A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Duras’ Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein was one of the first books I ever blogged about, and not much seems to have changed since then…
For a writer I enjoy, Duras is one I understand surprisingly little, and the things I know about her can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Firstly, I know she was a mentally unstable alcoholic. Secondly, in her late seventies she lived with a man much her junior, who later wrote a book about her. Thirdly, she liked tennis. Fourthly, she was interested in film as a medium. (La pluie d’été itself is a novelisation – or perhaps ‘literarisation’ would be a more accurate term – of the script of her 1984 novel Les Enfants, which I haven’t seen.) I know little about the chronology of her published works (except that La pluie d’été was one of the last) and about her relationship with the literary theories of her time (though the relationship is clearly there).
Now, La pluie d’été. It has been published in English translation as Summer Rain, but I read the book in French; Duras’ novels may be difficult but her writing is easy to read, and you can get by even with French as basic as mine. The story – or at least the surface story – is about a family of unemployed immigrant parents and numerous children, who live abandoned by welfare and school authorities, in an equally abandoned house. The eldest siblings Ernesto and Jeanne, in their early teens, herd the smaller children and somehow they all stumble along in a happy chaos: left to their own devices, but loved. Then one day Ernesto learns to read – without ever having been taught. He is taken to school, only to reject schooling for complicated reasons of his own; not the least of them being his (most would say unhealthy) love for Jeanne. But in a surprising – and to on-lookers, unsettling – way, the young genius continues to learn. Where does his genius come from, ask the teachers and authorities; and what does it mean? To the children, it only means that their happy-go-lucky childhood is bound to end.
Sounds simple enough… deceptively so. And that’s all I can say, because most of this short novel’s meaning seems to lie outside words. The characters have their private meanings, and words either fail, transcend meaning, or mean more than they say; all meaning in the novel is fluid, and all true knowledge keeps silent. Like Lol Stein, Ernesto knows something others cannot understand – and if they do, they do so only through strange half-epiphanies they cannot put into words. But this secret knowledge renders them both passive. Lol seems to understand the true meaning of passion, and it makes her a voyeur. Ernesto seems to understand even the origins of the universe, and the best he can make of his knowledge is to state that ‘it doesn’t matter’.
If that sounds muddled and pretentious, that’s because it would take a genius like Ernesto to analyse a novel like this without tying oneself up in metaphysical knots. And yet, if you refrain from trying to analyse everything as you go and just read, somehow the effect of the whole is simple, affecting, and haunting.
The story unfolds as something of a part-novel, part-play – but it’s like a play that contains itself in the text, not one that is meant to be performed. In fact, it would probably lose a lot in performance because, to me at least, the book is all about the ambiguity of the words on paper. (I can’t really imagine the minimalism on film, and I’m not sure I’d even like to see Les Enfants – even if it was there first!) Amidst all the ambiguity, there is a good deal of absurd humour… but of course, now that I think about it I can’t pin-point what exactly is so funny: the humour isn’t in ‘funny moments’, but about the entire world being a little askew.
The best thing I can do is give you a taster and let you make of it what you will. Here you have a random chunk of dialogue, translated by me. (This is towards the end, but I don’t think it counts as a spoiler; ‘plot’ obviously isn’t conventional here.) A newspaper reporter has been sent to interview Ernesto and he asks the parents when they first noticed their son was special.
REPORTER: Perhaps some particular circumstance or incident, madam… if you could recall even one detail, one small thing… that sticks in your mind…
FATHER: What about the scissors, they might do…
MOTHER: Aye, that’s right… wait a minute…
Mother remembers it perfectly.
MOTHER: Aye, one day, the boy is three years or something, he comes to me crying and shouting: I can’t find my scissors I can’t find my scissors… And I say that there’s nothing to it but to think where you’ve left them. The boy says: I can’t think I can’t think. Then I say: Well that’s all we need now. What do you mean you can’t think? Then the boy answers: I can’t think, because if I think, I’ll think I’ve thrown them out of the window.
Silence. An atmosphere of emptiness.
REPORTER: I’m sorry, madam, but… no matter how intelligent you are, how could you have guessed your son’s extraordinariness from this?
MOTHER: Well now I don’t understand a word you’re saying, sir. This is getting a bit dull.
The reporter sighs. Silence. Pondering. Then the reporter speaks. More and more, he takes on the parents’ mannerisms.
REPORTER: I only mean, madam, that your story about the scissors has nothing at all to do with the case at hand, that is the rejection of the school system…
FATHER: We’re not so stupid either, my wife and I, so take care what you say, sir.
REPORTER: I’m awfully sorry, sir and madam, I was only trying to say that even if madam weren’t especially intelligent, a story like this, the story of the scissors for instance, would have enchanted her for the simple reason that it happened to her own son.
Silence, finally broken by the mother.
MOTHER: Good sir. This reasoning of yours will lead nowhere. And here I thought you’d understood what this is all about. Believe me when I say: nobody could understand what Ernesto said, nobody. Except me. And this is precisely because I don’t even try to explain it.
Silence. An atmosphere of emptiness. The reporter feels deflated again.
Final Verdict: Strange book. I loved it, but I have no idea why exactly.
French edition: Gallimard 1994 (orig. 1990) 149 pp. ISBN: 2070387054. The English editions appear to be out of print, alas – but hunting down a second-hand copy is worth it if the excerpt above struck you at all as ‘intriguing’ rather than ‘pointless’.