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Annie Ernaux’s Total Novel of Life

On the French writer’s revelatory diaries

On May 27 (I verify the date in my diary), H and I meet in the early evening at a theater off the L train to see Happening, Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s unflinching account of an illegal abortion in 1960s France. We order frozen drinks, get a little buzz on; afterward, we stumble from the darkness into the still, clear, perfectly blue light of early summer, a bit wordless, a bit dazed. Less than a month after this night, the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse almost fifty years of legal precedent by overturning Roe, and Happening’s reemergence in the cultural imaginary will be transformed from historical artifact to signal flare. These events, I know, are not teleologically linked, yet they speak back to one another, are attached in my mind to the same strange membrane. Their temporal proximity collapses the space between disparate eras; the narrative of a young woman’s distant past again made immediate, speaking truth to an entirely contemporary horizon of experience.

To read Ernaux often feels this way: in her exhaustive reckonings with her own life, one finds a search for lost time that exposes the unstable bounds and incoherencies of meaning in our own narratives of its passing. In a moment, as Ernaux has written, when technology and socio-digital media have rendered the “obscurity of previous centuries” obsolete and made it so that those of us still living are beginning to be “resurrected ahead of time,” her meticulous campaign of recording a “total novel” of life imagines narrative beyond the vicissitudes of temporality, deliberately attendant to the unreliable, stuttering nature of remembrance. Ernaux imparts on her reader a sense that memory, like any other knowledge system, is an infinitely changeable field, one given astonishing density by, but not reducible to, the individual experience.

This is the disarming closeness one encounters when brushing up against her work. Though oriented through the needle’s eye of her particular world, her nearly sociological sensibility and investment in generating collective feeling dress her accounts of one woman’s life in uncanny familiarity. The critic Joanna Biggs has professed of this “palimpsestic” affect, “I feel—and I can’t be alone in this—that Ernaux embraces my own story.” Across over twenty books and for the better part of the last five decades, Ernaux has gathered, broken, and reassembled the infinite, singular matter of her history—alongside the history of France in the aftermath of two world wars—in search of (as Madeline Schwartz writes in a review of Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story) “a story that is fully continuous, a story without gaps.” Perhaps no other literary figures, save Proust or Knausgaard, have come as near to achieving so Promethean a project.

The dream of a better future will never be borne from the belly of power, out of the people, apparatuses, and institutions that delimit the boundaries of the possible world.

Taxonomizing Ernaux is troublesome—she has historically distanced herself from autofiction, but to identify her as a memoirist feels, too, like a misrecognition made by necessity. Her major hauntings—the aftershocks of war, a traumatic sexual initiation, the abortion, the deaths of her parents, her assimilation into the cultural bourgeoisie—are the happenings of novels, but Ernaux’s crabwise dissection of these events—especially the neutrality with which she regards them, and her sense of them as things to be re-seen, reordered, and reupholstered to reveal additional truths and textures—has always been more occupied with defamiliarization than the sentimental resolutions of much contemporary fiction. She is in fact rather suspicious of memory, and justifiably so, having witnessed her mother’s cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s—a two-year period recorded in I Remain In Darkness, titled for the last sentence her mother wrote. Perhaps it is her dis-ease with recall that explains Ernaux’s propensity to return to subjects on multiple occasions, from multiple angles and forms and with the benefit of further experience.

I am reminded, in Ernaux’s notion of the totalized narrative, of Virginia Woolf’s fixation with transcribing both our “moments of being” (events graced by experiential viscosity, events that puncture life) and all the rest of it: the street hustle, a fuzz of background noise on the bus or the metro, the everydayness, this “cotton wool,” as Woolf understood it, of nonbeing. But if Ernaux seeks a continuous story, her idea of the self nevertheless resists linear and metaphysical unity. Lauren Elkin identifies the subject-I in Ernaux’s work as a sort of socially orchestrated composite, a self that is “distributed across all the places we’ve been and all the people with whom we’ve crossed paths.” In what Edmund White terms her “collective autobiography,” The Years, Ernaux takes this possibility to its logical endpoint, generating a story of the postwar era which is “told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns”—a chronicle focalized through a generational consciousness. Her energy has long been oriented toward the instantiation of “private” life in a broader social and historical circumstance; as she envisions, “All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time. . . . she will capture the lived dimension of History.”

