During the year I lived in France, I read Annie Ernaux insatiably. For months, I returned to the library to get her books, one copy after another. Faced with the loneliness of living abroad, I threw myself into reading. Into Ernaux. I liked the way she juxtaposed a detached style with intimate stories. Those stripped-down sentences gave me an easy way to practice French. At the same time, her autobiographical books offered me the space to see my own life anew. When I finally got to Se Perdre (the French title of Getting Lost, translated by Alison L. Strayer), I recognized my own aimless obsession for Ernaux’s books in her insatiable desire for her lover. With both of us turned inward, I recognized this driving force behind her writing: obsession. To understand the past, to keep it close in order to make sense of the present.
Getting Lost consists entirely of diary entries from the two years she had an affair with a much younger married man, S. It records her unrequited passion and eventual heartbreak, through which S becomes a vessel for Ernaux to meditate on eroticism, longing, and what she chooses to preserve in writing.
There she was: waiting for him, all day, unwilling to do anything but lust. And there I was: in bed, all day, unwilling to do anything but read. That was how we spent several months.
Ernaux’s books tend to lay bare both her body and her family: L’événement (2000) relayed her illegal abortion, and La Place (1983) concerned her father’s life and her own alienation from her family’s working-class upbringing. She documents these experiences with unemotional precision, ruthlessly covering such private subjects because, as she explains in L’événement, she would otherwise be “guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.” She doubled down on the importance of documentation in Getting Lost: “that which remains unsaid does not exist.”
So she allows us to watch her make sense of an affair and its devastating end. “Desire not exhausted but continually renewed, with greater pain and power,” she writes of her feelings for S. “I think the word for it now is passion.” When one day he grabs her open pack of Marlboros on his way out her door, she recognizes how he takes advantage of her, then counters, “but what do you do without a man, without a life?” Often, she describes sex with him in very frank terms: “Tonight, anal sex for the first time. Good that the first time was with him.” Recalling Proust’s law of desire, which is never to show too much love, she laments that S can follow this law instinctively. She alone helplessly imbues all her gestures with love.
Getting Lost is not the diary entries of Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic; those emphatic aphorisms on the nature of existence and the intellectual benefits of suffering. No, here is an unfiltered look into the mind of a woman capable of a deep obsession. “I should not reread this journal, it is sheer horror,” she acknowledges with some irony, considering it’s now been published. Tucked into her thoughts about S are meditations on her life’s work and its relationship to sex. “All that attracts him is my status as a writer, my ‘glory,’ and all those things that are built on my suffering, my failure at living, the very forces at play in our relationship.” Because suffering serves as the core of her work, she cannot accept admiration for her writing. She is self-deprecating and deeply aware of her situation as a writer, as when S hopes she will write a book while they are together so he can be proud of her, “that is, himself.”
Yet despite the supposed allure she holds for him, she plays an entirely passive role in their relationship: she waits for his calls for nearly two years, rarely acting of her own accord. If the paintings of Renoir could speak, it would be through these diaries. Early on, she says, “I am a voracious woman—really, that is the only fairly accurate thing that can be said of me.” It’s a provocative statement that these journals never disprove, yet through her voracity, she becomes something more: a reflective writer willing to put her unabashed suffering to the page. Between the stripped-down sentences, she allows herself to acknowledge that something as simple as sex has destroyed her. “It’s not much of a story, just a layer of egocentric suffering. Yet I know that it is through this layer of suffering that I communicate with the rest of humanity.” It’s not a typical story, even for Ernaux, perhaps because most others have too much pride to publish such unfiltered thoughts. In this way, the book’s greatest weakness—its self-indulgence—is also its greatest strength.
Even when the Berlin Wall falls, she references it as an aside before wondering how this major political event could impact S. To include this fact is to acknowledge that what she records in her journal systematically ignores the world beyond. Everything relates back to him, even one of the biggest political events of the decade. Or, to paraphrase a quote she borrows from Borges, all that really happens happens to her.
The end of their love affair, because it is of life and not of fiction, provides no closure for Ernaux or the reader. S simply leaves the country, and Ernaux refuses to accept his departure. Dozens of pages are dedicated to her plan to get his attention by writing him a postcard abroad, only for him never to reply. Eventually, Ernaux wakes up one day and chooses to write. It was, it seems, her only way forward. I, too, eventually stopped reading and went outside, finding that the ground had thawed and spring, so reliable, had returned. Life moves on. And we are swept away with it, willingly or not.
by Annie Ernaux, t.r. Alison L. Strayer
Seven Stories Press
Published October 4th, 2022
Brianna Di Monda is an editor for the Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Worms Magazine, and Full Stop, among others.