Getting Lost by Annie Ernaux review – adrift in desire | Autobiography and memory

In 1988, award-winning French writer Annie Ernaux traveled to Soviet Russia. On the last day of the tour, in Leningrad, she began an affair with a married Russian diplomat from the Soviet embassy in France. He was 35 years old; she was 48 years old. When they returned to Paris, they continued. To get lost (now published in translation) is the original, unaltered diary that Ernaux wrote during their 18 months together.

This was a time in her life when she admits to being lethargic from sex and therefore useless for work (“Intense Desire Keeps Me From Working”). Yet this affair produced not one but two books. simple hobbyhis romantic memoirs on the same adventure, is probably his best-known work (along with Years, his masterpiece, an artistic account of post-war French history as experienced by a woman). As Anna Karenina and Mrs Bovaire, The Ernaux affair must be counted as one of the great liaisons of literature. She writes honest and profound books while the others pioneered what, after Ferrante, we now call “the invention of women”. Its subversion is not simply gender subversion – a woman writing about her own business, which was historically male dominance – but its sexual frankness, which has a knack for rendering such elaborate inventions useless.

The romance was driven, on Ernaux’s part, by a pursuit of perfection; throughout, she sought to recreate – for the last time – the first night in Leningrad over and over again. For the Russian, Ernaux was a famous writer and the best sex of his life. She was forbidden to contact him at the embassy and so To get lost was written during the day while waiting for his call. Often silence on his part is inferred as the end. “That’s it,” she writes every two entries, “it’s over.” A constant terror of being dropped destroys Ernaux every day and then does it again.

She is on her knees from the first page, prey to a lust she wants to cultivate and grow. You feel like his heart is in your hands. She goes to boring social events; she attends film screenings at the embassy; she goes abroad for press trips. She wants it everywhere: at any time of the day, in all the countries she visits. She buys new clothes; she runs errands for him (“I am both a mother and a whore”). She has vivid sexual dreams. But in the back of his head, there’s still the anticipation of the phone call.

The Russian has no physical presence in Paris, except when he is in Ernaux’s bed. He’s a man whose whole personality could be summed up like this: “He fucks. He drinks vodka. He talks about Stalin. When he gets dressed, he lists, garment by garment, the names of all the brands he wears. So not really communist then! Its presence is more psychological, felt abundantly at the mention of the word “call”. Almost all entries have this word. “Why doesn’t he call?”

The quality that distinguishes Ernaux’s writings on sex from other writings of his milieu is the total absence of modesty. The desire in her brings out more desire, the impulse of death, of happiness and even of past traumas, like her abortion, but never of humiliation. To read it is to purge you completely of the idea that shame could be a possible result of the desire for sex. To get lost also contains some of the most explicit descriptions of oral sex I have read. And to think that it was written 32 years ago.

simple hobby was a skillfully crafted memoir; To get lost is a big part of his life and the most interesting version of the case. Ernaux wanted it to be a love story from the start, but it’s not. Instead, it’s a study of a woman in her prime. In the future. I suspect the book will become a kind of totem for lovers: a manual to help them find their center when, like Ernaux, they are lost in love.

All his books have the quality of rescuing fragile human details from oblivion. Together they tell, in fragments, the story of a 20th-century woman who lived to the full, sought pain and happiness equally, and then sincerely recorded her discoveries on paper. His life is our legacy.

To get lost by Annie Ernaux (translated by Alison L Strayer) is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply