Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein + Hiroshima mon amour


I can feel a Marguerite Duras fixation coming on.

While fairly impressed with her late novel L'amant de la Chine du nord, I wasn't completely drawn into Duras's milieu until David and I watched Hiroshima mon amour, the 1959 Alain Resnais film for which she wrote the screenplay. To put it bluntly, Hiroshima mon amour blew. me. away. The opening sequence reduced me to sobs, overlaying Emmanuelle Riva's and Eiji Okada's stark, dreamlike narration (a stylized argument, which at times seems almost to veer into poetic verse, about whether or not Riva's character has or has not "seen" the devastation of Hiroshima) with footage of said devastation and of the hospital and museum Riva's character mentions. And the film as a whole raised fascinating questions about authenticity, storytelling, trauma, and the ability of humans to connect and empathize. Since Duras' 1964 novella Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein shares many of these same preoccupations, I thought I would attempt to write about them together, even though I know that I will be overwhelmed with material!

Both Hiroshima and Ravissement, then, are deeply concerned with the extent to which it is (im)possible to step inside another person's experience. In the opening scene of the film, Riva's character (known simply as "elle" or "her") makes a repeated claim to have witnessed the events of nuclear devastation in Hiroshima, not at first hand but through visits to bomb victims in the hospital, trips to the museum, and viewings of the newsreels. As she amplifies on her experiences, speaking in mesmerizing circuits of repeated words, Eiji Okada's character "lui"/"him" occasionally interrupts her to deny her authority: "Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima." ("You saw nothing at Hiroshima.") So did she? It's a complicated question. On one hand, some of her claims are quite radical:

J'ai eu chaud, Place de la Paix. Dix mille degrés sur la Place de la Paix. Je le sais. La temperature du soleil sur la Place de la Paix - comment l'ignorer?
I was hot in Peace Square. Ten thousand degrees in Peace Square. I know it. The temperature of the sun in Peace Square - how could you not know it?

Obviously, this Frenchwoman can only "know" that the temperature in Peace Square reached ten thousand degrees in the way one knows a fact from a history textbook: with her brain rather than her body. Likewise there is a world of difference between visiting an interpretive museum exhibit, even an extremely well-constructed one, and "knowing" an event through first-hand knowledge either personal or cultural. On the other hand, her empathy just as obviously exceeds the theoretical: watching those newsreels and museum exhibits really has imbued her with some part of the horror of the situation. In fact, as a viewer watching the scenes of devastation ourselves, we are in the exact same situation. Resnais and Duras make us question Elle's claims to understanding, even as they put us in an extreme position of identification with her. After all, if I am sobbing as I watch this film (which I was), how can I fully dismiss the power of simulacrums to convey experience? As she herself acknowledges later on, we as outside observers are limited in our ability to both feel and act: "On peut toujours se moquer. Mais que peut faire d'autre un touriste, que justement pleurer?" / "You can always scoff. But what else can a tourist do, but weep?" Later on in the film, Riva's character is possessive about her own traumatic war-time experience; her Japanese lover can listen and feel pain, but he can't truly understand.

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, too, questions the ability of any person to tell the story of another's trauma—or even to claim absolute certainty about what that trauma was in the first place. Lola Valerie Stein (self-styled Lol V.) remains a cypher throughout the novella, which is narrated by her eventual lover, Jacques Hold. Jacques meets Lol through another lover of his, Tatiana Karl, an old school friend of Lol's who was present on the night, ten years before, which directly preceded Lol's mental breakdown. Exactly what precipitated this breakdown remains a subject of contention throughout the novella: while it's clear that Lol and her fiancé both met an older woman that night, and that the fiancé left with said woman as dawn was breaking, Lol's emotions at each step of the evening are puzzling, as is her present relationship to the past. For example, Tatiana recalls that for most of the dance Lol didn't seem to mind her fiancé being enamored of another woman, sitting calmly throughout the evening until the couple left the ballroom without her. Was she ever in love with her fiancé? Was she in love with the woman who replaced her in his affections? Was she in love with some mental image of the couple together, and herself as an observer of their love? Was she teetering on the brink of mental disaster the whole time, and this night was merely the straw that broke the camel's back of her mind?

