I don’t love January for the usual reasons: holiday festivities are over, work resumes, and the weather is gray and cold and depressing. In January the year in front of me feels like a void. Confronted with a blank calendar, my instinct is to fill everything in, to make it mean something, to schedule my life into being busy and full and loud.
I’m trying to cope with my January existential crisis, and the way I cope is to read. Lately, my favorite author is French writer Annie Ernaux, winner of the 2022 Nobel prize in literature. I’d always had a book or two of hers lying around, always meant to read her in earnest, but it took me until this fall to get into her work — and now I’m obsessed. As she explores her memory and its reliability, Ernaux relaxes my melancholy into something closer to curiosity. As Sheila Heti writes in the New York Times: “Most memoirs operate as if the past were right there and can be looked at, like a painting on the wall. But Ms. Ernaux understands that one’s 18-year-old self is a stranger to one’s 70-year-old self.”
In Happening, Ernaux is haunted by an illegal abortion during her youth. She sets out to transcribe “an event that was nothing but time flowing inside and outside of me.” She writes, “I shall try to conjure up each of the sentences engraved in my memory which were either so unbearable or so comforting to me at the time that the mere thought of them today engulfs me in a wave of horror or sweetness.” Ernaux’s works foreground the difficulty of writing about the self, showing memory as just another way to cope with the void: the blank page, the unknown future, the open calendar squares that haunt me. Reading her work exposes the futility of my efforts to force things to mean something just to stave off the blankness of a new year. But there’s a glimpse of hope for me: Ernaux reminds me that sometimes things find their meaning only in hindsight, not in the present. You can relax and return to something later, able to see anew what it was all about.
This reading list brings together essays that question the stories we hold about ourselves, how we make our lives meaningful. There’s love, sex, heartbreak, returns to childhood, and deep grief that structure how we see ourselves and our lives. These writers, like Ernaux, travel into their own memories and sensations, confronting old versions of themselves and dredging up hidden habits, to see what makes sense.
Controlled (Noor Qasim, The Drift, 2022)
Of course there’s one thing that makes our lives so meaningful: desire. Noor Qasim’s essay considers the narrative potential of desire — the stories we tell ourselves about it — by placing Annie Ernaux alongside the genre of the millennial sex novel, including books by Sally Rooney, Raven Leilani, and Alyssa Songsiridej. Qasim contrasts Ernaux’s novel Simple Passion, which appeared in 1991, with her recently published journals, Getting Lost, which she kept during the same period. What emerges is a picture of how desire moves us, how it makes our mind work, and how we might start to write about it.
As Ernaux lived the affair, she was aware of the sort of novel one might write — perhaps one rather similar to the novels of desire examined here. But she chose, instead, to craft a different story of desire, one based in fact, yes, though not in the particularities of her fraught and ultimately commonplace experience. In eschewing the logics of narrative, in refusing to even attempt to pin down the object of her desire and opting instead for something that might resemble a ‘testimony,’ Ernaux abdicates any responsibility to plot and its repetitive motions, freeing herself to focus fully on the phenomenon of desire instead. Getting Lost evokes the experience of desire through the mess of life; Simple Passion pares away context to reveal desire’s shape. And while the journals’ primary interest is as a supplement to the novel that arose from them, they also help to preserve a sort of elemental agony, the anxious movements of a mind that desires, and desires seriously.
Crush Fatigue (Alexandra Molotkow, Real Life Magazine, 2018)
I credit this essay by Alexandra Molotkow for introducing me to psychologist Dorothy Tennov, whose 1979 book Love and Limerence was quite a read. “Limerence” names an obsessive infatuation, and Molotkow examines how this infatuation can both bring us out of ourselves — “Limerence is a program running in the background of your days and nights, arranging your impressions in the shape of your fixation” — and how it also operates as a form of selfishness. We get drawn out of ourselves into the idea of another, but we only know that person through our own mind. Molotkow takes the messiness and ambivalence of a crush seriously, paying attention to how much we want to pay attention to someone.
I was born limerent, and my relationship to limerence itself is ambivalent. Crushes map life over with meaning and joy, and I’d always choose heartbreak over boredom. They can also gain on me like a frightening, unpredictable force that lifts me out of my life and drops me back, months later, with a lot of mess to clean. They feel disruptive and wasteful — a misallocation of emotional energies, a source of outsize pain for stupid reasons — and, though it’s partly the point, they alienate me from myself: crushing involves adopting a set of hypothetical standards against which I’m necessarily lacking.
A Glass Essay (Sarah Chihaya, The Yale Review, 2022)
Sarah Chihaya writes about reading Anne Carson in the wake of a devastating breakup. Every day for one summer in Oxford, she reread Carson’s poem “The Glass Essay” in the same spot every day. Her experience of rereading makes her question her own investment in reading as an academic and as a self-described “professional reader.” The practice of rereading Carson is both comforting and challenging, alienating and unifying all at once: It makes a stretch of time make sense, and Chihaya’s account of her own story reminds us what reading can do when it knits into the fabric of our lives.
After you walk away from a last good-bye, the terrain of everyday life is suddenly overlaid with the haunted geography of an entire relationship. Every space is layered with the fine sediment of recollection. Any time you trip and reach out for balance, your hand might accidentally slip “down // into time” and dredge up something beautiful or awful from those years or months or weeks past.
Aftersun (Kate Raphael, The Overshare, 2022)
I love this Substack newsletter by Berkeley journalism student Kate Raphael, which reflects on the uncanny experience of being in your childhood bedroom, brushing up against the many past versions of yourself. Like Ernaux, Raphael’s access to the past is more complicated, more difficult to reach — until it’s not. She writes “I keep my distance from my younger self; I return home with my guard up,” but after sliding back into her past self, Raphael leans in. She rereads her childhood journals alongside watching the film Aftersun, which is set mostly within a child’s perspective and highlights a fragmented memory. Both the film and Raphael’s experiences foreground what returning to the past can give us, what meanings we can find there.
When I slip back into myself as a kid, when I snap at my parents or fall into an old pattern, I often think I am reverting to someone worse. I expect to react better and understand more now that I’m older, and I find that much of the time, I do not. In so many ways, I am still my younger self—a girl who surprises me by how much she understood, how deeply she felt things, while my current self surprises me by how much she still doesn’t understand.
Minor Resurrections (Elisa Gonzalez, The Point, 2022)
In this essay for The Point, Elisa Gonzalez reflects on the death of her brother alongside artwork depicting resurrections, meditating largely on the biblical story of Lazarus. She considers the difficulty of writing about the dead, the pull the story of resurrection has on us, and the way grief reorders a life. Her attention to the way mourning morphs time takes on a distinctly Ernaux-like quality, Gonzalez reflecting that “Time, I suspect, will never move as it did before, even after I step back into it.”
Being thrown out of time or immured in a fixed point within it is a way of dying with the one who has died, an unwilled and yet welcome journey that brings us nearer to being dead. My brother was shot in the chest three times, and every day I shape a gun out of my hand and press it three times to my chest. This ritual is a way of entering the event that I can never live, though I survive it: his dying, not mine. That I go on living while he does not still surprises me. Yet I now think the living hasn’t been continuous. If I have found any resurrection for sure, it’s mine, not my brother’s: as soon as I said, to another sister, “Stephen is dead,” it was as if I, like Barthes, were one dead—and then I came back to life, changed, like Lazarus always and probably until my final death glancing at that vast distracting orb beyond.
Bekah Waalkes is a writer and PhD candidate at Tufts University. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Cleveland Review of Books, Bon Appétit, and more.
Editor: Krista Stevens