Filling in Time Reading Vasily Grossman While Waiting for S
by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer
Seven Stories Press
Published October 2022
What a time to be reading about Annie Ernaux’s self-obliterating affair with S from the Soviet embassy in Paris, not that you’d sense that something’s in the air from the English-language reception to Getting Lost, Ernaux’s diary of the relationship, published in English last September. In the diary and in its generally admiring reviews S is described as a diplomat, apparatchik, attaché, ‘faithful servant of the USSR’ (Ernaux) and Brezhnev nostalgic/Stalin apologist when drunk. Also: ‘He is somewhat, not to say very, anti-Semitic: “Isn’t Mitterrand Jewish?” ’ Pretty standard stuff. Come on. He would have been KGB. And it matters not because he may or mayn’t have tried recruiting Ernaux – S kept their affair secret and appeared uninterested in converting her into an asset or using her connections (his anti-intellectualism was a turn-on for Ernaux). It’s possible in fact Ernaux was so erotically dazzling she shortcircuited, without realising, some good old planned sexual espionage (if so I’d like to read about it). She though wasn’t remotely intrigued by what S did when not with her: ‘I never knew anything about his activities, which, officially, were related to culture. Today, I am amazed that I did not ask more questions.’ Culture my arse. The KGB thing matters because an account of a prominent French writer, one of the greats to many, the most recent Nobel Prize winner losing her mind over a KGB stooge in the dying days of the Soviet Union reads, lands, sits, sticks, whatever the verb, differently after 24 February 2022.
The affair started in 1988 with Ernaux in the Soviet Union on what she calls ‘a writers’ junket’ and S ‘accompanying’ foreign writers taking in the sights. KGB operatives, not enthusiastic city ambassadors, accompanied foreigners on their official culture trips to the Soviet Union. And soon after, S was posted to Paris. They got deeper in with each other. The relationship ended in November 1989, a week or so after Berlin’s wall came down and a few weeks before my family left Kharkiv in Ukraine, stripped of our Soviet citizenship on the way out. S and his wife (of course he was married: she was his embassy secretary) went the opposite direction, back to the Soviet Union, S disappearing from Ernaux’s life except for one visit on 20 January 1991 of a few hours (not entirely clear how blissful or owing to which geopolitical forces) spent in bed.
I’m the same age Ernaux was when she fell off a cliff with S. It’s 2023. Another diplomat–attaché–apparatchik S – S. Lavrov – is Russia’s minister of foreign affairs. S. Lavrov was once considered to be not total war criminal material. He was ‘cultured’? Now when I bump into his grotesque mug on the news I see only a bench at The Hague.
Ukraine is my homeland. I’m furious. Not so much with Ernaux but with critics, who barely mention in the English-language reviews I’ve seen what it might mean to be talking about Getting Lost as Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor (occupying the USSR’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body it heads, as I write), kills, rapes, bombs, tortures and kidnaps Ukrainians, as she doesn’t let families bury their dead, as she tries (fails!) to freeze millions into submission, as she engages in gas and oil terrorism while repeatedly threatening the world (but Ukrainians first) with nuclear weapons; this sentence will get away from me, I’ll stop. Perhaps critics are simply too sophisticated to mix context with subtext, author with authorial persona, reality with representation, production with consumption. Hence the no-mentioning-war vibe? But mixing up is precisely what’s necessary in the second year of Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine. At this moment in history Pushkin belongs with Putin, Sabalenka with Lukashenko. Proclamations of separate domains – literature and politics, war and sport – can’t stand, are lies.
Watch on YouTube Lukashenko raise a toast to Sabalenka’s victory at this year’s Australian Open – we showed you, you Western Biden’s-asslicking NATO puppetfuckers (I’m paraphrasing). Watch on YouTube Sabalenka decry the pressure placed on her, a tennis player, to speak out against the war – it’s really tough for me to understand why so many people really hate me for no reason, like no reason. I mean like I did nothing (not paraphrasing).I was there on Day 1 of the Open when a bunch of young men unveiling a Russian flag taunted Ukrainian player Baindl as she played a Russian opponent on court 14 which had two statisticians but no security. When I asked the men to take down the flag they told me, laughing, sport and politics shouldn’t mix. They were ready with their response. Boom – boom. Did tennis tournament director Craig Tiley and his team also know it was all bullshit when they allowed players from Russia and Belarus to compete under a neutral white flag because denying them entry would be ‘unfair’ plus ‘bad for tennis’? Should neutral go in quote marks as well?
‘One could name dozens of reasons for the West’s blindness to Russian totalitarianism,’ writes Oksana Zabuzhko who’s twenty years younger than Ernaux. One day, soon perhaps, since wars speed up time, she’ll be Ukraine’s grande dame of letters, a Ukrainian Ernaux. In World War II’s aftermath the Soviet Union’s victorious totalitarianism got all manner of free passes, Zabuzhko says, while the vanquished totalitarianism of Germany became the moral focus especially in Europe so that
when Russia ultimately had appointed as its leader an officer of the KGB – an organisation that, since 1918, had been responsible for some of the largest-scale and longest-lasting crimes against humanity in modern history – nobody in the West was horrified as they might have been if it had been a former Gestapo officer.
That KGB lieutenant colonel, now the Russian federation’s head of state, spoke German (how cosmo-European of him), went on Larry King Live. His KGB past felt like something the West could live with and work around. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Zabuzhko writes in another article, ‘the West agreed to blame communism alone for all the atrocities of the Soviet regime. Russian imperialism was never identified as a problem.’
At the time of Ernaux’s affair with S, Putin was stationed in Dresden, an overnight train ride from Paris. He returned to the USSR at the start of 1990 a few months after S. They – S and Putin – are the same age. Ernaux first fell into S’s arms in Leningrad, Putin’s city (you have to wonder about, but we’ll go with it, the unpremeditated nature of that verb ‘fell’). Late last year the Wagner Group opened its headquarters in Leningrad now St Petersburg. I repeat: a paramilitary organisation of mercenaries led by war criminal Yevgeny Prigozhin responsible for torturing and killing their way (this includes beheadings on camera ISIS-style) through Syria and parts of Africa before coming to Ukraine has brand new shiny skyscrapery headquarters in the city of love and culture. Honestly ‘culture’ never meant less to me in my life but I don’t assume it’s the same for most readers.
Before Getting Lost there was Simple Passion – Ernaux’s memoir of the relationship with S. In France it came out in 1991, ten years before the diary. A diary’s a form without salvation, unlike a memoir, Ernaux said. Something essential got dulled, mauled in the memoir. The parts of the experience that were obsessive, repetitive, ridiculous, annihilating, deep in the body. She needed to correct the record. I refuse to change a word, Ernaux wrote in the diary’s introduction, ‘for me, words set down on paper to capture the thoughts and sensations of a given moment are as irreversible as time – are time itself.’ The English-language memoir I’m holding, a Fitzcarraldo edition, is forty-eight pages. The diary from the same publisher is 240. ‘Like sexual desire, memory never stops,’ Ernaux writes in The Years, her book I admire the most.
Mostly Ernaux’s books are in a style Ernaux calls l’écriture plate, ‘flat writing’. Simple Passion’s written like that. Flat writing doesn’t strive to be moving or to bring readers along or to grip or transport. Flat writing is without affectation, ‘rigorously spartan prose, excised of all embellishment’ as Alice Blackhurst puts it. It is sceptical of narrative and the pulling and tugging narrative does. It despises sophistication born of privilege, considers lyricism and drama cop-outs. Lauren Elkin points out that for Ernaux flat writing was an ethical choice, she came from a working-class family and felt it essential to write in a style similar ‘to the kind she used to write letters home to her parents; one that wouldn’t betray them, but would speak directly to them.’ To be beyond their reach was bad like penning poverty porn for the bourgeoisie.
Getting Lost was a birthday present from my friend Melinda Harvey. I was going to say ‘a dear friend’ because she is but I overuse dearfriend and Melinda inspires me towards restraint, actually she’s one of our best critics, read any of her pieces on Adler, Cusk, Sontag, Ferrante on this very platform, I hope the university that employs her (let’s call it Mon) appreciates them like I do.
My birthday’s November, Melinda knows I love Ernaux, a month and a half passed. We saw each other again before Christmas. ‘Stupid bitch,’ I shouted, ‘when he is not there she thinks he is with another woman, not spying or recruiting. What did she think people like him were doing in the Soviet embassy?’ We were in a car park, our cars adjacent, me sitting with half my body inside mine, Melinda leaning against hers. ‘I would prefer for her not to have been such an idiot. Sleep with him, whatever, but know who he is.’ Another dear friend (I told you) who I yelled some anti-Ernauxisms at said, ‘That’s so French.’ Meaning I think – so French to fall into a passionate sexual relationship like into a well, to be a love maximalist. Fall fall fall fall again.
Sex is good in Getting Lost. Which is so hard. You feel the erotic charge. Just enough detail. Never cringey. Sex drive and death drive being bedfellows – she nails it. Some pages are positively vibrating. Sexual perfectionism is the annoying part for me (I don’t like it in anything) but, as Sigrid Nunez observes, Ernaux lets us know how good she is without us wanting to hit her over the head for it and, for a woman and a writer, that’s a standalone no small achievement.
Brain is a sex organ, Ernaux writes, it’s good to be reminded. Sex is also political which means, among a trillion things, that it has been a KGB tool (Trump etc.) since forever. The absence of context and questioning in both the diary and memoir is true to Ernaux’s experience. To bring the outside in would misrepresent a certain kind of passion in which all actions and thoughts channel towards one person only. Even in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate which Ernaux was reading at the time of the affair, it’s the bit about how people in love kiss (they close their eyes when they do it) that grabs her, the rest is ‘a means of filling in time’ before she sees S again.
The KGB stole, entrapped, recruited, sought to compromise, hacked, kidnapped, tortured, killed. It did it then, it’s doing it now as the FSB. It’s at the centre of Russia’s war in Ukraine. While Ernaux is genuinely tortured by the thought of being just a fuck, of S having other women or being about to fall under someone else’s spell, she seems unbothered by the possibility of being recruited, used for information or contacts, made complicit and compromised. After all she’s famous, French, well-connected and super-smart if not – never – with him. Just a couple of times in the diary we watch Ernaux’s mind going there but it’s in and out in little time. Her entry of 6 May 1989 lists four possible causes of S’s silence: held back by the wife, jealous of some guy with proximity to Ernaux, tired of her so spacing out their meetings, ‘4) work, unknown occupations (is he with the KGB?)’. On 21 August 1989: ‘Watched a programme about the KGB last night. The immense abyss of the unknown opens beneath my feet: what a small part of his life I must have been. His activities as an informer (or not) remain shrouded in uncertainty.’ Not much more than that. OK, she didn’t particularly care then and doesn’t want to lie now, that was the nature of her passion and it’s her ethos as a writer, admirable, it’s why we love her, right?
Ernaux wants readers to understand her diary is a record of the internal. The external – what she calls the ‘outside world’ – can always she says be checked in archives. If you’re lucky you’ve have had a period in your life that made you forget the world beyond a room or bed. To have that happen in your late forties is perhaps a special grace.
The lover, bewitched, says, ‘There is nothing in the world but you when you’re with me.’ The writer says, ‘I’ll show how it was, not a word or gesture changed.’ The art bureaucrat says, ‘Here is your important prize which will always come too late.’ But the reader, couldn’t the reader say, ‘Not so fast’?
The Soviet embassy in France where S worked and which Ernaux visited for various cultural events but essentially to taunt S with a new short skirt was known as the Bunker. According to The Mitrokhin Archive: the KGB in Europe and the West, ‘For much, probably most, of the Cold War the Paris residency ran more agents – usually at least fifty – than any other KGB station in Western Europe.’ In 1983, five years before the affair, France expelled 47 Soviet diplomats for spying. In 1986 – Chornobyl. In The Years Ernaux describes Chornobyl as a ‘catastrophe the Russians had failed to hide, surely the result of their incompetence and inhumanity commensurate with the Gulag’ but one that didn’t really touch her generation in France.
Chornobyl smornobyl, Gulags shmulags, Ernaux visited the Soviet embassy feigning only a passing acquaintance with S. Imagine the frisson. That delay of gratification. S’s wife was plain according to Ernaux and Ernaux though over a decade older was spectacular according to everyone. ‘One could not imagine,’ Ernaux wrote in her diary, ‘two women more different in terms of height, hair and eye colour, body (she’s a little dumpy) and clothing. The mother and the whore.’ A pretty telling quote all in all. Ernaux it appears never asked herself what people she met at the embassy actually did for work. In Simple Passion: ‘I tried to find out what he did in his spare time and where he went away for the weekend.’ What about his 9 through 5 Monday to Friday? Yeah what about it? When he’s working he can’t be fucking other women.
Everything is a backdrop. The embassy then. The war now.
I like the memoir much more than the diary. An unpopular opinion. I like the compression, flatness, distance, the short sharp breathing of the negative space. I like its slightness as an object. The composite portrayals of different stages of waiting, a ‘wavering between “one day” and “every day” ’ like water gathered by a cloth.
What happened to S? Ernaux returned to Russia in 1999, could have looked him up, didn’t, because it ‘made no difference’ to her. If that’s true, why? In Simple Passion she writes, ‘From the very beginning … I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end: the man we love is a complete stranger.’ But it’s more than that which is why perhaps her diary needed to be in the world too. In the introduction Ernaux explains the reason for initials for her lover – A from eastern Europe in Simple Passion, S from the Soviet Union in Getting Lost – ‘the de-realizing effect of the initial seemed consistent with what this man was to me: the embodiment of the absolute, of something which instils a nameless terror.’ S is no stranger, he’s a cataclysm, an abyss.
20 January 1991. S comes back for a few hours. He is the same except with skin a bit rougher and face a bit older.
20 January 2023. On Ukrainian Twitter, which I’ve been checking maybe a hundred times a day/night since the start of the invasion and which Elon Musk is killing now, Odesa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky writes as we wait to hear whether Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz (neologisms of this war: to scholz is to appear gravely concerned while doing as little as possible; to macron is to call someone incessantly for no good reason) will release tanks for Ukraine,
– a bad memoir is a person looking in the mirror. We don’t get to see the room or house or what’s around it. We don’t see the mirror even. Just two pairs of eyes, looking.
– and good memoir?
– a person observing themselves as an animal in time that asks: what’s time?
Ernaux is an animal in time. She has that knack. In Simple Passion: ‘I never wore my watch, removing it just before he arrived.’ S kept his on, glancing at it discreetly, declaring when he needed to go and dressing slowly. ‘I would watch him button up his shirt, put on his socks, his underpants, his trousers, then turn towards the mirror to fasten his tie. After he had put on his jacket, it would all be over. Now I was only time flowing through myself.’ Earlier, she’d count down the time remaining, two hours until he leaves, one hour, and ask ‘where is the present?’
In Getting Lost: ‘Each time S and I meet, I know that something new and terribly intense has been added to our relationship that will necessarily drive us apart. The current lucidity … puts me face to face with time.’
