The Still Life of Desire: Lillian Fishman’s Acts of Service and Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion


As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away: I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over onto the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was—a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum.

Annie Ernaux, Simple Passion

The bowl appeared again at the edge of my vision. The bowl lived in Nathan’s apartment, in rooms Nathan frequented. I could forget about it while I was buying produce and sending letters. Its presence was like an itch or a task I had avoided for so many months it had grown mammoth and accusatory. In my dreams it was always behind me: I could see only the color and grain of the bowl, and in the sheets my body tossed and craned.

Lillian Fishman,
Acts of Service [2]

When I write about desire, I’m mostly considering it as a verb. I desire x. Desire as a form of transportation that takes someone toward one thing or away from another. Motive and motion. I’ve always thought of desire as something about lack, and therefore about distance—a chasm, a space of separation that demands to be crossed. I’m interested in where we’re going and where we’ve been as we’re moving around in the name of desire, these meandering paths and faintly-plotted trajectories.

Reading Simple Passion one winter, I wondered about what desire looks like when caught motionless. When desire doesn’t send us sailing the seven seas or running through airports, how does it accumulate in domestic spaces, or manifest in the plodding rhythm of everyday life? When desire is captured in tangible stillness as in Ernaux’s description of her lover’s leftover mess, how does it still exert power? When an action is so at rest, does it begin to resemble an object—and does it then begin to influence the other objects around it?

I hunted for the still life of desire elsewhere. Acts of Service, published some thirty years after Simple Passion, opens with an epigraph from the latter’s ending as if an extension. Both books are ostensibly about how a woman’s drawn-out, semi-aberrational affair has brought her philosophic enlightenment. Lillian Fishman’s narrator, Eve, becomes a third for a couple with a drastic power differential. Annie Ernaux gets involved with a married Russian diplomat who is thirteen years her junior. Intricate energies murmur beneath the dark surface of these dynamics. Diverted from their everyday lives by limerence, these heroines are unraveling their psyches. Sex here is not a sensationalist ploy: it is a frame in which the narrators intellectualize their experiences by paring them down, distilling them toward truth. Each character’s conclusions are spoken with gratitude:

Fishman ends her novel with “Nathan was the greatest act of service I will ever receive,” [3]

and Ernaux ends with, “When I was a child, luxury was fur coats, evening dresses, and villas by the sea. Later on, I thought it meant leading the life of an intellectual. Now I feel that it is also being able to live out a passion for a man or a woman.” [4]

Their love affairs are described as a gift or a good deed done. In both Acts of Service and Simple Passion there is a kind of narrative stillness rather than momentum, as these narrators are not journeying conventionally. They are not moving through with their affairs with a desired outcome: to possess a particular person or enter into a happy union. But the success of a love relationship is irrelevant because these are not true romances. Instead, they’re books about fleeting passions, energized by the wavering uncertainty of reciprocation from the narrators’ limerent objects. They honor nothing but passion itself, once purified and removed from specificities of heartache or destruction.

I found a section I’d marked two years ago in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, another book about sexual obsession, extramarital affairs and schemes of three, in which the narrator is unwittingly transfigured by her desire for a man:

But I wanted you to know how much good you’ve done me. “It’s like—I’ve finally moved outside my head— I don’t think I’ll go back,” I said. Three days before I’d written in my notebook: “Since knowing D. my eyes have moved to my ribcage. My body’s turned to liquid glass and all the pieces fit...” [5]

I’d loved this imagery of fantastical metamorphosis: a body being torn out from the inside and rearranged into something unrecognizable, superhuman, a new form of matter more sensitized to the world. It doesn’t matter that Dick will never love Chris or show her the same attention, what matters is that he’s caused that eruptive feeling, altered the way she moves in the world. He’s given her a bounty for her runaway imagination, and ultimately, something to write about. This is more than enough, too much beyond enough. On the next page, a sentence fragment I underlined:

I think desire isn’t lack—it’s a claustrophobia inside your skin—[6]

This feeling implies presence, not absence. Experience collects inside the body of a desirer, is drawn in by its magnetic field. The “claustrophobic” sensation is felt even when the original object of desire is long gone from the scene.

I’d puzzled over the purpose that bowls or clementines could be serving in Acts of Service, a book that doesn’t otherwise furnish its scenes with lavish sensory detail. Were these just old-fashioned literary symbols? With the bowl, something to do with the obscurity of its contents, a desire to see over the edge of it, or walk all the way around the table and see the bowl from every angle, if only Eve can stay in that room long enough. [7]

And then there’s the passage from Simple Passion which contains the words “still-life,” in which Ernaux finds a drastic range of emotion in an arrangement of objects her lover has touched. Perhaps the more superficial qualities or functions of these objects are not the only planes of interpretation.

