The prolific French novelist and memoirist Annie Ernaux opens Simple Passion—a slim autobiographical novel narrating her passionate and doomed affair with a married Russian diplomat temporarily stationed in Paris—with a description of her protagonist watching pornography. She searches at first for a comprehensible narrative to the film, some evidence of causality to the actions being depicted, but she quickly realizes that the story on display is simply that of two bodies coming together for the sole purpose of physical pleasure. In the end, the film’s characters are reduced to close-ups of genitalia. And having been inspired or perhaps even moved by the scene’s straightforward and unadorned representation of its subject, Ernaux concludes that “writing should also aim for that—the impression conveyed by sexual intercourse, a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.”
The suspension of moral judgment is often integral to the project of writing about human desire, and this is certainly the case with Sara Rauch’s XO, a lyrical examination of the relationship between morality and desire that dwells in that space of anxiety and stupefaction as a way of communicating urgent truths to the reader. In the book-length essay’s opening pages, Rauch begins what seems to be a promising relationship with a woman she calls Piper, but then she subsequently pursues an affair with a married man she calls Liam, a visiting lecturer in her low-residency MFA program. Much of the text plays out while she navigates these two independent selves—the loving and committed partner versus the lustful and insatiable other woman—while occupying the uncomfortable space between these two identities, which becomes a queer space of both longing and shame, connection and resistance.
The literature of female desire was first colonized by male writers, perhaps none so famously as Gustave Flaubert with his Emma Bovary tragically channeling her provincial frustrations into indiscreet affairs and outsized fantasies for a life she would never have. The reclamation by women writers of this mode and subject includes masterpieces like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, the thinly fictionalized account of her entrée into the world of sexual pleasure as an adolescent in the form of an affair with a much older man. Rauch adds the element of queerness to this seemingly universal narrative trajectory—innocence, affair, revelation—as she investigates what it means to desire as a bisexual woman, writing not just of the forbidden love of an undisclosed affair, but also more obliquely about various manifestations of queer romance:
How is your sense of the world warped when you have to keep a certain type of love secret? How does such a secret alter the love you’re committed to in public? How do you live with this knowledge?
Rauch’s deliberately meandering essay touches upon a number of recurring themes and images, orbiting her central concerns as she narrates herself through to what ends up being the termination of both of these central relationships. We get bears as both comfort and physical threat, ruminations on maps and cartography (real and metaphorical), resurrection narratives and the writer’s evolving relationship with religion, as well as an abundance of spiders (especially the webs they spin). The essay ultimately arrives at a state of grace, just as the best of them do, by leaving the reader standing before an open door fully equipped to imagine what might be awaiting us on the other side.
The word “boundaries” recurs throughout XO and shows up most frequently when its narrator is working through liminal moments, such as a casual flirtation before the affair with Liam begins—those first moments when neither party has yet crossed that particular moral threshold—as well as in the essay’s beautifully opaque ending, as Rauch forgives herself for her meandering path towards selfhood:
Humans impose straight lines on a naturally curvaceous topography, attempting to categorize, to understand, to make our way from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible. We label people and places and expect them to stay within arbitrarily imposed boundaries. Detours—things that send us out of our desired way—are regarded with annoyance, frustration, sometimes rage.
In Simple Passion, Ernaux refers to her affair in the same terms as she does the practice of writing: “Quite often I felt I was living out this passion in the same way I would have written a book: the same determination to get every single scene right, the same minute attention to detail.” In this way, writing becomes a means by which to live through what we recognize as our formative experiences, and also a way to approach life itself—a directive to be rigorous with our choices, to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, and to withhold prejudgment as much as possible.
The feeling upon reaching the end of Rauch’s essay, then, is that of complicity with the mind wrestling with the body, the act of writing itself having been the play-by-play of the ongoing sparring match. “Emergence looks like a miracle because most of it happens under cover of something so camouflaged by the landscape that the energy within simply thrives unnoticed,” Rauch writes, and the magic of the text she leaves behind is the unflinching examination of the root systems that have supported that emergence—all the intertwined threads that give life to what finally breaks through to the surface.
About the Reviewer
Richard Scott Larson earned his MFA from New York University, and he is the recent recipient of fellowships from MacDowell and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His creative and critical work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Harvard Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. His writing has also been listed as notable in The Best American Essays, and he is an active member of the National Book Critics Circle.