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20 July 2023

What is Annie Ernaux hiding?

What the Nobel Laureate teaches us about shame, confession and secrecy.

By Christiana Spens

I was recommended Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion – her novel recounting an affair when she was a younger woman – by a male writer I had recently met, and weeks later we embarked on something similar. You could call it an omen, or perhaps an invitation. When I first read the book, however, it irritated me for reasons that I couldn’t quite articulate or understand. When I mentioned this to the other writer, he suggested that I was projecting my own self-loathing onto Ernaux’s work. I laughed at the time; it seemed outrageous. I did not loathe myself, though I wondered if there was an implication that I should do? I wasn’t projecting, though. I was very sure of that. I felt no shame, I insisted, just desire. 

And yet, Simple Passion had hit a nerve – the elements that irritated me were not simply the narrator’s desperation and seeming weakness, or her masochistic compulsion to keep seeing this unavailable man, or the feeling of doom threaded through each interaction she wrote about. It was also the feeling that so much was not being said. I was frustrated by the secrecy of the author. Why did she not mention the man’s wife more? Why did she not mention the political context – this man was a Russian diplomat in France during the end of the Cold War. They had met at an arts event, of the sort that security services around the world often use as fronts for espionage and soft power struggles. Was ignoring this the most French political statement ever? That with all that going on, rather than mention the war, Ernaux chose to wallow in an illicit affair instead? Was this book a form of French foreign policy?

The months went on, and several interviews with Ernaux came out, which helped me understand her better. I read Getting Lost, the diaries that had inspired Simple Passion – which she had published to explain how this novel, and perhaps any novel, and indeed memoir, is only ever one perspective chosen out of several. And this was important to me. I had been frustrated by this sense that Ernaux had left so much out of the novel – and here, she said, she had. Somehow, my frustration remained. This lingering sense of secrecy. A novel about an affair, and it was the secrecy that irritated me?  

Months later, my romantic situation more ambivalent, and I read Simple Passion again. I thought about why it had riled me at first, and realised the other writer had a point. I had projected my concerns and insecurities onto this novel – it had triggered, I suppose, a frustration in myself that I could also be so consumed by desire, by confusion, by a willed weakness, by an element of the clandestine, the forbidden – when I just wanted satisfaction, love, excitement and joy.

But I also realised that I was right to be suspicious of Ernaux. What frustrated me in the book was still its pervading sense of secrecy – and I came to realise that this feeling of repression and evasion was what was hurting me, in life and in art. Memories of past relationships in which I had been lied to compulsively and chronically, in which I had been cheated on in ways that traumatised me, rose to the surface – and I resented what seemed so flippant and careless in this other person’s perspective. I also recognised elements in myself; secrecy begets more secrecy, infidelities cascade and complicate. And then we meet one another in all of this. And why look away?

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Simple Passion was presented to me as a confession that in itself represents a kind of honesty. There was this radical honesty, apparently, in stating one’s intimate confessions, in writing down one’s desperation and desire, and also in acting them out. In being honest about being involved in something inherently secretive and private, something so intimate, in engaging with a form – the novel – that can never be an objective, truthful account when it is so inherently subjective. And yet other writers spoke of Ernaux’s “brutal honesty” and “taboo-breaking” and “the female utterance” with such deference. What I experienced reading her work was pain and the evasion of truth – was this what they meant by these phrases? That the truth hurt? Or was it the case, here, that these intimate confessions could not convey the reality of passion, the feeling of it, the love of it? I was left wanting, anyway.

[See also: Annie Ernaux’s acts of revenge]

My hard feelings for Simple Passion persisted. I began to feel ashamed of myself for feeling this way. Why? Reading this novel made me crave Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, Philip Roth and Colette, Cookie Mueller and Eve Babitz. I wanted joy and fun and shamelessness. Simple Passion is so cold at times; all this desperation was so sad. Even though clearly the narrator felt great passion for the man she wrote about, all I felt when I read it was pain. When I read it the last time, though, I also felt much love – for the narrator, for anyone who feels that pain, for anyone caught in a simple, or complex passion. And I thought about resentment, self-loathing – I hated myself for having been involved in several relationships I now looked back on with utter dismay. Once simple passions that now repelled me.

I thought about shame and intimacy some more. That is what, I think, I had viscerally reacted against. The form of the confessional novel is so wound up in religious ritual, particularly in a French Catholic context; Simple Passion is both a continuation of this ritual and a subversion of it. When we go to Confession, we also do not necessarily say everything. We pick some sins, the crucial ones. We say we have sinned. The confession is one of sin, a request for salvation, a desire to be free from the shackles of forbidden desires. It is an attempt to be truthful, in exchange for heaven. It is transactional – formalised, and yet intimate. It states that there is no love, religious or otherwise, without truth and a willingness to surrender.

In a novel, there is no priest. There may be no God. There is simply the author, reader and of course the critic, but each is going through the confessional process themselves as they read and write. There is no one to prescribe Hail Mary’s at the end, there is no one to say, “you are forgiven” or “you will be”. There is no promise of heaven. There is just the confession itself. Within a novel, the author may decide to forgive herself or other people, or ask other people’s forgiveness, but it can be hard to be both the sinner and the priest in a confessional setting.

Over a recent weekend, during a couple of strange incidents in which I was publicly shamed for things – some I had absolutely not done, some that I had joyfully done, neither of which I felt any shame for, as it happens, because I had done nothing that I thought was wrong – I wondered if I had changed. When I read Simple Passion, I went through a strangely spiritual experience, and without fully articulating it, it led me to a new sense of forgiveness, the only balm to the pain it had provoked in me – this latent or projected shame. I did not feel angry that I was being unfairly shamed; I saw just how easy it was for other people’s shame or fear to be projected onto me, how common an occurrence this was, especially for women. I began to see Ernaux’s apparent coldness as a refusal to bow down to the demands of others.

So then, in the early morning light – there was just this softness, a shameless forgiveness, a radical intimacy, if you will. A sweet satiety. When people shame me and others, as they have in the past, I see their pain, I see the contradictory desires for passion to be simple, earthy, pure. I see myself, or how I have been, how we all have been. And just beyond that, at least I hope, there is some sort of diffuse, easy love, if not heaven as such. While there is no priest here, the confessional novel nevertheless creates the possibility of a chaotic spirit of exchange that may be forgiving, may be freeing, may at least offer emotional confrontation that can be productive in some way, however hard. And in all this chaos and criticism I think I did also realise the persistence of love – a moving and messy, human thing, and the ultimate moral challenge.      

[See also: Why Annie Ernaux deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature]

Christiana Spens is the author of The Fear, (Repeater Books 2023).

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