flapped paperback

Getting Lost

Annie Ernaux

Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Published 21 September 2022
French paperback with flaps, 224 pages

1988

September
Tuesday 27

    S... the beauty of it all: the very same desires, the same actions as at other times in the past, in ’58 and ’63, and with P. The same drowsiness, even torpor. Three scenes stand out. That evening (Sunday) in his room, as we sat close to each other, touching, saying nothing, willing and eager for what would follow, which still depended on me. His hand passed close to my legs, stretched out in front of me, and brushed them each time he put his cigarette ash in the container on the floor. In front of everyone. We talked as if nothing were going on. Then the others leave (Marie R, Irène, RVP) but F hangs back, waiting to leave with me. I know that if I leave S’s room now, I won’t have the strength to return. Then everything’s a blur. F is outside the room, or almost, the door is open, and it seems to me that S and I throw ourselves at each other. Then the door is closed (by whom?) and we are just inside, in the entry hall. My back, pressed against the wall, switches the light off and on. I have to move aside. I drop my raincoat, handbag, suit jacket. S turns off the light. The night begins, which I experience with absolute intensity (along with the desire never to see him again, as with other men in the past).
    The second moment, Monday afternoon. When I’ve finished packing my case, he knocks at the door to my room. We caress each other in the doorway. He wants me so much that I kneel down and lingeringly make him come with my mouth. He is silent, then only murmurs my name like a litany, with his Russian accent. My back pressed against the wall – darkness (he doesn’t want the lights on) – communion.
    The third moment is on the sleeper train to Moscow. We kiss at the back of the carriage, my head next to a fire extinguisher (which I only identify later). All this happened in Leningrad.
    I feel no sense of caution or restraint, nor do I have any doubts, finally. Something has come full circle. I commit the same errors as in the past but they are no longer errors. There is only beauty, passion, desire.
    Since my flight home yesterday, I have tried to reconstruct events, but they tend to elude me, as if something had happened outside my consciousness. All I am sure of is that on Saturday, in Zagorsk, as we visit the Treasures in the monastery, slippers on our feet, he takes me by the waist for a few seconds, and I know right away that I will agree to sleep with him. But what was the state of my desire later? There was a meal with Chetverikov, the director of the VAAP [All-Union Agency on Copyrights], and S is seated at a distance. We leave for Leningrad by sleeper train. I desire him then, but we can’t do anything, and I don’t worry about it: I don’t care at this point whether it happens or not. Sunday, we visit Leningrad, Dostoevsky’s house in the morning. I think I’ve been wrong about his attraction to me and think of it no more (am I sure about that?). Meal at the Hotel Europe: I’m seated next to him, but that has happened many times since the beginning of the trip. (One day, in Georgia, when he was seated next to me, I spontaneously wiped my wet hands on his jeans.) On the visit to the Hermitage, we’re not together much. Crossing a bridge over the Neva on the way back, we’re together, leaning on the parapet with our elbows. Dinner at the Hotel Karelia: I am seated apart from him. RVP eggs him on to get Marie to dance. It’s a slow number. Yet I know he has the same desire as me. (I have just forgotten an episode: the ballet, before dinner. Sitting beside him, I can think of nothing but my desire for him, especially during the second part of the performance: The Three Musketeers, Broadway-style. I’ve still got the music in my head. I tell myself that if I can remember the name of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s companion, a dancer, we’ll sleep together. I remember, it’s Lucette Almanzor.) In his room, where he’s invited us to come drink vodka, he visibly arranges things so as to be sitting next to me.Great difficulty in ousting F, who fancies me and wants to be near me too. And then I know, I feel it, I am sure. It’s the perfect sequence of moments: our connection, the strength of a desire that has had little need for words, the great beauty of it. The few seconds’ separation which ignites the fusion by the door. We clutch each other, kissing as if to die from it. He tears my mouth, my tongue from me, crushes me against him.
    Seven years after my first trip to the USSR, I have a revelation about my relation to men (that is, my relations with one particular man, with him, not another, as with Claude G and then Philippe in the past). The immense fatigue. S is thirty-six (he looks thirty), is slim, and tall (next to him, in heels, I am petite), with green eyes and light brown hair. The last time I thought of P was in bed, after making love – faint sorrow. Now all I think about is seeing S again, and living this passion to the limit. And like Philippe in ’63, S will return to Paris on 30 September.

Thursday 29

    Sometimes I can picture his face, but only fleetingly. There, now, I’ve lost it again. I know his eyes, the shape of his lips, his teeth, but they do not form a whole. Only his body is identifiable – his hands, not yet. I am consumed with desire, to the point of tears. I want perfection in love, as I believe I attained a kind of perfection in writing with A Woman’s Story. That can only happen through giving, while throwing all caution to the wind. I’m already well on my way.

