Who gets saved in the end?
Not quite a screenplay, not quite a conventional novel, the final written entry in Marguerite Duras’s India cycle (The Ravaging of Lol Stein, The Vice-Consul) finds former teenage lovers Michael Richardson and Lol V. Stein aged by the passage of time and reunited back where it all began, or more precisely abruptly ended, for a final go round with one another. Their chance encounter and subsequent interactions make for a wonderfully complex yet maddeningly dizzying experience, one that leaves the reader feeling off-balance from the very start, and one that never ceases to challenge their basic assumptions about narrative structure.
When it comes to defining the four major players that populate the pages of L’Amour, the pronouns “he” and “she” will have to do, for here Duras seems determined to strip away any extraneous ways of describing their physical presence. His “face is indistinct.” She “smells of sand, of salt.” That’s about all you’re going to get, and it’s all that you really need, for what these people are called and what they look like are completely irrelevant to the situation at hand. Much like the bulk of L’Amour, this absence of detail adds an additional layer of intricacy to the proceedings, all but forcing each reader that interacts with the text to conjure up a unique vision of each character based on solely on their own perceptions of “his” and “her” interactions with one another.
Throughout the pages of both Lol and Vice-Consul Duras toyed with the idea of defining her protagonists based primarily on the impressions of the other characters she placed around them, but here she ups the ante, enticing the reader to become a more invested participant in the story as it slowly unfolds. How each individual reader interprets and uniquely relates to what is occurring has the potential to swing the proceedings in unexpected and thought-provoking directions.
In order to achieve this effect, Duras relies on a sparse use of language that borders on the poetic and an unwavering dedication to embracing the importance of the white spaced breathing room that’s strategically placed around it.
He does not answer, cannot. Before him a glass door is open onto the terrace. The voice is coming from the part of the terrace he cannot see. He waits.
She appears, backlit, in the glass. She is wearing a summer dress. She has black hair, tousled.
She can barely see him in the half-light of the doorway.
That part of the terrace that “he” cannot see, is just one example of an action that always seems to be occurring just out of reach of the words written on the page and this added detail about “she” exists only to highlight the fact that in this case the pronoun refers to a second, completely different woman. As the story unfolds, these off page moments become just as important as those which are actually described. Time and time again it feels as though if the reader wants to know more, they must be willing to take a chance, to rely on their own powers of observation, memory and imagination to fill in the gaps.
As a whole, the India cycle seems to have found Duras obsessed not with love itself, but with our all too human fascination with it. Where does it suddenly come from? Why does it just as quickly fade? Why must we work so damn hard if we want to keep it alive? Why are we willing to sacrifice so much to attain it? Why does it drive us nuts? L’Amour investigates this same theme through the fractured lens of faulty memory. Through it she asks why we’re willing to forgive some slights against us while we allow others the power to completely devastate us beyond all hope of repair. She questions just how reliable our recollections are and whether or not we can ever truly trust ourselves to handle the truth.
A strikingly original work that demands to be read, dissected, and reread until the binding wears thin and the pages scatter to the floor below, L’Amour is a triumphant piece of art by a powerful and intoxicating writer, one who refuses to compromise her vision for the sake of accessibility and one who understands that asking the right questions is far more important than being spoon-fed a series of easily digestible answers.
By Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Kazim Ali & Libby Murphy
Open Letter Books