“Yes, it seemed that it was in this realm of her feelings that Lol Stein was different from others.”
I believe everyone should read Marguerite Duras; she is a must. Most people have heard of The Lover, which is a spectacular novella and like The Ravishing of Lol Stein, begs to be read several times, from different angles and at different speeds.
The Ravishing of Lol Stein begins with the life of 19-year-old Lol Stein as she is engaged to Michael Richardson. While attending a summer ball, Michael dances with an older married woman who we then assume he begins an affair with. Their engagement is called off and Lol has a mental breakdown. From then on, the reader is left to suss out what is exactly going on. The narrative resumes about ten years later, when Lol with her husband and children return to the town where she was betrayed by her ex-fiance. The novel is sometimes confusing, which it is meant to be. Translator Richard Seaver is excellent when translating the long meandering sentences or illuminating the direct narration,
[O]f John Bedford it was said that he was capable of loving only women whose hearts had been broken and, what was more serious, that he had a strange penchant for young girls who had been jilted, and driven mad, by someone else.
At times, the reader is on wobbly terrain. The identity of which narrator is speaking at what time can be difficult but Duras is doing this purposefully. Lol Stein is mysterious and deemed unstable by the residents of her hometown, but to Lol, herself, she has completely recovered from her madness, which is a disappointment to her. Spying and watching people from afar are major themes and the reader feels as if they are looking at the story underwater–images appear hazy and just out of fingers’ reach. This all begs for the book to be reread several times with pleasure.
The reliability of Lol and the second narrator (whose identity is not revealed till halfway through) can be challenged at every turn, but by the conclusion of the novel the unreliability can somehow be trusted to be the actual story. Whirling around the lives of Lol and her friends, there is always a sense that there is a history that precedes them and that will go on without them as well as a history that is missing. The reader must consume the entire novel to parse the meaning and what is happening.
The memory itself goes back beyond this memory, back beyond itself. She was perfectly normal once upon a time, before she went mad at Town Beach.
Memory and perception are always strong themes for Marguerite Duras. Her work usually has a simple premise, which then is brilliantly unraveled and raveled once more. What is first perceived as gossip could possibly be the truth and what is labelled as madness is far more complicated (or not). Lol isn’t a useless housewife but is more resourceful than she lets on. Obscuring the view is also common. In The Lover, the protagonist looks through the slatted shades of her lover’s windows and Lol Stein is often found spying through the windows of a hotel.
I find Marguerite Duras very interesting. She was born in French Indochina in 1914 and lived for most of the 20th Century. She was extremely prolific and besides literature, she was also involved in film. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it (see the trailer on YouTube–it, of course, reveals nothing of the plot). It deals with memory like much of her work. You can see her bibliography here and the list of Le Monde‘s 100 Books of the Century (#71).
This is Number 8 on The [International] Reading List.