Friday 30

    He hasn’t called yet. I don’t know what time his plane gets in. He is part of that lineage of tall, blond, and slightly shy men who marked the course of my youth and whom I always sent packing in the end. But now I know that only they can put up with me and make me happy. How to explain the strange, silent accord of that Sunday in Leningrad, if it’s all meant to end? Deep down, I don’t believe it’s possible for us not to see each other. The question is when.

 

(...)

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2022

Getting Lost is the diary kept by Annie Ernaux during the year and a half she had a secret love affair with a younger, married man, an attaché to the Soviet embassy in Paris. Her novel, Simple Passion, was based on this affair, but here her writing is immediate and unfiltered. In these diaries it is 1989 and Annie is divorced with two grown sons, living in the suburbs of Paris and nearing fifty. Her lover escapes the city to see her there and Ernaux seems to survive only in expectation of these encounters. She cannot write, she trudges distractedly through her various other commitments in the world, she awaits his next call; she lives merely to feel desire and for the next rendezvous. When he is gone and the moment of desire has faded, she feels that she is a step closer to death.
     Lauded for her spare prose, Ernaux here removes all artifice, her writing pared down to its most naked and vulnerable. Translated brilliantly for the first time by Alison L. Strayer, Getting Lost is a haunting record of a woman in the grips of love, desire and despair.

‘Like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Ernaux’s affair should be counted as one of the great liaisons of literature. ... I suspect the book will become a kind of totem for lovers: a manual to help them find their centre when, like Ernaux, they are lost in love. All her books have the quality of saving frail human details from oblivion. Together they tell, in fragments, the story of a woman in the twentieth century who has lived fully, sought out pain and happiness equally and then committed her findings truthfully on paper. Her life is our inheritance.’
— Ankita Chakraborty, Guardian

‘Ernaux has once more created a living document of existential terror and hope.’
— Catherine Taylor, Irish Times

‘The almost primitive directness of her voice is bracing. It’s as if she’s carving each sentence onto the surface of a table with a knife…. Getting Lost is a feverish book. It’s about being impaled by desire, and about the things human beings want, as opposed to the things for which they settle…it’s one of those books about loneliness that, on every page, makes you feel less alone.’
— Dwight Garner, New York Times

‘Annie Ernaux is one of my favourite contemporary writers, original and true. Always after reading one of her books, I walk around in her world for months.’
— Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood

‘Ernaux is an unusual memoirist: she distrusts her memory… Ernaux does not so much reveal the past – she does not pretend to have any authoritative access to it – as unpack it.’
— Madeleine Schwartz, New Yorker

‘Reading her is like getting to know a friend, the way they tell you about themselves over long conversations that sometimes take years, revealing things slowly, looping back to some parts of their life over and over.’
— Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books

‘I find her work extraordinary.’
— Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

‘Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman

 ‘Watching a skilled writer who was for years overlooked by the French literary establishment salvage an affair shrouded in such secrecy is to witness a literary feat.’
Kaya Genç, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘Across the ample particularities of over forty years and twenty-one books, almost all short, subject-driven memoirs, Ernaux has fundamentally destabilized and reinvented the genre in French literature.’
— Audrey Wollen, The Nation

‘Annie Ernaux writes memoir with such generosity and vulnerable power that I find it difficult to separate my own memories from hers long after I’ve finished reading.’
— Catherine Lacey, author of Pew

‘Ernaux’s writing, in Alison L. Strayer’s accomplished translation, is brazen and candid. Despite the cyclical, repetitive nature of events — the ecstasy of seeing her lover again, the dread of his leaving, the feelings of melancholy after he has departed, the agony of waiting and hoping for his call, repeated ad infinitum — the writing is urgent and gripping…She is a writer of rare calibre, a woman who writes with such honesty and, above all, humanity, as to render her work irresistible.’
— Rachel Farmer, Lunate

‘From the very first lines, we feel ourselves, like her, caught up in the vertigo of waiting, obsessed by the telephone that never rings, time that passes too quickly and the meetings that become less frequent. Love, death and literature are constantly intertwined in this story that plunges us into the intimacy of a couple, without ever giving us the impression of being voyeurs.’
— Pascale Frey, ELLE

Born in 1940, Annie Ernaux grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and later taught at secondary school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work. In 2022, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Alison L. Strayer is a Canadian writer and translator. Her work has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Literature and for Translation, the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal, and longlisted for the Prix Albertine. Her translation of The Years was awarded the 2018 French-American Prize, shortlisted for the Man Booker International in 2019, and awarded the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, honouring both author and translator.