The Ravishing of Lol Stein
The Tangling of Tenses
To understand the complexity of Marguerite Duras's The Ravishing of Lol Stein, let us see it as a menage a trois story twice told, with a ten-year gap. To tell one story of a complicated threesome is usually enough for a novel, but Duras wants to dislocate the temporal coordinates of one moment of time all the better to bring forth Time itself. We use time here as Proust utilises it at the end of Time Regained when he speaks of "the notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separated from us...." Duras too is very interested in regaining time, aware that what we seek from the past moment is not the retrieval of space but the quality of affect. When we wish to return to a moment in our childhood it is not the spatial reality we seek, but the quality of affect that we remember. We want to return to the feeling which could not be fully felt at the time of the event, partly because the spatial force of the moment, and the gravity of our bodies, cannot absorb the memory fully. It is memory that will do that, but then we have the paradox of the event eluding us at the moment when we can grasp it. Memory allows us to extract the essence but we are no longer in the moment, so what is left is loss within the affect. How to get the affect without the loss, we might wonder, which is not the same as returning, science fiction-like, into the past, because then we would have the weight all over again too.
Few writers seem to understand an aspect of this paradox better than Duras as we might wonder what the motives of her titular character happen to be. Ten years earlier the narrator tells us that Lol Stein was engaged to be married when one night at a ball in a small town in India, her fiance, Michael Richardson, spends the evening bewitched, dancing with a woman, Anne Marie Stretter, with whom he will leave the ball, and then the town. Lol Stein is left devastated, of course, but there is the obvious loss which leaves someone crying for a month and ashamed at their humiliation, and then there is the loss which generates a disfigurement of the inner self, a transformation that might leave the surface untouched but the mind unable to process anything but the trauma of the loved one's leaving. This is a subject Duras offers in various forms, whether it happens to be the woman in The Sailor of Gibraltar who travels the world looking for this man whom she loved, or her script for Hiroshima, mon amour, where the central character has spent years fixated on an affair she had with a German soldier during the war. She may, in the latter, be a married woman, but it seems it isn't until she arrives in Japan and embarks on an affair that both a recovery and a reenactment take place.
She is, then, the master writer of the shadowgraph, a term used by Soren Kierkegaard in an essay where he says "unhappy love is certainly the most profound of sorrows for a woman; but it does not follow that every unhappy love generates a reflective sorrow." (Either/Or) Kierkegaard is talking about women who have been the victims of deception and uses for his case study characters from Clavigo, Don Juan and Faust. But in his analysis, he reckons that this reflective sorrow he sees in various characters who have an unhappy love in their past cannot be represented, "cannot be an object of representation in art, partly because it never subsists but is always in the process of becoming, partly because it is unconcerned with and indifferent to the external, the visible." We can say that more than almost any other modern writer Duras has tried to find ways to make this internal sorrow externally apparent. To do so she has been happy to hint at the madness Kierkegaard eschews when Kierkegaard offers the situations and figures who are not characters of reflective sorrow. "Thus when the loved one dies or perhaps she simply finds her love is unrequited, or life's circumstances make it impossible to realize her wish, certainly there is an occasion for sorrow but not for reflective sorrow, unless the individual is already sick, in which case she falls outside the scope of our interest."
With Duras's characters, it is not clear whether the 'sickness' precedes the event or is a consequence of it. "The theme of madness too often recurs in your novels", says Germaine Bree in Contemporary Literature magazine. Duras doesn't disagree, even wishes in some instances that she had pushed further into that madness. Kierkegaard is writing as a mid-19th-century philosopher whose literary contemporaries would have been Dickens, Stendahl, Balzac and Hugo. Duras's literary heritage could incorporate Proust, Kafka and Beckett - madness and neurosis were no longer problems of the attic and the cellar, but of everyday life. Julia Kristeva goes as far as to say Duras's works are depressive texts, the literary equivalent of the woman who meets you at the door unadorned, having crawled out of bed. "Even my own text, Duras seems to say, is neither beautiful nor good; it is nondescript; it is something unmade, a woman without makeup. It resembles a depressed woman." (Julia Kristeva Interviews) Not only does Duras insist that the depressive become central to literature, the depressive mode, in Kristeva's analysis, becomes vital to its very making.
