Notes on Annie Ernaux and the End of a Diary

I am due to be discharged from the care of the crisis team soon. During yesterday’s visit, recording the further stability of my mood after one week on a new regime of medications, the nurse explained that the next visit may be my last — at least at this current level of scrutiny. We would discuss next steps, being passed on to other services, and the return of trust over the administration of my own medications.

It all feels quite sudden. It is just over a week since I was in A&E following an overdose. But it is also just over a week since I began receiving these new prescriptions. “A week is a long time in our world,” she said. In fact, it has felt like a long time for me too.

I’m still trying to write but I am scribbling lots of things out. I start paragraphs and then feel like I am saying nothing in particular, striking this banality from the record. I oddly feel like I have writer’s block — something that usually makes people laugh whenever I express it, considering I am clearly capable of writing more frequently than most, even on the days I complain I am incapable — but there is a world of difference between this habit of automatic writing and the cultivation of something more thoughtful. These past few weeks I have been doing little more than thinking on the page. Now as I think about returning to work, constructing pieces of writing for others rather than just myself, I find myself struggling to start anything.

Blanchot writes about this tension within automatic writing in The Space of Literature. Automatic writing was hailed by the surrealists, he says, because it was seen as “an easy method, an instrument always at hand and always effective, poetry brought well within everyone’s reach, the glad presence, after all, of the immediate.” But for Blanchot, the experiment of automatic writing is nonetheless little more than “an attractive myth”, even if one “well worth investigating.” This is because, he continues,

in reality, where the most facile means were being proposed, there hid behind this facility an extreme demand; and behind this certitude — this gift offered to everyone and disclosed in each without regard to talent or degree of culture — was concealed the insecurity of the inaccessible, the infinite experience of that which cannot even be sought, a probing of what never is in evidence, the exacting demands of a search which is no search at all and of a presence which is never granted. Nothing is closer to us, it seems, than the poetry of automatic writing, since it turns toward the immediate. But the immediate is not close; it is not close to what is close to us. It staggers us; it is, just as Hölderlin said, the terrible upheaval.

It seem to me no coincidence that this outpouring, this filling of journals, this furious and energetic writing of late should have emerged from a time that has felt like one of the most terrible upheavals of my life, both in terms of circumstance and an internal dysregulation. Writing has not been an engagement with this process so much as an escape from the immediate cost of its unfolding. It has been a process of automatic writing that, as Blanchot says, “reveals to us a way of writing apart from these powers, in the daylight but as if outside the day in a nocturnal fashion, free from the everyday and from its inhibiting scrutiny.” Perhaps it is unsurprising, as the new reality of psychiatric discharge looms, that the desire to write is itself waning, no longer furious and hurled against a medical scrutiny but feeling instead now somewhat lacklustre, as if now I only wish to record and document the new surreality of relative wellness and freedom.

Today, as a result, life does not feel intense. It feels almost empty, hollow; not depressively so, but as if the fire that boiled both desperation and action, for better and for worse in recent weeks, has been cooled down to the embers.

We had a fire at the beach recently. Driving to the coast in a car full of new friends, we brought a portable fire pit and a paltry amount of wood and kindling. It took us over an hour to get it started, in the end resorting to digging up the shallow grave of a neighbouring barbeque, using the embers to give life to our own blaze.

I ripped empty pages from the back of my notebook, knowing they would catch quicker. “Don’t burn your writing!” I wouldn’t dream of it. But there is something affirmative in the act of shortening the space left to write in.

We talked and drank for hours as the sun set over the bay. Around midnight, we almost had the entire beach to ourselves, with just a few other fires scattered along the miles of sand that stretched out to the north, like tiny beacons for wayfarers in the know.

Our closest companion was a fox, prowling for sumptuous trash among the tidal line, seaweed and scraps of day-tripper detritus, but finding little.

In London, foxes were constant companions, a skulk on every street. But I had never seen a fox on a beach before.

