Thursday, February 26, 2009

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein

Wow. I just finished reading a book for one of my classes. I wasn't entirely convinced that it would happen, at least not so soon, but I set a goal, and there you have it. One down, about 6 more to go.

I don't write much about books here. This isn't really a literature blog. But Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein and I go back a long ways, so I feel strangely uplifted by finishing the book.

A year and a half ago I took my first French literature course. Naturally, when your language skills are still sketchy, you read excerpts only, which is both good and bad. Good because it allows you to taste lots of different dishes--modernism, surrealism, romanticism. Bad because there will be something that you taste that you feel you could swallow whole, but you can't because it isn't within your grasp yet. This was one of those books for me.

We'd read a very, very short passage. I remember reading it at least 5 times because it was so difficult to understand. The style was coupee (fragmented), and you weren't sure exactly what was going on. It was as if the action was happening behind a white veil through which you could see outlines and movement but nothing concrete. The style intrigued me, but I knew that attempting such a difficult book at my level of French would be self-defeating. So I waited.

When I found the syllabus for the literature course that I am currently taking and saw that this particular book was on the list of lectures obligatoires (obligatory readings), I was excited but not a little worried. I remembered the prose as being very difficult, and this time there would be no excerpts. Granted, the book is small in size, but it is huge in meaning. Marguerite Duras's style invites extensive interpretation, and you get the sense that every word, every phrase is ripe with symbolism. The characters are so fragile that you wonder how the author doesn't shatter them with a misplaced word or awkward sentence construction. But...she doesn't. Everything in this novel is well-placed, well-worded, subtle, sometimes so subtle that you have to read and reread and reread to make sure that you understand the significance. Not because you don't understand the words--comprehension was not my battle this time--, but because the next sentence depends on the one before it.

The funny thing is, this is not a book that would come to mind to recommend to someone. I might bring it up to a hardcore literature lover or someone who wants a challenge, but in general this is not the sort of book that I feel most people would enjoy. Nothing much happens in terms of plot, and what does happen occurs as if it were not really happening, as if there were some inertia inherent in the action. And yet this is fitting. The main character is blank, empty. She has no personality, she speaks in short, often unfinished, bursts that make no sense on their own, and her life is nothing if not uneventful. But there you go--it's brilliant.

Now we'll have to see when I finish my next book. I can tell you it probably won't be by Victor Hugo, though. The man was a machine.

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