BOOK REVIEW / Distant cars and endless weeping: Elaine Feinstein on the new work by Marguerite Duras, a poet who works in prose: Yann Andrea Steiner - Marguerite Duras Tr Barbara Bray: Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 12.99

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SOME TIME in 1980, Yann Andrea Steiner, who gives his name to this seductive but disturbing novella, appeared in Marguerite Duras' own Normandy home to ask about a character from one of her fictions. A very much younger man than the celebrated author, Yann Andrea had been writing letters to her for some months - cries for help, as she describes them. When he appeared without invitation, Duras gave him a meal and a bed in her son's room over the sea.

She is touched by the voice of his letters, his eager conversation, and his thin boyish body, and allows him to enter her lonely life.

The book opens in a low monologue, which seems to be addressed directly to Yann Andrea while explaining Duras' subjective experience. She observes that the young man's own sexuality is ambiguous; that at first he is 'on the lookout for handsome barmen from Buenos Aires and Santiago who'd been taken on for the summer'. Sometimes she is afraid of him. 'You didn't know you made me afraid you might be going to kill me,' she murmurs.

Sometimes the young man rages at her obsession with her work. 'What do you think you're doing? What's the point? Spending your whole time writing, all day and every day? Everybody will desert you - you're crazy, unbearable to live with. A nut . . .' For all the age gap, Yann Andrea and Duras became lovers that summer in 1980 and have remained together over the last 14 years. So much at least is autobiography. As the book celebrates Yann Andrea's healing presence, a magical peace descends on the reader not unlike the one the lovers experience listening in their bedroom to the sound of cars going by at night in the distance.

This personal strand of the novella, however, is interwoven with far more portentous themes.

Theodora Kats, whose story Yann Andrea had inquired into on his first visit, is a character mentioned briefly at the end of another Duras fiction. There, she was a young Jewish girl murdered by the Nazis, and Yann Andrea Steiner may be particularly concerned about her fate because he shared her Jewishness. In response to his inquiries, Duras offers a number of incompatible versions of Theodora's life, all naturally invented since the character herself is a fiction.

She may have had a love affair with a stationmaster, for instance, or might even have returned to England to marry an English writer and die of cancer. All that is continuous about her image is her white dress, and her puzzling Englishness as she waits for a train to the gas chambers.

Instead of information about Theodora's life, Duras tells Yann Andrea the love story of a six-year-old Jewish orphan, a boy whose parents have been murdered. He is crying on the seashore, and Johanna, a young camp counsellor, comforts him and falls in love with him. The six-year-old boy has little desire to live, and Johanna tries to restore his interest in life by telling him a fable about David and a talking shark. So there are two new stories interwoven with the autobiographical narrative: the story of the orphan and his counsellor, which Duras is offering her real-life lover, and the story of David and a talking shark, which Johanna offers the Holocaust orphan in order to win back his interest in living after his family's murder. Both relate obliquely to the life of Theodora Kats, but the imaginary versions of that life remain inconsistent and shadowy.

Such uncertainties are a familiar device and they always declare the limits of the human ability to know what has 'really' happened. I found myself wondering whether such literary games were appropriate in the context of the great suffering which the novel purports to lament. The horror at murdered innocence that haunts the book is genuine enough, but I felt there was something worrying about so much lyricism attached to the ugly brutality of massacre; even something luxuriant in the way Duras and Yann Andrea weep so much together; and that weeping goes to the heart of their relationship. And at the outset I drew back uneasily when Duras spoke of love-making with Yann Andrea being 'fuelled by the childish body of Theodora Kats, the Jewish child shot in the neck by a German soldier'.

Duras is a poet working in prose, but on these matters the beauty of the writing is beside the point. In Hiroshima Mon Amour Duras gave the humiliation of a young girl, shaved in post-war France as the lover of a German soldier, the same emotional weight as the pain of a survivor of the atom bomb. The film was poignant, intelligent, and powerfully evoked both grief and human need, but the moral foundations on which it rested were never as secure as they seemed. Nor are they here.