Yet rather than reduce her work to the arena of the depressed, which is a medicalized term, let us expand it into the arena of the anamnetic and the melancholic - to see in Duras's work a problem of temporal disconnection that allows the collapse of an event. It bifurcates into two: the time past which exists as pure affect, and time present as the ability to find ways to dramatise it. In other words, the former event is too traumatising to be adequately absorbed and waits for a more modest occasion to find dramatization. This is in some ways a Bergsonian problem given psychological form. In a passage from Matter and Memory, Bergson notes that humans unlike animals appear to have the ability "to withdraw ourselves from the action of the moment [and to do so] we must value the useless, we must have the will to dream. Man, alone is capable of such an effort. But even in him, the past to which he returns is fugitive, ever on the point of escaping him, as though his backward running memory were thwarted by the other, more natural memory, of which the forward movement bears him on to action and to life." This is precisely what the shadowgraph does not do; she gets caught not in the forward momentum of life but the backward memory of the already lived. But Duras takes this further because while the shadowgraph would be an example of the melancholic, Duras is interested also in anamnesis, in the problem of memory not remembering and yet caught in that past. When Michael and Anne Marie Stretter leave the ball Lol Stein, who had been screaming continuously, wrenched free from those holding her back and hurled herself against a door. She is hardly there and yet completely there. Afterwards, "she slumped to the floor, unconscious."
This is the opposite end of the sensorimotor spectrum from that described by Bergson as automatic memory. When we carefully learn to swim, ride a bike, or drive a car, concerted effort goes into the learning process until we can forget our learning as it becomes automatic. But the trauma of seeing the man Lol Stein loves disappearing with another woman leads to the incapacitating of the sensorimotor system: it creates the reverie of the useless, the obliviousness of the event. It cannot be understood because it hasn't been absorbed except as pure affect. Learning to ride a bike is the very absence of the affect which allows for its riding. Of course, someone might have an abusive parent who in the process of teaching the child to ride surrounds the task with a terror that means one never learns to do so, or perhaps an accident later means that one can never get on a bike again. But these would be examples of affect intruding on the task.
But what if the affect completely absorbs the self, if it doesn't only lead to the mild phobia of a particular act, but turns life itself into a phobic activity? Lol Stein devotes herself to various household tasks in the morning - after all she married and had three children with John Bedford. But "this domestic fervor - she tried to conceal it as best she could - vanished completely when it came for her to go out..." It is as if the family life she has is no more than an environment in which she can hide, one much easier to bury oneself within than solitude. She would have been happier, or enraptured with her despair, the narrator thinks, engulfed by the ball. "What Lol would have liked would have been to have the ball immured, to make of this ship of light upon which, each afternoon, she embarks, but which remains there, in this impossible port, forever anchored and yet ready to sail away with its three passengers from this entire future in which Lol Stein now takes her place."
However, we also have to remember who is narrating this text, a man, Jack Hold, who at this stage of the book we do not yet know happens to be the narrator. As we discover a third of the way through, the apparently disinterested narrator is very interested indeed. He is a man who falls in love with Lol Stein and becomes part of the second menage a trois that vaguely echoes the first. He is Tatiana's lover whom Lol Stein can easily entice away from this woman, her old school friend. But there is also a further complication, much of what Jack learns he learns from Tatiana, early on saying "I no longer believe a word Tatiana says. I'm convinced of absolutely nothing."
This may call into question an aspect that underpins the book and potentially undermines our idea of Lol Stein being a contemporary shadowgraph. Tatiana reckons that Lol Stein's insanity could not be traced back solely to that ball, she traced its origins further back in Lol's life, "back as she sees it stemming from somewhere else." Tatiana talks of Lol Stein's years at school where she "seemed indifferent, changed friends regularly, and made no effort to combat her boredom." If the shadowgraph is a healthy person made unhealthy by an unhappy love affair, Tatiana indicates that Lol Stein was unhealthy before Michael left her, not just because of his leaving. We might say that we shouldn't listen to what Tatiana offers; hasn't the narrator told us that he doesn't believe anything she says? But just because the narrator, who turns out to be Jack, doesn't believe her, that doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't believe her as well. We might wonder if Tatiana sees that such boredom in Lol Stein meant Lol Stein was waiting for an event that would kill that boredom but instead came close to killing her - that turned Lol Stein into a somnambulant figure no longer bored with life waiting for something to happen; but lost to life knowing that it already has. If Heidegger, Sartre and others can talk of boredom, the importance that being bored has within existential thought, this is boredom stretched to the void. Nothing possesses meaning but we might anticipate its possibility.
If teenagers are so often bored (and before meeting Michael this is precisely what Lol Stein happens to be), it is that their life is ahead of them, yet they haven't quite lived it. They may look forward to going off to college but they are bored waiting, as if time moves too slowly. Then again, there is boredom which contains futility; that there is no future to look forward to but an infinite field of empty time. We might wonder if this is the problem Tatiana sees in Lol Stein when she says "Lol was funny, an inveterate wit, and very bright, even though part of her seemed always to be evading you...' And yet, "No, Tatiana answers, no, it seemed as though she were going nowhere, yes, that's it, nowhere, yes, that's it, nowhere." According to Tatiana, Lol wasn't looking forward to anything at all, as though all she could hope for was an event that would reverse the problem. With nothing to look forward to, perhaps she might find something to look back on. While boredom is consistent with Bergson's idea of the forward momentum of life, however stalled, melancholy is time in reverse: one doesn't look forward to a situation that time seems to be crawling towards. One looks back continuously at a time that has already passed. While the shadowgraph would appear to look forward to seeing her lover, and who when spurned by that lover cannot but look back on that time as it obliterates their present, Duras, through Tatiana, may be suggesting that there was never a future Lol Stein was hoping to exist within, only a future that could become a past she could occupy.
If this sounds complicated, Duras doesn't make it any easier by the narrative approach she adopts. In a short piece from the essay collection Practicalities, Duras says that Maurice "Blanchot has criticized me for using someone like Jacques Hold as an intermediary, in order to get to grips with her." But Duras also says, "her attitude - the secret understanding between her and Jacques Hold during dinner, which changed the book's ending - I can't translate it or convey its meaning because I'm completely with Lol V. Stein and she herself doesn't quite know what she's doing or why." Blanchot, a great writer of the void might have wished from Duras a more direct confrontation with that void, while instead, Duras offers it in the realm of rumour. If Blanchot writes so often and so well on Kafka it rests on Kaka's exploration of the fathomless: "the profundity of inexhaustible absence." (The Space of Literature) But rumour is a vital dimension of literature both as content and form. It can lead us in the wrong direction, it can insist we view things from different perspectives, it can call into question the narration we are reading. Fine books of rumour include Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, and Daisy Miller, texts that insist we cannot know all about the character under scrutiny as we are offered only the various perspectives upon them. Duras offers this up as a paradox it would seem: she cannot quite understand the motives of Lol Stein because she is too close to the character to understand her; thus she must find an aloof point of view that will register that incomprehension. The literary achievement of this paradox is that she manages to convey the inexplicable in Lol Stein from the outside without weakening our comprehension of character. We cannot know why Lol Stein acts as she does, nor can we even know how she was when a teenager. But while the narrator who turns out to be Jack Hold dismisses Tatiana as a liar, we have in our hands a book that incorporates within it those possible lies that are also of course possible truths.
