When I heard about ‘Getting Lost’ by Annie Ernaux, I was excited. Ernaux has always made her vulnerability her strength. She stands against the narrative that women must be consumed by ‘shame’ when talking about their romantic affairs. Ernaux is not! She is very matter of fact and shameless about it. I daresay that Ernaux is one of the most important liberators of our times because she might just change the way women see their own past; by embracing their ‘desire’ in a powerful way. “I’m both mother and whore,” is one way she looks at herself. And that’s why perhaps she has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for 2022.
Those who have read her book ‘Happening’ (which is now a film), would know how Ernaux talks about her life as a 23-year-old single woman who is pregnant; she sees her opportunities to finish her studies and excel ‘slipping from her’. At a time when abortion was illegal in France, she attempts to self-administer it with a knitting needle and nearly died.
In her latest, ‘Getting Lost’ (translated by Alison L Strayer) Ernaux talks about the time back in 1988-89, when she was a 48-year-old divorced mother with two sons. Her torrid affair with a 35 year old Russian - Mr.S - consumed her life. Her writing is ‘pitiless.’ Five reasons why you should experience Ernaux as a writer -
1. The aching vulnerability of Ernaux’s language opens you up to understand yourself better. For instance; she talks about her affair graphically as “trudging distractedly through her various other commitments in the world, awaiting his next call.” Ernaux seems to survive only in expectation of encounters with Mr. S, saying “his desire for me is the only thing I can be sure of.”
2. She admits to being ‘lethargic from sex’ and thus ‘useless for work’ and that ‘intense desire keeps me from working.’ And yet, this affair has produced not one but two books; the first being ‘Simple Passion’ in 1992, immediately after the affair. ‘Getting Lost’ comes many years later. She found a ‘truth’ from her journalling of the affair, beyond the first book and decided to relive it, in a more lucid version thanks to an ‘inner imperative’.
3. After reading the book, you cannot help but walk around in her world for a bit. And then you remember she’s 82 years old and you love her a little more for her total absence of shame. She talks about the days when she was not at liberty to contact Mr. S, he must call her. She lives in constant terror of being dumped; it destroys her every day and when he calls it remakes her.
4. It's a dark realisation that when Ernaux visits Russia again, a decade later, she’s unable to remember the name of the hotel where she spent a passionate night with Mr. Sand, says, “I no longer cared whether he was alive or dead.”
5. As a reader, I felt a brief tinge of regret for not being a native French reader. I can only imagine the power of her writing in her mother tongue!
Ernaux will be remembered, just as we remember her compatriot Simone De Beauvoir. As a biographer, I spend much of my time urging women to tell their stories; take pride in their loves and their past choices. I have always found that the fear of being judged, always prevents them from opening up.
This is the mental block women need to overcome. Because we cannot paint perfect pictures of our lives and mislead those who are in the middle of making mistakes. Ernaux is here to help us with her ‘sexually frank study of a woman in the throes of love and lust.’
Thank you Annie Ernaux.
Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta is a columnist and bestselling biographer. She is credited with the internationally acclaimed Red Dot Experiment, a decadal six-nation study on how ‘culture impacts communication.’ On Twitter @OfficialReetaRG.