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Excerpt from Yann Andréa Steiner

Forthcoming from Archipelago Books this summer. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti.

Before anything else, at the beginning of the story told here, there was a screening of India Song at an art cinema in the city where you lived. After the film there was a panel discussion in which you participated. Then after the panel we went to a bar with some young graduate students, one of whom was you. It was you who reminded me later, much later, about that bar, a fairly elegant, attractive place, and about the two whiskeys I had that evening. I had no recollection of those whiskeys, nor of you, nor of the other young grad students, nor of the bar. I recalled, or so I thought, that you had walked me to the parking lot where I’d left my car. I still had that Renault 16, which I loved and still drove fast back then, even after the health problems related to alcohol. You asked me if I had lovers. I said, Not anymore, which was true. You asked how fast I drove at night. I said ninety, like everyone else with an R16. That it was wonderful. It was after that evening that you began writing me letters. Many letters. Sometimes one a day. They were very short letters, more like notes; they were, yes, like cries for help sent from an unbearable, deathly place, a kind of desert. The beauty of those cries was unmistakable.

I didn’t answer.

I kept all the letters.

At the tops of the pages were the names of the places where they’d been written and the time or the weather: Sunny or Rainy. Or Cold. Or: Alone.

And then once, a long time went by with no word at all. Perhaps a month, I don’t remember how long it lasted.

And so in my turn, in the void left by you, by that absence of letters, of cries for help, I wrote to find out why you had stopped writing. Why so suddenly. Why you had stopped writing as if violently prevented from it, as if by death.

I wrote you this letter:

Yann Andréa, this summer I met someone you know, Jean-Pierre Ceton. We spoke about you. I never would have guessed you knew each other. And then there was your note under my door in Paris after Navire Night. I tried to call you, but I couldn’t find your phone number. And then there was your letter from January – I was in the hospital again, sick again from who knows what; they said I’d been poisoned by some new medication, so-called antidepressants. Always the same old song. It was nothing, my heart was fine. I wasn’t even sad. I had reached the end of something, that’s all. I started drinking again, yes, over the winter, in the evening. For years I’d been telling my friends not to visit on weekends; I lived alone in that house in Neauphle that could easily have held ten people. Alone in fourteen rooms. You get used to the echoes. That’s all. And then one time I wrote you to say that I’d just finished the film called Her Name Venus in Deserted Calcutta. I don’t remember exactly what I told you, probably that I loved it the way I love all my films. You didn’t answer that letter. And then there were the poems you sent me, some of which struck me as very beautiful, others less so, and I didn’t know quite how to tell you that. That’s it. Yes, that’s it. That your letters were your poems. Your letters are beautiful, the most beautiful I’ve ever read, so beautiful they hurt. I wanted to talk to you today. I’m still recuperating but I’m writing. I’m working. I think the second Aurelia Steiner was written for you.

That letter, I felt, didn’t require an answer either. I sent news. I recall a sorrowful, discomposed letter. I was discouraged by some upset that had occurred in my life, some new, recent, unexpected solitude. For a long time I knew almost nothing of that letter. I wasn’t even sure I’d written it that summer, the one when you suddenly appeared in my life. Nor from which place in my life I’d written it. I didn’t believe it was from this place near the sea but neither could I imagine any other place. Only long afterward did I seem to remember the space of my room around that letter, the black marble fireplace and the mirror, the very one I was facing. I wondered if I should send you that letter. I wasn’t even sure I had sent it until you mentioned receiving a letter like that from me two years earlier.

I don’t know if I saw that letter again. You spoke of it often. You had been struck by it. You said it was remarkable, that it said everything about my life and work without ever mentioning them directly. And all this in a kind of indifference, a distraction you’d found horrifying. You also told me that I had mailed it from Taormina. But that it was dated from Paris, five days earlier.

