Marguerite Duras’ prolific writing career includes over 40 novels, screenplays, and stories, includingL’Amant, which was made famous in part due to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s explicit film version, The Lover. Yann Andrea Steiner, written towards the end of this career, feels like a coda, of sorts, a look back at a relationship that may have occurred between the author and a younger man. The feel of the book is one of paying up debts, of squaring the books between Duras and this younger man Steiner. Whether these books that need squaring are real or imaginary—or something in between—is not quite clear.
There are two parallel narratives to Yann Andrea Steiner, or more precisely, there is the ostensibly “main” narrative—the aforementioned relationship—which is the means by which we get to hear another story, this one of a boy that survived the Holocaust. He is now living with the trauma of seeing his little sister shot in the head, killed right in front of him. This boy is living with other child survivors, with no parents to go to, at a summer camp on the beach directly outside Duras’ apartment. He stares, unseeing, at the ocean, captivating one of the camp counselors who eventually falls in love with him. Twice his age and yet still a child herself, she makes him promise that when he reaches her current age, they will meet again on this shore and consummate their love. The boy agrees; what else could he do?
Duras writes the book from a variety of angles. She starts with the small details of Yann Andrea Steiner moving in with her: the foods they ate, the room he slept in, the hours they spent discussing books. The narrative then moves from the apartment to the beach below, where the boy—whose last name also happens to be Steiner—and the other children and counselors spend their days between the rainstorms. Much like Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, Duras does not make clear which parts of the narrative are “real,” and which occur as a fiction created between housemate Steiner and herself in conversations. The book itself moves fluidly between passages written directly from Duras to her houseguest, to observations made by the young boy on the beach, to another narrative within the narrative: a story that the counselors are telling the camp children about a young boy who gets carried to an island by a shark and is welcomed by the animals living there, while the shark weeps over his desire to eat the boy.
This dual narrative folds in upon itself again and again, with Duras switching between first, second, and third-person narrators and using her approach—favored in her later works—of telling the reader just a bit less than he needs to know to put all the pieces together. The point of view swoops down from Duras’ room to the beach and then into the tent to hear the shark story, and we get a sense that she must be imagining, if only because the physicality of being in two places at once doesn’t work. At the same time, Duras doesn’t give the reader enough threads to tie together in order to make a symbolic connection between the visiting housemate Steiner, the trauma-stricken young(er) Steiner, and the shark. Or the boy.
This ambiguity does not frustrate, though. Duras is not interested in making clear to the reader what happens with any of the characters in the story. She instead takes the particulars of each experience and divides them into neat, equal pieces to be admired. This beautiful, short book feels like the product of a lifetime of writing practice. Her writing is sharply honed, evoking just enough of the feel of the place and the emotions each character is experiencing. At times, it could be herself, the boy, or the counselor speaking—“Like all men, every day, even if only for a few instants, you become a killer of women.” Whose rage is she describing? With outstanding writing like this, it doesn’t matter. The rage can belong to all of us, and the beauty—and the relief—comes in the unique, breathtaking prose.