Authors: Marguerite Duras
Originally published in France as
Lol V. Stein
by Editions Gallimard. Copyright © 1964 by Editions Gallimard. This translation first published in the United States by Grove Press, Inc., in 1966.
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.
I have never heard anything especially noteworthy about Lol Stein's childhood, even from Tatiana Karl, her best friend during their school years together.
On Thursdays, which was a school holiday, they used to go out and dance in the empty playground. They had an aversion to marching in schoolgirl file with the others, and preferred to remain back at the school. And they knew how to get their way too, Tatiana said, they were a beguiling pair and knew, better than the other students did, how to solicit that favor and get their teachers to grant it. Shall we dance, Tatiana? A radio in a nearby building was blaring a medley of old-fashioned tunes—a program of nostalgic favorites—which were all they needed. With the monitors gone, alone in the vast school courtyard where, that day, between dances, they could hear the street noises: Come, Tatiana, come, let's dance, Tatiana, come on. That much I know.
This too: Lol was nineteen when she met Michael Richardson one morning during summer vacation, at the tennis courts. He was twenty-five. He was the only son of well-to-do parents, whose real estate holdings in the vicinity of Town Beach were considerable. He had no real vocation. Their parents consented to the marriage. Lol must have been engaged for six months, the wedding was to take place that autumn, she had just finished her final year of school and was on vacation in Town Beach, when the biggest ball of the season was held at the municipal casino.
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 Stein, 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." She gave the impression of being in a state of passive boredom, putting up with a person she knew she was supposed to be but whom she forgot about at the slightest occasion. The epitome of thoughtfulness, but also of indifference, people were quick to discover, she never seemed to suffer or be hurt, had never been known to shed a sentimental, schoolgirl's tear. Tatiana still maintains that Lol Stein was beautiful, that they vied for her affection at school—although she slipped through their fingers like water—because the little they managed to retain was well worth the effort. Lol was funny, an inveterate wit, and very bright, even though part of her seemed always to be evading you, and the present moment. Going where? Into some adolescent dream world? No, Tatiana answers, no, it seemed as though she were going nowhere, yes, that's it, nowhere. Was it her heart that wasn't there? Tatiana apparently inclines toward the opinion that it was perhaps, indeed, Lol Stein's heart which wasn't—as she says—there; it would doubtless come, but she, Tatiana, had never seen any sign of it. Yes, it seemed that it was in this realm of her feelings that Lol Stein was different from the others.
When the rumors of Lol Stein's engagement first began to be heard, Tatiana only half believed them: who in the world could Lol have found who was capable of capturing her attention so completely?
When she met Michael Richardson and saw how madly Lol was in love with him, Tatiana was completely taken aback. But there still remained a lingering doubt: was this not a means whereby Lol was ending the days when her heart was not yet touched completely?
I asked her if Lol's subsequent illness was not proof positive that she was wrong. She repeated that it was not, that she, personally, believed that this crisis and Lol were but one and the same, and always had been.
I no longer believe a word Tatiana says. I'm convinced of absolutely nothing.
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.
As for the nineteen years preceding that night, I do not want to know any more about them than what I tell, or very little more, setting forth only the straight, unadulterated chronological facts, even if these years conceal some magic moment to which I am indebted for having enabled me to meet Lol Stein. I don't want to because the presence of her adolescence in this story might somehow tend to detract, in the eyes of the reader, from the overwhelming actuality of this woman in my life. I am therefore going to look for her, I shall pick her up at that moment in time which seems most appropriate, at that moment when it seems to me she first began to stir, to come toward me, at the precise moment when the last arrivals, two women, came through the door into the ballroom of the Town Beach casino.
The orchestra stopped playing. A set was just ending.
The dance floor had emptied slowly. There was no one on it.
The older of the two women had paused for a moment to glance around at the crowd, then she had turned back, smiling, at the girl who was with her. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, this girl was her daughter. They were both tall, both built in the same way. But while the girl displayed a certain awkwardness because of her height, and because of her somewhat angular build, her mother, on the contrary, bore these defects like the emblems of some obscure negation on the part of nature. Her elegance, both when she moved and when she was in repose, was upsetting, Tatiana maintains.
"They were on the beach this morning," said Lol's fiancé, Michael Richardson.
He had stopped, he had watched the new arrivals, then he had steered Lol toward the bar and the cluster of green plants at the far end of the room.
The two women had crossed the dance floor and headed in the same direction.
Lol, rooted to the spot, had watched, as had he, the advance of that careless, slightly-stooped grace of a dead bird. She was thin. She must always have been thin. She had clothed that thinness, Tatiana clearly recalled, in a very low-cut black dress, with a double layer of tulle over it, also black. This was the bearing and the clothing she desired, and she looked exactly the way she wanted to look, unquestionably. The admirable bone structure of her body and her face showed through her skin. As she thus appeared, so later would she die, with her desired body. Who was she? They later learned: Anne-Marie Stretter. Was she beautiful? How old was she? What had she, Anne-Marie Stretter, experienced that other women had missed? By what mysterious path had she arrived at what appeared to be a gay, a dazzling pessimism, a smiling indolence as light as a hint, as ashes? A certain self-assured boldness was all that seemed to hold her upright. But how graceful it was, as was the woman herself! Their loping, country way of walking would keep the two of them in step wherever they went. Where? Nothing more could ever happen to that woman, Tatiana thought, nothing more, nothing. Except her death, she thought.
