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.  

Review: ‘Crocodile Tears’, by Mercedes Rosende, tr. Tim Gutteridge

Crocodile Tears, by Mercedes Rosende, is the latest publication from Bitter Lemon Press. Expertly translated from the Spanish by Tim Gutteridge, this crime fiction novella is the publishers first release from Uruguay, and Rosende’s first appearance in English.

The intriguing plot begins in a dismal prison visiting room, where we meet Diego, recently charged with a kidnapping that does not appear to have gone at all to plan. His shifty lawyer, Antinucci is visiting to tell him that he will be released from the crowded prison in just one week–however, relief does not come easy to Diego, as it is clear that he is well and truly Antinucci’s puppet on a string and will soon have to pay for this favour. As the story quickly unravels further, we learn that ‘The Hobo’ (an abominable and hateful inmate at the prison) also wants something from Diego: reparation for protecting him inside, and for setting him up with the slippery lawyer Antinucci. ‘The Hobo’s’ role in the plot thus grows more and more important, especially when he too evades prison and seeks out Diego, demanding that he keeps his promise and assists him in an ambitious and somewhat naïve plan.

In the meantime, readers are also introduced to two more important characters. First, we meet Ursula Lopez, a downtrodden and somewhat troubled lady–and supposedly the wife of the man that Diego helped to kidnap. Recounts of her intriguing and questionable day-to-day activities are interspersed with flashbacks to childhood trauma, and conversations with the ghost of her father. We also get to know the somewhat stronger character of Captain Leonilda Lima, a member of the police force, who–despite being constantly dismissed and belittled by her male counterparts–is forceful and determined. 

Flitting between all of these characters’ storylines, the plot continues to unfold in a cloud of confusion, with the reader piecing together what has happened only moments before the characters themselves do. As the cloud begins to lift, these characters inevitably cross paths, and we see the incompetent criminals of the story hash together a hi-jack that is far outside of their abilities, and certainly deemed to fail. It is only thanks to the two female characters in Crocodile Tears (all too often overlooked or dismissed by the men) and their impulsive yet confident decisions, that the fast-paced narrative continues to evolve. Ursula Lopez and Captain Leonilda Lima then, are most certainly the heroines of the story.

Crocodile Tears is both comical and clever. Rosende expertly writes an intriguing story that never gives too much away, persistently leaving the reader on edge. Her style, in Gutteridge’s English translation, is captivating, the character descriptions compelling, and the passages on the dismal and unforgiving Uruguayan city of Montevideo perfectly setting the scene for the multiple crimes that the reader is witness to. Thanks to Gutteridge’s brilliant translation, the anglophone reader is immersed deep into the heart of Montevideo, its petty yet hardened criminals, and its corrupt professionals.

Review: ‘London Under Snow’, by Jordi Llavina, tr. Douglas Suttle

After what has been an incredibly stressful year for the entire world, this Christmas I was looking forward to spending my two weeks off reading the pile of books that was nervously stacking up by the side of my bed. Top of my list was London Under Snow, by Jordi Llavina, translated by Douglas Suttle. I had been waiting to read this short story collection for a while now, and what better time to start than Christmas Eve? This wonderful collection was released in October of this year by Fum d’Estampa Press, a brilliant indie publisher launched in 2019, dedicated to bringing exceptional Catalan literature into English. In Fum d’Estampa’s own words they “bring the very best in European translated fiction in books that are beautiful to both read and hold.” London Under Snow is certainly no exception to this.

London Under Snow compromises of six beautifully written short stories, each with winter and the Christmas period as their backdrop. Whilst themes of memory, loss and nostalgia course through every story, each is unique, offering a glimpse into one moment of someone’s life. What is special about these delicate and melancholic snapshots, is the way that Llavina’s clever meta-fictional style expertly weaves personal experiences with imagined characters, leaving the reader unable to unblur the lines that he smudges between reality and fiction. This strong sense of ambiguity that Llavina thus creates, makes each story even more intriguing. These six unique meditations on memory cover some heavy themes, however, Llavina somehow manages to balance this perfectly with dry humour, allowing him to smooth ever so slightly the sharp edge to each story.

The opening story, ‘Hand and Racquet’ is set in a ‘London under snow’ and sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Woven within bleakly realistic descriptions of London are reflections on life and memory. However, what stood out most to me in ‘Hand and Racquet’ were its musings on fate and chance–a dilemma that I often find myself reflecting on. It is also with this opening story that Llavina’s meta-fictional style for this collection is perhaps most overt. The narrator himself is named Jordi, and he specifically discusses the logistics of editing and publishing the collection of stories that the reader has in their hands. Before launching into the second story in the collection then, Llavina cleverly forces the reader to beg the question: what is real and what is imagined?

With the second story, ‘My Andalusian Cousin’, Llavina casts his memory even further, writing of childhood and nostalgia. It is here that the reader notices Llavina’s keen eye for detail as he dissects the small trivialities of childhood that would otherwise be ignored or forgotten. With, ‘We, Too, Are Expecting’, the collection takes a darker turn, with Llavina’s delicate and lyrical prose allowing him to carefully and subtly approach the heavy topic of loss. ‘San Diego, For the Record’, however, brings Llavina’s lighter and more humorous tone back to life. A perhaps joyful story of legacy and charity, ‘San Diego, For the Record’ still carries the undertones of memory and loneliness that resonate throughout the collection as a whole. In this story Llavina’s keen eye for detail also shines–his vivid descriptions of even the most tedious elements of day-to-day life immersing the reader deep in the moment and the scene. With the penultimate story, ‘A Man Called Amat’, Llavina explores the idea of seeing the past through one person. One of my favourite lines from the collection is: “When we start to dig up our memories, above all, when we bring back to the present remote passages from our lives, it means untangling different figures from the past.” This weird and wonderful story expertly explores ideas of visiting our past through the people that shaped it, seeing our past through who was there.

With the final piece in the collection, ‘The Linden Tree’, Llavina brings the series full circle, reinstating the overt meta-fictional style that we saw in the opening story. Hand in hand with his somewhat existential reflections on memory, the passing of time, and death, Llavina’s meta-fictional style begins to offer potential responses to the question that the opening story evokes: what is real and what is imagined? ‘The Linden Tree’ allows us to not only cast doubt on the ‘reality’ of the previous stories we read, but more importantly, to cast doubt on the ‘reality’ of our own memories: “In a story […] everything, absolutely everything is true. […] The moment you tell it, it becomes real, and not only that, it becomes true. It all ends up as being true.” Like a grey, dull London under a crisp, white snow, Llavina embellishes his real, personal stories, topping them off with a layer of perfectly crisp imagination, and by putting these embellishments into words, “it all ends up as being true.”

London Under Snow is an absolutely stunning collection, brilliantly rendered into English by Suttle. A book of layers–be those real or imagined–that intertwine to form an incredibly moving and lyrical collection of stories on memory and loss, pitting the real against the imagined.