“Which seems to say that in the end it is not the beloved object that is good, it is desire, and therefore the very distance that the poem wants to traverse, that is good.”
If you had to pinpoint where it begins, you would probably land on some moment in a playground, at school or in a park, when you are likely but a toddler. A little boy comes over to you and does something mean – pulls your hair, perhaps, or kicks you between the legs. You’re shocked, or angry, and you cry or hit him back, or go running to your parents or a teacher. You want to know why he’s hurt you; what about you has induced this sadism. “He’s doing that because he likes you,” they probably say. “Just ignore it.”
Thus has the vast and tangled world of gender expectations been distilled down to a microcosm: boys take action, girls ignore it until they don’t want to anymore – or they can’t. It’s the feigned ignorance that feeds the action and thus makes you desirable. Makes you a challenge. As you grow up, the boys stop kicking, and start doing other things. Pulling bra straps, making playlists, asking you out on dates. There’s a multitude of confusing and conflicting ideas about how you're supposed to react to this, and how you are expected to navigate the needs and desires of your own body – and this is all only if you’re a girl who likes boys. “Play hard-to-get,” is the omnipresent suggestion. “Boys like that. Make him work for it.” Of course, not for too long. At some point you’re supposed to give in, after a man has tried hard enough. This juncture, this giving-in and folding-up, is of the utmost importance. Too soon and you’re desperate; too late and you’re a bitch. You have to time the dissolution of your resistance perfectly to maintain the illusion that your body and your heart is a gift that you have purposefully, gracefully given. To retain some sense of dignity and control.
The times have changed, but the rhetoric hasn’t. Now it’s about how long to leave texts unread, or the right number of times to fuck per week. It’s worshipping at the temple of the “cool girl” – an update on the femme-fatale trope popularized by Amy Dunne’s ice-cold monologue in Gone Girl. The “cool girl” is the supposedly feminist antithesis to the much-reviled “desperate woman.” She’s unfazed, and beautiful in a sharp way. She cares about herself first and men last – she works an inordinate number of hours to ensure her own independence, and she cultivates a circle of close female friends for emotional support. She doesn’t nag, or call too often, or demand anything. Most of all, the “cool girl” doesn’t give a fuck. She’s alluring and unavailable; requiring anyone who wants to date her to expend a mammoth amount of energy (and usually money) for her attention. And then maybe – just maybe – she’ll give them a chance.
That’s the enduring idea of female empowerment, anyway. If you’re a woman who likes men – a left-leaning, socially-aware, educated woman – the cardinal sin is desperation. Not so for men and boys, who can pine and wheedle and go to extreme romantic effort without having it seem pathetic. Pining on their part is seen as some noble, sensitive attribute. Reverse the roles, and women who give into romantic obsession (which is actually most women at some point in their lives) are pitied or mocked. This goes doubly for women who are conventionally unattractive, and older women most of all. Type “my girlfriend is too…” into Google, and it will finish your sentence for you: Clingy, desperate, needy, high maintenance, dependent.
It all circles back to the central thesis that we’ve yet to shake, and that has bled into just about every facet of sociocultural interactions: sex is a conquest for men, and a loss for women. It’s an asset or a transaction or a gift or a prize – anything except bodies moving together. Whole subcultures have sprung up centered around this invisible market: Red Pills and incels, pick-up artists and women dedicated to teaching other women how to utilise their sex appeal for dinner, or gifts, or marriage. Even the rhetoric around the rise of online sex work, particularly OnlyFans, feeds into it: don’t fuck for free when you could be charging. Don’t give away the merchandise. On the other end of the spectrum, there are still little girls hearing themselves compared to a faulty lock, or a crushed flower, or a chewed-up piece of gum. No wonder we go to such lengths to avoid vulnerability, when the cost of displaying our true feelings, or indeed, acting upon them, is a perceived degradation of our human value.
If only our bodies didn’t fail us. If only they didn’t tell the truth: that women love and lust and obsess and pine and embarrass themselves just as everyone else does. Crack the shell of the “cool girl” and beneath her cynicism and emotional armour is something far more interesting: a weak and living person.
Like most young women, I picked up Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick and felt myself to be irrevocably changed. Feminist autofiction has been a thriving commercial genre for decades, and is enjoying a recent boom in popularity, with works ranging from Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels to Maggie Nelson’s body of work to Lauren Oyler’s recent debut. But there is still something incredibly illicit about Kraus’ dense and complex novel about losing yourself to complete obsession. Reading an account of total debasement – a brilliant examination of art, film, theory and America at large – that didn’t castigate the woman at the centre of it, even when she left her husband, was a turning-point in my relationship with literature. “The sheer fact of women talking,” even after twenty-four years, is still “revolutionary.”
When I first picked up Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion, I expected something similar. French literature is rich with a history of sexual transgressions and notations of desire and lust – charting a long pattern from from Manon Lescaut, in the 18th century, to Madame Bovary and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, all the way to Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse, Marguerite Duras and just about Michel Houellebeque’s entire bibliography. After all, it was Sagan herself who said it best: “J’ai aimé jusqu'à atteindre la folie. Ce que certains appellent la folie, mais ce qui pour moi, est la seule façon d’aimer.” I have loved just up to the point of madness. Some do call it madness, but to me, it is the only way of loving. Affairs – whether it be the man transgressing, the woman, or both – have featured heavily in French contemporary cinema, too: think of Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction, or La Femme infidèle. When less than half of the country view extra-marital affairs as “unacceptable,” it’s clear that there’s a significantly different series of social norms in France than the ones imposed in the US. That’s not to say that women get away scot-free with adultery – quite the contrary. Thérèse Raquin dies by suicide, in the end, as does Emma Bovary. There is always a price to pay.
Autofiction has a storied tradition of mixing memoir with theory; of cobbling together essay and memory, criticism and narrative, until you end up with a rich, textured collage. But this definition does not capture what Ernaux has written. Simple Passion resists categorization, just as it resists those who would ascribe it a moral message or political stance. At barely fifty pages, the novel is dreamy and intensely personal, preoccupied with the narrator’s thoughts, desires and ideas. There is little in the way of intertextual references, or academic analysis. Much like obsession itself, it has no agenda attached. For that, it is all the more striking and effective; it lives between the words.
The premise is uncomplicated: the narrator – an obvious extension of Ernaux herself, and ostensibly based on her own experience – is wholly lost in an affair with a nameless businessman. Having finished the business of raising her children, she is now in middle-age, enjoying a reputation as a prolific author. How they met is never outlined, nor is what makes him worthy of such obsession and intensity. It doesn’t need to be. He is less of the sun that Simple Passion orbits around, but instead a quiet and muted moon, weakly shining somewhere off to the side. Ernaux writes of love and lust, yes, but also of solitude and distance – both temporal and physical – and the feral freedom that results; the relief of severing herself from the trappings and responsibilities of her own identity.
Gone is the mother, the writer, the friend – any vestige of the woman who “ought to know better.” She “exists only for somebody else.” Anyone who considers this reductive or sexist – or regards Simple Passion as the diarization of some kind of weakness or crisis – has clearly never sunk to those gleeful, depraved depths themselves. This supposedly shrunken field of focus is actually not shrunken at all. Rather, by the end of the novel, the narrator has concluded that the affair is “a luxury” for the gift it has given her; the renewed proximity to her own body and mind. Finally, she lives for her own pleasure, her own base emotions and sensations, disregarding her other identities, and the weight that they carry. It’s pure escapism; a way of shrugging off the emotional burden of maintaining familial and platonic relationships, and the ever present sexless “nurturing” that is always required of older women.
Much of Simple Passion is spent with the narrator viewing herself, and constructing herself, from her lover’s “imaginary gaze.” Like a doll, she dresses herself for him, spending extravagantly on clothes and lingerie that are barely noticed before they’re cast to the floor. Even the orgasms she gives herself alone “belong to him.” They meet only for sex, at her apartment, for a few hours at a time. Between his intermittent visits, the narrator ceases to feel time, experiencing only “absence and presence.” She avoids her children, her work, and her friends, devoting time only to her lover and anything concerning him. Two years pass like this, heady and numb, as she abandons herself to lust, and to pleasurable “total idleness.” That idleness, and time spent alone anticipating his next arrival, is suggested to eventually be what allows her to pen the novel. This is Simple Passion’s gestation period.
The narrator also points to “songs and stories” that legitimize her experience, recalling happily the women she knew in her childhood, “who secretly received a man in the afternoons.” She places herself amongst them, satisfied to be participating in a kind of collective female, fantastical experience. (Here is perhaps where the novel’s French sensibilities slip through: I find it impossible to recall anything like that in my staid, Anglo childhood.) Though most people are capable of experiencing such infatuation, Ernaux steeps Simple Passion in notions of womanhood, dissecting the ways in which femininity and gender roles are linked to her behaviour. When your worth is judged by how fuckable you are, and your career is spent protesting that your mind, and not your body, is your most precious asset, there is a sharp pleasure in succumbing and conforming to that patriarchal system of worth. You are relieved of the responsibility of making sense of the world, and of constructing yourself. Finally, there is an easier game to play, with rules that are familiar. You buy into the message that has been sold to you since birth: you are worth what a man determines he will pay.
I liked Simple Passion because it was dazzlingly sharp and devoid of self-pity; because it articulated a universal experience that we’ve all somehow deemed shameful - obsession - and gave it a new dignity. I liked it also because it surprised me; because it did not attempt to theorize itself away, or dissect and pin down concepts as nebulous as "desire" and "liberation." I revelled in hearing Ernaux casually admit to shameless, supposedly “unfeminist” behavior without excusing herself under the cover of irony or political theory. I just wanted it, she seems to say. I wanted to make myself into a woman for someone else, and so I did. That lack of justification is what makes Simple Passion extraordinary.
Perhaps there is another layer to my attachment. If I liked I Love Dick for making me believe that my tendency towards romantic obsession could be explained – could serve a larger, sociopolitical purpose – Ernaux allowed me to believe I had no need to explain myself at all. I did not need to apologize for living up to an impossible “cool girl” standard, or for occasionally viewing myself through a man’s eyes. It didn’t cancel out my art, or my thoughts, or my dubious feminist credentials. I could just be a person, with a body that wanted things, and a heart that was unfashionably weak.
The narrator of Simple Passion “travel[s] to Denmark to send a postcard to a man.” I went to Florence to do the same. I have been enough under someone’s thrall to buy clothes for the possibility of him seeing me in them; enough to feel “time passing through me.” Certainly enough to suffer through incredible callousness and mistreatment, and ignore my responsibilities and identities to the point of alarming everyone around me. Ernaux is right. It made me feel free. It brought me closer to the world. And like Ernaux, that freedom drove me to write, and write, and write. There were emails and poems, letters and essays. I poured myself into words, ostensibly addressed to him, thinking perhaps if I found the right ones, I could make him realize how much we loved each other.
It never happened, and we haven’t spoken in years, nor do I think we ever will again. In retrospect, there was nothing about him that should have driven me to that level of adoration. Many would call it a colossal waste of time and energy; a detour in an otherwise sensible young woman’s life. They might be right. But, miraculously, one of the poems ended up being published by a major literary journal – my first notable publication, and the one that made me think that perhaps I was a writer after all. Most importantly, it won me $200. I was newly twenty-one, so I bought dinner for myself with the money, and sat alone in a passably nice restaurant, drinking an excellent cocktail and thinking about the pain and the man from which I now profited. In some ways, I realized, it was I who had used him – or at least the idea of him – to express what had been living in me long before I met him. Like Ernaux, I had only ever been talking to myself.