Tatiana is invested in one version of past events, and Lol—uncommunicative, shocky, and prone to telling bizarre, easily-detectable lies—is of little use as a witness. Jacques himself is all too aware of his inability to fathom Lol's inner world; not only was he not present on the famous night of the ball, but Tatiana, who was there, disagrees about whether it's even the crucial event in Lol's past. She feels that Lol has always been missing some crucial component, that her "self" has always been somehow absent, and that the seeds of her breakdown were present since long before the night at T. Beach.

     Je lui ai demandé si la crise de Lol, plus tard, ne lui avait pas apporté la preuve qu'elle se trompait. Elle m'a répeté que non, qu'elle, elle croyait que cette crise et Lol ne faisaient qu'un depuis toujours.
     Je ne crois plus à rien de ce que dit Tatiana, je ne suis convaincu de rien.
     I asked her if Lol's breakdown, later on, didn't prove to her that she had been wrong. She repeated that no, that she, she believed that this attack and Lol had always been one.
     I no longer believe in anything Tatiana says, I'm not convinced of anything.

Thus not only do we have competing accounts of what happened inside Lol while she watched her fiancé fall for another woman, we have a debate about whether it even matters. Tatiana and Jacques are also unsure of the degree to which Lol has recovered from her breakdown: the slick surfaces of her immaculately-maintained home and marriage seem to indicate "recovery," yet Tatiana at least is invested in the idea of Lol's continuing malady. And what is that malady in the first place? It becomes clear that Lol is, for some reason and in some way, obsessed with her past, but what is she remembering and experiencing when she thinks of it?

This brings up another commonality between Ravissement and Hiroshima, which is a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, and the pain involved in inevitably forgetting something one had sworn to remember. In the film, Riva's character gestures at this idea with the statement

De même que dans l'amour, cette illusion existe, cette illusion de pouvoir jamais oublier, de même j'ai eu l'illusion devant Hiroshima, que jamais je n'oublierai. De même que dans l'amour.
Just as in love, this illusion exists, this illusion of never being able to forget, I had the illusion when confronted with Hiroshima, that I would never forget it. Just as in love.

But the inability to forget—or more accurately, the ability to never forget, to remember forever, is just that: an illusion. Even as these characters are haunted by an inescapable relationship to their past traumas (to the point where several people identify each other as synonymous with those traumas), what dwells inside them is not precisely "memory" but an ever-changing set of reference points combining past, present, potential and imaginary. When Lol moves back to the town of S. Tahla after ten years away, for example, her memories of the town seem to start out sharp, not having been added to much in the intervening years, but soon they become eroded through frequent applications of new experience.

[E]lle commença à reconnaître moins, puis différement, elle commença à retourner jour après jour, pas à pas vers son ignorance de S. Tahla.
      Cet endroit du monde où on croit qu'elle a vécu sa douleur passée, cette prétendue douleur, s'efface peu à peu de sa mémoire dans sa matérialité. Pourquoi ces lieux plutôt que d'autres? En quelque point qu'elle s'y trouve Lol y est comment une première fois. De la distance invariable du souvenir elle de dispose plus: elle est là. Sa présence fait la ville pure, méconnaissable. Elle commence à marcher dans le palais fastueux de l'oubli de S. Tahla.
She began to recognize less, then differently, she began to return day after day, step by step towards her ignorance of S. Tahla.
      This spot in the world where they say she lived her past grief, this alleged grief, is little by little erased from her memory by her corporeality. Why these places rather than others? Wherever Lol finds herself, it is as though she is there for the first time. She no longer positions herself at the unvarying remove of memory: she is there. Her presence renders the city pure, unknowable. She begins to walk in the sumptuous palace of forgetting S. Tahla.

Thus being back in her home town erodes Lol's past knowledge of it, just as she seems unable to see again the shapes of her past self and her former fiancé when she revisits T. Beach at the end of the novel. Her attempts to reenact the past with a new cast of characters, and force it to provide her with something that was missing the first time around, are dream-like and fascinating, asking similar questions and evoking a similar mood to the relationship between "Elle" and "Lui" in Hiroshima mon amour. I am eager to read more Duras from this period; where should I start? Moderato Cantabile? L'après-midi de M. Andesmas? Recommendations very much welcome. In the meantime, both Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein and Hiroshima mon amour come very highly recommended.


