Annie Ernaux and the Writer’s Obsession with Intermittent Love

Annie Ernaux now has a Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, so here's what makes her work so very Ernaux: obsessive and intermittent love.

Writer Annie Ernaux (1940- ) publishes a new novel, Passion Simple. She has won numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Renaudot in 1983 for her novel La Place. (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Much lauded writer Annie Ernaux has been venerated for her ability to interrogate the self fearlessly and stoically. Her 20 published books, most of which are autobiographical, span 80 years worth of self-reflection, from her abortion, to her relationship with her mother, to her eating disorder, to her struggles becoming a writer, and most recently, in her journals chronicling a painful affair with a married Russian diplomat. 

Critics have fixated on her prose, applauding its “straightforwardness” and “honesty,” and her ability to write such “slim” books so dense with “raw emotion.” Ernaux herself has called her work “brutally direct” to the point of being “obscene” and attributes it to her working class upbringing. 

While much has been written about Ernaux’s spare style, what’s often missed is the ways in which her measured prose becomes a literary device in itself. In the case of her autobiographical novel, Simple Passion and her recently translated journals, Getting Lost, her emblematic style best mirrors the nature of an affair. Her prose is restrained, yet intense. By deliberately removing her subjectivity, she elevates her obsession to the level of melodrama. A conceit in service of the writing itself. 

In 1992 Ernaux published Simple Passion, an autobiographical novel about Hélène, a middle-aged English professor who has an affair with a married Russian man many years her junior. The novel lays bare the tedious and sometimes excruciating conditions of a one-sided, obsessive affair with an unattainable lover, and in the process tells the story of their relationship. The book was an instant success, selling over 400,000 copies and remaining the #1 bestseller in France for eight months. Reviews describe the relationship between Hélène and Alexandre as “addictive,” “entrancing,” “destructive,” “embarrassing,” and even “abusive.” The French, of course, have a name for this genre of romance: “amour fou,” or “crazy love.” 

Rather than seek to construct a love story from her affair with S, Ernaux indulges in her own agony, observing and revering it as one might a divine test. The affair is less about S’s subjectivity and more about her desire to chase the exacting character of emotion. The affair, then, is little more than a conceit.

Reading Getting Lost, S’s unsavoriness is readily apparent. Ernaux recognizes this too, in what she refers to as “a slight taste of the abject.”  In her journal entries she mentions his bad hygiene, his alarming political takes, his sexual inexperience, and chronic drunkenness. The moments they do spend together are mostly glossed over, a captain’s log of sex acts outweighed by the entries about her longing, her constant state of anxiety, and his inexplicable hold on her. 

She writes: “Spring, yesterday. These three weeks of not seeing him have, without my awareness, brought clarity of vision, or indifference, as far as I am concerned. His face seemed to me banal. I found the stands he took-in favor of the death penalty and the laws against homosexuality in the USSR-difficult to endure.” She suspects she is being used by him, his interest in her is rooted in what he most venerates: visible glory. She is little more than a writer he can say he’s had sex with. He is controlled and aloof. He shows her only what he wants while accepting her gift of cigarettes, anal sex, and rare books. And yet none of this is new, nor is it enough to obliterate her desire: “Why do I always become attached to the vainest of men?”

Writer Annie Ernaux (1940- ) publishes a new novel, Une femme. She has won numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Renaudot in 1983 for her novel La Place. Sygma via Getty Images

How do we reconcile her choice to publish Getting Lost alongside Simple Passion? Regardless of the unresolved nature of Simple Passion’s storyline, the novel form provides readers with the comfort of a contained narrative. An autobiographical novel, while bearing some resemblance to the author’s lived experience, still promises readers plot, with experiences pruned to an arc. 

The diaristic form obviously lends itself well to an aggrieved love affair, but for Ernaux it’s an obsession with documentation more than it is an obsession with any singular lover. With each moment holding outsized weight, there comes a strong need to record. She writes in Simple Passion: “I am merely listing the signs of a passion, wavering between “one day” and “every day,” as if this inventory could allow me to grasp the reality of my passion. Naturally, in the listing and description of these facts, there is no irony or derision, which are ways of telling things to people or to oneself after the event, and not experiencing them at the time.” It is Ernaux’s writing in Getting Lost that best approximates the tumultuous nature of an affair. Ernaux’s entries exist in the excruciating present, in the agony of uncertainty. The intimacy of a journal allows her to indulge in her desire devoid of any shame, allowing readers the unfiltered emotional experience of her romantic obsession. 

