On being gored – Sigrid Nunez in NYRB
‘When they meet she is forty-eight but looks younger, still alluring enough to be regularly complimented and hit on. (Among Ernaux’s gifts is her ability to get across just how fabulous she looks and how good she is in bed without ever sounding distasteful.) She is also by this time one of France’s most esteemed writers—now winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—and the mother of two grown sons from an eighteen-year marriage, about which everything “stirs up a feeling of horror and pain with no way out.” In her third book, La Femme gelée, published in 1981 and translated by Linda Coverdale as A Frozen Woman in 1995, Ernaux writes scathingly about her years as a young wife and mother, a life all wrong for someone with her intellectual aspirations and one that she sees herself as having been deluded into by the rules of bourgeois society. “How could I ever have thought to find fulfillment in this?” she cries, in one of many despairing moments.’
‘Her lover is in his mid-thirties, but he too looks younger: “a pretty boy” whose youthfulness—not just in appearance but because of a certain unsophistication and lack of character—inspires her tenderness. It “allows me to dote on him and gives me back my twenty-year-old self,” writes Ernaux, who twice describes her relationship to him as “both mother and whore.” “I’ve never intentionally said a single word to hurt him.” Not a word, for example, about his unsexy habit of never removing his socks. Making love, it is she who takes the lead.
As the relationship develops, and she gets to know him carnally very well, she learns little else about him. Later she reflects, “I am amazed that I did not ask more questions. Nor will I ever know what I meant to him…. He was, in every sense of the word, the shadow lover.”’
‘We do know that A is from somewhere in Eastern Europe, that he is married, and that he had asked Ernaux not to write about him.
From another footnote: “I am incapable of describing the way in which my passion for A developed day by day. I can only freeze certain moments in time.” In fact she had already described it, day by day, in thorough and often graphic detail, as it unfolded in real time, in a journal she kept from the beginning of the affair until several months after she last saw him.’
‘A is now S. As she explains, using only his surname initial—his real one this time—had nothing to do with protecting him, which in any case it could not have succeeded in doing. Rather, its “de-realizing effect…seemed consistent with what this man was to me: the embodiment of the absolute, of something which instills a nameless terror”—a terror that she connects variously with aging, death, abandonment, grievous loss, mourning, becoming ill, going insane.
S is from Moscow, a Soviet diplomat assigned to France, “a young apparatchik” who “mourned the time of Brezhnev and made no secret of his veneration for Stalin.” He and Ernaux meet when he is charged with accompanying a group of writers on a tour of the USSR. They spend the last night of the tour together in a Leningrad hotel, and after they return to France, where he lives in Paris and she in the nearby suburb of Cergy, their rocket blasts off.
She is forbidden to call him, either at home or at his office in the Soviet embassy. All she can do is wait for him to call and ask to come see her, almost always meaning later that same day: “He would arrive and stay just a few hours, which we spent making love. Then he left, and I would live in wait for his next call.” For the increasingly possessed Ernaux, this turns out to be less like living than dying.’
‘She is tormented by the fear that he doesn’t really love her, that he is growing tired of her: “Fear of not being beautiful enough, and especially of not giving him enough pleasure.” She is almost certain that she is not his only other woman. She considers breaking up with him before he can break up with her, but that is beyond her strength. From Simple Passion: “I knew that nothing in my life (having children, passing exams, traveling to faraway countries) had ever meant as much to me as lying in bed with that man in the middle of the afternoon.” In the perverse way of this kind of attachment, the beloved is both sickness and cure. The moment she is in bed with him again, there is only now, all past and future suffering forgotten.’
‘She does find energy to start learning Russian and to reread Anna Karenina. And she goes out occasionally, including to social engagements also attended by S, sometimes with his wife, who is also his secretary at the embassy (and, to Ernaux’s relief, much less attractive and stylish than her), where he and Ernaux must take pains not to betray their intimacy. She records a few short trips as well. In Florence, on the steps of the Basilica of Santa Croce, she sees an inscription that will provide the epigraph to Getting Lost: “Voglio vivere una favola (I want to live a fable).” She is convinced that “this phrase is meant for me, right now.” (Ernaux has a superstitious side. She habitually gives money to beggars while making a wish that S will call.)’
‘When it’s all over she’ll still be able to say, “What I’ve experienced with S is as beautiful as a Russian novel.” In another mood, she boils it all down: “He fucks, he drinks vodka, he talks about Stalin.” He is “boorish,” “misogynistic,” “somewhat, not to say very anti-Semitic,’’ and no intellectual.’
‘She gets there all right. The nearer they draw to his mandatory departure from France, the more undeserving S seems: “I’ve wasted a year of my life, and money, on a man who asks as he is leaving if he can take the open pack of Marlboros.” “Voglio vivere una favola,” she writes: “What a mockery.” And: “When I think that I started to learn Russian for a man!”’
‘The journal is relentless in its presentation of her pain and abasement, but no less so in its effort to dissect what just happened. Here is the same deep probing for truth, the same fanatical quest for self-awareness to be found in all Ernaux’s work. Though she sleeps poorly and often wakes exhausted, she struggles to remember and write down her dreams—many of them nightmares—and to interpret them. She resists any attempt to do what most people (and a million pop songs) would advise her to do, put the heartbreak behind and move on, but rather fixates on it. She must: she believes that only through understanding what happened will she be able to endure it, and that only by putting it down on paper can she hope to understand. For her, this is precisely what writing—self-narrative, specifically—is for.’ (…)
‘About a month before S’s scheduled departure, she writes, “I am in a state close to the one I was in after my mother died.” But a sense of bereavement has always shadowed her passion. “Love and mourning are one and the same for me”: this comes on a day when the romance is still new. And, as her doubts about S grow and the end of the affair looms: “I know that I’m in mourning for a passion.” Being told by the switch operator at the Soviet embassy that S had returned to Moscow the day before is like being told all over again by a nurse of her mother’s death: “the same meaning, the same weight of horror.”’
‘“I have always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward,” Ernaux writes in Shame, “the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others.” This calls to mind Orwell’s famous dictum that the only kind of autobiography to be trusted is the kind that reveals something disgraceful about its author. At the end of Getting Lost, Ernaux speaks of “this need I have to write something that puts me in danger.” Here I thought of her countryman and fellow autobiographer Michel Leiris, who likened literature to bullfighting and for whom the only writing worth doing demanded that the writer be a matador, willing to risk being gored. The means to this end, as stated in a preface to his confessional memoir Manhood (1939)—“To expose certain obsessions of an emotional or sexual nature, to admit publicly to certain shameful deficiencies or dismays”—are central to Ernaux’s literary project.’
‘Equal to her need for danger in writing is the danger Ernaux courts in love. “This need for a man is so terrible,” she writes, “so close to a desire for death, an annihilation of self.” S not only inflames her lust but feeds her “old urge to destruction.” (“I longed for an accident, for death, as we were driving back to my place on the motorway last night.”) He might be sleeping with a harem for all she knows, but though they have every imaginable form of intercourse they use no protection: “I don’t give a damn about AIDS with him.” And as if this weren’t tempting fate enough, a mad “desire for pregnancy” seizes her and for one month she dares to stop taking the pill.
S is no brute, not a man she fears might harm her physically, and S&M is not a large part of their sex life. (She describes their “descent into sadomasochism” as “gentle, without violence,” even though afterward she is “bruised all over” and “at one point, I thought I was torn.”) But the “unbridled, violent intensity” of the affair leaves her emotionally destroyed. She is gored and gored and gored.
“It’s obvious,” she asserts, “that nothing is more desirable and dangerous than losing the sense of self, as with alcohol or drugs.” And as she concludes in Simple Passion, “Whether or not he was ‘worth it’ is of no consequence.” He was the horse she rode as close to oblivion as she could go. Another paradox: much as it might be part death wish, her passion is at the same time proof of a “lust for life” she has known since girlhood.’
‘Erotic splendor, as Ernaux keeps reminding herself, is always short-lived. She has been there before; she knows how it goes: from the sublime heights, the unstoppable decline into repetition, disillusionment, boredom, indifference. It is this reality that torments her from the very beginning of the affair, and against which she pits all her might: “I always make love as if it were the last time (and who’s to say it isn’t?).” There’s a reason so many great tales of passion end in tragedy. “I drove like a madman to get here,” says A in Simple Passion. It would have been perfect if that Russian pretty boy had died on a Paris motorway, racing to his lover’s arms, at the wheel of his car like he wanted.’
Read the review here.
This sentence in parentheses is as delightful as the rest of the review: ‘(Among Ernaux’s gifts is her ability to get across just how fabulous she looks and how good she is in bed without ever sounding distasteful.)’ I never read Ernaux, but the tale about A or S, this Russian diplomat who doesn’t bother to take off socks while making love to Ernaux, is intriguing and upsetting enough. (The obsession appears to be upsetting, these kinds of obsession seem to belong in the 19th century.) There’s a hidden spy story to be found there as well. But not all writers are interested in spooks.
Many people know what it means to be erotically attached to a person, let’s obsessed with a person about whom objectively not much good can be said.
Being hooked on erotic splendor is universal, most adults learn to navigate around it. The destruction is not worth it. To brag about it, turning the addiction into a splendid source of meaningfulness, that is very French.
Also, the ability to use the word ‘passion’ without any doubt, any reservation
When I was 18 I read Leiris, I was fascinated, but now I’m more doubtful. Isn’t this brutal honesty, this lust to expose certain shameful details from your own life, also a matter of vanity? Look, how daring I am. It takes a lot of talent and hard work to not make it sound distasteful.