Time is Ernaux’s subject as a writer. In The Years:
On holiday afternoons after the war, amidst the interminable slowness of meals, time appeared out of nowhere and began to take shape, the time which the parents seemed to be staring at, eyes unfocused, when they forgot to answer us, the time where we were not and never would be, the time before.
I have never read anyone better on time after war. On time in the war I read Serhiy Zhadan:
Since the end of February, since the start of this massacre, that is, there’s this distinct feeling that time has lost its usual cadence, its flow. It has become akin to a channel in the winter that freezes to its very bottom, stopping the rush of the water and paralysing everyone who has found themselves amid this unmoving current. We have found ourselves in this frozen state, amid cold timelessness. I remember this feeling of helplessness very well – when you can’t feel movement, when you’re lost in silence, unable to discern what’s up ahead, in front of you, in the gloom and silence.
S calls Ernaux from public phone booths. She calls the embassy only when she suspects he’s gone for good. Which gets confirmed by the person on the other side of the phone. I read about these calls (Ernaux wouldn’t vacuum or use a hairdryer for fear of missing them) and think of Macron’s phonecalls to Putin. Twenty hours, ten calls in the five weeks from early February to mid-March 2022. Macron is convinced that he can get through to Putin, that they have a connection. He will stop this war.
Did you see Macron consoling Mbappé after France’s loss to Argentina in the 2022 World Cup final? First on the field then during the medal ceremony. This is someone who has a vision of his place in history. Mbappé couldn’t have been clearer had he printed a shirt with ‘we’re not friends get your hands off me, man’ (and ‘you’re the last person I want near me now’ on the back). Macron isn’t deterred. He was undeterred with Putin. Look up the memes.
Yes, I’m saying I find Ernaux’s narcissism, like Macron’s, offensive.
I have my own university (call it Mel) different from Melinda’s and I teach creative writing there. ‘Focus on the work not the writer’ is (obviously) what I say to students when they start workshopping each other’s work. Hope they don’t read Sydney Review of Books because here I am.
Ernaux the human is political. She is committed for instance to the Palestinian cause as an active participant in BDS and a signer of many high-profile letters condemning the state of Israel. In her Nobel Prize speech she says, ‘I grew up as part of the postwar generation, following World War II, when writers and intellectuals positioned themselves in relation to French politics and became involved in social struggles as a matter of course.’ The reason she writes and it’s always been so is ‘to avenge my people’ and Ernaux’s people are France’s working classes, particularly working-class women whose lives have been wrung by poverty, patriarchy, humiliation, secrecy, shame.
She writes not to but from – from her ‘experience as a woman and an immigrant of the interior’; ‘class defector’, she calls it elsewhere. What many describe as a forensic register to Ernaux’s writing is a mechanism countering any possible contempt or condescension by privileged readers towards her people. A wall. For this and for her focus on the everyday Ernaux went decades being ‘ignored or patronised by the French literary establishment’, notes Nelly Kaprièlian.
What I have always loved most about Ernaux is how she sees literature as a collective undertaking. In an interview with Lauren Elkin, Ernaux says the ‘I’ in her memoirs is not a self but a place:
In the je as I conceive of it, it’s not an identity that aligns with me and my history, it’s not a psychological je, it’s a je that is marked by the communal experiences which many of us have known — the death of one’s parents, the condition of women, illegal abortion.
‘I’ disappears in The Years, replaced by the third person and first person plural.
In her Nobel speech, delivered on 7 December 2022, more than nine months into the war, Ernaux mentions Ukraine (and not by name) once:
But, meanwhile, in Europe, an ideology of withdrawal and closure is on the rise, still concealed by the violence of an imperialist war waged by the dictator at the head of Russia, and steadily gaining ground in hitherto democratic countries.