Had she looked at Michael Richardson as she passed by? Had this non-look of hers swept over him as it took in the ballroom? It was impossible to tell, it is therefore impossible to know when my story of Lol Stein begins: her gaze—from close-up one could see that this defect stemmed from an almost painful discoloration of the pupil—was diffused over the entire surface of her eyes, and was hard to meet. Her hair was dyed red, the sun had burned her red, a seaside Eve whom the light did not do justice to.
Had there been a glimmer of recognition when she had passed by him?
When Michael Richardson turned around to Lol and asked her to dance for the last time in their lives, Tatiana had noticed that he had grown suddenly pale, and was so completely lost in his own thoughts that she knew that he too had looked at the woman who had just come in.
Lol most certainly noticed this change. She was, it seemed, transported in the presence of this change, without fearing it or ever having feared it, without being surprised, as though she were already familiar with the nature of this change: it affected the very person of Michael Richardson, it was related to that person whom Lol had known up till now.
He had become different. It was obvious to everyone. Obvious that he was no longer the same person they had thought he was. Lol was watching him, watching him change.
Michael Richardson's eyes had grown brighter. His face had tightened into the full of maturity. Pain was etched upon it, ancient, primordial pain.
The moment they saw him again this way, they knew that nothing—no word, no earthly act of violence—could have the least effect upon the change in Michael Richardson. That it now had to be played out to the bitter end. Michael Richardson's new tale had already begun to take shape.
In Lol, this vision and this conviction did not appear to be accompanied by any sign of suffering.
Tatiana herself found Lol changed. She watched and waited for what would come next, brooded over the enormity of it, its clocklike precision. If she herself had been the agent not only of its advent but of what would come of it, Lol could not have been more fascinated by it.
She danced once again with Michael Richardson. It was the last time.
The woman was alone, standing slightly off to one side of the buffet, her daughter had gone over to join a group of acquaintances near the door to the ballroom. Michael Richardson made his way over to her, prey to an emotion so intense that they were frightened at the very thought that he might be refused. Lol, in a state of suspense, waited, waited like the others. The woman did not refuse.
They had walked out onto the dance floor. Lol had watched them, the way a woman whose heart is wholly unattached, a very old woman, watches her children leave her: she seemed to love them.
"I have to invite that woman to dance."
Tatiana had seen him act in this new way, had seen him go over to her, as though in real agony, bow, and wait. She had frowned ever so slightly. Had she also recognized him, from having caught a glimpse of him on the beach that morning, and for that reason alone?
Tatiana had remained at Lol's side.
Instinctively, Lol had taken a step or two in the direction of Anne-Marie Stretter at the same time Michael Richardson had. Tatiana had followed her. Then they both saw: the woman's lips parted ever so slightly, but no words emerged, overwhelmed and awed as she was by the new expression on the face of the man she had but glimpsed that morning. The moment she was in his arms, from her sudden awkwardness and her benumbed expression, caught and frozen as she had been by the rapidity of it all, she too had been overwhelmed by the same feeling of confusion which had taken hold of him, Tatiana had realized.
Lol had gone back behind the bar and the cluster of green plants, Tatiana with her.
They had danced. Danced again. He with his eyes lowered, fixed upon the bare part of her shoulder. She, shorter than he, simply gazed into the distance at the ball. They had not exchanged a word.
When the first dance was over, Michael Richardson had come back over to Lol, as he had always done till then. In his eyes was an imploring look, a call for help, for acquiescence. Lol had smiled at him.
Then, at the end of the following dance, he had not come back to Lol again.
Anne-Marie Stretter and Michael Richardson had remained together the rest of the night.
As the evening wore on, it seemed that the chances that Lol might suffer were growing increasingly slim, it seemed that suffering had failed to find any chink in her armor through which to slip, that she had forgotten the age-old equation governing the sorrows of love.
In the first light of dawn, when night was gone, Tatiana had seen how all of them had aged. Although Michael Richardson was younger than this woman, he had overtaken her, and together—with Lol—all three of them had aged years and years, grown centuries older, that kind of age which lies lurking, within the insane.
At about this same time they spoke, exchanged a few words while they danced. But between numbers they continued to remain completely silent, standing close together, apart from all the others, always the same distance. With the exception of their hands, which were joined as they danced, they had not moved any closer together than that first moment when they had exchanged glances.
Lol was still in the same place, behind the green plants at the bar, where she had happened to be standing when Anne-Marie Stretter entered.