We don't want to turn the book into a fancier, more manipulative and 'cleverer' work than necessary. Though we might be surprised to find out that The Ravishing of Lol Stein is narrated by someone so intricately woven within it, someone who has earlier in the book been described in the third person, if we see this as an exercise in literary manipulation, in how clever Duras happens to be in wrong-footing us in the book, we would be missing the point. But then what is the point, if point is the word at all? Fear might be the common word; alterity the more obscure one. In the novella Emily L, the first-person narrator says that fear of the dark, God and the dead are bogies that frighten children, but the narrator sees dread everywhere, seeing it in cities, governments and money - before saying she is "full of echoes of war and of colonial occupations." She says that when she hears orders shouted in German she wants to kill. She recalls dogs clubbed to death in Kampot while the killers "went on smiling like children, They laughed without qualm, they enjoyed watching the dying contortions of those fleshless skeletons." (Emily L). Kristeva when discussing Duras and her students' responses says: "Do you know how they respond to them? They respond with a sense of loyalty and a sense of fear. They dread reading her texts, especially when they feel weak, because they are afraid of being caught up in her world." (Julia Kristeva Interviews)
However, this fear in its various manifestations is closely affiliated with the self that is other than oneself. How do we create a relationship between ourselves and others that does not generate a collapse of the self into the other, nor one that does not destroy the other to protect ourselves? At one end of the spectrum, we have the lover who believes they cannot exist without the partner, at the other the German who can kill without emotional consequence, or the grinning sadists killing dogs in Kampot. Does someone integrate the other as love to the point of disintegration in the former instance; disintegrate the other to protect oneself to the point of the other's death in the latter? When Kristeva says that Duras' work embodies "what Nietzsche calls the nihilism of contemporary thought", we cannot quite agree, seeing instead that the tension rests between this nihilism and an exhausting compassion so often evident in Duras's work: the descriptions in La Douleur of nursing her husband Robert Antelme back to life, the question of what has been seen in Hiroshima in Resnais' film, Duras interviewing a couple of Algerians living in Paris in 1961, during the Algerian war, and also a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, both interviews from Outside. Again, fear is vital as she asks the Algerians and the Warsaw survivor the exact same question "do you live in fear all the time, or are there moments when you feel less afraid?" Part of the alterity resides in a sense of fear that no longer belongs exclusively to oneself, but that recognizes fear elsewhere as a state as if within oneself. Others' fears become one's own, perhaps because, like Duras, a person may have witnessed colonial and Nazi atrocities; this then becomes less the illness of depression than the realisation of despair. The alterity resides in the incorporated fear of others that also reflects the fear in oneself. The breach of self opens. Psychoanalysis may want to close these breaches to allow the person to function well (and Kristeva was a psychoanalyst as well as a theorist), but possibly at the price of broader human comprehension. To assuage the fear one tries to shrink the self - giving a whole new meaning to the term shrink.
What matters to Duras, fundamentally, it would seem, is the breach itself - one that incorporates love or countenances a manifold fear. In The Ravishing of Lol Stein, it is love that opens up this fearful space, just as it can be another's hate that opens it up in other contexts, in colonial oppression or Nazi atrocity. And thus we return to the 'cleverness' of Duras's narrative ploys without really seeing them as ploys at all. If the realisation that the narrator is a character who has been already described in the first person, and that is now presented in the first is shocking, this rests on the play with form meeting the dissolution of self. Jack Hold is no longer himself, we might say, but while for many a writer that would be a cause for therapeutic concern, for Duras it is an opportunity to search out the intricate space that opens up between selves and others. If we are not ourselves, who are we - perhaps we are also others too if we feel very deeply the otherness within us? The narrator describes Jack thus: "Did he look like her fiance from Town Beach? No, not in the slightest. Did he have certain mannerisms that reminded her of her dead lover? Yes, no doubt he did, especially the way he looked at women. He too, like the other one, must have been an incorrigible ladies' man, must have borne the burdens of his body only with them, this body, which with every glance, demanded more." This is a dozen pages before we discover that Jack is the narrator. It might seem a neat literary device to offer the narrator as a character outside the narration, as someone who at this stage in the novel we don't know is Jack Hold, but what matters much more is that Jack is not only presenting himself in the third person, he is seeing himself from Lol Stein's point of view. "He was not as young as Lol had thought the first time she had seen him. But she may have been mistaken. She doubtless found that he must be an impatient person, perhaps easily given to cruelty."
