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.