Sunday, August 12, 2012

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras, Four Novels

(The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night, The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas.)

Translated by Germaine Bree
Grove Press, 1965

Spying this book in my hand, my husband asked suspiciously, “Is that one of those books that only you like – the kind with completely no plot?”

I assured him that only one of the four novellas has almost no plot – The Square – and I admitted that, yes, I loved it. Just a housemaid and a wanderer talking in the park as the light fades – it is enough. Especially when the characters are forever saying things like, “Either I shall be unhappy in the same way as everyone else is, or I shall not be unhappy at all.”

The third novella, 10:30 on a Summer Night, succeeds as a work of suspense and floats through the mind like an art house film. (My husband seeks PLOT, honest-to-god dramatic action – I promised him he’d enjoy it.)

The fourth, The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas, proceeds like the late afternoon light in the story, gradually revealing the landscape and the figures within it. It made me realize that I’d perhaps never read a story about a rich old man who was also dignified and loving. I found it marvelous.

Only the second novella, Moderato Cantabile, seemed less interesting, an imitation of the others, with several passages which I admit I found repeatedly incomprehensible – though its account of vomiting at a dinner part is. . . nearly as riveting as being in the same situation oneself.

The second and the third novellas made me wonder if anyone has ever taught on a course on “the Literature of Alcoholism” – let’s say: Hemingway, Hart Crane, Flann O’Brien, Barthelme and Duras. It often seems to me that alcoholic writers belong to the same drunken nation. A sad, funny and charming country – though it is sometimes hard to resist the temptation to count bottles.

These books are experiments – and 50 to 80 pages is a perfect length for an experiment. To me it seems unfortunate that fiction is so often limited to stories under 15 pages and novels over 250. I sometimes wonder if the length in-between might be more conducive to the form.

Duras does away with the excessive characterization, plotting and description that often weigh on the novel. Like an ancient Buddhist scripture translated from a palm leaves, these novels seek to approach life and suffering directly – the honest ache of which they speak may come as a relief.

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