As often as Ernaux records her anxieties about S she writes about her writing. Both pursuits are maddening, isolating, and demand infatuation. S consumes so much of her mind she finds it impossible to write. She notes how frequently she’s found herself in these one-sided relationships, and wonders if she might attach herself to the least available men because her longing makes for something worth writing about. She already knows she will write her next novel about S. 

In this way, she begins to narrativize her life in real time, rather than mining her life for narrative retrospectively. The writing becomes inextricable with her passion, the process lays itself out over her daily life and she becomes just a character, sometimes a mirror of Anna Karenina, sometimes a younger version of herself. Living in this painful anticipation becomes her mode of expression, her prewriting. “I would have liked to write down the details of each meeting—imagined, planned in advance: 1). The dress I wore, 2). The things I made to eat, 3). Where I was when he arrived (also planned). Mise-en-scenes that add so much beauty, raising life to the level of a literary novel,” she writes. 

Ernaux maintains a tension between the temptation to narrativize the affair and live in the present. Her account is sympathetic to Hélène and grants her poetic license: instead of a desperate woman having an affair with a cruel, young, totally average married man, but a woman entranced by a seductive and dangerous lothario.

Books by 2022 Nobel Literature Prize laureate French novelist Annie Ernaux are displayed during a literature conference at The Villa Albertine center in New York City on October 10, 2022. (Photo by ANDREA RENAULT/AFP via Getty Images)

“Passion fills life to bursting,” Ernaux writes in a journal entry, she is a student of passion, not a victim of it or adversary to it. If Simple Passion is a case study of a woman overcome by obsession, then Getting Lost is a reckoning with what it means to succumb to such intensity. In publishing Getting Lost so many years after Simple Passion, Ernaux seeks to walk back the narrativization, to show her obsession in all its vulnerability. She confronts a past self and lays bare her condition: all the insecurities, her petty remarks about acquaintances, and repeated self-sabotage when it comes to men. Instead of just describing the hellishness of her passion, or the daily agony of an asymmetrical affair, she maintains the hyper-awareness required by such an obsessive nature. It is torturous and captivating to feel so constantly. 

Ernaux’s sheer ambivalence about S’s subjectivity is key to the agony that drives Getting Lost, she knows the project of a remarkable love will go unreciprocated and unrealized- “there’s no point in telling myself that his intellect is unremarkable, his personality conformist, etc., since its not these things that make me attached to him, its that indefinable bond of flesh, the lack of which is killing me.” Hers is an agnostic love, a project whose goal is drawing nearer to the intensity of feeling in order to better understand it. 

This agony is self-fulfilling. The long hours Ernaux spends obsessing over her lover gives way to a kind of narrativizing that obscures the reality of their situation. In the end, we never do know for sure how he feels about her, but it hardly matters. He is not a character so much as an absence. My “shadow lover,” Ernaux often calls him. Neither A Simple Passion nor Getting Lost seek to plot a love story, instead to dissect the asymmetry of  impossible love.  In A Simple Passion, Hélène is hopelessly in love with Alexandre. In Getting Lost, Ernaux is in love with the agonizing anticipation of S’s attention. In both books, it is the process of being brought to one’s knees by obsession that’s compelling. 

Her seemingly unbridled agony and drama give way to a new space of imagination- “I want tomorrow to attain a kind of perfection, but it may be a catastrophe- a bring meal, the impossibility of our seeing each other in the evening.” Ernaux’s delusion comes full circle, so that she is now in control of the affair as a literary device—“I commit the same errors as in the past but they are no longer errors.”

Is this the hallelujah in the aftermath of all that love and pain?