Years later, that long letter of mine was misplaced. You said you’d put it in a drawer in the large chest in the Trouville apartment and that I was the one, afterward, who must have moved it. But that day you had no idea what was going on in the house or anywhere else. You were in the parks and the bars of the grand hotels in Mont Canisy, in search of handsome bartenders from Buenos Aires and Santiago hired for the summer. While I was lost in the erotic labyrinth of Blue Eyes, Black Hair. It was only long afterward, when I wrote the story of you and me in that book, that I found the letter in the large chest that it must never have left.

It was two days after I wrote that rediscovered letter that you phoned me, here, at Roches Noires, to say you were coming to visit.

Your voice on the telephone was slightly altered, as if by fear, or intimidation. I didn’t recognize it. It was . . . I don’t know how to say it – yes, that’s it: it was the voice I had been inventing for your letters just when you called.

You said, I’m coming.

I asked you why.

You said, So we can get to know each other.

At that time in my life, for someone to come see me like that, from far away, was a terrifying prospect. It’s true, I’ve never spoken about my solitude in that period of my life. The solitude that came after The Ravishment of Lol Stein, Blue Moon, Love, The Vice-Consul. That solitude was the deepest I’ve ever known but also the happiest. I didn’t experience it as solitude but as luck, a decisive freedom that I’d never had in my life until then. I ate at the Central – always the same thing: steamed prawns and a Mont Blanc. I didn’t go swimming. It was as crowded at the seashore as it was in town. I went in the evening, when my friends Henry Chatelain and Serge Derumier came to visit.

You told me that after that phone conversation you’d tried calling several days in a row but that I wasn’t home. Later I told you why. I reminded you that I went to Taormina, to the film festival, where I was to see my very dear friend Benoît Jacquot. But that I’d be back soon, back at the seashore, to write my weekly chronicle of summer 1980 for Libération, as you knew.

Again I asked, Why are you coming?

You said, To talk to you about Theodora Kats.

I said I’d abandoned the book about Theodora Kats, which for years I’d thought I could write. That I had hidden it for the eternity of my death in a Jewish place, a tomb I held sacred, the vast, fathomless tomb off-limits to traitors, those living dead of the fundamental betrayal.

I asked when you’d be here. You said, Tomorrow morning, the bus arrives at ten-thirty. I’ll be at your door by eleven.

From my bedroom balcony I waited for you. You crossed the courtyard of the Roches Noires hotel.

I had forgotten the man from India Song.

You looked like a Breton, tall and thin. To me you looked discreetly elegant; you didn’t know this about yourself, that’s still plain. You walked without looking at the tall residential building. Without glancing toward me. You were carrying a large wooden umbrella, a kind of Chinese parasol made of glazed canvas that very few young people still carried in the eighties. You also had a very small piece of luggage, a black canvas bag.

You crossed the courtyard, skirting the hedge. You cut over in the direction of the sea and disappeared into the vestibule of Roches Noires without once having raised your eyes to me.

It was eleven in the morning, then, early in the month of July.

The year was 1980. The summer of wind and rain. The summer of Gdansk. Of the weeping child. Of the young camp counselor. The summer of our story. Of the story told here, that first summer of 1980. The story of the very young Yann Andréa Steiner and the woman who wrote books and who was old and alone like him that summer, a summer vast as all Europe.

I had told you how to find my apartment, which floor, which hallway, which door.

You never returned to the city of Caen. It was July ’80. Twelve years ago. You are still here in this apartment, here for the six months of vacation I’ve taken annually since that illness that dragged on for two years. That coma of horror. A few days before they were to “pull the plug,” as the doctors in my ward had unanimously decided, I opened my eyes. I looked around: people, the room. They were all there (so I’ve been told); I looked at those people standing there in their white smocks, who smiled at me in a kind of madness, a mad and silent happiness. I didn’t recognize their faces but I knew these were the shapes of human beings – not of walls or instruments, but of people with eyes to see. And then I closed my eyes again. Only to open them later on, to see the same people, with, I’ve been told, an amused look on my face.

There was a pause.

And then there were knocks at the door, and then your voice: It’s me, it’s Yann. I didn’t answer. The knocks were very very soft, as if everyone around you were sleeping in that residential hotel and that city, on the beach and on the sea and in every hotel room on a summer’s morning near the seashore.

