‘Simple Passion’ by Annie Ernaux was one of the books mentioned in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ ‘One Hundred Great French Books’. I haven’t heard of Annie Ernaux before and so I decided to try this book. I read it in one sitting and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘Simple Passion’, at around sixty pages, is not really a novel. With wide spacing between lines and with luxurious space on the borders of the page, it could be called, at best, a novella or probably a long short story. It is not clear from the book whether it is fiction or a memoir. The classification on the back cover says ‘Literature / Memoir’. The narrator of the book describes the affair she once had with a married man from a different country who was working in Paris. The only way they communicated was by phone when the man called her and told her he was going to visit her. She then waited for him to visit, anxiously preparing herself – getting the right clothes, wearing the right makeup, getting food and drink for the evening, preparing herself emotionally – but also looking forward to the visit with a lot of excitement. But then he comes, they have intimate moments together, he leaves and then she is worn out. And she starts the long agonizing wait for the next phone call from him. At some point she stops seeing her friends, going out for movies or having any kind of social life as she is waiting for her lover’s phone call, when she is not working (this was during the days before the advent of the mobile phone). The narrator’s thoughts about this whole affair comprise the rest of the book.
‘Simple Passion’ is an interesting book. There is not much of a plot here – the plot can be told in two lines. The book is mostly about the narrator’s thoughts on life, love, longing, waiting, the agony of parting. I am pretty sure it will deeply resonate with anyone who has had an affair or even with anyone who has ever been in love. Annie Ernaux’s prose is spare and simple, but there are beautiful sentences in every page. Though I read it in one sitting, I read it very slowly and enjoyed lingering over those beautiful sentences. For example, she describes the brief time she spends with her lover as :
An interval of time squeezed in between two car noises – his Renault 25 braking, then driving off again
And she describes her feelings after her lover leaves like this :
As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away. I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was – a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum.
In another place the narrator describes how she used to shop for new outfits to look beautiful for her lover when he visited her the next time :
In his absence, I was only happy when I was out buying new dresses, earrings, stockings, and trying them on at home in front of the mirror – the ideal, quite impossible, being that he should see me each time in a different outfit. He would only glimpse my new blouse or pumps for a couple of minutes before they were discarded in some corner until he left. Of course I realized how pointless new clothes were in the event of his feeling desire for another woman. But presenting myself in clothes he had already seen seemed a mistake, a slackening in the quest for perfection for which I strove in my relationship with him.
In another place the narrator talks about the imperfection of communication with her lover and how paradoxically, this imperfection is sometimes perfect.
At first I was discouraged by the obvious limitations of our exchanges. These were emphasized by the fact that, although he spoke fairly good French, I could not express myself in his language. Later I realized that this situation spared me the illusion that we shared a perfect relationship, or even formed a whole. Because his French strayed slightly from standard use and because I occasionally had doubts about the meaning he gave to words, I was able to appreciate the approximate quality of our conversations. From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end : the man we love is a complete stranger.
Sometimes we think that writing about something which affected us deeply helps us make sense of it and is therapeutic, but the narrator of the story says something different :
I know full well that I can expect nothing from writing, which, unlike real life, rules out the unexpected. To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But now that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, feelings I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion and writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgment and the “normal” values of society. (Having to answer questions such as “Is it an autobiography?” and having to justify this or that may have stopped many books from seeing the light of day, except in the form of a novel, which succeeds in saving appearances.)
At this point, sitting in front of the pages covered in my indecipherable scrawlings, which only I can interpret, I can still believe this is something private, almost childish, of no consequence whatsoever – like the declarations of love and the obscene expressions I used to write on the back of my exercise books in class, or anything else one may write calmly, in all impunity, when there is no risk of it being read. Once I start typing out the text, once it appears before me in public characters, I shall be through with innocence.
Annie Ernaux ends the book with this beautiful passage :
When I was a child, luxury was fur coats, evening dresses, and villas by the sea. Later on, I thought it meant leading the life of an intellectual. Now I feel that it is also being able to live out a passion for a man or a woman.
I have to say that I have got the ‘leading the life of an intellectual’ part right – so I can say that my life is filled with luxury, in a way 🙂
‘Simple Passion’ is a beautiful, slim gem. It is a book to be savoured over a winter evening warming oneself next to a fire having a drink. Or alternately, it can be savoured on a warm summer evening, watching the sun set, while sitting outdoors in the garden and sipping a delicious cup of tea. I want to read other books of Annie Ernaux now.
Have you read ‘Simple Passion’ by Annie Ernaux? What do you think about it?