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. In these diaries it is 1989 and Annie is divorced with two grown sons, living outside of Paris and nearing fifty.
The journal is relentless in its presentation of her pain and abasement, but no less so in its effort to dissect what just happened. Here is the same deep probing for truth, the same fanatical quest for self-awareness to be found in all Ernaux’s work ... Like most diaries—and quite unlike Ernaux’s usual meticulously concise prose—Getting Lost contains its share of banalities, messy thoughts, inconsistencies, and unpolished sentences. It is often repetitious, and accounts of Ernaux’s dreams are no more exciting to hear about than anyone else’s ever are. But, to echo James Wood’s observation about reading Karl Ove Knausgaard—another writer consumed with his own intimate history—even when I was bored I was interested ... What is remarkable—and what, for me, makes her work more engaging than much contemporary autofiction is her ability to appear removed from her first-person narratives, to be writing objectively about her subjectivity, achieving transparency and, at the same time, an almost forensic detachment ... as a matador-writer Ernaux has always faced the bull’s horns. She is a master of close and graceful capework, and, as in any bullfight, it is the show of courage before danger and possible disaster that enthralls the spectator.
... a scabbed-over wound. Its beauty and meaning — which are considerable — come from the tension between the diary’s immediacy, candor, and occasional luridness, against its intellectual heft as an artifact documenting Ernaux’s artistic process. 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 ... There is a feverish clarity to Getting Lost, a sense of writing through rather than about ... The repetition is relentless and hypnotic, sometimes verging on dull, but her awareness of it never falters. She at times reduces her themes to shorthand, perhaps as bored as a reader might be, tersely recording 'Love/death, but oh so intense.' The shortcuts only draw the reader in deeper, allowing Ernaux’s voice and fixations to echo in one’s head ... From the repetition and occasional artlessness emerge surprises. I don’t think it’s crass to acknowledge the thrill of reading Ernaux’s frank accounts of sex, which range from sensual to amusing ... There’s both eroticism and a kind of dry humor in the way she documents the sex ... There’s no performance to the sex scenes in Getting Lost, as the diarist has nothing to prove and no one to entertain. Nothing about them feels fake, and therefore nothing about them feels embarrassing ... But while the book might be erotic, it’s never anything so dull as romantic. This is a real-time account of an abject, obsessive love affair that is consistently clear-eyed and even objective in the author’s understanding of her lover’s flaws and the limits of her own feeling ... These revelations are possible because the genre of the diary is entirely lacking in modesty ... it’s Ernaux’s reflections on her writing that emerge as the most potent thrill ... The unselfconsciousness of ego, the transparency, the casual claim of perfection — where does anyone get to write like this except in their diary? Especially, let’s be frank, a woman? This is perhaps the true exhilaration of Getting Lost, moreso than its wit or sordidness. It’s an unmediated glimpse into how the author relates to her literary output, pride and disappointment dispatched matter-of-factly, nothing hidden or demurred or merely implied. No false modesty. No modesty at all. Here is what she thinks of herself ... The focus on the personal, though, can result in a kind of airlessness. In all these thoughts, desires, memories, and dreams (which are recounted frequently, both more interesting than they ought to be and less compelling than they need to be), where are the rooms? The expressions? The hand gestures, the city streets, the half-drunk coffees in chipped cups? Are we to be trapped for 240 pages in a psychic spiral of repeated abstractions? Ernaux is aware of this lack of anchoring physical detail, and at one point mourns it ... Characteristically, though, the humor of the diagnostic quip almost makes up for the stretches that drag. 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 ... Still, when beauty occurs, it feels like a miracle ... Perhaps this is the true joy of Getting Lost: the fictionalized version of the affair might be tighter and more polished — more tempered — but it cannot produce the same sense of active, immediate, unmitigated creation.
To read Ernaux often feels this way: in her exhaustive reckonings with her own life, one finds a search for lost time that exposes the unstable bounds and incoherencies of meaning in our own narratives of its passing. In a moment, as Ernaux has written, when technology and socio-digital media have rendered the 'obscurity of previous centuries' obsolete and made it so that those of us still living are beginning to be 'resurrected ahead of time,' her meticulous campaign of recording a 'total novel' of life imagines narrative beyond the vicissitudes of temporality, deliberately attendant to the unreliable, stuttering nature of remembrance. Ernaux imparts on her reader a sense that memory, like any other knowledge system, is an infinitely changeable field, one given astonishing density by, but not reducible to, the individual experience ... This is the disarming closeness one encounters when brushing up against her work. Though oriented through the needle’s eye of her particular world, her nearly sociological sensibility and investment in generating collective feeling dress her accounts of one woman’s life in uncanny familiarity ... 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 ... From these humble beginnings, then, Ernaux’s unabashed delight in her own corporeality and the decadent descriptions of her pleasure in Getting Lost appear as insurgent thrills ... 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.