Annie Ernaux | Daphne Merkin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 3,306 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Daphne Merkin

SOURCE: "Eros Redux," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIX, No. 44, December 27, 1993–January 3, 1994, pp. 154-59.

Merkin is an American novelist and editor. In the essay below, in which she offers a laudatory assessment of Simple Passion, Merkin addresses the popularity of the volume in France, discussing its status and uniqueness as an example of erotic literature.

The possibility that we are all fated to inhabit sexual islands of our own idiosyncratic making was brought home to me at a small dinner party I attended several months ago, when the hostess mentioned that two once prominent couples—no longer together, owing to death in one case and divorce in the other—had enjoyed sex lives that were notably "kinky." Of course, I understood the term, in some purely literal sense, as I assume did the other guests—but then my imagination wandered off, in directions peculiar to my history, and I felt the draft of separateness enter the room. What, I wondered, were the other guests conjuring up to go with the word "kinky"? Was it anything like the stuff I had called to mind? One thing that stands out in the haze of confusion that surrounds the subject of sex is that there is no real consensus about what constitutes erotic pleasure. As the Village Voice columnist Richard Goldstein once mused, "If there's no great porn film—not even Last Tango in Paris, for all its value as dramatic tour de force—that's because there's no unity in people's fantasies; some of us will always think a stick of butter is for bread."

Clearly, erotic imaginations have always been as diverse as thumbprints. But sometime in the past three decades we seem to have lost our balance about things sexual. What is normal? What is off? Jeffrey Dahmer is surely everyone's idea of a sickie, and we are relieved to be able to identify him as such. What, however, is one to make of Prince Charles, longing to be Camilla Parker Bowles's tampon? Once you put the extremes aside, where do you draw the

Cover of the 1992 English-language version of La Place.Cover of the 1992 English-language version of La Place.
line? How, for that matter, do you locate the center? We know only that heterosexuality has ceded its automatic right-of-way; that the dark continent of sadomasochism has been domesticated into a household state of mind; and that the gender-true convention of the man on top and all it implies no longer holds sway even in Dubuque.

Indeed, many of us prefer, perversely, the anticipation of sex to the thing itself. Or we have the opposite wish—which is to prolong the aftermath of lovemaking, avidly seeking out its physical aspect in lingering smells and rumpled sheets. There's a whole literature of erotic longing, with overtones of bliss and undertones of pain-in-pleasure, that has sprung up to accommodate this predilection. It's a genre written by women for women—and for men intrigued by the inner life of women. (There's also a small cadre of male authors mining this territory: James Salter, Robert Coover, and, more recently, Nicholson Baker.) French writers—perhaps because they're schooled to appreciate the theoretical, perhaps because they're not burdened by a Puritan legacy—are particularly adept at evoking these blasted-out landscapes, less romance than romantic desperation. If Marguerite Duras's The Lover is the purest and most literarily gifted example, Pauline Réage's Story of O runs a close second, although the latter's reputation as a soft-core masterpiece has tended to obscure its psychological underpinnings.

Beneath their erotic feinting, these books—and the work of other (non-French) writers, such as Edna O'Brien and Jean Rhys—are about the embattled border where I leave off and you begin: the primal lure of symbiosis versus the rigorous claims of autonomy, set to a sexual beat. How much merging with the Other can one sustain without giving up the Self? The literature of longing exists on a continuum that seems to mirror the broad-ranging dynamics of this predicament: at one end is the lost-in-the-funhouse escapade, from which the two lovers emerge bruised but essentially intact; at the other the consigned-to-the-nuthouse drama, in which one of the players (usually the woman) is destroyed. Although Madame Bovarys have always existed in one form or another, the past decade or so has witnessed a florescence of interest in this self-immolating romantic type, both in literature and on film; 9 1/2 Weeks, Damage, Fatal Attraction, and Camille Claudel come to mind. The prevalence of the genre suggests, among other things, that as traditional means of defining ourselves—through gender, class, and geographical origins—become more fluid, our chances of resolving our anxieties about who we are decrease.

