Earlier in the year I read my first novel by Marguerite Duras, a strange but compelling work called The Sailor from Gibraltar. I loved it. Duras has a classy style of writing, economical, sparse, open like a light, airy room. Having experienced her excellent writing previously, I had great expectations of The Ravishing of Lol Stein and in that respect this short novel doesn't disappoint. And yet, I can't say I loved it. It's a strange one, that's for sure.
The story is told by Jack Hold, a doctor with an obsessive, destructive love for Lol and centres around a single event and the ongoing impact of that event on Lol and the people around her. As a young woman, Lol is jilted by her lover, Michael Richardson, at a ball held at a casino. With her is Tatiana Karl, her best friend. Together they watch until morning as Michael Richardson falls in love with another woman, Anne-Marie Stretter. Something changes in the hours of the night, something that transforms Lol completely. This event sets in place a kind of voyeuristic repetition cycle in which Lol observes the affair taking place between Tatiana Karl and Jack Hold and then in turn takes Tatiana’s place as Jack’s lover. So history repeats: Tatiana becomes the young Lol, Jack Hold becomes Michael Richardson, Lol becomes Anne-Marie Stretter. Lol’s illness requires a repetition, a continual repeating of events. The story culminates in Jack and Lol consummating their relationship in a trip to Town Beach, Lol reliving the places where her ‘fall’ occurred, replacing it with the Tatiana-Jack-Lol love triangle.
Or does it? From the beginning the circumstances and origins of Lol’s mental state are brought into question primarily through the ‘evidence’ of Tatiana Karl. As early as page 2 we are told ‘Tatiana does not believe that this fabled Town Beach ball was so overwhelmingly responsible for Lol Stein’s illness. No, Tatiana Karl traces the origins of that illness back further, further even than the beginning of their friendship. They were latent in Lol, but kept from emerging by the deep affection with which she had always been surrounded both at home and, later, at school. She says that in school – and she wasn’t the only person to think so – there was already something lacking in Lol, something which kept her from being, in Tatiana’s words, “there”.’ Yet only one further page later we learn ‘I no longer believe a word Tatiana says. I’m convinced of absolutely nothing.’ And then, in the next sentence, the whole story itself falls under question ‘Here then, in full, and all mixed together, both this false impression which Tatiana Karl tells about and what I have been able to imagine about that night at the Town Beach casino. Following which I shall relate my own story of Lol Stein.’
And that is what we get, Jack Hold’s ‘story’ of Lol Stein. The story of Lol’s fall, Lol’s history as told through the voice of Jack Hold who knows only what he has heard by rumour and may, in fact, be inventing the rest takes on the quality of a myth, a half-heard Chinese whisper. The entire novel takes on this quality, myth and rumour, a thin surface of fact laced with fiction. And the whole thing is overlaid with a strange kind of duality, a juxtaposition of the cold, unreachable nature of Lol against the heat of the summer and Jack’s obsessive desire for her. In the end it is impossible to decipher what is real and what is fiction (accepting of course that it is all fiction) with characters becoming interlaced and all, to a degree, unreachable, locked in their own perception of the events.
Duras writes beautifully, in crisp, descriptive sentences. There’s a clarity in her writing which is deceptive, particularly deceptive as it is what she doesn’t say that captivates. In the end, I felt there was just a little too much unsaid, it was all just a little too unreachable, I wasn’t sure I understood it. A strange, intriguing little book, hard to follow, strangely cold and at the same time almost oppressively sensuous. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but sometimes that is the mark of the best kinds of books. One to read again.
The Ravishing of Lol Stein receives an uncertain 7 out of 10 Biis.