novel: Duras – Yann Andréa Steiner (1992)

I’ve restarted my list of personal goals that I’m forced to check every day. I did this a couple years ago but didn’t keep up with it. According to the list now, I have to read. So, I’ve begun with Yann Andréa Steiner, an odd intruduction to Duras, a book that’s very difficult to find in either French or English, but since I leant Jordan my copy of the Lover more than a year ago and doubt I’ll ever see it again, I figured I might as well go with this one, especially since it was sitting on my bed when I got home. I provide all this as a preface because I have very little to say about it–it’s beautiful, it refreshes my belief in love. And how does it do so?

It’s considered, though not by her definition of herself, antiliterature. But it functions in a way that is very close to my heart, because it functions in the ways that I think, in the ways that I communicate, the ways that I create: it’s impossible to nail down the objective truth, or even who the characters are from one page to the next, one’s never quite certain if the narrator is speaking of herself, her past, her imagination, or real people she is watching, made even more difficult because we know the narrator to be Duras herself. It focuses on at least two couples: the first is Duras, as an old woman, and her companion, a gay man who hunts her down and lives with her. The second is an 18-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy, who are sometimes in the present, and sometimes Holocaust survivors. There are plenty of other stories in between, but these are the ones the stick out, and the only one I care about is the one of the boy and the girl.

The child and she, the counselor. They are walking together. They are thin, skinny; they have the same body, the same long, lazy walks. This morning they are walking along the seashore. The same, both of them. Two Negroes, very thin and white. Fallen from the sky.

Concern about them seems to be spreading among the other counselors and the administrators. Because they never leave each other’s side.

Beneath the streetlamp she stopped, took the child’s face in her hands, and raised it toward the light to see his eyes: Gray, she said. Then she let go of his face and spoke to him.

She tells him that all his life he will remember this summer of 1980, the summer when he was six. She tells him to look at everything. Including the stars. And also the long line of oil tankers from Cap d’Antifer. Everything. She tells him to look carefully, this evening. The sea, this city, the cities across the river, the spinning lighthouses, look carefully, and at every kind of ship on the sea, the black oil tankers, so beautiful. And the large English ferries, the white boats…And all the fishing boats — Look over there, at all those lights — and she tells him to listen well to all the night’s sounds. That this is the summer when he is six. That that number will never come back again in his life. And to remember Rue de Londres — which only they know, she and he — which is the Temple of the Sun. She tells him that when he’s sixteen, on the same day as today, he can come here; that she will be here in this same spot on the beach but at a later hour, near midnight. He says that he doesn’t really understand what she’s saying but that he’ll come.

She says she’ll recognize him, that he is to wait for her opposite Rue de Londres. That he can’t miss it.

She says, We’ll make love together, you and I.
He says yes. He says he doesn’t understand.
She says, The seashore will be deserted. It will already be night and the beaches will be empty, everyone will be with their families.

They walk together toward the sea until they disappear in the sand, until the people following them with their eyes are horrified.

Until they return toward the tennis courts.

She is carrying him on her shoulders. She sings that by the clearwater stream she rested and never never shall she forget him.

They walk for a long time. It’s already late and the beaches are deserted.

There’s an innocence to their love that makes sense to me, because I don’t know if love can be real without both people allowing themselves to become children at times, so that at times he is taking care of her, because she looks into his eyes and sees how grey and old they are, and she is the child, and at other times he is tired and she carries him, or she washes his body off. In one scene he holds her breasts as they lie on the beach together, and finally she takes his hands off them, perhaps because everyone can see, but…this is the one episode that makes me uncomfortable, not that he held them, but that she took his hands off them. My only explanation is that she knows he doesn’t understand the concept of  making love, that when she expresses her desire for him he doesn’t understand, so that when he touches her this way it’s reaching beyond things he understands, and perhaps places her as his lost mother, which she is not, she is his lover. And if she can only be his lover by doing things he understands, then that is where they maintain their love. Okay, I’m comfortable now. I used to think love should be dirty and angular, but I don’t believe that anymore, because I’ve experienced love fluid and natural, like Blake’s Beulah, a higher innocence, and I am reminded of this, two people taking turns dominating each other with age and wisdom, pulling each other to the brink of fear, and then turning around and reassuring, never pushing each other too far, and finally being very brave together, and running away, kidnapping each other because they can never be apart again. It’s clean, it’s sweet, it’s a description of making love that, as in the novel’s construction, deconstructs the elements and shows on how many levels a thing can exist, and how physical something can be within the confines of experience.

At that moment, it happens; she joins him and I see it. She takes him on her shoulders and they walk into the sea as if to die together. But no. The child lets himself be taken by her into the ocean water. He’s still a little afraid, with a fear that makes him laugh, a lot.

They emerge from the sea. She’s the one who rubs down his body. And then she leaves him. And then she goes back into the sea. He watches her. She goes a long way; at low tide you have to walk far out to reach the deep water. He is still prey to fear when she escapes into the sea, but he says nothing. She stretches out on the waves and heads away. She barely turns around to blow him a kiss. And then he can’t see her anymore; she goes toward the wide open sea, head lowered in the ocean. He is still watching her. round her the sea has been forgotten by the wind. She is abandoned by her own strength; she has the grace of a deep sleeper.

The child is sitting.
Still he watches her.
The girl returns. She always comes back, this girl. She has always come back. Then she asks him if he remembers her name, which she wrote on the postcard. He says a first and last name. She says that’s right, that’s her name.

The counselor has drifted off to sleep.

The child stares insistently at the beach; he can hardly understand how this beach happens to be here without him ever having seen it. Then finally he no longer tries to understand, he pulls nearer the counselor. She is asleep. He gently slips his hand beneath hers so she won’t forget him. Her hand hasn’t moved. Right afterward, the child, too, falls asleep.

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