Review: ‘Simple Passion’, by Annie Ernaux, tr. Tanya Leslie

Intense passion does not last forever; it is brief, fleeting, abrupt, just like Simple Passion. Released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Tanya Leslie’s brilliant translation, Ernaux’s latest English release encapsulates all that is great about her writing in a concise forty-eight pages. 

A novella of autobiographical fiction, Simple Passion follows an unnamed, middle-aged, female narrator as she documents two years of a secret love affair with a man she names A. The writing is momentary, concise and fragmented, yet true to Ernaux, brimming with meaning. The book opens as follows . . .

“it occurred to me that writing should […] replicate the feeling of sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgement.” 

This is exactly what the narrator does throughout the remainder of the book; laying her lust and questionable choices bare for readers to see, hoping that they will suspend their moral judgement and allow her the space in which to explore the ins and outs of a passion that she once lived.

Whilst A. is the object of the narrator’s passion, it is the feeling and experience of passion itself that has that biggest hold over her – a feeling and experience that she strives to perfect. She recounts how she spends every waking hour of each day perfecting and preserving this passion . . .

“Quite often I felt I was living out this passion in the same way I would have written a book: the same determination to get every single scene right, the same minute attention to detail.”

Our narrator then, is completely and utterly at the mercy of passion, her life revolving around the preservation of this feeling. 

What stood out most to me in Simple Passion, however, was not the narrator’s reflections on passion or clandestine love. Instead, the most striking part came at the end of the book where she enters into an unobstructed dialogue with the reader, sharing her thoughts on the process and implications of writing in footnotes. Of course, this dialogue has been there from the very beginning, but it is in these final pages that it becomes overt, with the reader feeling directly spoken to. We become part of our writer’s thought processes, and are permitted glimpses into her reflections on writing as she pieces together parts of her disjointed story. . . 

“I know full well that I can expect nothing from writing, which, unlike real life, rules out the unexpected. To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But know that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, an emotion I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion or writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgement and the ‘normal’ values of society.” 

Once again, our narrator is laying her thoughts and feelings bare, sharing the process of her writing, and the implications it harbours directly with the reader. Whilst she may not answer any of the questions she provokes, she forces the reader to ask them; forces them to reflect on ideas of truth – more specifically the truth writing can show us that our minds cannot. For example, in the narrator’s case, writing down her experiences helped her realise something her easily infatuated and obsessed mind did not: passion is fickle. 

Ernaux’s writing, however sparse, allows the reader to consider so much. As ever, she persuades us into thinking about the feelings we have as humans, but more notably, the way we shape those feelings, attempting to fit them into ‘perfect’ moulds. Whilst the narrator lays her obsession with passion bare for the readers to see, it is her reflections on writing that reveal the most about her. Therefore, whilst Simple Passion is undeniably about a love affair, Ernaux’s words ring true in a number of situations.  

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