Review: ‘Getting Lost’ by Annie Ernaux

Getting Lost

Getting Lost, a diary kept between 1988 and 1990, details Annie Ernaux’s brief affair with a considerably younger, married Russian diplomat during his stay in Paris.

Serving as the stimulus for the birth of the author’s acclaimed novel Simple Passion (1991), the journal abounds in prickling sensations, unfiltered acts of servitude — both sexual and temporal — and despair so blue that it stains the bare bones of a divulged psyche.

Within its pages, passion thrives as an oblation, and desire as the desecration of the self. After all, it’s the wanting — and the waiting — that ultimately comes to define both states. This may be why, to Ernaux’s mind, “love and mourning are one and the same.” And so, to properly weigh the mind and examine the body, Ernaux turns to the other primary source of completion in her life; writing. 

Thus, Getting Lost serves as a backdoor into the image factory — and, indeed, the psychiatric couch — that is a writer’s mind. We witness the processing of emotions, rages, and passions into thoughts that seek paper to feed their continuity. Inevitably, this kind of intimacy proves both humbling and deeply unsettling. 

To be inside another’s head, tracing the missives left on the barricades of a crushed sensibility, is an exercise in forced domination. It helps that these reflections are, in truth, artfully rendered tortures. No doubt heightened by Alison L. Strayer’s keen translation, they cut and delight in equal measure. What’s interesting is that they never manage to shake off the full weight of their sensuality. 

In fact, it seems to endure because of its admitted blindness; Ernaux’s observations regarding S’ character are censored, slanted and steeped in fantasy. But while the man’s faults are blotted in the name of the body’s indulgence, their presence is always honoured in passing. The fact that they manage to pierce the stupor of Ernaux’s infatuation is, in itself, a wonder.

As a social climbing, hypocritical, misogynistic, and self-engrossed “apparatchik”, S never manages to make much of an impression on Ernaux; at least not outside of his body’s eroticism. Even his features prove elusive, with the memory of his face escaping Ernaux’s grasp from the very first collision of their longings. This fracture stimulates a constant state of self-disgust that proves fascinating to behold.

What further coaxes S’ imperfection to the surface is the clarity of feeling — disillusionment, even — that is present in Ernaux’s introduction, penned in August 2000. It serves to cool our venture into this world of mental turmoil, and it’s a contrast that works mightily to the diary’s advantage. 

Maintaining an air of suspension, full of repetitive thoughts and contradictory furies, Getting Lost doesn’t inflame the mind — nor reach the body — as much as a fictionalized account is designed to do. Disengaged as we are from something so private and unprocessed, we find ourselves marvelling at the many psychological turns Ernaux’s thoughts take on their downward spiral.

Having relinquished control to the obscenity of lust, the author’s self-admonishments come across as more weary than heated (“mistress”, “the whore”). And so, fairly quickly, the diary becomes a means of seeking affirmation. Desire turns into a reflection of Ernaux’s self-worth, quite possibly because of the way time intimidates the ego,

“waiting for the call, the voice that instantly tells me I exist and am desired.”

It’s only natural, then, that Ernaux’s fear of S’ indifference begins to monopolise the pages. In fact, by philosophising on both love and devotion, the diary is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse; particularly the way in which structuralism is used to decipher the code of eros, “I reflect that a body is breath — life and desire have no gender.”

As a result, though it delights in raw, hurried accounts of lovemaking, the diary is surprisingly profound. Like any existentialist work that battles time, accountability, the topography of feeling, and the ripening of the body, Getting Lost manages to unnerve.

It draws Ernaux into a cycle of waiting, aching, dreading, hoping, desiring, and shattering. It’s monotonous in nature, but such are the trappings of any craving. Throughout, Ernaux is plagued by the past, forced to reconcile with dates and names that persist despite her present obsession.

In fact, the intensity of Ernaux’s affair with S seems to derive mainly from the way it mirrors her past relationships. Likewise, mentions of abortion, failed liaisons, her mother’s death, and the violent truth of her father’s actions stalk her hungrily, marking her body’s awakening with a forcefulness that bruises.

As such, want and misery form the skin that coats the author’s words. There is no way to peel it back and peer beneath. We experience only the extremities of feeling, with no way of regaining balance or clarity. Then again, such is the nature of any work not written with the purpose of captivating prospective readers. If it were, the diary would succumb to unbearable artifice.

And so, quite paradoxically, its very authenticity is to blame for its stagnancy. Along with Ernaux, we are stuck in place, desperately waiting for a fresh thought to puncture the work’s helpless passivity. But this expectation condemns itself without our input. After all, we know we’re trudging through a world of limited experience, “But my suffering, like my happiness, is linked to my condition of being a single woman.”

Still, a few observations from the author’s travels do make it into the diary, and these prove priceless from a historical perspective. Ernaux’s experience of post-war Poland, with its impoverished land and disoriented people, makes for a particularly kaleidoscopic image. Mainly because of the way it contrasts with the author’s admiration of the USSR while giving us a sense of the tangible.

To further balance out the brutal physicality of being, and waiting, a significant portion of Getting Lost is given over to the author’s dreams, which draw intimacy from the subconscious. As such, what we observe is the frenzied recording of both raw sensation and attempts at analysing the behaviours, visions, and fears that stimulate it. 

And it’s the very futility of this task that leads Ernaux to a restrained sort of immortality, “I never remember the pain of the past, which means that I always experience new pain as a kind of abandonment.” It thrives on the delicacy of despair, acute wistfulness, and “formless jealousy”, which blend together to create an aura of suppressed intensity.

Fans of Annie Ernaux will experience Getting Lost as a dive into a mind enthralled by its surrender to the male body, and one that has a proven record of delivering works of considerate vigour. Others will, understandably, feel pangs of guilt for perusing pages adorned with such blissfully naked thoughts.

And while the diary might not offer much in the way of a thrilling reading experience, it has to be hailed as a work of rare honesty, saved from oblivion by its submission to time’s disconnecting touch.


Publication date: September 21, 2022 (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

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