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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 29, 1993|Sonja Bolle

SIMPLE PASSION by Annie Ernaux (Four Walls Eight Windows: $15; 72 pp.; translated from the French by Tanya Leslie; to be published in September). When Annie Ernaux sits down to write, it is as if she has carefully washed her hands, switched on a brilliant desk lamp, and is examining a rare artifact under a magnifying glass, turning it over slowly, brushing away dust, cataloguing every detail and noting every discoloration and fracture. The artifact in question here is a woman's affair with a married man. But "affair" is too messy a term for the object; the real object is the woman's state, which gives the book its title, "simple passion." The beam of the desk lamp illuminates only her experience during the year of the relationship: the anxious waiting for the telephone calls that announce her lover's visits (and her irritation with any other voice on the line), the frenzied preparations for the meeting, the terror--so strong it verges on anticipation--that something will intervene to prevent the meeting (a fatal accident, for example). The clarity and objectivity of the story are the more extraordinary for its being told in the first person. "Simple Passion" caused a controversy in France, where it was the No. 1 bestseller for three months last year; parents were refusing to allow their children to read it, perhaps in part because of the passage in which the woman arranges with her sons home on vacation to respect the exigencies of the affair. There isn't a shred of sentimentality to the account, although Ernaux observes the workings of sentiment in the affair: Popular love songs can reduce her to tears; her jealous fantasies are fed or dashed on the slimmest of clues eagerly overinterpreted. And for whom does the narrator recount her experience? The book presents itself as a journal kept after the affair has ended. Here Ernaux examines the sort of exhibitionism that has made pornography so commonplace--the narrator reflects on the moment when this journal will become public, and has carefully shielded the identity of the lover. But she also comments on the superstitious and magical nature of writing; does she write to remember a passion she fears will fade, the narrator wonders, or does she write to bring him back?

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