That her private life is also a woman’s life means that much of this work has expressly labored to account for the radical transformations to women’s familial, erotic, and political possibilities over the last fifty years. Though she understands that “signs of collective change cannot be perceived in the specific features of lives,” she nevertheless insists on the integrity of those specificities and the necessity of heeding such singularity. Ernaux suggests that, indeed, the personal is political—not in the contemporary bastardization of the phrase in obeisance to superficial classification systems of identity, but in the sense that the dream of a better future will never be borne from the belly of power, out of the people, apparatuses, and institutions that delimit the boundaries of the possible world. The personal is political, rather, inasmuch as any better world to be had we must dream up ourselves.

At sixteen, Ernaux began, intermittently, to keep a diary: “This trace I’ve tirelessly left behind me.” As she recounts in The Years, the form’s function was for a time inextricable from an inviolable interiority: a diary was to be a strictly individual modality. During the two decades of her marriage, however, Ernaux set it aside, “as if it posed a threat to the family unit and she were no longer entitled to an inner life.” (Of her marriage to Philippe Ernaux, Annie has exposed remarkably little—although a new film, The Super 8 Years, is set to cast further light on this shadowy period with home movies filmed by Philippe at the time and her own narration, a kind of visual novella.) The heterosexual project, in this framing, mandates that woman and her artistry be subsumed by the identities of her husband and children (something countless feminists were attending to in political theory and community consciousness raising groups of the 1970s and 1980s)—but to my sense the more fascinating consequence of this tension is that, after her divorce, Ernaux’s increasingly calcified ambivalence toward conventional marriage recalibrated her understanding of the diary’s function as well. Those writings in turn became permeable to further textual play, the diary now a space where private and public experience, as well as her increasingly multiplicitous recordings of the same events, might echo and interpenetrate one another.

From the 1990s onward, Ernaux has published some of these diaries, revising and expanding our readings of a number of the events reckoned with in her more strictly assembled books through the personal records which captured them as they happened. Things Seen reinscribes the events of the earlier Exteriors; I Remain In Darkness returns to the loss of her mother, previously grieved in A Woman’s Story. Diaries land like alien time-travelers, returned from the long past to refract Ernaux’s allegedly “fixed” works in kaleidoscopic fashion, moving both with and against the chronologic and narratological grain of her previous texts. Biggs has written that Ernaux’s corpus insists “the bare facts, the freely given confessions, are only the start.” And if the bare fact demonstrates itself as an unsettled object which may be uttered or represented in varying (and occasionally conflicting) methods, the confession, as such, may more usefully be a question of how than of what. Ernaux herself has said she views memory now as “inexhaustible,” that is, a story can only ever function as an approximation, a partial exposure of the limitless vision she continues to reach toward.

In 1988, Ernaux began an affair with a man we will come to know only as S—a married Soviet diplomat on temporary assignment in Paris, twelve years her junior. Getting Lost, Alison L. Strayer’s sharp translation of Se perdre, is Ernaux’s diary of this entanglement, its sufferings, and ineluctable dissolution. Though she swears to S that she won’t write about him, by the end of the twenty months recorded in these pages, we witness Ernaux already reshaping the narrative, turning it into the book that would become her first bestseller in France—Simple Passion. The scope of Getting Lost is narrow, utterly transfixed by events of an intimate order. These intimacies become a kind of mythos, hyper-saturated, as if passion were being presented to Ernaux in Technicolor for the very first time. Like her 2002 account of the fallout from another affair, The Possession, this is the document of an erotic obsession, architected almost entirely within various interior caverns: the intrusive thought, the sexual encounter, the domestic space. As she writes in Simple Passion, for most of the duration of her affair with her lover, she does “nothing else but wait for a man”; the remainder of her life is no more than a “means of filling in time between two meetings.” She grows anxious at the possibility of straying beyond the walls of her home—she could miss his call on the landline (remember hanging on the telephone?) and then what? She lives now, as Elkin writes, “in the expectant tense”; her existence is for him; all other meaning passes into nothingness, into the static of the nonbeing.

