Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux: The exquisite pain of passion

A deceptively simple story of an affair with a married man is shatteringly insightful

Simple Passion opens with Annie Ernaux’s account of watching porn for the first time:

“No doubt, one gets used to such a sight; the first time is shattering. Centuries and centuries, hundreds of generations have gone by, and it is only now one can see this … It occurred to me that writing should also aim for that.”

Thus, her stall is set. Simple Passion is a slim volume. It is an extremely immediate, deceptively simple book. In it, Ernaux charts a two-year passionate love affair with a married man; notes her behaviours, analyses the effects. She lays it all out with the cool detachment of science, or of pornography; these are the raw facts of her all-consuming passion, the reality of having lived her life entirely in thrall to another. In it she captures the state of waiting, the tortures of passivity, the thin addictiveness of life lived on hope.

Ernaux writes of the experience almost as though it were an illness. She admits that, in such a passion, everything, absolutely everything, relates back to the loved one. When time is finally spent with them, it is beautiful and wonderful, but also surreal, watched from the pining future even as it's happening – when such a passion is involved, Ernaux tells us, real time becomes too full, spills over, creating that agonising effect of nostalgia for the present moment; "I experienced pleasure like a future pain."

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What is significant about this book, what saves it from any chance of dismissal as trite, is its skilful execution, its beautiful sentences, and its startling bravery; in writing such a book, so seemingly “feminine”, so unashamedly a study of extreme emotionality, and in doing so with “a suspension of moral judgment”, Ernaux writes against the zeitgeist. When we recall that the purpose of art is to bear witness, not to be deployed either to uphold or overturn the status quo, we see in Ernaux’s painstaking fidelity to truth a perfect example of work that offers insight into human experience, rather than any definitive conclusions.