Still I didn’t open immediately. I waited a bit longer. You said again, It’s me, Yann. Just as gently, calmly. I waited some more. I made no sound. For ten years I had been living in a very strict, almost monastic solitude, with Anne-Marie Stretter and the Vice-Consul of France in Lahore and she, the Queen of the Ganges, the beggar of the Tea Road, the queen of my childhood.

I opened up.

One never knows a story before it’s written. Before it has suffered the fading of the circumstances that led the author to write it. And especially before it has suffered, in the book, the mutilation of its past, its body, of your face, your voice, and it becomes irrevocable, fated. And I also mean that in the book it has become external, been carried away, separated from its author for all eternity, lost to him.

And then the door closed on you and me. On this new body, tall and thin.

And then there was the voice. The incredibly gentle voice. Distant. Regal. It was the voice of your letter, the voice of my life.

We spoke for hours.

Always about books we spoke. Always, for hours. You mentioned Roland Barthes. I reminded you how I felt about him. I said I would give all of Roland Barthes’ books for my tea roads in the Burmese forests, the red sun, and the dead children of the beggar women along the Ganges. You already knew this. I also said that I could never bring myself to read him, that for me Roland Barthes was false writing and that falseness was what had killed him. Later I told you that Roland Barthes, one day, in my home, had kindly advised me to “return” to the “so simple and so charming” style of my early novels, like The Sea Wall, The Little Horses of Tarquinia, and The Sailor from Gibraltar. I laughed. You said we would never speak of him again. And I divined that your curiosity about that brilliant author was sated.

We also spoke, as one always does, of that eminent fact, writing. Of books and more books.

It was when you began talking about books that behind your attentive gaze and perfect, lucid reasoning, I was struck by a kind of urgency you couldn’t control, as if you had to hurry to get out everything you’d decided to tell me and everything you had decided not to tell. Everything you wanted to say before the sudden emergence of that evident, terrible, illuminating thing, the decision you had made: to become my friend before killing yourself.

Very quickly, that became all I knew about you.

Much later you spoke about this. You told me it was probably true, yes. All the while remaining vague, you added: Just like you, in a different way. You did not say the word. Later I understood that even within yourself, you had to keep silent about that word, the word in your smile: writing.

And then evening fell. I said that you could stay here, could sleep in my son’s room. That it looked out over the water, and that the bed was made.

That if you wanted to take a bath, that was all right.

That if you’d rather go out, that was all right, too.

And also that you could, for instance, buy some cold chicken, a can of chestnut cream, some whipped cream to put on it, some fruit and cheese and bread. That this was what I ate every day, to keep life simple. I also said that you could buy a bottle of wine, for you. That on certain days I was drinking less. We both laughed.

No sooner had you gone out than you came back. “Money,” you said. “After the bus I don’t have any left. I forgot.”

You devoured everything with a childlike appetite that I didn’t yet know was normal for you.

Much later you told me you’d still been hungry when you got up from the table. Even after the chestnut cream that you ate in its entirety, with whipped cream on top, without realizing it.

It might have been that evening, with you, that I started drinking again. We finished off the two half-bottles of Côtes du Rhône that you had bought on Rue des Bains. The wine was stale, undrinkable. We finished off the two half-bottles of that wine from Rue des Bains.

That first night you slept in the room overlooking the sea. No sound came from that room, just as when I was alone. You must have been exhausted for days on end, months, those leaden years, perhaps; those arid, tragic years before deciding your future, and also the torturous years of that same solitude of pubescent desire.

The day after your arrival, you discovered the tub in the large bathroom. You said you’d never seen a bathtub so monumental, so “historical.” From then on, every morning, as soon as you got up you spent an hour in that tub. I said you could stay in there as long as you wanted, that I took showers because the bathtub frightened me, probably because there weren’t any in the functionaries’ cottages in the backwaters I came from.

There was your voice. An incredibly gentle, distant, intimidating voice, as if barely uttered, barely perceptible; always seeming a bit distracted, unrelated to what it was saying, removed. Even now, twelve years later, I hear that voice you had. It has flowed into my body. It has no image. It speaks of unimportant things. It can fall silent as well.

We spoke, you spoke, of the beauty of the Roches Noires residential hotel.

Then you fell silent for a while, as if searching for how to say what it was you had to tell me. You didn’t hear the growing calm that came with nightfall, so deep that I went out to the balcony to see. From time to time cars passed in front of Roches Noires, bound for Honfleur or Le Havre. As every night, Le Havre was lit up like a holiday and the sky was above it, naked, and between the sky and the Sainte Adresse lighthouse was the black parade of oil tankers descending as usual toward the ports of France and those of southern Europe.

You stood up. You looked at me through the windows. You were still in a state of profound distraction.

I came back into the room.

You sat down again opposite me and said, “So you’ll never write the story of Theodora?”

I said that I was never sure of anything when it came to what I would or wouldn’t write.

You didn’t answer.

I said, “You’re in love with Theodora.”

You didn’t smile, but said in a single breath, “Theodora is what I don’t know about you, I was very young. All the rest I know. I’ve been waiting three years for you to write her story.”

I said, “I don’t really know why I can’t write Theodora’s story.”

I added, “Perhaps it’s too difficult, it’s impossible to know.”

You had tears in your eyes.

You said, “Don’t tell me any of what you know about her.”

And then you said, “I know nothing about Theodora except the last pages of Outside.”

“So how she made love with her lover, that part you know.”

“Yes. I know this was how the wives of deportees took their husbands when they returned exhausted from the camps of Nazi Northern Germany.”

I said I would probably never finish Theodora, the book, that it was almost certain. That it was the only time in my life this had happened. That the most I’d been able to do was save that passage from the abandoned manuscript. That it was a book I couldn’t write without immediately being drawn toward other books that I had decided never to write.

Afterward you went out to the balcony, to the railing facing the sea. I heard no more from you.

We went to bed with the moon in the deep blue sky. It was the next day that we made love.

You came to me in my room. Not a word was spoken. We were nourished with the child’s body of Theodora Kats, with that disabled body, with her clear gaze, with her cries to her mother before the bullet in the back of the head from the German soldier charged with maintaining order in the camp. Afterward, you said I had an incredibly youthful body. I hesitated to publish that sentence. But I didn’t have the strength. I also write things that I don’t understand. I leave them in my books and I reread them and then they make sense. I said that people had always told me that, even the North China Lover; I was fourteen at the time. And we laughed. And again desire returned, without a word or a kiss. And then after lovemaking you spoke to me of Theodora Kats. Of those words: Theodora Kats. Even the name, you said, is stunning.

You asked me, “Why so difficult, all of a sudden?”

I said, “I don’t know. All I know is that it might come from what they told me, that at the time when she, when Theodora Kats was deported, there weren’t yet any crematoriums. That the bodies were left to rot in the dirt of the pits. That the crematoriums came later, after the Final Solution of 1942.

You asked if that’s what had led me to abandon Theodora Kats to her fate.

I said, “Perhaps, seeing that she was long dead and forgotten by everyone, even by me, no doubt. That she was so young, twenty-three, twenty-five years old at most.”

And disabled, she must have been, but not seriously – a slight limp in her left ankle, I seemed to recall.

You asked, “Did the Germans forget?”

“Yes. If they hadn’t, they could have died just from learning that they were German, irremediably German.”

“You hoped so?”

“Yes. It was three years after that war that time began moving again. First for the Germans, as always, and then for the others. For the Jews, never.”

You asked me to tell you more about Theodora Kats, though you knew so little about her.

So that evening I spoke to you of Theodora Kats, of the person I believed was she, Theodora Kats, still the same person, still alive, but after the war, in the year that followed the end of the war. I told you that her hotel was in Switzerland, that Theodora Kats would have lived in the Hôtel de la Vallée at the end, before dying. And in that Swiss hotel – a square block of a building, with a fountain and statues of bathers – they had also put children repatriated from the Nazi camps who had been found dying in those camps and all day long those children, about whom nobody knew anything, screamed and ate and laughed, it was impossible to live there in that hotel, in that place of children left alive. And despite this it was apparently in the Hôtel de la Vallée that Theodora Kats had been truly happy.

You asked me, with a tenderness I’d never heard from you: “Orphaned children?”

I couldn’t answer. You asked: “Jewish?”

I said probably, yes. I also said that we must never generalize, never again. And even so I wept, because I was always with the Jewish children. I said, “Yes, Jewish.”

I told you that in the same hotel, the children stole food, bread, cakes, and they hid them. They hid everything. And they stripped naked and dove into the fountain. They were crazy about the water. And people stared at them. There was nothing else to do in that hotel. And they injured themselves in that cement basin but their happiness was such that they didn’t even feel it. Sometimes the water in the basin turned rosy with their blood and had to be changed. They could not be forbidden anything. Anything.

When someone tried to stroke their face, they scratched us, spat at us.

Many of them had forgotten their native tongue, their given name, the name of their family, their parents. They all let out different cries, and then they understood each other. From what was said in that hotel, at the time they were all from Poland, from the vast Vilna ghetto, huge as an entire province.

“Those children were the reason Theodora ran away from the hotel, so she could keep living.”

I said it was possible she had run away from the hotel but that I didn’t really believe it.

I said Theodora was dependent on me. From the moment I knew her, even though I had written very little about her, she was dependent on me.

I said I believed it also depended on the moment. At night I thought I’d already seen Theodora. On certain days I was sure I’d known her previously, in Paris before the war. By morning I didn’t know anything. In the morning I believed I’d never known Theodora Kats. Never, anywhere.

“You invented the name Theodora.”

“Yes. I invented everything about that young woman, the greenish hue of her eyes, the beauty of her body, her voice, since I knew she had been gassed. And I recognized the name when I heard it for the first time. I could only have invented that name. Maybe I invented it as a way of being able to talk about the Jews murdered by the Germans. A body without a name was of no use.”

You said, “We should say, the Nazis.”

I answered that I had never said Nazis to designate the Germans. That I would continue to say it like that: the Germans.

That I believed that certain Germans would never recover from their massacres, their gas chambers, their executions of all the Jewish newborns, their surgical experiments on Jewish adolescents. Never.

She lived in a small room on Rue de l’Université or thereabouts…She was completely alone. Her face was magnificent. Also, it was a friend of Betty Fernandez who had lent her that room as soon as the Germans arrived.

What I especially remember was Theodora Kats’ mad desire to learn the French language well enough to write in that language.

I cried. And we stopped talking. It was the end of the night. I cried in the bed where we had taken refuge after talking about the children.

You said, “No more tears now.”

I said there was nothing I could do about these tears, that for me they had become a kind of obligation, a necessity of life. That I could cry with all my body, all my life, that this was a fortunate thing for me and I knew it. That for me, writing was like crying. That no book could be joyful without indecency. That mourning should be assumed as if it were a civilization unto itself, a civilization of all the memories of death decreed by men, whatever its nature, penitentiary or bellicose.

You asked me, “What should be done about the French Nazis?”

“Like you, I don’t know. Kill them. Listen, the French would also have become murderers if they’d been left free to kill like the German Nazis. It was a dishonor for France to let them live. And still today we are nostalgic for those murders we didn’t commit.”

I nestled in your arms and we wept together. Sometimes we laughed, ashamed of our weeping, and then our tears returned and we laughed again at not being able to do anything about it, about weeping.

You said, “You didn’t know Theodora.”

“I did know her, but like very beautiful women who pass by in the street, or like stage or screen actresses, like the women of all those people. Well-known women, beautiful or plain, but famous and talked about. Yes, a whole population of her made by her alone, everywhere. For years people saw her everywhere, Theodora Kats.”

“Someone knew about her . . .”

“Yes. Betty Fernandez had heard news of her. In 1942 she was apparently seen in a German train station, every morning, a kind of triage station for the convoys of Jews. They found some beautiful drawings there, of Theodora. She must have been brought there by mistake, to that station from which Jewish deportees were never sent to the camps of Auschwitz. Alone with the stationmaster, they said. They also said that Theodora herself might have been mistaken about the train stop when she got off. Or perhaps a German had told her she should get off there, perhaps to save her from death, because of her gentle, beautiful face, her youth. She had picked up her valise and gotten off the train without asking any questions. She must have been so determined to take that train, so beautiful, so elegant in that immaculate dress, that not one of the conductors had asked to see her ticket. The charcoal drawings all depicted the same woman, always wearing the same white dress. Sometimes sitting beneath a tree, always the same one, in a corner of the garden, in a white armchair that always faced the triage station. The drawings were not stored in a single place in that station. There were drawings on the ground in the station yard. There were drawings everywhere. All over the ground, they said. They supposed that people had lived in the station after the war and ransacked the drawings. It was always the same drawing of Theodora Kats, with few variations: she is dressed in white, always, she is very English, pale, coifed, discreetly made up, wearing a straw hat, sitting in a canvas armchair, beneath the same tree, before an ordinary breakfast tray. She apparently stayed there a long time, Theodora. She woke up early, showered, always at the same time, dressed, and went into the garden to have her breakfast, so that she could then board the train that one day would surely carry her away from there, out of Germany. Every day the stationmaster brought her good food. He said that he, too, waited for that train every day, that never had they failed to wait for it. They waited every morning, every day, for the same train, the one with the Jews. After every train that passed, each day, she said that the next one was surely their train, that it was inconceivable to have to wait for it any longer. I’ve often thought of that train’s passage at a set hour. I believe I also thought that for Theodora Kats this train was the train of Theodora Kats’ hope, the one of death by decapitation; the one that fed Auschwitz with living flesh.

All her life she spoke very little, Theodora. Like certain Englishwomen she found speech to be noisy, mendacious, and she had chosen silence and the written word.

You asked what part of Germany the station was in. She believed it was south of Krakow, heading south toward the border. In those cursed lands. She was of British origin, but she had grown up in Belgium. She didn’t know European geography very well: like many English, she liked only London-Paris and the Gulf States.

You asked if the man who guarded the station visited her in her sleep. It was what I believed I’d written, yes, when she slept. I wasn’t certain that the man was not the master of that station where she lived for two years of war. Why wouldn’t he be? Or that they had loved each other – I’d thought of that too, and even that it was from the pain of it that she later died.

I said that I didn’t try to find out, that I never asked anything of that nature about Theodora, but I believe it wasn’t out of the question that they should become lovers.

You asked me what I thought. I told you that I had never asked for names, neither of the man nor of the young woman in white, in the drawings. I said that as soon as I heard that story, I spoke the name I’d surely heard before, of Theodora Kats. Then at the end, after several years, around me, people applied that name to the woman in white lost in a Europe of death.

I remind you that I’m sure I knew Theodora but that my only memories are of Betty Fernandez, whom I knew well and who, for her part, as I told you, was a friend of the young Theodora Kats. That I knew Betty Fernandez loved and admired her.

I had never forgotten that name, that time, the white of her dresses, that innocent wait for the train of death or of love –they weren’t sure which; no one has ever been sure.

You say that even if I didn’t know Theodora, even if I never went near her, I must tell you what I think might have become of her.

Personally, I believe she went back to England before the end of the war. First she landed a job with a well-known literary review in London. And then she married the British writer G. O. She wasn’t happy. I had mainly known her after her marriage to the British writer G. O., who was famous the world over and whom I admired enormously. She had never liked him very much, neither the writer he was nor the man he was.

You asked me what Theodora was like in London. I said that she had put on weight. That she no longer made love with her husband, that she didn’t want any more of that, ever. She said, I’d rather die.

You said, “Was that woman, in London, the one from theGerman train station?”

I never tried to find out. It’s the most I can say. But if you ask me, it isn’t out of the question. She had made something of herself even so, even dead she would have become something; she would have been claimed by a family in England or somewhere else. But no. No one claimed the body of Theodora Kats.

“Still, at some point she left that station.”

