At a 2021 study day devoted to her work at the National Library of France, an audience member in the packed auditorium asked Annie Ernaux — the author of over a dozen mainly autobiographical books — what had made her write her radically frank account of a consuming love affair, Simple Passion (1991). Her answer combined the straightforwardness and vulnerability which defines her style: “Well, passion,” Ernaux responded, with a casual shrug of her shoulders. She offered no further explanation. Getting Lost, published in French in 2001 but translated into English earlier this year, is a series of diary entries and the source material for Simple Passion.
Ernaux, who at the beginning of October was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, has always maintained a rigorous anti-pretentiousness with regards to her long, increasingly esteemed, writing career. Born to working-class parents in a humble town in Normandy in 1940, the aim of her writing has been to record lives rarely represented in bourgeois literary culture. Her books, which she refuses to label as either fiction or nonfiction, take as their subject the lives of ordinary people as they unfold in supermarkets, on commuter trains, and in doctors’ waiting rooms rather than the upper-middle-class cafés of Paris-Saint-Germain.
In another respect, too, Ernaux’s work has violated some of the conventions of her contemporaries (the “new novelists” Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras): she has attempted to make her writing useful to her reader — an unusual concern in a French literary world dominated by aesthetes obsessed with the idea of art for art’s sake. Instead, her writing is a tool to help readers feel less alienated by attempting to describe class and sex in ways that hold together structure and subjective experience.
Ernaux had originally kept the diary entries which became Getting Lost to record, savor, and “kill time” between meetings with her lover (a younger, married Russian diplomat assigned to Paris in the late 1980s, here called “S.”). The result is a stylistic departure from the laser-cut prose with which the author established her voice in works such A Man’s Place (1983) and A Woman’s Story (1988). Getting Lost expands upon the original recounting of the affair in Simple Passion, an aphoristic, eighty-page account which was largely mocked by critics in France as “chick-lit” or as “a little girl’s grocery list.”
Leaving aside the patronizing tone of the French publishing industry, even the most ardent Ernaux reader might debate the author’s choice to publish the digressive, possibly repetitive, and steeply self-exposing Getting Lost. Yet this is neither the decision of a willful exhibitionist nor a provocateur — in the style of Georges Bataille or the Marquis de Sade — eager to antagonize the establishment at whatever price.
For Ernaux, turning to the minutiae of everyday experience is a way of avoiding the preciousness of a detached writerly persona that seeks to speak in universal tones about its subject or pass moral judgement on the world. Her work, depicting complex topics like abortion, caring for an ailing parent, and maternal ambivalence, has consistently shown that neither stance is consistently sustainable.
In publishing her diaries, she writes that she “neither altered or 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.” Left unaltered in the raw materials of the initial notebooks are a number of unsavory pronouncements which do not show the author at her most saintly. She expresses frustration at the “boredom” of “exclusively female gatherings” and in an offhand, harshly judgmental aside describes lesbian women as “[choosing] the path of least resistance.” These comments chafe uncomfortably against Ernaux’s crowning, especially in the Anglophone literary sphere, as a feminist author first and foremost, and again raise the question of what the goals of such unflattering self-depictions are.
Ernaux’s primary allegiance as a writer — even to the point, she admits, of “danger,” “risk,” and all-consuming “obsession” — is to sentences of uncompromising and forensic truth, rather than to “politics” per se, especially of the identity-forming kind. Within the nonliterary world, Ernaux has been a committed partisan, both of the Yellow Vests movement and of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. She sees no contradiction being willing to think in a serious unconstrained way about the complexities of interpersonal relationships and standing unequivocally behind the oppressed.
Accordingly, she has bristled at attempts by readers and critics to reduce her work to a simple expression of some kind of political identity. “I don’t write with my uterus,” she once famously said, fatigued by always being termed a “woman writer,” “I write with my brain.” The purpose of Getting Lost’s exposure of her most uncensored thinking is to affirm her radical commitment to honesty, however coarse.
Another of her work’s ambitions is to insist on the idea that moral judgements about the complexities of human lives are inherently ideological. In this respect, Ernaux’s amoralism is part and parcel of her contempt of elite culture, which smuggles in its partisan judgements about the world under intellectual guises. In a striking passage midway through the work, she makes clear her contempt for high-blown theorizing:
I don’t like so-called intellectual conversations, which in fact are so full of ideology and beliefs that they are infinitely more false than simple banter […] everything connected to feelings and experience.
Ernaux’s project could be summed as moving from the abstract ideological world of intellectual moralizing, masquerading as culture, to the physical concreteness of “feelings and experience.” These may end up being ugly or unfashionable, but this is a risk Ernaux is willing to take for the sake of their documentation.
On a trip to London, eschewing theaters and museums, she states even more explicitly: “I’m not a culture hound. The only thing that matters to me is to seize life and time, understand, and take pleasure.” This frankness — a combination of a lack of pretentiousness and awareness of the banality of most human experience — often leads to comic observations. In another passage she remarks, “I tell myself I’ve wasted a year of my life, and money, on a man who asks as he is leaving if he can take the open pack of Marlboros.”
In the English-speaking world, Ernaux’s Nobel appointment on October 6 was met with euphoria, reflected in the staggering numbers which turned out — and queued — to see the author read at Albertine bookshop in Manhattan on a recent trip to the United States. Yet in France, her achievement has not been so unequivocally endorsed. It has instead prompted snideness and displays of the unbearable snobberies of France’s literary elite for which Ernaux has had little patience throughout her career.
Many commentators thought that it was Michel Houellebecq’s time to be awarded the accolade, or, alternatively, given his recent tragic circumstances, Salman Rushdie’s. Even the French radio station France Inter, on whose programs Ernaux was invited multiple times the week of her historic win, chose to introduce her as “Annie Ernaux, the 16th French author to receive the Nobel,” when the much more obvious headline would have been, “Annie Ernaux, the first French woman author to receive the Nobel.” Although Ernaux has declared herself against “ghettoizing” writers, to bypass this monumental detail felt neglectful at best and derisory at worst.
Neither interested in depicting herself or other people as “good” or “bad” (a hobby of much “left-wing writing,”) nor in art purely as stylistic exercise, Ernaux’s literary project is — for one who has written so much on the decisive force of social placements — strikingly unplaceable. Getting Lost, more starkly than her other books, prompts the thorny question: How is Ernaux teaching us to read, if not for moral instruction? Her (French) detractors have decried her as subserviently woke in her fierce support of reproductive rights and the gilets jaunes. Yet the cruder pronouncements of Getting Lost reveal a writer clearly unafraid of potential “cancellation.”
In its copious descriptions of sexual positions and encounters, it is tempting to assign the book as an unabashed portrait of sensual hedonism. Yet the terms “self-annihilation” and “self-abasement” appear too frequently for it to be a purely carnal celebration of erotic joy. Unlike the “engaged literature” of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, which strived to make novels political manifestos, Getting Lost portrays the pleasure of dissolving personal and partisan identity in the name of more objective, universal truths. In her desire to accurately “seize” experience, Ernaux gets straight to the point. In so doing, she captures the complexities of human life without apology or shame.
Alice Blackhurst is a writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian and the Paris Review, amongst other venues.
This article was first published on Jacobin.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons