Some books have the capacity not only to define a generation of readers but also to shape a new generation of writers. Annie Ernaux’s Passion simple, published originally in France in 1991 and in English in 2021 as Simple Passion, is no doubt one of them just as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Marguerite Duras’s The Lover were. In fewer than sixty pages, it recounts her affair with a married Russian diplomat posted in Paris. She was forty-eight, he was thirty-five. It spans just over a year, from September 1988 to November 1989. World events, the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall no less, feature as distant echoes of reality in what is a bluntly honest, pithy, sometimes crude examination of the willed powerlessness and solipsism inherent in an addictive and obsessive passion. ‘From September last year I did nothing else but wait for a man: for him to call me and come round to my place,’ she writes.
By 1991, Ernaux had already won acclaim as the author of A Man’s Place (1983), an auto-socio-biography (her own term) and a tribute to her father and his working-class origins. It inspired a long trail of authors – Emmanuèle Bernheim, Nina Bouraoui, Delphine de Vigan, to name only a few. She is also the first French woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Praised for the acuity of its direct, unadorned, sociological style, her work reveals the shame attached to her roots and her capacity to overcome social alienation through writing. The Years (2008), considered her masterpiece, is a prime example of her ability to speak across class division. By spinning