This is the first ten minutes (most of the amazing opening sequence) of Hiroshima mon amour. I think it's incredible film making for both the ideas and the aesthetic interaction of words, music, and images, but I will warn you that there are EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES of devastated human and animal bodies after the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.


All translations here are mine, but this book is available in English as translated by Richard Seever. Also, I should add that I don't have an actual transcript of the Hiroshima mon amour screenplay, so some of my transcriptions may be slightly off.


  • You must read Moderato Cantabile. These major Duras themes are present. There is just so much packed into so few words. After three readings I am starting to understand, perhaps.

    • Moderato Cantabile is definitely on my must-read list; so glad to hear another vote for it. And I really second what you say about so much packed into so few words; the whole time I was reading this slim book I was both savoring the language and feeling like there was much I was missing. I look forward to revisiting it & picking up on further layers.

  • I've had Hiroshima mon amour on semi-permanent loan from my dad for a few years now, Emily, so I'm happy to hear you say it's so well done and provocative. Ironically, I've heard it criticized for being too distanced or static in the past. Am also interested on your continuing engagement with Duras' fiction, so I'll be looking forward to what you take on next by her. I need to make some time for her myself this year.

    • I can actually see the distanced/static criticism - not because I agree with it, but because the storytelling/narration technique is very unusual and the characters themselves seem distanced or possibly in shock. To me this is very effective because it reinforces Duras' and Resnais' theme of the difficulty with human empathy and connection, but I can see how for another viewer it might not resonate. For me, though, it was just the right combo of thought-provoking and emotionally searing. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts when you eventually get around to it! :-)

  • I have yet to read any Duras (thanks in part to my bizarre and unaccountable fear of French authors, a fear that's especially odd given that Jenny teaches French literature), but she's on my list.
    I hadn't put together that she wrote the screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour. That film has been in my Netflix queue for years. My Netflix queue, however, is not unlike my TBR list in that things can linger there for years and years. I will make a point of pushing this back up toward the top.

    • Oh no, you're afraid of French lit? Get Jenny to make you a reading list! It's one of my favorite...what to call it? "national bodies of literature," I suppose? Anyway, I'm betting you'll quite enjoy Duras when you get around to her. Hiroshima is heavy but so worth the tears.

  • I am so excited to read this - half my PhD was on Duras and she was so satisfying to write about. Reading your wonderful analysis, I was trying to recall what my own focus had been on these works. For me, Duras is all about the gap between word and body (particularly notable in Lol). So this means that the most intense and affecting experiences, the ones we most NEED to understand and assign meaning to, become distorted and different as soon as narrative takes them over. Similarly, in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Elle's story about the German lover starts to fade for her the moment she begins to tell it - as it leaves the realm of the real and is transformed by language into something shared, communicable and different to the memory she has stored.

    I could write about Duras all night; I always found her fascinating. As for recommendations, well, I would suggest L'Amante anglaise (although not too close to a reading of Moderato Cantabile) and Le Vice-Consul, where Anne-Marie Stretter turns up again in fine femme fatale mode.

    • I was hoping you'd stop by, Litlove! :-) I like your formulation of body versus language, and the distorting character of language—which of course ties back into the difficulty of communicating the "truth" of one's experience to any other person. And I've added L'amant anglaise and Le Vice-Consul to my list - intriguing that Anne-Marie Stretter makes another appearance!

  • I also found Hiroshima Mon Amour to be incredibly moving, and I love the way you wrote about it!

  • I can see why you might have a Maguerite Duras fixation coming on. What an interesting pairing an analysis! I have read only one Duras book, Moederato Cantabile, and quite liked it. Even in English the language was beautiful.

    • Yes, the language is really striking I think. Very atmospheric & dream-like. And very dense; as I said to Anthony, I felt like there was so much there I was missing, & anticipate revisiting this book for more perspectives & discoveries.

  • I will put Hiroshima on my list! I've read only The Lover by Duras, and I liked it quite a lot, but I don't know her enough to make a recommendation. I'll curious to see what you read next!

    • I highly recommend Hiroshima, for a time you're feeling strong and thoughtful. And having read her re-working of The Lover I'm interested to go back and read the original treatment of that story...

  • What a great review. I teach Moderato Cantabile and L'Amant and Hiroshima mon amour (all ones I love), but haven't read the ones Litlove suggests. Go with hers! She's the expert -- and what an interesting point of entry, that body/ language theme.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography