Book Review: Simple Passion


“I do not wish to explain my passion – that would imply that it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify – but simply to describe it”

In 1989 Annie Ernaux embarked on an affair with a married man, one that would consume her entire existence for well over a year. Simple Passion is an examination of how a passionate love creates a vortex around which all other life events swirl, granted scant attention. The author grew indifferent to anything not related to her lover. She awaited his phone calls announcing intention to visit imminently – always accepted. Their afternoons together were spent indulging in sex accompanied by carefully selected wine and food – kept at the ready, just in case. She would purchase new clothes and lingerie for him to remove. She existed in a state of anticipation for the few hours they would spend together, although only when he chose.

It may be considered that Ernaux suffered from this treatment, yet it was accepted by unblinkered choice. The intense nature of passionate love pushes all else aside. Even her children – students who would occasionally stay with her – were required to be absent should this man deem to visit. She did not expect her boys to understand their mother’s sexual desires.

“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”

When not with her lover, Ernaux cultivated fantasies about their days apart. She had no wish to know anything about his wife lest this affect how she depicted the woman in her head. Ernaux did what she could to avoid running into him outside of their assignations, fearing he would not acknowledge her, or that her treatment of him give away to others how she felt. The affair was contained within the walls of her apartment. She knew it would end and this gave each visit a frisson – that he may never call her again.

“I haven’t written a book about him, neither have I written a book about myself. All I have done is translate into words – words he will probably never read, which are not intended for him – the way in which his existence has affected my life”

At under fifty pages this short work provides insight into emotions that are rarely acknowledged. Ernaux writes that she had no wish to discuss her affair with friends lest they assume their own experiences were similar – thereby diluting the intensity of feelings she valued highly. There was hurt and jealousy to deal with, all swept away by the glorious moments spent together when she would give herself over entirely to the pleasures of sex. As the months passed, her obsession only grew as his attentions waned.

The writing is forensic and measured yet charged with physical sensation – all credit to the translator, Tanya Leslie, for capturing meaning beyond what straightforward words can express. It is not told as a story in any sort of linear fashion. Rather it is a sharing of the depth of Ernaux’s capitulation to the pleasure of desire and sexual gratification.

This is not a book requiring judgement but rather one that shares the intensity of love when it is rationed and must end. Perhaps not for the prurient as, despite explicit descriptions, what it explores is feelings engendered.

A remarkable work that opens a window on the most personal of relationships and what goes on within. The structure and style of the text allow for pauses to savour. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.


Book Review: A Ghost in the Throat

Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an award winning poet. She is also mother to four children born within a six year period. A Ghost in the Throat chronicles her life during her offspring’s baby years, when she became obsessed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, author of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (the Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire), which has been referred to as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’ It is a school text in Ireland, one that Ní Ghríofa developed a crush on as a teenager. In 2012, while taking a break from her household chores to express milk she donated for poorly babies, she rereads the poem and ponders on the life led by this other mother who has been dead for centuries.

Her ponderings lead to sporadic research. The author discovers that although many have studied the poem closely – there are multiple translations – few show interest in its creator.

“the more I read, the sharper my rage grows. This feeling glues itself to the introductory paragraph that often precedes the translations, flimsy sketches of Eibhlín Dubh’s life that are almost always some lazy variant of the same two facts: Wife of Art O’Leary. Aunt of Daniel O’Connell. How swiftly the academic gaze places her in a masculine shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.”

Ní Ghríofa describes A Ghost in the Throat as a female text – notably, not a feminist text. She glories in her ability to create and nurture the tiny miracles that are her children. Her days are spent: mopping and scrubbing, wiping and feeding, on laundry and dishes and caring for her children. There is none of the more typical apology for being a housewife. She acknowledges the fatigue and fretfulness of the role but derives pleasure from giving herself to other’s needs. She writes of these days with a lyricism that is astonishing.

“My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink.”

To find Eibhlín Dubh, it became necessary to delve into the male texts as these were all that existed. Ní Ghríofa then set about excising the men and their concerns to see what remained. She discovered a mother and a twin sister – lives unremarked by most researchers. She visits places where they lived but often finds little remains.