A story can only ever function as an approximation, a partial exposure of the limitless vision she continues to reach toward.

The consumptive orientation of her passion is, by her own admission, both exhaustive and exhausting. Her mind orbits, and orbits only, the actions and inactions of S, reminiscences of recent fucks with S, and future fantasies of him, both erotic and paranoiac. Little happens otherwise in these pages: “The outside world is almost totally absent.” While the turbulence of the Cold War shrouds the affair in a kind of apocalyptic glamour (by the time we arrive in November of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall shocks the diary back into the world historical), Ernaux’s passion renders her abject. She is exiled to an absented and unstable subjectivity, severed from any imaginative world outside of S. She can’t seem to read; her mind relentlessly lists toward his spectral presence, the sense-memory of his body intermingling with her own. Neither can she seem to write, imperiling her sense of herself as a meaning-maker: “I cannot give up writing the world and for two years I’ve done nothing. I can no longer live like this. Men and writing—a vicious circle.” Though she stubbornly avows that “the truth, the only truth, resides [in] desire,” it is this desire that forecloses her path to truth: it kills her work. Love clouds her mind. In The Years, she writes of her dream that “education is more than just a way to escape poverty. It is a weapon of choice against stagnation in a kind of feminine condition that arouses her pity, the tendency to lose oneself in a man.”

Yet with S, she is lost—despite herself, she is a woman in love. And the woman in love occupies an ontologically precarious position, one which disrupts the coherency of her ego, her autonomous being. To be a discontinuous self is one thing; to not be a self at all entirely another. Near the end of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes, of the gendered imbalance at the heart of heterosexual erotics, that

in their most violent passions, [men] never abandon themselves completely; even if they fall on their knees before the mistresses, they still wish to possess them, annex them; [men] remain sovereign subjects; the woman they love is merely one value among others; they want to integrate her into their existence, not submerge their entire existence in her.

By contrast, for a woman, love is “total abdication for the benefit of a master.” Her passion is idolatrous; man becomes for her a god, the religion to which she lashes her soul. To worship at his altar, any honest regard of man’s fallibility, his insufficiency, or his grotesquerie must be deferred in perpetuity. In Simple Passion, Ernaux writes that with the benefit of hindsight, her lover’s marital status conferred upon her from the outset the “privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end: the man we love is a complete stranger.” But in Getting Lost we see, over and again, Ernaux’s displacement of this knowledge, an insistence on a meticulously fabricated fantasy as capable of sustaining her and S’s passion against all evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, and unsurprisingly, such evidence abounds. The portrait of S cobbled together by the diaries exposes a man who seems to be rather—particularly by comparison to Ernaux’s remarkable breadth of mind and feeling—emotionally and intellectually unexceptional, not to mention an alcoholic and narcissist. For a public communist operative, S is, moreover, shockingly vain, fascinated in the main by Ernaux’s literary celebrity, mesmerized by the glitz of international galas and soirées. He’s a misogynist, though of course this is partly the friction that turns Ernaux on. (“Slave mentality—” she admits, “I’ve got it in me too.”) He doesn’t write. His calls are utilitarian, conducted solely to coordinate sexual liaisons—encounters to which he usually shows up already sauced. But he’s got her on the line. Needless to say, the sex in Getting Lost is fantastic. S is a beast, yes, but the sort of beast whose masculinist, piggish transparency belies a sexual power that radiates from the page. Ernaux’s encoding of their fucks vacillates wildly: at times, sex with S inspires in her a totalizing, metaphysical self-Presence (“I don’t make love like a writer,” she considers at one moment, self-pleased, “that is, in a removed way”). At others the sex is obliterative: her desire “so terrible, so close to a desire for death, an annihilation of self.” And it is this desire which overwhelms, compels submission of both her time and energy; it is never “exhausted but continually renewed.”

This devotion to desire compels Ernaux toward a kind of erotic higher education, a quest to ensure the continuity of the affair by adorning their relations with further sexual innovation, newly glimmering baubles of pleasure. She watches pornography (a scene she transformed into the opening of Simple Passion); she purchases a manual on “techniques of lovemaking” (in cash, naturally, to render it untraceable); she and S test drive every possible configuration of limbs, shapes, anatomies. He is the first man with whom she has anal sex, but each time, each act, she writes—the anticipation of being with him, the sound of his tires on the gravel in the drive—is like the loss of virginity all over again. After he’s gone away, it’s as if she were “still inside his skin, his male gestures.” The condition of their fucking alarmingly effaces her, disturbing the boundaries of gender and the separability of their physical perimeters. (Note that the remainders in his absence, however, are his male gestures, his skin—she has been, as Beauvoir reckoned, handily integrated into his existence.) She is so “caught between fusion and the return to self” that she cannot sleep in the aftermath.

In prose and feeling, Getting Lost is rather anomalous in Ernaux’s corpus, which is esteemed for its spare, removed style: as Elkin writes, its tendency to be “so underwritten in places as to resemble, almost, a psychoanalyst’s case study” (or a wish, as Ernaux herself has identified it, for “Writing sharp as a knife”). If Ernaux is both analyst and analysand, the relation between these identities in her work is disoriented by her proximity to S and the borderland affect of passion. Here she is florid, searching, petty, obsessively self-reflexive about both her identity as a woman—one who may be, she laments, aging beyond her erotic prime, that bounded reservoir of feminine value—and her process as a writer: “I write my love stories and live my books,” she muses. In the diary, she wishes to transcribe every detail, each mise-en-scène, “raising life to the level of a literary novel,” leaving those bare facts of her confessions available to endless rereading.

As a discourse on sex, the explicitness of her extramarital account of pleasure also teases out threads she has only begun to fray elsewhere in her work. In the cluster of texts Ernaux has written on her parents, it seems clear they had no vocabulary for eroticism, which was either unutterable or entirely absent from their household. Beyond her father’s occasional blue joke, sex was a dull expanse of silence. The notion of her mother experiencing the sorts of physical pleasures she herself does is astonishingly alien to Ernaux, for the sexual politics of their world cohered around a laborious maintenance of enforced ignorance and female shame. As she recalls in The Years, for girls who experimented before and outside the bounds of marriage, information on sexual health and contraceptives was virtually nonexistent: “No one [even] knew for sure whether or not they were still virgins.” To avoid pregnancy, she and her friends followed the Ogino method—counting the days of their menstrual cycles—and prayed. Catholic doctrine, and the Church’s sense of what was to be done about and to women’s bodies, violently defined the field of the possible world. The bolder among them snuck to underground Family Planning units to be prescribed diaphragms they had no sense of how to insert. Though the times were changing, the fact remained that, even for the more sophisticated of the young women of Ernaux’s milieu, “having read Simone de Beauvoir was of no use except to confirm the misfortune of having a womb.”

From these humble beginnings, then, Ernaux’s unabashed delight in her own corporeality and the decadent descriptions of her pleasure in Getting Lost appear as insurgent thrills. A recurring attention to sperm (“sperm,” she specifies—among women of her time, phrases like “jerk off” and “come” were for the mouths of men) is emblematic of her insistence on excess. Cum queens of Twitter, relinquish your crowns: already in 1989, Ernaux dreamed of rivers of the stuff running over her, writing of its “sweetness, that smell of bleach, or privet blossom.” She measures how attached she is to a man “through my taste for or loathing of sperm.” (The first time with S in a hotel in Leningrad, she fights the “desire to spit it out in the sink.” One wonders what shifted.) That we again face an era when the gains of feminist and sexual liberationist movements are being reactionarily regressed, Ernaux’s erotic manifesto—and her radical exhortation of the value of foregrounding women’s personal narratives in a public and political context—has perhaps never been more essential in relation to ongoing demands for bodily integrity and autonomy.

Still, in the world of the diary, time passes, indifferent. The bloom of the affair is, in its course, off the rose. Ernaux herself admits mere months into the affair that “only beginnings are truly beautiful.” Soon, in wriggles her suspicion that S’s desire is ebbing, bringing with it the concomitant terror of her own body’s aging: (“This morning, disgust at my arms, which are withering”). Ernaux after all is forty-eight; S, thirty-six. The reflective surface of his youth disappears time—“a young man in one’s bed takes the mind off time and age”—but also holds the terrible power to magnify its effects. “I’ll always be twenty-two in my head and heart . . . [but in] four years I’ll have more wrinkles, I’ll be going through menopause, and he, at forty, will be in his prime.” Fear ferments, is redirected into jealousy toward the wife. “How does he make love to her?” Ernaux wonders, this woman who is flat-chested and squat, a matronly babushka, not at all like the tall, lithe Annie. Then, also, the exhaustion of still being caged within passion’s tiresome tunnel vision—and the terror of undesirability—at the height of one’s feminine power, in the midst of an exceptional literary career: “At twenty or at forty-eight, this is what it all comes down to. But what do you do without a man, without a life?” (The discovery that these anxieties plagued even the inimitable Annie Ernaux opens a horrible door in me: Do these uncertainties await, inevitable, in the shadows of my future? I am mortified.)

The facticity of story, its transgressions, are superficial measures; story is but the vessel through which common feeling travels.

The thin veil between erotic jouissance and the abandonment of the “I” renders Ernaux’s sex diary death-drenched. Desire, like writing, is for Ernaux an experience outside of time; death is time’s ultimate absence. But these are also practical domains, involving, as they do, the matter of the body, the economy of the publishing industry and literary celebrity, the production of narrative from abstraction. Beauvoir (whose death in 1986—a week after Ernaux’s mother’s—is a central haunting in Getting Lost) understood implicitly that the philosophical trouble of the woman-in-love is both existentialist and materialist. The Second Sex sought to articulate woman’s dialectical composition as Other to man throughout history and into the present. If, for Beauvoir, one is not born but rather becomes a woman, one does so within the confines of historical, cultural, and economic systems determined by patriarchal, misogynistic apparatuses of power. Thus, the lives of women are circumscribed by design through conditions of psychic as well as socioeconomic objectification. (Of course, the centrality of whiteness and middle-class status to Beauvoir’s calculations has and should continue to be rigorously attended to.) Faced with a roster of tyrants beneath whom she will be forced to kneel, woman—in Beauvoir’s notion of the heterosexual contract—is smarter to choose to abnegate herself before the beloved. That is, if the decision between a hated patriarch and an idol to whom one’s devotion must, by necessity, be slavish can be said to be a choice, woman may “overcome the dependence to which she is condemned by assuming it.” We gild the cage so we may obliviously luxuriate in it.

The original sin of gender inequity scars romance, desire, eroticism, and love: the woman-in-love, for Beauvoir, must shoehorn an idealization of the total effacement of her self in the (male) loved one as the most fully realized conveyance of her freedom. The tragedy of this formulation is that it “epitomizes. . . . the curse that weighs on woman trapped in the feminine universe, the mutilated woman, incapable of being self-sufficient.” This sense that love mutilates, that love is a thing that can kill—or at the least, annihilate women’s coherence—rivers through Ernaux’s account of her affair with S. For all her pleasure, the diaries return again and again to death—the death of Beauvoir, of her mother, of her work, and the future expiration of her own body.

Desire, writing, death: this triangulation is the knot at the center of Getting Lost. As the affair dwindles, Ernaux recognizes the ephemerality of sex and the body; the one eternal thing, she remembers, is the word. If her love for a man has for two years supplanted her capacity to read, to write—killed the artist in her—she must meet such metaphysical violence with repudiation in equal measure and violate her oath to S that she would not write of their affair. Writing is an enclosure around, a deferral, of death: “It was the book about [my mother] that saved me,” she recalls of her grief-strickenness following her mother’s death. And it will be the spinning of the affair into Simple Passion that helps Ernaux overcome the “empty time” of soured love. These are self-serving motives, yes, but such writing is also an act of communion with others: after transcribing her diaries, she insists “I know that it is through this layer of suffering that I communicate with the rest of humanity.” The facticity of story, its transgressions, are superficial measures; story is but the vessel through which common feeling travels. In a dream she meets her late mother, who asks “‘Was that my story you told?’ I protest, ‘Not really.’”