This is a book about a woman’s sexual passion. That’s it, really. A French woman’s love affair with a married Russian diplomat lasts for 240 pages on the theme of will he? won’t he? oh! he’s here, and he will!
This is Ernaux’s diary for 1989, when, nearing fifty, divorced with adult sons, she hooks up again with the younger ‘S’. She’s an important and famous writer and she’d met him on a trip to Leningrad and their one night stand had been perfect: sex that set the bar for everything that is to come after, when the Russian is posted to Paris.
“The thing I’ve so often feared has happened. Now to live is to write, and I don’t know what to write, or where to begin. I wouldn’t want to do something narcissistic and narrow.”
This story is entirely narcissistic and narrow. That’s pretty much the definition of obsession, and this book is about obsession. The sexual obsession of a woman who can’t focus on anything other than this man for an entire year. Will he call? Is he at home with his wife? Does he have another mistress? Is it over? If I go out, will I miss him?
This book is for any woman, ever, who has sat around waiting for the phone to ring (with their own version of a hot Russian on the line). In the days when phones still plugged into the wall there was a zone you could pace and still hear it ring. Ernaux lives in this zone. She is, however, famous and gorgeous, and the best sex this Russian is ever likely to get and she knows this. When he is with her, she enjoys him fully. It’s a descriptive book. And then he leaves, and goes home to his wife. Is this the end? Will he call her? When?
She does go out to book festivals and on trips. She thinks of S the whole time. It’s been a week, two weeks. Is it over? She shares her dreams with us. In one she’s on a bus and loses her handbag. What does it mean? She tries to tell us that it’s “An unmistakable sign of unease, worry, not a fear of losing my femininity, as in the psychoanalytical cliché.” So it goes. She’s an intellectual.
And yet. The thing about really good writing is it takes you into another person’s mind and Ernaux’s anguish is so up-front it’s inescapable. It’s raw and honest and a bit terrifying. To be offered access to another person’s emotions so fully is extraordinary and you are left with the sense of having shared something momentous, and, possibly (ha! probably) something way out of your own experience. Which is why we read.
If you want to experience a thrilling, distressing affair with a Russian in Paris, vicariously, Getting Lost is a terrific read. And, I should mention, just in case you think this is a fluffy book, that Ernaux won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2022 for “courage and clinical acuity” in her writing. She comes across as a strong feminist in interviews, and says that women have “for long accepted situations that I found absolutely unacceptable and intolerable”. Like waiting around indoors for the phone to ring? Why, in God’s name, didn’t she pick up her feminist handbag and just go out?