Book Review

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

speculative short essay that proposes the historic existence of shame-free desire

Simple Passion was French Nobel laureate (2022) Annie Ernaux’s breakout hit (I think tho I haven’t checked?), and though it wasn’t her first book (again, I haven’t checked) and – tho I haven’t read all of her works currently in translation (I don’t read French yet, which is not something anyone who deserves to be taken seriously would say) – it’s definitely the least astounding of her books I’ve read, but I think that’s part of the point, right? It’s a simple book, a book with a single subject, a work, an essay, an “On…”, a consideration, a column rather than a-


I’ve read a few – tho far from all – of recent Nobel laureate (2022, yes I started this post again) Annie Ernaux’s books that have been translated into English (shamefully, I don’t read French, which is basically like saying you don’t eat olives or know what kissing is), and tho I’ve adored all the other ones, this one – from waaaaay back in 1991 (I think, I haven’t checked) which was, I believe, her breakthru hit – just didn’t make me feel passionate with literary love.

This book, then, in around only 40 pages of text, is about the time (or is a fictionalisation of the time?) of half a year or so when Ernaux spent every minute of her life either shagging slash waiting to shag a mysterious man known here only as “A.”.

Simple Passion is, then, a depiction, a description, an evocation of passion, and tho it is of course evocative and engaging and entertaining and descriptive and depictive (yes, that’s the word I’m going for), its very slimness is its power and its problem.

Yes, passion (like time) is fleeting, and so is this book, but – for me – Simple Passion felt more like a trailer, a teaser, a promise, for the denser, more detailed, more complex, more ambitious and – key for ol’ scott manley hadley as I don’t really have feelings any more except when literature thrusts them upon me – much more emotive texts Ernaux produced later, especially the absolute masterpiece Happening, the events of which are directly, tho very briefly, referenced in Simple Passion.

(Is the frisson of recognition I felt when Ernaux offhandedly mentioned maybe going to get tested for AIDS now her relationship is over the same frisson incels feel when, I dunno, Bat-man appears for one scene in the new Start Wars or something???)

Understanding passion and desire, Ernaux doesn’t attempt to convince the reader of the justification or the rightness or the universality of her attraction – she doesn’t tell us why or how she met this man, she doesn’t attempt to tell or why or how she feels such passion for him, because – like tickling, like talking about dreams, like most other things that happen, right? – that’s not really something that’s interesting to hear about.

Imagine – and you might struggle to do this because it literally never happens – someone telling you what they like about their partner outside of the very specific contexts of a) a speech at a wedding or b) in love poems that you’ve deliberately chosen to read… Can you imagine listening to that, tolerating that, accepting that as something that might be said out loud? What sounds worse than that??? Don’t worry, tho, Ernaux understands this and Simple Passion never tries to rewrite the universalising laws of romance (i.e. love/sex) literature.

So, with this consciousness of what is inherently not interesting, what then does a reader learn about Ernaux’s lover in this book? And even then, is this too much:

1) He is somewhat younger than her,

2) he is from somewhere in Eastern Europe,

3) he is employed by some kind of international institution,

4) he is in some kind of marriage to someone else, but that’s about it…

We know he speaks French as a second language and sometimes Ernaux enjoys the gaps or breaks between their communication caused by this difference; we presume he is attractive and charming enough to have attracted and charmed Ernaux, but we also see in Simple Passion that either Ernaux’s life at that time had withdrawn into a sorta je ne sais beige or that A. was exciting enough to make everything feel like it had, but either is kinda true, right? It doesn’t matter how boring something is if something else is more exciting, what matters is that excitement, that joy, that living.

Something something something.

To feel something.

To feel something again

Simple Passion is not a document about “a relationship”, or about even one person in a relationship, it is a document about passion: how it lands in and on the body and how it feeds a scorched-earth-ed-ness; AND because this is French, tho, and because Ernaux isn’t suicidally depressed (allegedly some people do enjoy life!), there’s no terrifying and dangerous punishment for the feeling and enacting of passion.

I suppose, then, in that way, Simple Passion is unrealistic about passion, certainly of any way to speak about passion as I’ve experienced it: where is the long term repercussion of every moment of passion that ultimately ruins your life in a new and different way???

Where is the psychological fall out that takes years to recover from?

Where are the irrevocable and ruinous life decisions?

Where is the horror the horror the horror of being seen and recognised and known by another (which would probably be neutered by all sexual experience being anonymous if one on one or at an orgy far from where you ordinarily live???)?

Where is the closing in of walls and the panic the panic the panic of shame?

Where is the crying?

The self harm?

The urgent need for hospitalisation?

Where are the corners, the edges, the bitter bitter regrets and the recriminations that never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever end?

Can passion ever be as simple as Ernaux writes it: People connect, enjoy spending time together and connecting, and then they disconnect and never reconnect again?

Can it be this simple?

Could it be this simple? Was it this simple in the nineties???

It doesn’t sound like any passion I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean… it couldn’t happen… maybe… in theory…


Simple Passion is a good book, of course it is, it’s famously a good book. But it just didn’t speak to me about any kind of reality I could attest to. Experience passion without shame or regret? I think I’m more likely to watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate!?!?!? Harrumph!!!

Ernaux’s book, with this hopefulness, this joyfulness, with this this this this this passionfulness, it is too untragic, unsad, unremorseful, to/for me.

I cannot love it because it is too forgiving of life.

This is an essay on passion. It’s very good. But passion is written of as if it’s a positive thing and, for me, eurgh like weeeeeellllllll passion and l-l-l-life in totality, it is not good. La vie n’est pas bon!!!

Buy it – and all the other Annie Ernaux you haven’t read – from Fitzcarraldo if you’re in England. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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