In between meetings, Eve and Annie both pine, pace, and wait by the phone, often depressive or terrified in the absence of their lovers. When no word emerges from the other end of the void, what is left to haunt them remains in the presence of random items. The scenery of a bedroom undone in the wake of A’s leaving, or a glimpse of tabletop articles from the edge of Nathan’s couch. Perhaps these items are only noticed and given power due to some totality of desire—an inert but consuming force, touching everything in its proximity. Perhaps the still-life is more symptom than symbol.

In On Being Blue, William Gass discusses a scene in Madame Bovary in which Flaubert directs his attention to details in the room where Emma commits adulteries, in place of directly describing “indecent” acts, and gathers:

A muff a glove, a stocking, the glass a lover’s lips have touched, the print of a shoe in the snow: how is it that these simple objects can receive our love so well that they increase it? I answer: because they become concepts, lighter than angels, and all the more meaningful because they began as solids, while the body of the beloved, dimpled and lined by the sheeted bed, bucks, sweats, freezes, alters under us, escapes our authority and powers, lacks every dimension, in that final moment, but the sexual, yet will not remain in the world it’s been sent to, and is shortly complaining of an ache. [8]

There is only so much one can write in detail about a lover’s body, those tired remarks of skin and sensation. The very source of desire becomes too bright, too charged, indeed too indecent to look at directly—and so the narrative fixates on the surrounding wreckage that the remembered presence of the body sheds light on.

Gass goes on to say:

Those pink shells, the curtain-rods ending in arrows, the great balls of the fire-dogs: how absurd they would be in reality, how meaningless, how lacking in system, all higher connection. It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word. [9]

Gass suggests that when a series of unrelated objects are phrased and “made word,” they are given meaning they wouldn’t otherwise have in humdrum reality. Like bowls of oranges or the overflowing ashtray, everything in the sight line of a writer-desirer becomes caught in the system of their desire. They are animated by an almost hallucinatory, delusory force that connects them through higher significance.

Maggie Nelson writes after Gass in Bluets to announce her obsession with the color, and in turn, with every random object that bears it—dug-up rocks, dye junk, the fading sign of an abandoned Mobil gas station—when I met you, a blue rush began. In the case of these pages’ arrangements, the objects are given importance by the color of both desire and its lasting devastation. [10]

Similarly, years ago, a man introduced himself as “Carmine" to me and I quickly found myself in a near-rabid state of desire—so much so that my eyes began to subconsciously follow anything in that particular shade of bright red. When I found myself in the bedroom of someone else one morning, the red light from a lamp, and the sight of a red car as it passed by the window, were enough to make me weep for what I imagined they represented (by the name of that color alone, which before had never meant a thing to me).

Some of the final lines from Ernaux in the epigraph for Acts of Service:

He had said, “You won’t write a book about me.” But I haven’t written a book about him, neither have I written a book about myself. All I have done is translate into words—words he will probably never read; they are not intended for him—the way in which his existence has affected my life. An offering of a sort, bequeathed to others. [11]

This offering is as simple as a bundle of fruit on a table, a setting of silverware and glasses. Made word, they’re bequeathed to the invisible reader. Desire is no longer a force of motion, and the lovers are no longer present as the subject matter: for desire has taken up in inanimate and inhuman things.

Still-life subjects adorned the tombs of ancient Egyptians; these were items necessary to sustain the dead in their afterlife. In 16th and 17th-century Netherlandish paintings, they celebrated objects of luxury or exoticism, and arranged them with skulls or signs of rot as a reminder of their ephemerality, memento-mori, the composition of pleasure and its inevitable end. With the development of trompe-l'œil, materials were wrought with such precision or perspective as to fool the viewer into thinking flat, inanimate objects were real enough to be touched.

Acts of Service and Simple Passion each offer their textual still-lifes as brief moments in a procession of dramatic turns and self-revelations, between death and rebirth, the catastrophizing before and after, instants in which each considers stasis, observation, illumination. Here is an arrangement that insists on desire’s totality, the illusions it casts on reality, on its persistence and its inevitable end. They are glimpses of the rooms in the temporary house of erotic derangement in which we pace, waiting in arranged stillness, to be transformed.


[1] Annie Ernaux. Simple Passion, trans. Tanya Leslie. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021. 16.

[2] Lillian Fishman. Acts of Service. New York: Hogarth, 2022. 163.

[3] ibid 218

[4] Ernaux, 48.

[5] Chris Kraus. I Love Dick. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006. 236.

[6] ibid 239

[7] Fishman, 208

[8] William Gass. On Being Blue. New YorkThe New York Review of Books, 2014. 31.

[9] ibid 32

[10] Maggie Nelson. Bluets. Seattle: Wave Books, 2009. 31.

[11] Ernaux, 48

Kate Meadows is a writer from North Carolina living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Small Orange, ellipsis...., Cola Literary Review. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Hunter College and a 2024 Brooklyn Poets mentee.