Playing with perspective to wrong-foot the reader can seem a cheap device, but Duras makes it a purposeful one by indicating that Jack is not quite himself; that just as Lol Stein is taken over by Michael, so Jack Hold is preoccupied with her. When he narrates himself into the story a third of the way through, we feel the disintegration in the integration. "arm in arm, they ascend the terrace steps. Tatiana introduces Peter Beugner, her husband, to Lol, and Jack Hold, a friend of theirs - the distance is covered - me." The text reveals the narrative perspective at the same time it indicates the emotional devastation. In Narrative Discourse, Gerard Genette discusses various narrative modes, including the heterodiegetic versus the homodiegetic. "We will therefore distinguish here two types of narrative: one with the narrator absent from the story he tells (example: Homer in the Illiad, or Flaubert in L'education sentimentale), the other with the narrator present as a character in the story he tells (example: Gil Blas, or Wuthering Heights), I call the first type, for obvious reasons, heterodiegetic, and the second type homodiegetic." But what interests us is the type of homodiegetic weak narration we find in Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby and Daisy Miller. In each instance, there is a figure more important to us than the narrator offering the text, even if the narrator within the story is far from indifferent towards the characters whose story they are narrating. But we know that these are narrators and the level of their interest. Unlike the strong form which is autodiegetic as the narrator tells their own story, the weak form indicates that they are minor players in somebody else's. When Jack Hold reveals himself as the narrator in The Ravishing of Lol Stein he gains a sudden and vivid narrative strength despite thus also revealing an aspect of his potential collapse. He moves from being so weak within the story that we don't know who he is, to someone so strong that he becomes a major figure in Lol Stein's love life and someone who has a very purposeful role within the text.
We can see this as an interesting literary development when set next to the modernist works by Fitzgerald, Conrad and James, and we shouldn't ignore how important such developments can be for the history of literary form. But if it feels much more than a device, and more even than an innovation, it rests on it being formulated within a preoccupation. In books by Fitzgerald, Conrad and James, there are varying degrees of obsession as Carraway is fascinated by Jay in The Great Gatsby, Marlow in Heart of Darkness can't quite get Kurtz out of his system no matter how much he talks about him, and the narrator finds Daisy Miller both adorable and inexplicable. But the narrative doesn't dissolve in the presence of their fixation. They remain themselves, however troubled. Jack Hold is caught in his own sense of disarray, calling into question the very narrative we are following. If at first, we have a story about a young woman whose actions seem difficult to ascertain, whose breakdown at the dance hall, whose marriage to John Bedford, and whose long walks, leave us wondering who this woman happens to be, then the second half of the book increasingly leaves us wondering who Jack Hold happens to be as well, and by extension the other characters too. Come the conclusion, even if it is evident in various ways from the very beginning, everyone seems now unreliable, tentatively contained within their specific being. When early on in the book Lol Stein decides to marry John Bedford, we're informed that "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." This might be subject enough for another novel, but it remains an aside in this one - perhaps because it isn't true, perhaps because the narrator has little interest in John Bedford's life except to see how it relates to Lol Stein's, perhaps because the narrator wants to tell an anecdote he presumably has heard from Tatiana, one that will mean he should have no great respect for the husband of the woman with whom he has fallen in love. This is not the 19th-century delineation of character, nor even the modernist allusion to character. It is an opportunity for Duras to indicate the mystery of self through the partiality of information, and in the process of doing so make the world feel very fragile indeed.
It is this fragility that makes the narrational twist so effective. When the narrator describes Lol Stein following a man around town, who then meets up with Tatiana Karl, we have at this stage in the book a reliable narrator but an unknown one. The narrator is definitely homodiegetic and we are aware of their presence from the first paragraph when the narrator says, "Lol Stein was born here in South Tahla, and she spent a good part of her youth in this town, Her father was a professor at the university. Lol has a brother nine years older than she - I have never seen him - they say he lives in Paris. Her parents are dead." We may wonder whether the information he happens to have is reliable, but not especially whether the narrator him or herself happens to be. They admit partiality of knowledge ("that much I know") and question how much they can trust others: "I no longer believe a word Tatiana says. I'm convinced of absolutely nothing." We nevertheless are still in the weak homodiegetic narrative of Carraway or Marlowe. We might expect to find out who is narrating the story eventually since the first person is used, but the surprise rests on the two chapters preceding the revelation that Jack Hold is our narrator. Lol Stein is following a man around town and the narrator views him from the perceptual perspective of Lol Stein. "When he stops on the square where the boulevard ends, she takes off her gray coat too. She is in navy blue, a woman he still doesn't see." She speculates on him which we will discover is really him speculating on her speculations about him. Not only narration is called into question, but the solidity of self too. To talk about unreliable narration seems somehow beside the point; as if to talk about devices is insignificant next to discussing the metaphysics of mystery. Narration is only as good as the mystery it explores. As Duras says, "writing isn't just telling stories. It's exactly the opposite. It's telling everything at once. It's the telling of the story and the absence of the story. It's the telling of the story through its absence. Lol V. Stein is destroyed by the dance at S. Thala. Lol V. Stein is created by the dance at S Thala." ('Fictionalising Trauma')
This leads us to think of Blanchot once again and his essay 'Mystery and Literature'. "The mystery in literature is undoubtedly of such a nature that one degrades it if one respects it, and we drop it if we grasp it. If we honor it from afar, calling it secret and ineffable, it makes itself an object of disgust, something perfectly vulgar." Yet, Blanchot notes, "if we approach it to explain it, we encounter only that which conceals itself and we pursue only that which flees." The mystery of literature is perhaps what creates literature. This doesn't quite mean that the reason that the writer won't explain themselves is because the explanation is in the work. No, it would be not the explanation but its ostensible absence. The meaning would be buried in the walls of the work; we can't scale the wall to find it. One would need to dismantle the walls to find the meaning, but in the process of taking down the walls, the meaning would be lost with the dismantling. One can of course work out the story and decipher the text, but that wouldn't illuminate the mystery, though it might destroy it. Many a story we may read might be constructed around a narrative mystery on the one hand, a symbolic decipherment on the other. But a real work cannot be so easily concluded in a reading, nor so assuredly taken apart. Its mystery is not a technical problem but an ontological one. It invites new space for being more than it insists on manipulative possibilities to engage a reader. As Blanchot says, "mystery is not non-meaning, since it is foreign to meaning; it is not illogical, if logic has nothing (anything?) to do with it; it is not secret, for it is outside the genre of things that show themselves or do not show themselves." ('Mystery in Literature') It is felt not shown, or if seen cannot be once again conveyed except in a new mode that has little to do with the work under discussion except parenthetically. It can be about the work but never quite on the work. Quoting from the text can help but cannot reveal, just as quoting from the author can never pass for an explanation but merely an addition to the probe. We can quote Duras, but the more ambivalent her statements the better. This doesn't mean we are left lost in front of the text; more that we discover it tentatively and speculatively. We may find in Duras' remarks a response not unlike our own, but we find it coinciding rather than explaining. Duras when discussing the book says, "during the actual dance at S. Thala, Lol V. Stein is so carried away by the sight of her fiance and the stranger in black that she forgets to suffer. It's because of her suffering that she later goes mad." (Practicalities) But Duras also says, "you could put it differently and say that she realizes her fiance is being drawn towards another woman and she completely identifies with this decision, although it's against herself; and it's because of this that she loses her reason,"
Central to the mystery of Lol Stein is that she has a motivation but that doesn't mean Duras has an explanation. Often in fiction motivation and explanation come together; the writer knows what the character is doing and thinking - their purpose is to hide it from the reader until a given moment when all can be explained. Obviously, in most great books such an explanation is never satisfactory - the work defeats it, giving birth to new readings and possibilities, to a greater understanding of the work and the gap between motivation and explanation. This would be the mystery that defeats the definition of character, the delineation of story and the modulations of scene setting. It is what is beyond the craft and within a creative self that is even wary of the word self. As Duras says, speaking of a work, "it's a matter of deciphering something already there, something you've already done in the sleep of your life, in its organic rumination, unbeknown to you." (New York Times) It is an unconscious perhaps that is both individual and collective simultaneously, and finds its existence between the two. Thus the mystery is not a narrative solution but an ontological problem. It cannot be solved, but constantly and temporarily resolved by the work of art that comes into being. It is made up of words but contains within it a silence that is only a temporary speaking. The words fall back into that silence rather than insistently impose themselves upon it. A clich is the need to escape silence rather than find it - no thought waits behind it to be ruminated upon. When someone writes that money doesn't grow on trees, or that there is no such thing as a free lunch, we are supposed to nod sagely. We aren't supposed to think that money does indeed grow on trees and that numerous people do get free lunches, from the rich who find that restaurants refuse to charge to the poor who really can't afford a lunch that is not free, and is thus supplied by soup kitchens.
Such statements are supposed to forestall thought; not invite it. The cliche seeks to reduce one to silence rather than produce that silence. To reduce one to silence is to insist that no comment is required. To produce a silence is to invite us to think about it, muse over it. A book like The Ravishing of Lol Stein has no truism to offer, no categorical statement to make. But it invites a space for contemplating the mystery that is always greater than the words offered, the story told. It is problematic; in other words, it has a problematic. Lol Stein isn't only jilted; isn't only heartbroken; isn't only vengeful, though none of these things can be ruled out. Perhaps by bewitching her school friend Tatiana's lover, she shows herself capable of doing exactly what Anne Marie Stretter did to her years before, but why do it to Tatiana, except in an asymmetrical revenge? Perhaps it is because Jack Hold resembles Michael Richardson, except that he doesn't. Maybe it rests on a wish to move from observer to active participant, but after following Jack around, once she gets to know him, she still wishes to observe him making love to Tatiana. Duras refuses to close the gap between motivation and explanation, thus keeping her book in a state of hermeneutic limbo.
This does not at all make the work meaningless, but instead manifold in its meaningfulness. The meaningful is often close to the meaningless in works where the meaning is too easily achieved. It possesses meaning but doesn't invite it, in a narrative variation of the truisms we earlier offered. Meaning is taken for granted and the granting is the author's, or often more specifically the genre's, as we find in thriller writing or romances. The detective must find the killer and the meaning that justice must be done coincides with the killer being caught. In a romance, love conquers all and conquers it when the couple finally get married. That we know their meaning doesn't quite make the works meaningful. It makes them predictable. The meaning and the form are so tightly interwoven the message is unequivocal. But manifold meaningfulness can look a lot closer to meaninglessness than the predictable, as the search for new modes of meaning can seem like its collapse. Speaking of modernism more generally, Malcolm Bradbury notes, "this leads us towards another kind of account as to why modernism is our art; it is the one that responds to the scenario of chaos. He quotes Yeats' 'things fall apart - the centre cannot hold", and Eliot's belief that in Ulysses "if it takes the modern as a release from old dependencies, it also sees 'the immense panorama of futility and anarchy". But he also mentions Henry James's belief that a certain art can convert "the very pulses of the air into revelations." (Modernism) The chaos and the revelation in mid-20th-century fiction are much more closely linked than they are in the traditional 19th-century novel, as if to create the meaningful you have to risk the meaningless. In Practicalities, Duras says "a piece of writing is a whole that proceeds as a whole - it never presents itself as a matter of choice." At the end of the article, she says, I've talked a lot about writing. But I don't know what it is."
