Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras, Practicalities
(La Vie matérielle)
Marguerite Duras speaks to Jerome Beajour

Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
HarperCollins, 1990

Near the end of her life, Duras dictated the pieces which make up this book to Jerome Bray.  Duras then revised and recast each transcription.  The end result is aleatory and intimate and wonderful to read. 

Here is Duras speaking about love and murder, alcohol and keeping house.  Many of the pieces are brief, some less than a page long, and are often based on the very slightest premise – like a scrap of cloth found at the back of the drawer. 

As one would expect from Duras, the sentences are surprising and sinuous -- and from time to time she even tosses out a slogan for living: “Sometimes you say I’m going to kill myself, and then you go on with the book.”  (Is there anyone else besides me who is ready to have that sentence inscribed on an arch in their home?) 

Reading Practicalities, I was continually reminded of the short fiction of Lydia Davis.  I wonder if fans of Davis’ work – might not discover that they like this as much or more.  Certainly these short pieces are a necessity for anyone who is interested in how mystery and ordinariness can co-exist in a very small space.

As ever, Duras is unafraid to tell the truths of alcohol or sex, no matter how scandalous or pathetic.  The last piece in the book, “The People of the Night”, details the delusions and hallucinations she suffered while suffering from emphysema and alcoholism, including a nurse she attempted to murder. 

“Alcohol”, less than three pages long, is perhaps the best take I’ve read on the subject.  “I was alone in that huge house, and that was how alcohol took on its full significance.  It lends resonance to loneliness and ends up making you prefer it to everything else.  Drinking isn’t necessarily the same thing as wanting to die.  But you can’t drink without thinking you’re killing yourself” (15).  And, as for the current mania for non-intervention: “We live in a world paralysed with principles.  We just let people die” (18).

“House and Home”, the longest piece in the book, ought to be put in the hands of anyone who doubts that true and compelling literature can be written about – keeping house.  (How is it possible that bootleg copies of this have not become a staple of every writing program on Earth?)  “I say it again.  It bears a lot of repetition.  A woman’s work, from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, is as hard as a day at war, worse than a man’s working day.  Because she has to make her time-table conform to that of other people. . .” (45) 

By the time I finished this book I felt that it ought to be presented, along with A Room of One’s Own to every woman who aspires to write – and when she’s done with it, her husband, brother, father, boyfriend ought to read it too. 

Fans of Duras will love this book for the sense it gives of sharing a rainy afternoon with the elderly Marguerite Duras.  But there is something more compelling. It is simply not common that someone would tell. . . this much of the truth. 

Who is actually willing to fully expose themselves as human, therefore pathetic?  While reading this book, I was also reading a collection of poems by Fernando Pessoa (et al.) and I came upon the following:

“If only I could hear some other human voice / Confess not to a sin but to an infamy, / Tell not about an act of violence but of cowardice! / No, all the people I listen to, if they talk to me, are paragons. / Who in this wide world would admit to me that he was ever despicable? / O princes, my brothers, / I’ve had it up to here with demigods! / Where in the world are there people?”

Well.  Here is one of them.   

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