Annie Ernaux, at the beginning of Simple Passion, and in a manner that seems so stereotypically French to someone so painfully English, insists “that writing should aim … to replicate sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.” She writes this after recalling the first time she saw a porno, but although it may have shocked her at the time, she still seems to laugh at the commonplace of sex today, as if “something we couldn’t take in without dying of shame has become as easy to watch as a handshake.”

Ernaux does not write pornographically, however, but passionately — and, at times, even dispassionately. Her short novella is the story of an affair once had with a married man, sporadically chronicling the erotic and foreplayful flight into amoral promiscuity and the anticlimax of its dwindling ending. But the book also records an affair with writing, and a mode of candid expression that feels as elicit as the affair itself. As she writes in a telling footnote: “Knowing whether I would agree to pay the imaginary price of disaster is a sure means of assessing the strength of my desire, possibly also of challenging fate; ‘I don’t care if the house burns down so long as I manage to finish writing this book.” Is this the writer as knowing homewrecker? Turned on by the drama of confession? Divorce your life, writing whispers, and come spend all day fucking with me.

Ernaux becomes both writer and the flames at the door. She records every encounter, she says — the anticipation before and the elation after. But the absence of intercourse itself, experienced in between, the absence of the present, is heavily felt. “What we gained in physical intensity we lost in time.”

The comparisons and analogies between eroticism and writing appear time and again, echoing each other, just as each new encounter with this man may echo those that precede, cloaked in the anticipation of repeating the first meeting and the bittersweet possibility that every time may be the last:

Quite often I felt I was living out this passion in the same in the same way I would have written a book: the same determination to get every scene right, the same minute attention to detail. I could even accept the thought of dying providing I had lived the passion through to the very end — without actually defining ‘to the very end’ — in the same way I could die in a few months’ time after finishing this book.


I felt I was living out my passion in the manner of a novel, but now I am not sure in which style I am writing about it, whether in the style of a testimony, or possibly even the sort of confidence that can be found in women’s magazines, maybe a manifesto or a statement, or perhaps a critical commentary.

But as a reader, nothing like any of the above seems to truly fit. I think of Nin’s expurgated journals. Ernaux’s simple passion tantalises because it is so slim, so elegant, so fleeting. It is barely fifty pages long and, though it seems we have learnt nothing of any real value about their exchange, we’ve borne witness to its intensity, compacted and stripped of any information that might transfer that passion to us. This isn’t a porno, a piece of erotica, but it feels like the most exacting kind, where we look deep into ourselves in hoping to replicate the passions that are just a screen, a fantasy, under which lingers all that is unsayable. The outside of Ernaux’s text carries the weight of an epic; the inside as fleeting as a one-night stand.

She addresses this herself, having little interest in the psychodrama of how she met the mysterious A. and became embroiled in her affair:

As for the origins of my passions, I have no intention of searching for them in my early history, which can be reconstructed with the help of a psychoanalyst, or in my recent history, or for that matter in the cultural standards governing emotion which have influenced me since childhood (Gone with the Wind, Phèdre, or the songs of Edith Piaf are just as decisive as the Oedipus complex). I do not wish to explain my passion — that would imply it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify — but simply to describe it.

I think this is something that I too have been searching for these last few weeks, struggling under the weight of psychological scrutiny but still longing to retain some kind of passionate existence. Call it what you want: major depressive disorder, a personality disorder, a mood disorder, bipolar disorder — the inexact treatment of each possibility is undertaken in the hopes of extending my own resilience, my own life, but I reject each suggestion that I should try and live more calmly, as if not entering into affairs, passions, frivolities. I want to feel everything, but I also want to become better at withstanding it. Writing has felt like a magic bridge in this regard, constructing some illusory byway between the two, between life lived and life reflected upon, where passion lies tattered but still warm and can be picked up by another but always at some sort of distance from myself.