Is this Duras offering a provocation or stating a simple fact: that the further the writers gets away from convention, the more responsible they are for the text, the more, paradoxically, the text cannot be a matter of choices, cannot be discussed as if the writer knew what they were talking about? Blanchot puts it a little differently, but the notion seems similar. "Wanting to produce a work, but not wanting to betray what inspires it, he seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable and to find the work where he must expose himself to the essential lack of work, the essential inertia." Blanchot adds, speaking of the painter who reckons his work is valueless, "that is the truth of the experience. The artist must persevere in the realm of this "valuelessness"; he has to maintain the will to achieve and the claim on perfection while suffering the distress of an irredeemable failure." (The Space of Literature) If we were to insist on the sudden revelation of Jack Hold as our narrator we would be in the realm of ingenuity. Instead, Duras wants to put us into a state of narrative shock, one that doesn't just demand we relocate ourselves within the story, but that dislocates us a little in the process of reading it. The meaningful comes out of our feeling for the potential abyss that the narrational shift invokes. Duras finds a properly objective correlative for the sense of loss invoked in love, a sense of being beside oneself, not quite oneself and so on.
But we have also invoked Proust and the temporal, the idea proposed near the end of Time Regained that "I felt...a sensation of weariness and almost terror at the thought that all this length of Time had not only, without interruption, been lived, experienced, secreted by me, that it was my life, was in fact me, but also that I was compelled so long as I was alive to keep it attached to me, that it supported me and that, perched on its giddy summit, I could not myself make a movement without displacing it." We are in time because we are in our body, but Time is beyond our body, and sometimes we have experiences that take our bodies out of time and into Time - to a disembodying that indicates a revenant status towards ourselves. If The Ravishing of Lol Stein suggests two menages a trois on top of each other, with ten years between them, it is all the better to indicate a temporal breach that the characters fall into. It is as though everyday time, the time that our bodies age in, is but a mode of time that occasionally gives way to this other time that cannot be lived as we live our everyday temporality, and writing cannot, in exploring it, assume the ready confidence of the immediately comprehensible, of given character and situation. If Kierkegaard could say of the shadowgraph that these were women whose lives were behind them as they lived in a vaguely somnambulant present, Duras gives us someone who out of her traumatic past finds a means by which to discover a variation of it, in the present, as she finds herself powerful as opposed to powerless. She rescues herself from her past by recreating it without reenacting it.
This is why we cannot say anything certain about what is behind Lol Stein's motives just as Duras accepts that she is too close to her character to understand her behaviour. But if we return to our initial paradox, the notion that no event can contain within it the entirety of its happening, we can perhaps comprehend an aspect of Duras's importance here. Lol Stein is devastated by the affect produced out of the experience when her fiance leaves the ball with Anne Marie Stretter, but returns to it in a variation with Jack Hold willing to leave Tatiana for her. But she wouldn't want Jack to leave just as she doesn't want revenge on her friend (who after all was not the woman who walked off with her fiance). She perhaps instead wants a compensatory affect, a feeling of the past while experiencing it in the present as an echo. The affect is lived but the person living it is a bystander to the affect produced. Commonplace words like revenge, jealousy, possessiveness and envy become metaphysical properties beside the self rather than inside oneself. Thus, when Proust says near the end of Time Regained that "the happiness I was feeling was the product not of a purely subjective tension of the nerves which isolated me from the past, but on the contrary of an enlargement of my mind, within which the past was re-forming and actualising itself, giving me...something whose value was eternal", we may wonder if Duras too is seeking for Lol Stein a moment that can not entirely benefit from its actualision, but from its re-virtualisation. That moment in the ball wasn't just a collapse of Lol Stein; it was a collapse of Time - that she was so present to the feeling and so absent to the event, that she sensed the capacity of time to fall away, to find herself not just living in the past as we find with the shadowgraph, but living in a perpetual present that time intrudes upon through human matter. Duras's great book, by working with aspects of Kierkegaard's problematic, and sharing Proust's fascination with the temporal, offers a work whose mystery is complete because it cannot be readily thematized. Characters and situations float in the text, lost in a temporal state that isn't quite the past; isn't quite the present, just as the two menages a trois lose their coordinates. "When you're writing, a kind of instinct comes into play", Duras says. "What you're going to write is already there in the darkness. It's as if writing were something outside you, a tangle of tenses." (Practicalities) Few books more than The Ravishing of Lol Stein give us this sense of tenses tangling.
© Tony McKibbin