Annie Ernaux describes the condition of obsessive erotic longing with a lighter touch than most authors: she calls it "craving through absence." Ernaux, who is French, and has previously written short, grave, and deeply affecting memoirs about her mother (A Woman's Story) and her father (A Man's Place), has now written a memoir of a sexual paradise lost. (If the true paradises are lost paradises—as Proust wrote—can one further infer that every paradise is essentially erotic?) Ernaux demonstrates with an almost abjectly self-revealing candor (in contrast to the self-protective "confessional" writing of someone like Duras) that the elusiveness of the love object—the circumstantial and emotional hurdles that separate us from it—is its most powerful draw:

As he always called me from telephone boxes, whose functioning could prove erratic, quite often when I picked up the receiver there was no one on the line. After some time I realized that this 'fake' phone call would be followed by the real one, fifteen minutes later at the most, the time it took to find a phone booth in working order. That first silent call was a prelude to his voice, a (rare) promise of happiness, and the interval separating it from the second call—when he would say my name and 'can we meet?'—one of the most glorious moments ever.

Ernaux's book is called, with a graceful bow in the direction of irony, Simple Passion. It is tiny, only sixty-four wide-margined pages long, and contains the first-person account of one woman's love affair with a married man—she a divorced schoolteacher and writer, he an Eastern European stationed in Paris. The story is told in immediate flashback, several months after the affair has ended, in a habitual past tense: "I would be overcome," "He would dress slowly," "It would only last …" It's as if Ernaux had managed to wring a humane responsiveness out of the neutral conjugations of grammar.

The protagonist has "gotten over" the situation sufficiently to be able to recollect it in artistic tranquillity, but not enough so that we don't feel the sizzle, and the hurt. The affair, which lasted less than two years, has presumably ended because the man—A—has gone back to his native country. (Left unspoken is the fact that he doesn't feel strongly enough to pursue her from across the globe.) On a deeper level, the affair has ended because the protagonist has willed her "age of passion" to come a close, out of psychological exhaustion, but also out of a need to rage—on paper rather than in her life—against the inevitable dying of sexual fixation. "So the world is beginning to mean something again outside A? The cat trainer from the Moscow Circus, the towelling bathrobe, Barbizon, the entire text assembled in my head day after day since the first night with words, images and gestures, all the signs forming the unwritten novel of a passion are beginning to fall apart."

There is perhaps in all such literature a Swinburnian wish—implied rather than expressed—for the easeful cessation of consciousness that is the peace beyond longing, in which the disturbing vividness of carnal attraction is extinguished in the vast impersonality of time. And curled silently behind this is yet another recognition: that we are, writers and readers alike, temporary dwellers in the country of speech, of squawkings on the page, on our way to permanent residence in the universe of speechlessness—the "infinite emptiness," as Ernaux calls it, after passion.

What this slim, elliptical narrative captures better than anything else I've read regarding the nature of erotic reverie is its encased, nothing-further-to-be-said quality. "I would have liked," Ernaux writes, "to have done nothing else but wait for him." (So, too, Duras in The Lover: "I've … never loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.") The book's power lies in the micro-scopic intensity of its focus, a remembrance of desire past in which everything remotely associated with the loved one—all of life outside the obsession, that is—becomes a way back into the obsession, Proust's madeleine rendered into a whole lineup of madeleines, each more thoroughly steeped in erotic nostalgia than the next:

As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn't tidy up straight away: I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was—a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum. Naturally, I would never wash until the next day, to keep his sperm inside me.

Simple Passion is transparently autobiographical. But it refuses, or gives the impression of refusing, to take advantage of the fictional scrim that most autobiography, from Rousseau's Confessions onward, has helped itself to: the self-portraitist's crucial touchups, bespeaking artistic intention or, more likely, personal vanity. This memoir falls into the reader's lap like a steaming lump of truth, smelling of sexual hunger, indifferent to the shamelessness or the pathos of its cause. "Having to answer questions such as 'Is it an autobiography?,'" Ernaux muses parenthetically, "and having to justify this or that may have stopped many books from seeing the light of day, except in the form of a novel, which succeeds in saving appearances."

