Jack’s Naughty Bits: Marguerite Duras, The Ravishing of Lol Stein

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the more emotionally deep characters in a novel are, the more poignant the reading experience will be. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a perfect example: because of the staggering emotional richness of its dramatis personae, it gets me (and almost everyone else) all swollen-eyed with every read. Morrison’s characters feel along an incredibly broad spectrum, and we rollercoast each hill and valley right alongside them.


Marguerite Duras’ early novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein provides an interesting counterpoint. If you come to Lol Stein having only read The Lover, you’re in for quite a shock. Lol Stein is a study in emotional detachment, in the disaffection we sometimes think plagues modern life. But reading Lol indicates just how far we are from real emotional distance — the title character’s detachment is so creepy, so alienating, you feel like you’ve been rubbing elbows with a vampire. There have been times in my life when I suspected I might be a robot, but next to Lol Stein, even my most muted emotional responses look positively operatic.


In the scene below, Lol is alone with Jack Hold, the novel’s narrator, her lover and the lover of her best friend and rival, Tatiana Karl. By this point in the novel, Lol’s libido centers almost exclusively around a passive, self-negating voyeurism. She wants to be the spurned lover, the third wheel — she doesn’t engage in any other way. Hold is fascinated by her, ready to leave Tatiana for her, but that is the opposite of Lol’s plan. She is only interested in him because she has seen him with Tatiana. Lol’s is a kind of madness, brought on by extreme suffering, where the world has become something she can only witness, not live. And thus she, like the reader, gazes in from the outside. But we, unlike her, feel the events as they transpire.

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From The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras

Translated by Richard Seaver

“The woman who arrived on the square where all the buses meet was Tatiana Karl.”


I don’t answer her.


“It was Tatiana. You’re a man who sooner or later was bound to be drawn to her. I knew that.”


Her eyelids are covered with fine droplets of perspiration. I kiss her closed eyes, they move beneath my lips, her eyes are hidden. I let her go. I leave her. I move to the opposite end of the room. She remains where she is. I want to find out something . . .


“The light went on in your room, and I saw Tatiana walk in front of the light. She was naked beneath her black hair.”


She does not move, her eyes staring out into the garden, waiting. She has just said that Tatiana was naked beneath her dark hair. That sentence is the last to have been uttered. I hear: “naked beneath her dark hair, naked, naked, dark hair.” The last two words especially strike with a strange and equal intensity. It’s true that Tatiana was as Lol has just described her, naked beneath her dark hair. She was that way in the locked room, for her lover. The intensity of the sentence suddenly increases, the air around it has been rent, the sentence explodes, it blows the meaning apart. I hear it with a deafening roar, and I fail to understand it, I no longer even understand that it means nothing.


Lol is still far from me, rooted to the floor, still turned toward the garden, unblinking.


The nudity of Tatiana, already naked, intensifies into an overexposed image which makes it increasingly impossible to make any sense whatsoever out of it.


The void is statue. The pedestal is there: the sentence. The void is Tatiana naked beneath her dark hair, the fact. It is transformed, poured out lavishly, the fact no longer contains the fact, Tatiana emerges from herself, spills through the open windows out over the town, the road, mire, liquid, tide of nudity. Here she is, Tatiana Karl, suddenly naked beneath her hair, between Lol Stein and me. The sentence has just faded away, I can no longer hear any sound, only silence, the sentence is dead at Lol’s feet, Tatiana is back in her place. I reach out and touch, like a blind man I touch and fail to recognize anything I have already touched. Lol is waiting for me to recognize something, not that I be attuned to her vision but that I no longer be afraid of Tatiana. I am no longer afraid. There are two of us now, beholding Tatiana naked beneath her dark hair. Blindly, I say:


“An extraordinary lay, Tatiana.”


There was a movement of her head. Lol’s tone is one I have never heard from her before, shrill and plaintive. The wild animal removed from its forest home sleeps, dreams of the equator of its birth, trembles in its sleep, its dream of sunlight, weeps.


“The best, the best one of them all, right?”


I say:


“The best.”


I go to Lol Stein. I kiss her, lick her, breathe in the odor that is Lol, kiss her teeth. She does not move. She has grown beautiful. She says:


“What an amazing coincidence.”


I do not reply. Again I leave her, standing there far from me, in the middle of the living room. She does not even seem to realize that I have moved away from her. Again I say:


“I’m going to leave Tatiana Karl.”