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Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for Getting Lost
Book cover for Getting Lost


Time Magazine Best Book of 2022

New York Times Notable Book of 2022

A Washington Post Best Book of 2022

Translated by Alison L. Strayer

The diary of one of France’s most important, award-winning writers during the year she had a passionate and secret love affair with a Russian diplomat.

Getting Lost is the diary Annie Ernaux kept during the year and a half she had a secret love affair with a younger, married man, a Russian diplomat. Her novel, Simple Passion, was based on this affair, but here her writing is immediate, unfiltered. In these diaries it is 1989 and Annie is divorced with two grown sons, living outside of Paris and nearing fifty. Her lover escapes the city to see her there and Ernaux seems to survive only in expectation of these encounters, saying “his desire for me is the only thing I can be sure of.” She cannot write, she trudges distractedly through her various other commitments in the world, she awaits his next call; she lives only to feel desire and for the next rendezvous. When he is gone and the desire has faded, she feels that she is a step closer to death.
Lauded for her spare prose, Ernaux here removes all artifice, her writing pared down to its most naked and vulnerable. Getting Lost is as strong a book as any that she has written, a haunting, desperate view of strong and successful woman who seduces a man only to lose herself in love and desire.

Click here to read an excerpt in The Paris Review

Book cover for Getting Lost
Book cover for Getting Lost

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“The almost primitive directness of her voice is bracing. It’s as if she’s carving each sentence onto the surface of a table with a knife. She is, in her writing, definitely not the sort of girl whose bicycle has a basket. ... “Getting Lost” is a feverish book. It’s about being impaled by desire, and about the things human beings want, as opposed to the things for which they settle. ... It’s one of those books about loneliness that, on every page, makes you feel less alone.

“Like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Ernaux’s affair should be counted as one of the great liaisons of literature. . . 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.”

“To read [the diary entries] is to encounter something like a pentimento, the revelation of writing underneath other writing—a quality that already suffuses so much of her work. We can, of course, marvel at what Ernaux was able to make of these entries in Simple Passion. But they offer their own distinct and potent pleasures, the rare, delightful, occasionally shocking intimacies of reading someone else’s private thoughts.”

In this entrancing work, French writer Ernaux (The Years) relives the passionate yet devastating memories of a whirlwind affair through her own diary entries. From November 1989 to April 1990, when she was a writer and teacher living in Paris, Ernaux became besotted with a married Russian diplomat at the Soviet embassy. Set against the political, social, and literary events that defined the parameters of their relationship, Ernaux’s narrative traces her secret love affair with “Mr. S,” a man 13 years her junior, as she recalls falling under S’s narcissistic hold (“a lovely hell”) and the “state of nameless terror” she endures between his phone calls and brief visits. Their affair revives old and painful memories that threaten her self-worth: an abortion in 1964, a failed marriage, and recurring dreams of her mother’s death. Ernaux’s writing is astonishingly candid as she illustrates the ways loss, heartache, and love intersect with her craft as a writer: “I am consumed with desire.... I want perfection in love, as I believe I attained a kind of perfection in writing with A Woman’s Story. That can only happen through giving, while throwing all caution to the wind. I’m already well on my way.” Fans will relish every scintillating detail.

“It’s not a typical story, even for Ernaux, perhaps because most others have too much pride to publish such unfiltered thoughts. In this way, the book’s greatest weakness—its self-indulgence—is also its greatest strength.”

Getting Lost marries the high with the low, the petty with the sacred, the cerebral with the profane, in an exhilarating descent into abject desire. In the foreword, Ernaux addresses why she chose to publish the source material, when the novel it inspired is freely available: not only was writing the diary “a way to save life, save from nothingness the thing that most resembles it,” it stands on its own as a piece of art. There is a feverish clarity to Getting Lost, a sense of writing through rather than about. … Ernaux is incapable of writing a bad sentence, even if the book’s language trends toward the quotidian. She remains lucid and witty even in the most dashed-off entries.”

“In 1988, Ernaux began an affair with a man we will come to know only as S — a married Soviet diplomat on temporary assignment in Paris, twelve years her junior. Getting Lost, Alison L. Strayer’s sharp translation of Se perdre, is Ernaux’s diary of this entanglement, its sufferings, and ineluctable dissolution. Though she swears to S that she won’t write about him, by the end of the twenty months recorded in these pages, we witness Ernaux already reshaping the narrative, turning it into the book that would become her first bestseller in France — Simple Passion. The scope of Getting Lost is narrow, utterly transfixed by events of an intimate order. These intimacies become a kind of mythos, hyper-saturated, as if passion were being presented to Ernaux in Technicolor for the very first time. Like her 2002 account of the fallout from another affair, The Possession, this is the document of an erotic obsession, architected almost entirely within various interior caverns: the intrusive thought, the sexual encounter, the domestic space. . . . That we again face an era when the gains of feminist and sexual liberationist movements are being reactionarily regressed, Ernaux’s erotic manifesto — and her radical exhortation of the value of foregrounding women’s personal narratives in a public and political context — has perhaps never been more essential in relation to ongoing demands for bodily integrity and autonomy.”

“If you haven’t read Simple Passion yet, read Getting Lost first. I read them one after another and was fascinated to see laid bare the way that Ernaux’s life and diaries evolved into her art. Though she told S that she would not write about him, she is drawn back in and fictionalizes him as A in Simple Passion. She writes, “when I began to write, I wanted to stay in that age of passion, when all of my actions—from the choice of a film to the selection of a lipstick —were channeled towards one person.” Ernaux’s lover—S, later A—remains unknowable. We will never know his side of their affair and we don’t need to. What Ernaux unfurls in both books, though, especially in Getting Lost, is the vulnerability and excitement in losing oneself in living for another. Everyone should be so lucky to be wholly consumed at least once in life, and if you have been, then Getting Lost will bring you back there for better or worse.”

“Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, and her thin, bare, and chapped memoir GETTING LOST, about an erotic obsession, is her at very near her best. It’s as if she’s carving each sentence onto the surface of a table with a knife.”

Annie Ernaux

The author of some twenty works of fiction and memoir, ANNIE ERNAUX is considered by many to be France’s most important writer. In 2022, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She has also won the Prix Renaudot for A Man's Place and the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her body of work. More recently she received the International Strega Prize, the Prix Formentor, the French-American Translation Prize, and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation for The Years, which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Her other works include Exteriors, A Girl's Story, A Woman's Story, The Possession, Simple Passion, HappeningI Remain in DarknessShameA Frozen WomanA Man's Place, and The Young Man

Alison L. Strayer

Alison L. Strayer is a Canadian writer and translator. She won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, and her work has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Literature and for Translation, the Grand Prix du livre de Montreal, the Prix littéraire France-Québec, and the Man Booker International Prize. She lives in Paris.

Other books by Annie Ernaux