To sum up: the war in Ukraine is providing screen smoke for the real violence and oppression. From someone who learnt Russian, travelled repeatedly to the Soviet Union, was prepared to die with a KGB lover, who’d have views, presumably, on Marine Le Pen’s close ties with Putin, to see Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine in this way is very much a choice. Ernaux says ‘savagery’ while visiting the US referring to the overturning of Roe v. Wade (and it is the right word). Her book Happening about getting an illegal abortion at twenty-three is a movie now. No such language though to describe what Russia has been doing in Ukraine. Mariupol, Bucha, Irpin, Izyum, Kramatorsk. Babies raped in front of their tied-up parents, POWs beheaded and castrated, whole families killed while asleep, torture chambers in every bit of the occupied territories, Ukrainian children kidnapped and forcefully transported to Russia for which Putin and his children’s rights commissioner had an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Ukraine my homeland is fighting for its survival in part because of two things that didn’t happen in the early 1990s: Russia’s nuclear disarmament after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and a lustration process purging KGB men and women from participating in post-Soviet public life. Ukraine and Baltic states went through lustration. Ukraine of course gave up its nuclear weapons as well.
It’s been surprising to learn from my little perch in Australia how ready people are to stomp with both feet on the reality that Russia, not America, not China, is at present the deadliest imperial power and biggest terrorist organisation in the world. Who knew it’d be such a bummer for so many, they’ll grab at whichever ideological lasso is thrown around Ukraine’s neck – anticolonialism, white-on-white violence, multipolarity, Global South v. Global North, NATO warmongering, racial capitalism, proxy American war, criminal dominance of the West – grab at and posit Ukraine, simultaneously mirroring Russian propaganda aims, as a costly and disingenuous distraction from real struggles and real wars.
I don’t know if we’re supposed to ask for more from our Nobel Prize literature winners. Fascist Peter Handke got it in 2019. I’m no Nobel true believer but Toni Morrison’s Nobel speech has remained my touchstone for twenty years and I teach it every year at Mel and get goosebumps. I’m being coy; I set my watch by that speech. The 2015 prize went to Svetlana Alexievich who used to be the most important writer in my life so maybe I do think asking for more is OK.
The blond sex god in the touching Soviet underpants with loose elastic is not some random eastern European dude. Lauren Elkin, normally astute on Ernaux, calls S ‘a married Russian man’. Nope. Who he was matters, particularly now, it matters too that it didn’t and it doesn’t matter to Ernaux. A recent cinematic adaptation of Simple Passion is described as ‘the love story between a Parisian lecturer and a Russian diplomat’. S is played by Sergey Polunin, a ballet dancer and actor, born in Kherson but fanatically Russian. Perhaps there is no other person in the world who has three tattoos of Putin. Chest and shoulders. When Polunin looks at Putin he sees light. Much as I believe in doing my research, the idea of watching the movie in order to see if Putin figures in the sex scenes via the hero’s chest creating a threesome is simply too nauseating.
Alice Blackhurst, ‘Le Luxe de l’écriture: Writing Luxury in Annie Ernaux’s Passion simple and Les Années’, French Studies, vol. 75, no. 2, April 2021, pp. 221–236
Lauren Elkin, ‘Interview with Annie Ernaux’, The White Review, no. 23, October 2022
Lauren Elkin, ‘Against storytelling. The scrupulous objectivity of the new Nobel laureate’, TLS, 14 October 2022
Nelly Kaprièlian, ‘Outside the Elite. The Books and Notebooks of Annie Ernaux’, TLS, 29 July 2022
Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West, Allen Lane, London, 1999
Sigrid Nunez, ‘Gored in the Afternoon‘, The New York Review of Books, 3 November 2022
Serhiy Zhadan, ‘Poetry after Bucha: Serhiy Zhadan on Ukraine, Russia, and the Demands War Makes of Language’, Lithub, 26 October 2022
Oksana Zabuzhko, ‘No Guilty People in the World: Reading Russian Literature after the Bucha Massacre’, TLS, 22 April 2022
Oksana Zabuzhko, ‘The Problem with Russia is Russia’, The New York Times, 20 February 2023