“Now: nothing. Another grand deletion this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.”

The author writes of her own past as well as on motherhood and the household tasks that fill her days. Her words are steeped in the importance of family and the sense of place in the world that they instil.

“My family had lived within these hills for centuries […] every path I followed had been written by the bodies of others, the course of every track sculpted by the footfall of those who came before us.”

As time passes, Ní Ghríofa’s obsession with Eibhlín Dubh verges on the unhealthy – a trait that is not unknown to her – and yet what she discovers is fascinating to read. Entwined with the historical details she uncovers are the challenges she herself faces as her fourth child makes its way into the world. Yet still she wants more babies – concerned with what she will become if not nurturing children.

Eventually she must accept that she has found everything available to her about Eibhlín Dubh. She must also accept another ending in the life she is leading. The book closes with the poem that set her on this journey – transcribed in both Gaeilge (Irish) and an English translation. As this work has been quoted throughout, to read it in its entirety is to immerse oneself in a now valued text.

The Caoineadh is as deeply personal for its author as A Ghost in the Throat is for Ní Ghríofa. In weaving the stories of these two women together, the tapestry of the lives of mothers is exhumed from the detritus they perennially exist under, demanding attention rarely received. Engaging content and elegant prose ensure reading is a pleasure. An extraordinary book that deserves wide attention.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tramp Press.

Book Review: You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me, by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is the latest release in Peirene Press’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Based on the author’s childhood, it is told from the point of view of a young girl whose parents have fled East Germany for the West with their daughter just before the building of the Berlin Wall. The adults embrace the materialism of imported American culture, buying goods on credit in an attempt to emulate remembered wealth from their pre-war years. The child considers her parents’ conversations proof that their lives were so much better before she was born, and perceives a correlation.

The story opens on the girl’s seventh birthday. She understands that, once again, she will not be receiving the kitten she has longed for since they left the refugee camp for the assigned two bedroom flat where they now live. Her parents do not listen, believing they know best what is good for her. In her view, since moving to the West, they have done what they can to remove every source of her happiness.

Back in the East her grandmother would care for her while her mother was at work. She remembers: the large house and garden, the fun of visiting uncles, delicious food. Now she subsists on the bland offerings her mother cooks, denied even water when thirsty as her mother believes it will give her worms. Any friends the child makes are derided as beneath her family’s social standing. She is banned from visiting adults whose company she enjoyed at the camp after her mother questions their morals.

The mother is determined that her family will climb the ladder of social success. Her much younger husband struggles to contain his anger at the hand life has dealt him. The girl is frightened of her father and with good cause. She longs for someone wise to talk to, someone such as the fun and friendly doctor who arranges treatment for her injuries.

Children have no choice but to accept the decisions made for them by their parents. Remembering her earlier life, the child does not understand why they became refugees and why adults lie about so much when questions are asked. In viewing life through her eyes the reader is shown how ridiculous many aspects of adult behaviours can be and how futile their often hollow aspirations. Children see through the social blather and observe more than they are given credit for.

The ridiculousness of the mother’s desires add much humour. She hankers after possessions and experiences that, when grasped, will always fall short. Likewise she longs for an ideal daughter, one who is quiet and pretty and does not scuff her shoes or cause damage in the home. The child knows that she is a constant source of disappointment and must find a way to live with the hurt this causes.

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.”

Instead of a kitten the child is given a globe along with presents from people who have shown her kindness in the past. From these gifts she concocts a means to get through the moments of strife she faces at school and at home. Despite her parents’ inability to listen, she finds her voice. It gives her hope that she can navigate her way to a better future.

The nuance and wit in the writing raises this astute tale of childhood hurt to a level both haunting and sanguine. The treatment of children, seen through the eyes of a child, is a reminder that parents are fallible and, too often, selfish in their motives. The refugee element adds a layer of poignancy. Subtle and compact, this is a deftly affecting yet entertaining tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.