Simple Passion can be read in under an hour, which may help explain why it achieved best-seller status in France—just as the brevity of Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County has been adduced to explain its spectacular performance in this country. Although very different, the two books are not unrelated literary animals. Another factor that may help explain the impact of Ernaux's book is that—though it aches on the page like an exposed nerve—it is clearly the rumination of someone who has imbibed the work of Barthes, Blanchot, and the rest of the semiotic whiz kids. Her account abounds with references to absence and presence ("I experienced pleasure like a future pain"); to the limited province of authorship versus the unbounded terrain of the text ("Once I start typing out the text … I shall be through with innocence"); and to the ontological anxiety, so beloved of deconstructionists, that besets disparate but related activities, such as sex and writing ("Living in passion or writing: in each case one's perception of time is fundamentally different"). The lack of emotional sprawl here is entirely un-American, very much the product of a Gallic sensibility—wreathed in booze and cigarette smoke, more literate and world-weary than our Yankee one.

More shockable, too, evidently, for otherwise it is hard to figure out why this highly cerebral book caused a national controversy in France—the country of preëminent sophistication concerning affairs of the heart. Or so we've been led to believe: France, after all, is where Roman Polanski fled after romping with a girl barely old enough to babysit, and France is where the marriage of convenience and the ménage à trois were virtually invented. It is we Americans who are reputedly naïve when it comes to the realm of the senses—we who expect our Presidents to be faithful husbands as well as faithful citizens, with any evidence to the contrary likely to ignite a major contretemps. National tastes in reading are apparently as opaque as individual sexual preferences—once again the old conundrum of what your brain sees when it is shown a stick of butter. This is not to suggest that Simple Passion isn't memorable—it is, in fact, a work of lyrical precision and diamond-hard clarity—only that it would be inconceivable for such a contained, literarily self-conscious work to achieve a wide readership in America.

The French, on the evidence of their embrace of this book, have an admirably high tolerance for postmodern complexities, which make it difficult to tell a story—even as elemental a story as this—without an acute awareness on the storyteller's part of the creaky contraption of storytelling. That Simple Passion is a book—a "text"—about an affair is part and parcel of its self-perception; we are not for a moment to be fooled into thinking that this modest, hedged-in artifact is the Ding an sich, the affair in itself. A contemporary sensibility such as Ernaux's is defined in part by a refusal to treat her readers as unsophisticated latecomers to the literary dance: the illusion of verisimilitude that was once art's finest offering has been disavowed, and in its place is a general tentativeness about the larger reality that art is supposed to be imitating. Whether you like this kind of writing or not, it certainly isn't trying to give you the rush of immersion, the "you are there" feeling that much of American fiction still aims for. In other words, it certainly isn't The Bridges of Madison County, written to entertain the late-twentieth-century descendants of those cave dwellers who were lulled by the first storyteller into forgetting the howling wolves, in the darkness outside.

And yet, curiously, the shock value of the woman's predicament in Ernaux's book—its readerly seduction, if you will—is not, at its core, very different from the appeal of The Bridges of Madison County. Bridges, of course, was the publishing surprise of last year, catching even marketing-savvy Warner Books off guard. Waller writes like a mediocre balladeer—although when he tried to make like Willie Nelson, and issued a recording of songs, he struck out. Now he has written a second novel, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, with a print run of a million and a half copies. It is very nearly a clone of the first, and, given the sales record of Bridges—more than half a year as No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list—who can blame him? It is a chestnut of the book business that romance sells, that mass-market paperbacks of a specific sort—featuring a woman in décolletage, an Alec Baldwinish male, and prose that manages to convey tumescence while at the same time primly veiling any intrusion of the phallic—do well. But "literary" fiction has never sold on the basis of love triumphant. When Bridges performed spectacularly, the surprise was not that a romantic story sold at this stratospheric level but that a small-size, hardcover love story—packaged by its publishers to look serious in its intentions, the jacket done up in smudgy, greige colors—found so many readers. (Bridges has dropped to No. 2 on the list, edged out by—what else?—Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend.)

