Pleasure like a future pain

On Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion

If a well-written book can be compared to a good glass of wine (layered, complex, lingers on the palate), then Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion is more akin to a shot of tequila, to be taken briskly in a single gulp. This intense, punchy literary offering – first written in 1991 and republished this month by Fitzcarraldo Editions – is a brief flash of a memoir, recounting a passionate love affair and its all-consuming effects on the psyche. Invigorating in its candour, Simple Passion is best enjoyed on some vacant afternoon, that you might bask all evening in its rapturous effects.

Though the love affair Ernaux describes is consummated, the place it really flourishes is in the author’s mind. With exacting detail, she describes the ways her entire life comes to be re-organised around her “passion”. Choosing clothes and make-up, arranging fresh flowers in the bedroom, buying “whisky, fruit and various delicacies for our evening together”: she can only find pleasure in those activities related to her married lover, referred to only as A. Everything else is irrelevant, done on autopilot, a background murmur never fully distracting her from her obsession. “I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment,” she confesses. “I would try to leave the house as little as possible except for professional reasons… forever fearing that he might call during my absence.”

Like all great obsessions, Ernaux’s fixation with A is not restricted to the present moment. It colonises the past and expands into the future, rewriting memories and claiming time not-yet-spent. It lives in her imagined future scenarios with him (a trip to Florence; a chance encounter in an airport), the sustained conversations which take place only in her head. Even when the affair is in its fullest bloom, it fails to measure up to the grandiosity of its potential future: in bed with A, she anticipates the looming threat of his future absence (“I experienced pleasure like a future pain”, she laments of one dirty afternoon). Once the affair has ended, it colours in all previous events, rendering the past more vivid than the present. Those two years of romantic intoxication become the milestone from which all present activities are measured – “five weeks since he left”, a year since that moment, the last time I came here it was with him. 

Ernaux’s prose is clipped, matter-of-fact (“spare, stark”, says the blurb on the back). This is perhaps a little unexpected given the intimacy of its contents and the intensity of how its expressed. The author does not over-embellish or indulge in elaborate descriptions; the object of her desire remains just that – an object, sketched only in broad strokes. A generically attractive man, his beauty is of the non-specific kind that can be projected onto classical sculptures. We’re spared the idiosyncrasies of how he looks, the vivid details of their sexual acts. And yet Ernaux’s prose is no less evocative for its candid detachment – au contraire, the sobriety of her words only serves to heighten the drama of what they describe. It’s a paradox well-expressed in the title of the book, “simple passion”: since when has passion ever been simple?

Taking place in the late-1980s, Simple Passion has a satisfying kind of vintage sheen. (Waiting by the phone, apparently something of a recurrent motif in this newsletter, will always outstrip the glamour of waiting for a blue tick in Bad Taste’s estimation.) This new edition is a slim, elegant volume with delicate paper folds. Much like Ernaux’s sparse prose, its simple, unadorned cover (a signature feature of Fitzcarraldo) only lends a heightened sense of wonder to the words inside, as if they’re forbidden from representation. It feels like a confessional letter, left unsent and opened upon someone’s death. It’s easy to imagine it being slipped under a pillow or toted close to the bosom of someone deeply affected by it – someone, perhaps, in the throes of an affair, whose life is governed by that mysterious illness, simple passion.

- Rosa xo

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Simple Passion was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 10 March 2021. You can order it from BookShop.org here

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