Open Letter, 2013 pg 109
Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour is a fascinating experiment in style and story telling. Functioning almost as a film script, the novel eschews typical approaches to narrative and distills the book into dialog and simple descriptions of action. The lean writing is fragmentary, as if the reader were the camera eye, making the reading disorienting, as the narrative starts, stops, repeats itself as the images are overlay-ed on themselves. The effect is a powerfully transitory exploration of three lives rendered in as objectively physical terms as any piece of fiction can be.
The story follows a traveler who comes to the town S. Thala. It is not clear why he is there at first, he just roams at the edge of the scene. Then slowly he enters to talk with the woman who sits on the beach mysteriously. They interact in short fragmentary conversations that are illusive and return to a past that is never clear. Between the fragmentary conversations and the fleeting scenery, memory plays itself out as something elusive yet physical. As the traveler goes farther into the past that he has shared with the woman there is a clarity, not so much in the relationship, but in the impossibility of memory to create a well rounded explanation of events. Story fails.
The traveler, of course, is only moving through time, reconstructing what once had shape. He fails, though, to construct an overarching narrative. Or better said, he fails to construct one for the reader and, instead, finds himself reconstructing the little scenes of a story. Duras posits a cinematographic vision of memory, or grasps the only metaphor possible in the age of cinema. Again, it makes for disorienting reading, a disorientation that is pleasurable as the traveler moves from the beach where he first meets the woman, towards the hotel where the deeper anxieties of relationships once played themselves out. The shore is calm, soothing; the hotel is terrifying with hints of tragedy and fracturing love. S. Thala is not a place where one wants to return.
The notion of a place of unwilling memories is evident, too, in Duras’ writing style.
It is the beginning of the afternoon. They pass by.
He, along the edge of the sea. She, on the boardwalk.
The traveler is on the boardwalk.
Shed does not see him. She does not see anything.
They walk toward the sea wall. Disappear behind it.
Perhaps they are preparing for the birth of the child, over there, behind the wall of the cry of S. Thala.
They come back that night. The seagulls screech. She walks bent slightly forward, almost heavily: its seems as if the birth of the child is imminent.
Doesn’t call them.
Everything is elusive. What is the relationship between the three people? Why the fragments of narration? The memories come but in uncertain pieces that cannot even place the birth of her child, which opens a new mystery. Who would no the woman so intimately, but not remember when the child was born. Even the construction of the sentences is fragmentary, built of simple sentences as if these memories have been suppressed, as if the rationalizations that come from long, introspective explanations have never taken place.
It is that elusiveness that enchants but also keeps the reader at a distance, always returning to the memories that resurface and collapse like the waves the characters spend so much time looking at. There is no closure for the traveler, as there should not be. Memory does not end, it is just reworked. So just as the traveler is left on the beach with his memories, so too is the reader left with uncertainty that can never quite be resolved. It makes for an effective and haunting way to end a novel of memory.