What both Waller's books have in common with Ernaux's book is that they reassert—in the face of AIDS, and the revival of the concept of marital fidelity, and even of premarital chastity—the perception that the heartland of eroticism lies outside the confines of marriage. In their puffed-up, clumsy, yet somehow canny way, Waller's novels sniff out the great valley of discontent between the sexes; his randy, unattached protagonists smugly observe the slow drip of calcification that occurs in even the best of domestic arrangements. Their author has figured out that at the heart of every long-suffering wife is an underappreciated wench, whose submerged glory is just waiting to be rediscovered. Here is Robert Kincaid, the peripatetic photographer in Bridges, on first spotting Francesca, the Iowa farm wife whose husband pays more attention to his prize steer than to her: "She came off the porch toward him. He stepped from the truck and looked at her, looked closer, and then closer still. She was lovely, or had been at one time, or could be again."

Waller's depiction of self-regarding loners with amatory talents (narcissists, if only they and he knew it) who pine for women already claimed by stalwart but unworthy spouses depends for its effect on the reader's tacit agreement—and there seem to be a lot of willing readers out there—that marriage is not good for your sex life. Possession, it seems, is nine-tenths of boredom, and the daily grind will do the rest. Just as the imperatives of domesticity are not conducive to passion, so the imperatives of passion are not conducive to domesticity. Affairs, by their very nature, preclude taking out the garbage. Most of us know this instinctively, and yet many of us spend our adult lives making an end run around this incontestable fact, trying to have it both ways. We marry for—among other things—the simple certitude of it; we have affairs because we crave the unexpected. No one has ever titled a movie "A Marriage to Remember," and for good reason: it would bomb at the box office. Marriages endure, but they're not, generally speaking, memorable except to the parties involved.

At the opening of Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, the leather-jacketed, motorcycle-gunning professor who is the novel's hero spots his married prey, the gray-eyed Jellie Braden, and spends "a restless night" agitating about "primal things versus rectitude." The conflict could apply just as well to the woman writing her way out of sexual obsession in Simple Passion. Ernaux's narrator would willingly drop everything and light out for amorous territory, if only her man would stay in her field of vision long enough: "I knew that nothing in my life (having children, passing exams, travelling to faraway countries) had ever meant as much to me as lying in bed with that man in the middle of the afternoon."

It's odd that Ernaux, who so scrupulously records the impact of an extra-marital relationship, says almost nothing about marriage. One can take this as an indictment—or, more simply, as a reflection of the postmodern view of connubial love. To live with a man or a woman on an ongoing, intimate basis is to grow jaded, weary of the imaginative possibilities; at some point, our husbands and wives fail to live up to a long-ago sensed potential. They become to us who they have become to themselves, and it is hard to envision them as promising more than they currently yield. An affair brings with it a reclaiming of one's own dimmed hope for oneself. Men look for the erect stalk of their youth, women for something more amorphous, something close to that moment when they first glimpsed sensual bliss.

The very form of Ernaux's book—the narrative as a revisiting of a passion eclipsed—suggests that all eros is redux: a magical reading backward against the inscribed flow of history, a temporary reversal of that infinite regress, of that long unfolding wherein the flesh softens, the teeth decay, and passion wanes. If paradise is but a memory of paradise, then perhaps we are wiser to stay in our own beds and leave it to other people—writers, that is—to have their messy or bittersweet affairs and come back and report on them to us. On the last page of her memoir, Ernaux presents us directly with the purpose of Simple Passion: "an offering of a sort, bequeathed to others." We should be grateful for the small, comforting indiscretions of her prose—even for Robert James Waller's ungainly, strutting croonings. They relieve us for a while of our unmet curiosity, articulate for us—in neatly packaged narrative—erotic byways we have thought about while feeding the cat or reading a bed time story to one of our children. When they're over, we can close the book, turn off the light, and dream.

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