GETTING LOST, by Annie Ernaux | Translated by Alison L. Strayer
His fingernails are ragged. He wears designer suits but his underwear, cheap Russian tighty-whities, is poignant. When he gets drunk, he talks about Stalin. He likes the dumbest game shows. Maybe he’s K.G.B. He does not know how to unfasten garters.
The French writer Annie Ernaux’s new book, “Getting Lost,” comprises diary entries from 1988 through 1990; they recount her affair in Paris with a married Soviet diplomat. The sex is torrid, and described with a lemony eye for detail. “I realized that I’d lost a contact lens,” Ernaux writes. “I found it on his penis.”
S, as she refers to him, is a younger man. He’s in his mid-30s. Ernaux is approaching 50 and fearful of aging out of the game — the only game, to her mind, alongside writing. Kissing S reminds her of being “kissed at age 18.” He gives her back “my 20-year-old self.”
Young flesh as renewal: It’s a perennial theme in the work of male writers and their nifty alter egos. It’s rarer, and has more amperage, the other way around: Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, Harry Styles and Olivia Wilde.
Colette, in “Chéri,” wrote lucidly, and charmingly, about an older woman’s liaison with a younger man. The English writer Angela Carter described her relationship, when she was in her 30s, with a 19-year-old. “Every time I pull down his underpants,” she wrote in a letter, “I feel more & more like Humbert Humbert.”
(If she’d been a man, Carter wrote, and had the fortune to “seduce a girl 12 years younger than I who was as bright & freaky & pretty as Ko, everyone would applaud.” Instead, she sensed distaste. People seemed to think, “Clearly, she can’t get anyone else.”)
Ernaux, who is now in her 80s, is the author of 20 or so works of fiction and memoir. Most of them are thin, bare and chapped, as if broadcast in mono instead of stereo. She has only recently begun to find a devoted audience in the United States.
The almost primitive directness of her voice is bracing. It’s as if she’s carving each sentence onto the surface of a table with a knife. She is, in her writing, definitely not the sort of girl whose bicycle has a basket.
Readers of Ernaux’s work will be familiar with the story in “Getting Lost.” She fictionalized it in her novel “Simple Passion,” which was published in France in 1991 and here in 2003.
Each book has its merits. In “Simple Passion” she goes to the site of a long-ago trauma, after posing a question I’m not sure I’ve encountered in fiction: “Am I the only woman to return to the scene of an abortion?” This memorable scene does not exist in the later book.
Yet many details overlap. “Simple Passion” was tiny, 67 pages, practically a chapbook; at 239 pages, “Getting Lost” is, for Ernaux, a monster work, her “From Here to Eternity” or “Infinite Jest.”
I prefer the new book, agreeing with the author when she writes that in the diaries there is “something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation.” This is the version, in this idiomatic translation from the French by Alison L. Strayer, that was not tweaked in postproduction.
S is not a brute. He’s slim and tall; he has green eyes and light brown hair. But he is dominant and she craves, at times, submission.
The bedroom scenes are bulldozing. “S and I throw ourselves at each other”; “my face bruised and blotched with kisses”; “three times in four hours”; “there isn’t much left of the Kama Sutra for us to do”; “I want to keep a G-string soaked with his sperm under my pillow.”
It’s a love siege, a flood peak of existence, this affair that lasts a year or so. She crosses some unmarked border, and can’t get back. No daylight law, no rationality, seems to hold. The bulk of “Getting Lost” describes Ernaux’s agony as she waits for his return.
This book is an anthology of her projected anxieties. Her heart is some sort of nocturnal beast, caught by her own tripwire and camera. The drama is underscored by the pay phones he uses to call her; iPhones would have spoiled this book.
Ernaux fears the humiliation of being tossed aside. She writes, “I have no future, other than the date of our next meeting.” It’s a point she makes dozens of times. Our exhaustion shapes this book’s content and drives home her own exhaustion, her utter obsession.
Her journal, which she has kept on and off since adolescence, is a stabilizing force. Writing in it “was a way of enduring the wait until we saw each other again, of heightening the pleasure by recording the words and acts of passion. Most of all, it was a way to save life, save from nothingness the thing that most resembles it.”
She was unable, throughout the affair, during which the Berlin Wall fell, to write anything else except a few perfunctory articles. One of this book’s primary themes is the uniquely primal nature of both sex and writing. Once the former is gone, she senses, the latter will be her only way to connect.
How fundamental is writing to Ernaux’s personality? Well, she forgave her former husband’s infidelity — they were separated before her affair with the Russian began — on the grounds that he couldn’t write and was thus, in some senses, crippled. “What else is there to do when you don’t write?” she asks. “Eat, drink and make love.”
“Getting Lost” is a feverish book. It’s about being impaled by desire, and about the things human beings want, as opposed to the things for which they settle. Is it a major book? Probably not. But it’s one of those books about loneliness that, on every page, makes you feel less alone.
GETTING LOST | By Annie Ernaux | Translated by Alison L. Strayer | 239 pp. | Seven Stories Press | Paperback, $18.95