There are few authors as capable as Marguerite Duras. This book really, really excited me. Its a ridiculously short read, so please do yourself a favor and check it out. If you can't find it on amazon[.com] or in your local library or bookstore (I'm told it is out-of-print), try Powell's or Strand - they at least should have copies.
In "Emily L" our narrator sits (and sots) in a French port cafe with her lover and closely studies a particular English couple. Before long our narrator is narrating, to her lover and to us her readers, a story about this couple's history, particularly the complex and tragic story of the English woman. What remains unclear throughout the novel is how much of this story is based on real information gathered by our narrator and how much is pure fiction, a story within the story. All indications seem to point to a near total fiction. Moreover, just how much of what we are told can we as readers use in our own parallel study of the narrator and her relationship? That question is arguably the most important one in this novel.
"It began with fear," the novel begins (3). The narrator begins by, naturally, describing the setting and introducing herself and her lover as characters. But she really doesn't tell us much (or anything actually) about either herself or her companion, except that they are both writers. Very early in the novel she tells her lover that she has plans to write about their relationship. "I said I'd decided to write our story.... I was going to write the story of the affair we'd had together, the one that was still there and taking forever to die" (12). He's not thrilled by this suggestion, but then neither is she. Here is the very heart of that fear mentioned in the novels first words, and this fear reveals itself fully by the very next page. "No. What I'm writing now is something else that will somehow include it - something much broader perhaps. But to write about it directly - no, that's all over, I couldn't do it" (13). And there it is. Nowhere in this novel do we read her own actual story in terms we can read as literally *her story*. The story we do read from that page on to the end, the story of the English couple, comes in as something of a surrogate story. Our narrator explains: "The book will tell the truth. Whether we said it ourselves or heard it said through a wall, someone other than you to someone other than me, it will be all the same as far as the book is concerned, so long as you heard it at the same time I did and in the same place. In the same fear" (16).
The driving force of "Emily L" is the subjective nature of the story we're told. As our narrator is herself a novelist, "Emily L" is ultimately a novel about writing. Reading this novel we must constantly question the reliability and transparency of our narrator/author. How much of this is fiction? How much is truth? Whose truth? Why the fear? Can we learn anything about that fear in this novel? If not, is a knowledge that there is a fear enough of a story in itself? And are we satisfied, as readers, by not getting the whole story? How much more interesting is the 'barrier' story we get than the actual story? These matters, these questions, are the life and blood of the novel. The story of the English couple is compelling all by itself, but frankly its just the mechanics of Duras's infinitely clever and utterly profound novel.