At times, Ernaux’s diary entries grow tiring in their melodrama. Will he or won’t he call? Is it a sign that it’s over? Was the other night their last time together?  In the same breath she anticipates his departure,  she determines to end the affair herself. Neither happens for a hundred more pages. Yet Ernaux is not precious, aside from when she is describing a blowjob: “he is aroused so I caress him with my mouth.” She is frequently dramatic: “I love him with all of my emptiness,” but also self-aware: “I am a voracious woman—really, that is the only fairly accurate thing that can be said of me.” She is simply committed to her emotional vulnerability and beholden to her impulsivity.

Following the publication of three earlier novels, Annie Ernaux (1940- ) was acclaimed for La Place in 1983, receiving the Prix Renaudot, probably the most important literary award in France after the Goncourt Prize. (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)

Ernaux writes endlessly, scrupulously about time, maximizing the duration of their intimacy when in actuality the two spend very little time together over the course of a year and a half. Her obsession with time is important because time is concrete, and she grasps for any tether to reality in the madness of her passion. 

Despite her intention to consider only the facts, reality breaks. Time itself, which was once constant and irrefutable suddenly shifts under the pressure of her obsession. Time spent with the lover becomes impossibly short while time apart drags on and requires constant analysis and reimagining. It is in this imaginary distance that absence is fully realized.  

Ernaux is only content in the hours before a date is arranged. The actual experience is tainted with the knowledge that she will be waiting again, too soon, for the next encounter. It is a kind of purgatory. The next encounter is always still to come, yet too quickly will it be  swallowed into the past. An affair rarely exists in the present, and hers in particular occurs mostly in the anticipatory moments before and after their rendezvous, in her solitude.

Ernaux’s affair with “S” encourages her to reflect on her past relationships, to consider the kind of woman she was then, and the kind of woman she’s become. She notes a metamorphosis of sorts in each affair she’s had: their time together is experienced little by little, nevertheless she is consumed all at once. She is troubled by her own consistency: “To have changed so little, waited, at age sixteen (in January and February), for a sign of life from G de V, at eighteen for a sign from CG (the worst time of all), at twenty-three for Ph, in Rome, and a few years ago for P.” 

If we read suspecting that Ernaux writes less to maintain an elusive other, but to purge him, it is difficult to read her position as that of a helpless or spurned lover:“I write in lieu of love, to fill that empty space above death. I make love with the same desire for perfection that I feel in relation to writing.” 

Anyone familiar with the tropes associated with an affair can understand this fixation. The adrenaline filled moments lay in the anticipation before a meeting while the meeting itself is fleeting. For Ernaux there is no present, only a holding period in which to analyze past interactions and indulge in future anxieties. “I experience the present as a future pain,” Ernaux writes in simple passion.

In the hours between their visits Ernaux performs life with an air of detachment. She walks the city, but only in the hours he is least likely to call. She avoids using the hairdryer or playing music in case she does not hear the telephone. She cancels trips to visit her sons. She shops for lingerie and obsessively grooms herself. She becomes obsessed with Russian culture, with learning his language, and even inflating their love affair to that of Anna Karenina and Vronski’s. The only writing she feels compelled to do is about the USSR and Gorbachev, and even this comes painfully. 

Annie Ernaux lauréate du Prix Renaudot pour son livre ‘La Place’ le 12 novembre 1984 à Paris, France. (Photo by Laurent MAOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the affair, what she’s left with is not a wound, nor anger, but gratitude for the ways S/Alexandre made her feel alive, how their passion brought her closer to herself and her writing. The last entry in Getting Lost is written six months after Ernaux’s last meeting with “S.” The agonizing and thrilling waiting she endured for all of the months of her affair is replaced with a tortuous ache, then, as though through a miraculous intervention, she wakes one morning inexplicably happy again.  

What makes Ernaux’s affair with S harrowing is also what makes the project of both books so successful. The hours spent alone in painful desire allow Ernaux to notice herself deeply. These arduous hours, this force of feeling manifests a deep excavation of the self. At the same time Ernaux is drawing close to madness, she’s closer still to the most complicated and uncomfortable of feelings. She approaches her pain with fascination rather than avoidance. The book ends on a sobering note:“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.”  Annie Ernaux and the Writer’s Obsession with Intermittent Love