Yes. Unless they found her after the defeat of Nazi Germany and left her there, in that station, just as they had left “political prisoners” in the camps, thousands of them. As for her lover, nothing was ever known. She was there, in that same station. I see her there, still in her white outfit ironed that very morning, and later that day speckled with her blood.

I believe this is why no one has ever forgotten her, or that whiteness. It was the white of her dresses, the excessive, uncommon care she took of them, which made the people who had heard of her never forget her; those canvas hats, also white, her canvas sandals, all those things, her gloves. Her story spread throughout Europe. There was never any certainty. We still don’t know who she had been or why she had been there, in that station, for two years running.

Yes, it was the whiteness of the dresses, of the summer suits that made her story spread throughout the world: a very British lady in an immaculate white outfit, waiting for the train to the cremation ovens.

For the vast majority, the decent image of that white is what remained. And for others, it was her laugh that prevailed.

“Perhaps she has no story at all.”

“Perhaps. Maybe she went mad from a latent, lingering madness that took away her will to live, to know, to understand. A kind of madness of normalcy might have taken hold of her, of her mind and body. As for me, I’ve done all I could to see that the phenomenon of that station was disseminated. And it was.”

You asked me if she was dead. I said yes. And that the ceremonial of the station had been disseminated. She didn’t wish to be seen in an unflattering light, owing to the cancer that had made her lose so much weight, that had triumphed over her pale beauty. So she asked to be brought to a large hotel near the hospital where she had stayed and there she took a room. She asked for her most beautiful dress, and to be made up. It was there that her friends saw her for the last time, in death as in life, in death.

It’s raining.

It’s raining on the sea.

On the forests, on the empty beach.

It’s been raining since nighttime. A fine, light rain.

The summer umbrellas aren’t out yet. The only movement on those acres of sand are the holiday campers. This year they are small, it seems to me, very small. Now and then the counselors let them out onto the beach, so as not to be driven crazy.

There they are:

They shout.

They love the rain.

The sea.

They shout louder and louder.

After an hour they are good for nothing. Then they’re brought in under the tents. They are changed, their backs rubbed against the cold. They love that, they laugh and shout.

They are made to sing “We’ll to the Woods No More.” They sing, but not in unison. It’s always the same with them: what they really want is to be told a story. Any story, as long as it’s told. Singing they want no part of.

Except for one. One who watches.

The child. The one with the gray eyes. He came with the others.

They ask him, Aren’t you going running?

He shakes his head no. That child stays silent a lot, for hours he stays silent.

They ask him, Why are you crying? He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t know.

One wishes everything could be graced by that tearful child. It’s the grace of the sea when the child looks at it.

Is he unhappy here? He doesn’t answer. He makes a sign meaning who knows what, like a minor problem he must apologize for, it’s not important, you see…it’s nothing.

And suddenly they see.

They see that the splendor of the ocean is there, as well, in the eyes of the child watching it.

The child watches. He watches everything: the sea, the beaches, the emptiness. His eyes are gray. Gray. Like the storm, the stone, the Northern sky, the sea, the immanent intelligence of matter, of life. Gray like thought. Like time. The past and present centuries blended together. Gray.


Marguerite Duras Translated by Mark Polizzott

MARGUERITE DURAS (1914-1996) was born in Giadinh, Vietnam (then Indochina) to French parents, both teachers. She went to Paris at 18 and studied mathematics, law, and political science at Sorbonne. In 1935, she became a civil servant in the Ministry for Colonial Affairs. During WWII she was active in the Resistance and in 1945 joined the Communist Party. Duras is the author of over 50 novels, plays, and screenplays. Her novel The Lover, won the Prix Goncourt in 1984. MARK POLIZZOTTI has translated works by Jean Echenoz, Andre Breton, Gustave Flaubert, and Patrick Chamoiseau, in addition to Duras’s novel Writing (Lumen Editions, 1998). His own books include Revolution of the Mind: The Life of Andre Breton, Lautreamont Nomad, the collaborative novel S., a monograph on Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, and a forthcoming book on Bob Dylan. He is director of publications at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

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