Published 10 March 2021
French paperback with flaps, 56 pages
This summer, for the first time, I watched an X-rated film on Canal Plus. My television set doesn’t have a decoder; the images on the screen were blurred, the words replaced by strange sound effects, hissing and babbling, a different sort of language, soft and continuous. You could make out the figure of a woman in a corset and stockings, and a man. The story was incomprehensible; it was impossible to predict any of their actions or movements. The man walked up to the woman. There was a close-up of the woman’s genitals, clearly visible among the shimmerings of the screen, then of the man’s penis, fully erect, sliding into the woman’s vagina. For a long time, this coming and going of the two sex organs was shown from several angles. The cock reappeared, in the man’s hand, and the sperm spilled on to the woman’s belly. No doubt one gets used to such a sight; the first time is shocking. Centuries and centuries, hundreds of generations have gone by, and it is only now that we get to see this, a man’s penis and a woman’s vagina coming together, the sperm – something we couldn’t take in without almost dying of shame has become as easy to watch as a handshake.
It occurred to me that writing should aim to do the same, to replicate the feeling of witnessing sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.
From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man: for him to call me and come round to my place. I would go to the supermarket, the cinema, take my clothes to the dry cleaner’s, read books and mark essays. I behaved exactly the same way as before but without the long-standing familiarity of these actions I would have found it impossible to do so, except at the cost of a tremendous effort. It was especially when I spoke that I realized I was acting instinctively. Words, sentences, and even my laugh, formed on my lips without my actually thinking about it or wanting it. In fact, I have only vague memories of the things I did, the films I saw, the people I met. I behaved in an artificial manner. The only actions involving willpower, desire and what I take to be human intelligence (planning, weighing the pros and cons, assessing the consequences) were all related to this man:
reading newspaper articles about his country (he was a foreigner)
choosing clothes and make-up
writing letters to him
changing the sheets on the bed and arranging flowers in the bedroom
jotting down something that might interest him, to tell him next time we met
buying whisky, fruit and various delicacies for our evening together
imagining in which room we would make love when he arrived.
In the course of conversation, the only subjects that escaped my indifference were those related to this man, his work, the country he came from, and the places he’d been to. The person speaking to me had no idea that my sudden interest in their conversation had nothing to do with their description or even the subject itself, but with the fact that one day, ten years before I met him, A. had been sent to Havana on an assignment and may have set foot in that very night club, the ‘Fiorendito’, which they were describing in minute detail, encouraged by my attentive listening. In the same way, when I was reading, the sentences that gave me pause were those concerning a relationship between a man and a woman. They seemed to teach me something about A. and lent credibility to the things I wished to believe. For instance, reading in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate that ‘people in love kiss with their eyes closed’ led me to believe that A. loved me since that was the way he kissed me. After that passage, the rest of the book returned to being what everything else had been to me for a whole year – a means of filling in time between two meetings.
In her spare, stark style, Annie Ernaux documents the desires and indignities of a human heart ensnared in an all-consuming passion. Blurring the line between fact and fiction, she attempts to plot the emotional and physical course of her two-year relationship with a married man where every word, event, and person either provides a connection with her beloved or is subject to her cold indifference. With courage and exactitude, Ernaux seeks the truth behind an existence lived, for a time, entirely for someone else.
‘The triumph of Ernaux’s approach… is to cherish commonplace emotions while elevating the banal expression of them… A monument to passions that defy simple explanations.’
— New York Times
‘A work of lyrical precision and diamond-hard clarity.’
— New Yorker
‘All this – the suffering and anxiety of waiting, the brief soulagement of lovemaking, the lethargy and fatigue that follow, the renewal of desire, the little indignities and abjections of both obsession and abandonment – Ernaux tells with calm, almost tranquillized matter-of-factness [that] feels like determination, truth to self, clarity of purpose.’
— Washington Post
‘A stunning story, despite its detachment and the careful exclusions of any excess, that pulsates with the very passion Ernaux so truthfully describes... Small, but abundantly wise.’
‘Annie Ernaux is one of my favorite 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
‘The author of one of the most important oeuvres in French literature, Annie Ernaux’s work is as powerful as it is devastating, as subtle as it is seething.’
— Édouard Louis, author of The End of Eddy
‘Ernaux has inherited de Beauvoir’s role of chronicler to a generation.’
— Margaret Drabble, New Statesman
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. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. The Years won the Prix Renaudot in France in 2008, the Premio Strega in Italy in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. In 2017, Annie Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work.
Tanya Leslie was the first translator of Annie Ernaux into English and translated a number of her works, including A Woman’s Story (1991), A Man’s Place (1992), Simple Passion (1993), Shame (1998), I Remain in Darkness (1999) and Happening (2001).