There are two strands to the novel. The one which frames the whole is a semi-autobiographical tale of a tall, thin, youthful Breton called Steiner who, after an admiring correspondence, comes to pay court to the legendary French novelist when she is at a low personal ebb, in 1980. He becomes her love and he hasn't left yet.
This romance has a convincing zest to it - never mind their age difference, which is a mere dozen years. While not sexually explicit, it is deeply intimate and self-referential. Yet here too are the home truths of living with a woman 'crazy with writing'. Steiner informs her: 'You don't even notice that every table in the house is covered with heaps of your notes.' And Duras claims to fear him a little, despite his surface gentleness: 'Like all men, every day, even if only for a few seconds, you become a woman killer.' This, apparently, is the cut and thrust of French domesticity.
Incorporated within this love story is a second love story, where the mismatch of ages is more striking. A six-year-old Jewish boy, Samuel Steiner, who is terribly scarred by having seen his two-year-old sister shot by Nazis, becomes the obsession of an 18-year-old counseller at a summer camp for war orphans in France. Again a female, older by 12 years, takes on the role of emotional protector to a younger male (also called Steiner), and the reciprocal love that results is intense, if a bit random in the case of the six-year-old Samuel. He does a great deal of gazing out to sea with haunting grey eyes, snuggling round the counsellor and, of course, weeping.
Although in this novel Duras has returned with feeling to her perennial themes of war atrocities and the power of human attachments - which she so effectively expressed in her screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour and her award-winning novella The Lover - there are moments when the summer camp narrative, in particular, becomes so elliptical it slips right through her fingers. The prose is ripely suggestive; but of what?
There are children at this summer camp who box the counseller's ears for persistently dozing off to sleep in the middle of her storytelling. This is a Duras joke, as if she were saying: I know that my evasiveness can get exasperating, but this is the way I do things. Steiner is longing throughout for Duras to finish a story about an English Jewess called Theodora Katz, but she will only dance cryptically, if elegantly, around the subject.
Still, it's not so much the 'Nicole' and the 'Papa' that count, but the shrugs in between. At its best, Duras's fiction sneaks through the nuances, slips eloquently between the lines and aims unswervingly for the hanky pocket.