Yann Andrea Steiner, by Marguerite Duras

Yann Andrea Steiner
Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 in Giadinh, of what is now Vietnam. Her parents, both teachers, moved the family to Indochina as part of the French government’s campaign to encourage more workers to live in the colony. After her father’s death, Duras lived in relative poverty, a period of her life that proved to be highly influential in her writing. At age eighteen, Duras moved to Paris to study mathematics, then political sciences, and finally law at the Sorbonne. She worked as a civil servant in 1935 in the Ministry for Colonial Affairs, and was active in the Resistance during the war. In 1945 she joined the Communist party. An amazing woman, Duras still found time and energy to make a dozen films (including the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, 1959) and write more than 45 novels and plays.

Yann Andrea Steiner comes from Duras’ later works and accordingly, reflects back on her life as a writer through the context of her love with the young man, Yann Andrea Steiner. The book weaves between three stories, times and places. The initial story is that of Duras and her lover, Steiner, as he comes to stay with her, breaking her habitual solitude. The story moves as Duras and Steiner observe a six-year-old camper and his eighteen-year-old counselor fall in love on the beach. The boy, Samuel Steiner, is a holocaust survivor, an orphan working through the trauma of his little sister’s death. Like Duras, the little boy is a recluse, always apart from the rest. He stares out to the sea and sees nothing, laughs when the seagulls choke on worms, and when asked what he is thinking about he says he doesn’t know. The counselor tells him she loves him and they promise to meet at this same beach in ten years. The third story is the counselor’s myth about a little boy named David and a shark. The shark ate his parents and saved David by carrying him on his back to an island where the Source lives. The shark cries over his guilt of desiring to eat David as well.

These stories do not overtly connect but some parallels can be found. The shark and his desire to eat David seems to speak on the counselor’s desire to consummate her love with the little boy. The little boy on the beach and Duras’ lover are both Steiner, and are both involved with older women. The sea is a central force in all three stories, an important theme for Duras. "She also says that if there were no sea and no love, no one would write books."

Duras has mastered the art of giving the reader just a little less than necessary. She never quite carries you to the end; she claims your devotion and denies satisfying your appetite. It becomes unclear (and unimportant), whether or not the account of the boy on the beach is “real” or only the imaginations of Duras and Steiner as they watch from their window. Is it 1944 or 1980? Are they merely filling in the boy’s story to make up for Duras’ unfinished book on Theodora Kats’?

Duras’ writing in Yann Andrea Steiner is finely tuned after a life of work. Her language is clear and minimal, giving power to a single word or phrase, that it could never carry anywhere else. Her story does not bother to explain why its characters matter or what happens to them, or if they were even real at all. It is a more important story of singular experience, delicate and absolutely beautiful. It is the first book that has brought me tears in a year.

"We tell each other things that have no relation to the afternoon’s events or the coming night but that relate to God, to his absence that is so present, like the breasts of the young girl, so young before the immensity of what is to come."


Claire Sammons

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