Getting Lost by Annie Ernaux review – adrift in desire | Autobiography and memoir

ANDn 1988, the award-winning French writer Annie Ernaux went on a junket to Soviet Russia. On the last day of the tour, in Leningrad, she began an affair with a married Russian diplomat from the Soviet embassy in France. He was 35; she was 48. When they returned to Paris they kept it up. Getting Lost (now published in translation) is the unaltered, original journal that Ernaux wrote during their 18 months together.

This was a period of her life when she admits to being lethargic from sex and thus useless for work (“Intense desire keeps me from working”). Yet this affair has produced not one but two books. Simple Passionher novel-like memoir of the same fling, is probably her best-known work (along with The Years, her masterpiece, an artistic retelling of postwar French history as experienced by a woman). Like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Ernaux’s affair should be counted as one of the great liaisons of literature. She writes honest, deeply felt books while the others were pioneers of what, post-Ferrante, we now call the “invention of women”. Her subversion is not simply the subversion of gender – a woman writing about her own affair, which was historically the dominion of men – but her sexual frankness, which has a way of making such elaborate inventions seem needless.

The romance was driven, on Ernaux’s part, by a pursuit of perfection; throughout she sought to recreate – for one last time – the first night in Leningrad again and again. For the Russian, Ernaux was a famous writer and the best sex of his life. She was forbidden to contact him at the embassy and so Getting Lost was written in the day while waiting for him to call. Often silence from him is inferred as the end. “That’s it,” she writes every two entries, “it’s over.” A constant terror of being dumped both destroys Ernaux every day and then remakes her.

She is on her knees from the first page, in the throes of a lust she wants to cultivate and grow. You feel as if her heart is in your hands. She goes to boring social events; she goes to film screenings at the embassy; she goes abroad on press trips. She desires him everywhere: at every hour of the day, in every country she visits. She buys herself new clothes; she runs errands for him (“I’m both mother and whore”). She has vivid sex dreams. But in the back of her head, there is always the anticipation of the phone call.

The Russian has no physical presence in Paris, except when he’s in Ernaux’s bed. He is a man whose entire personality could be summed up thus: “He fucks. He drinks vodka. He talks about Stalin. ” When he gets dressed he lists, garment by garment, the names of every brand he’s wearing. So not much of a communist then! His presence is more psychological, felt abundantly at the mention of the word “call”. Almost all the entries have that word. “Why doesn’t he call?”

The quality that distinguishes Ernaux’s writing on sex from others in her milieu is the total absence of shame. Desire in her brings forth more desire, the impulse of death, happiness, and even past trauma, like her abortion, but never humiliation. Reading her is to thoroughly purge yourself of the notion that shame could be a possible outcome of wanting sex. Getting Lost also has some of the most explicit descriptions of oral sex that I have read. And to think it was written 32 years ago.

Simple Passion was a cleverly crafted memoir; Getting Lost is a large chunk of her life and the more interesting version of the affair. Ernaux intends it to be a love story from the beginning, but it’s not. Instead, it’s a study of a woman at her peak desire. In the future. I suspect, the book will become a kind of totem for lovers: a manual to help them find their center when, like Ernaux, they are lost in love.

All her books have the quality of saving frail human details from oblivion. Together they tell, in fragments, the story of a woman in the 20th century who has lived fully, sought out pain and happiness equally and then committed her findings truthfully on paper. Her life is our inheritance.

Getting Lost by Annie Ernaux (translated by Alison L Strayer) is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£ 12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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