernaux’s work for quite some time, so read your review with great interest. I actually started The Years some time ago, but put it aside — as you said in a comment, her style can take some getting used to, and I wasn’t in the mood at that particular time. After your review, I’m thinking I should try one of her shorter works before returning to Years.
I’d definitely you recommend you give one of the shorter ones a try. Simple Passion would be a good one as it’s very short and focused, almost like an extended essay in many respects, so you’d be able tell quite quickly if it’s for you. :)
And now she’s won the Nobel!
Yes, indeed. I’m thrilled!
All I can say is, where have I been?
This sounds like she’s captured the feelings that she was going through almost as though she were going through it at the moment of writing; not everyone can do that even if they are close or indeed put them across entirely frankly as she appears to have done. I have one of hers on my TBR–Do What They Say Or Else. I meant to read it for WIT month but it never worked out. Nonetheless I hope to get to her sooner than later.
Yes, exactly! Interestingly, Fitzcarraldo has just published Geting Lost, her diary covering the duration of the affair, so I’m hoping to read that as my next Ernaux to see how it compares. The honesty really comes through in her writing as she lays herself bare while retaining a degree of detachment. So it never feels melodramatic or overindulgent (to me at least)…
I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of Do What They Say or Else, especially as it’s an Ernaux I haven’t across before. Fingers crossed you’ll get an opportunity (and be in the right mood) to read it soon.
Do What They Say is a review copy so I will be reading it soonish. Published by the University of Nebraska Press
Oh, cool. I shall keep an eye out for your review. :)
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