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Getting Lost by Annie Ernaux

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

French writer Annie Ernaux is the latest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. While her fiction and autobiographical accounts are standard texts in French schools, other parts of the world often wait decades for translations of her works into English. UK publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions has been republishing her translated works and is now using Allen & Unwin to distribute works into Australia and New Zealand.

Getting Lost was originally published in 2001 and is intimately linked to her earlier work called Simple Passion, published a decade before.

Simple Passion tells the story of a year-long affair with a married Russian attaché to the Soviet embassy in Paris. Getting Lost is her actual diary of that period, her most intimate and uninhibited thoughts and feelings about the affair. As the Nobel judges noted her “courage and clinical acuity” are her outstanding accomplishment. Few would dare to be so open and unabashed on the page. So vulnerable. This is a 48-year-old woman, a divorced mother of two adult sons, at times sounding more like a sex-starved teenager. Her concluding diary entry says everything, “There is this need I have to write something that puts me in danger, like a cellar door that opens and must be entered, come what may.”

It is easy to forget the time before mobile phones when it was possible to be uncontactable for weeks. Ernaux’s diary wallows in that long wait for a phone call. She succumbs to fears of rejection, abandonment, replacement by another and the knowledge that her lover is already married. She never phones him, but constantly waits for his next call or next visit. For a while, she is so engrossed in events that she is unable to write anything, but it is not long before observations like this return, “I don’t make love like a writer, that is, in a removed way, or while thinking, ‘I can use this in a book.’ I always make love like it were the last time (and who’s to say it isn’t?), simple as a living being.”

Simple Passion is described as fiction and lasts a mere 37 pages, while her diary stretches to 230. Thirty pages into the diary she says, “The beauty of the whole affair lies in its continual uncertainty.” But the pain that soon begins to pour onto the page makes the reader question how long she felt that way. Shortly afterwards she offers a breakdown of the direction that all her relationships take:

“My relationships with men follow this invincible course:

a) initial indifference, even disgust

b) ‘illumination’, more or less physical

c) happy relations, fairly controlled, even spells of boredom

d) suffering, infinite lack

And then comes the time (I’m there now) when the pain is so all-consuming that moments of happiness are nothing more than future pain, they increase the pain.

e) The last step is separation, before arriving at the most perfect stage of all: indifference.”

Her self-awareness is shocking. She has been here before and knows exactly what is coming. Throughout the book, the Russian lover is referred to only as ‘S’. Previous lovers are also reduced to an initial, as she recalls encounters in the 1960s and early ‘80s. In her novel, the Russian becomes ‘A’, as though reduced a second time, first from name to initial, then to false initial.

At one point, Ernaux thinks back to 1958, when she was 18:

“I hoped to grow more ‘beautiful’, cultivated, self-assured in another year, or two or three years (and it happened). Now I can only grow more withered and flabby. All I can hope for is to write more ‘beautiful’ books, obtain more ‘glory’. From where I stand today, this prospect has no sparkle.”

Although the diary contains plenty of repetition, fear of abandonment and replacement constantly bubbling to the surface, the ever-present observations on her own fragility more than compensate. “I was playing the role of ‘extra’ in my own life for the entire year.” is the sort of gem that bursts from the page. By the time the affair is over and S has returned to Russia without even a goodbye, it is time for her to turn to writing the story as a novel, something she told S she would never do. How pleased we are she chose to ignore her promise.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Fitzcarraldo Editions


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