Each post of late has been scheduled to be published one week after it was first written down in my journal. The distance is marginal in real terms, but feels like a gulf to me. I have no desire to read back the thoughts and experiences of a week prior. I talk to a friend about this, who wonders what it means for me to allow myself to be seen in this way. She does life drawing, and recently returned from a shoot with a photographer in which she was also naked, and we talk about the vulnerability of this practice and the strange distancing, even in the immediacy of the seen, that we are provided from our own bodies. I tell her I too would love to do life modelling one day. I’d love to be drawn or painted, have that experience of how a multitude of people see me, without the immediacy of photography but allowing others to engage in a kind of study that seems impossible to conduct upon the self. But writing feels like the next best thing to me most days. In fact, it may be my preferred mode of exposure.

Ernaux: “(It is a mistake… to compare someone writing about their own life to an exhibitionist, since the latter has only one desire: to show themselves and be seen at the same time.)”

There is always a difference between what is written and what is experienced, even if the writing is undertaken automatically, as a stream of consciousness. “Living in passion or writing: in each case one’s perception of time is fundamentally different”, Ernaux insists. So why do it at all? What is the purpose of living in passion and then distancing oneself from it? Sharing it? Opening up that infernal interiority to another? Ernaux writes:

Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal. Maybe I would also like them to live out these very emotions in turn, forgetting that they had once read about them somewhere.

Her book feels ultimately abortive, disparate, half there, with scenes of passion fading as they are recorded; not memorialised, to be forever remembered, but to simply allow inner experience to leave an outer shadow. “Of the living text, this book is only the remainder, a minor trace. One day it will mean nothing to me, just like its living counterpart.” But always the unfinished nature of the thing, of the book, of the experiences it chronicles. Ernaux concludes with a note of melancholic hope at the end of the affair: “so long as these pages remain personal and within reach, as they are today, the act of writing will remain open.”

We will in a world where writing must always be closed, must always end satisfactorily, with all conflicts resolved — the proverbial happy ending. But no passion seems to end well, not really. Life ends with death. Lives lived together do not end but crack-up, deviate and ricochet in unknown directions. Is this not the hardest thing to weather when a passion ends? The view from afar of lines of flight unshared? I turn to Cixous:

The one I love goes off willingly to travel down into what Genet called ‘the lower depths’, others say ‘the grottoes,’ down into the most hidden, the most elusive regions, the most difficult to work, the most sensitive to touch, down into the unconscious and the bodily passions. They can be reached by borrowing the ladder of writing that goes down to the roots.

What is it in this passage on erotic submersion that feels as much to me like an exit as an entrance?

That writing suffers in fact the fate of birds, women, the unclean. Because it runs the risks of its truths, because it makes its way into places where danger grows — there are few people there — it is joyfully received only by ‘people whose souls are already shaped,’ as Clarice Lispector says: ‘People who know that one’s approach to each thing is made gradually and painstakingly — including the passage across the opposite of what is approaching. Those people who, alone, will understand very slowly that this book takes nothing away from anyone. The character of G.H., for example, gave to me little by little a difficult joy; but it was a joy.’

I have enjoyed so much this habit of writing, I am almost mournful to feel its necessity come to an end. It has been a difficult joy for me too, to enjoy writing so candidly about a time where my life felt daily in peril. The emotional extremity of all experienced, however, barely makes itself visible. It has felt strange, in each instance, to recall near-death experiences so matter-of-factly. But how else to do so after the fact? After the abortive moment of climax? Would it be more true to life to carve into each page the intensity of each moment as it was lived?

It is almost two months since a first real attempt on my life was interrupted. Friends barged in on a sorry scene, myself surrounded by methods of self-destruction, but all drama paused as I sat, in tears, writing a note no one will ever read. One friend took this note, as another held onto me for dear life, and cast it decisively into the bin. I will never forget that moment — the moment the writing was forced to remain open, never to think again of writing or say a final word, even if it means repeating so many of the old ones.

Because no one can set foot on the sacred planks of the stage, in the hopes of approaching the living heart of the mystery, without having first stripped from head to foot down to one’s self: for the aim and the mission of these agents (actors as well as director and author) is to increase the odds of the birth of the You:

I shall speak about the actors. They have arrived.

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