Perhaps unusually, the decision to name Annie Ernaux as this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature stirred little controversy, so widely acclaimed is her œuvre. Long renowned in her native France, in recent years her reputation has grown rapidly in the Anglophone world on the back of some excellent English translations, most of which have been published under the aegis of Fitzcarraldo Editions, the remarkable independent publishing house which now boasts four Nobel winners (the others are Olga Tokarczuk, Elfriede Jelinek and Svetlana Alexievich). As well as being an important feminist writer, her particular variety of what tends to get called ‘life writing’ has been hugely influential, bleeding into such ubiquitous genres as autofiction and the contemporary memoir.
“The decision to name Annie Ernaux as this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature stirred little controversy, so widely acclaimed is her œuvre.’
Getting Lost is essentially the diary Ernaux kept while engaged in a protracted and intense love affair with a Soviet diplomat. It is not, I should add, the only book Ernaux wrote on this subject: Simple Passion, one of her best-known works, was also based on the liaison. While her books are all marked by a certain immediacy of description – most resemble a series of brilliantly curated observations of daily life – Getting Lost, in its form, has a rawness that is striking even for Ernaux. It is also inward-looking in a way that some of her other writing – perhaps surprisingly, given her genres of choice – tends not to be.
The narrative, such as it is, is very simple: Ernaux meets ‘S’ – he, a married man, remains anonymous – at the tail end of a ‘writer’s junket’ to the Soviet Union, and they continue to see one another after she returns to Paris. We learn little of S, who Ernaux describes thus: ‘he fucks, he drinks vodka and he talks about Stalin.
One of the first things the reader will notice is the book’s unrelenting sexual frankness (we should bear in mind it was written 32 years ago). But what makes Getting Lost truly subversive is the fact that Ernaux is writing about a love affair – with all its thrills and inevitable disappointments – from her perspective. At least in this respect, she is in control, even if the diary dwells on precisely the opposite: her submission to seemingly insatiable desire, her loss of control.
However candid it is about sex, there is little that is shallow, never mind pornographic, about Getting Lost. The book – or rather diary – is in fact pregnant with philosophical reflection. Some of Ernaux’s abiding concerns pop up again and again: the relationship between writing, death and desire, things which she suggests have always been ‘interchangeable’ for her. As she at one point puts it: ‘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.’
Getting Lost is yet another corroboration of Ernaux’s status as one of France’s great contemporary writers. If perfection has proved elusive in love, it has been less so in writing.
Words: Luke Warde