lunes, 22 de octubre de 2012

Moderato cantabile

Moderato cantabile (Gallimard, 2011)
by Marguerite Duras
France, 1958

I finished Haruki Murakami's laughably inept Kafka on the Shore something like a day or two after I finished Marguerite Duras' assured, devastating Moderato cantabile.  Bad timing for Murakami because there's nothing at all funny or inauthentic about Duras' book.  In a quiet seaside town, a restless child's weekly Friday piano lesson is interrupted first by the roar of a passing motorboat--a symbol of freedom and the chance to escape--and then by the piercing wail of a woman who has just been killed in a crime of passion in a neighboring café.  The child's mother, Anne Desbaresdes, will spend the remainder of the novella trying to piece together what happened and why on that fateful day in question; you, in turn, will read on with increasing Madame Bovary-like horror as the desperate provincial mother here seems to try to effect a similar escape by finding solace in drink, a flirtation with adultery with an "homme de la rue" named Chauvin, and finally an open identification with the murder victim herself.  What price freedom, eh?  As with the novelist's later Hiroshima mon amour, I was both drawn to and perturbed by Duras' austere, economic prose and by her uncanny sense of control while charting such emotionally troubled waters.  One of the ways Duras mounts tension in the text is by casually drawing attention to the fact that others are keenly aware of the reckless amount of time that Madame Desbaresdes, the wealthy wife of a big deal import-export magnate in town, and Chauvin, an unemployed factory worker, are spending together drinking wine in the bar.  However, the way she does it is almost cinematically subtle because she never lingers for too long on the shot: "Les premiers hommes entrèrent au café, s'étonnèrent, interrogèrent la patronne du regard.  Celle-ci, d'un léger mouvement d'épaules, signifia qu'elle-même n'y comprenait pas grand chose" ["The first men came into the café, were astonished, and questioned the proprietor with a look.  She, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, indicated that she herself didn't know much about it"] (1224).  Although this kind of unobtrusive moment might not even merit a second glance on its own, it turns out to be just the right amount of detail to set up a chilling scene later on.  As the narrative relentlessly chugs forward to its conclusion, the narrator laconically tells us that "un homme rôde, boulevard de la Mer.  Une femme le sait" ["a man is on the prowl on the Boulevard de la Mer; a woman knows it"] (1246).  While I won't spoil what takes place afterward or cite the brutal final exchange between the couple that practically made me sick to my stomach, suffice it to say that the prowler is Chauvin, the femme is a drunken Madame Desbaresdes who is hosting a dinner party attended by her husband's monied friends, and the thrust of what follows is a queasy dance with death that will help you determine whether Anne Desbaresdes is a martyr to a loveless marriage or just another victim in quest of annihilation.  A total downer--but an impossibly well-written one.

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

This version of Moderato cantabile appears in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Duras' Œuvres complètes, Tome I, 1203-1260.

25 comentarios:

  1. Oh bravo! I used to give this one to the students as their introduction to Duras. It rather beautifully fails to transform into the genre novels it borrows from - crime fiction and romance - while moving uneasily between fantasy where everything is possible, and reality, where so little becomes significant. My favourite moment is the deathly kiss they exchange, the point when everything that has been almost constructed is forced to crumble. Although we are also sure that something does happen in the real, just not what it was. I don't know that I've ever found another author who uses so many levels so creatively in her fiction. Beautiful review, Richard.

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    1. Ah, how I wish I could have studied French and French lit with you, Victoria! That would've done me so much good and been so much fun. In any event, thanks for your kind words about the post. Love and can relate to your enthusiasm for Duras' work and look forward to reading much more by her in the future. Your fave moment from Moderato is a great one for sure, but now you really have me thinking about how Duras used those genre novel influences in such a creative way--I hadn't really thought of that except in a very superficial manner. Intriguing! P.S. If you have a chance, please consider suggesting a fave work or two about Duras (biographical or literary criticism) to help inform my future readings of her. I'd appreciate benefiting from your expertise.

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    2. That got me thinking. I haven't read a critical work on Duras for quite some time. However, the ones I recall being most impressed by were both monographs on her writing, one by Leslie Hill and the other by Sharon Willis. Martin Crowley can be good, but he does take a very heavily philosophical perspective. And, ahem, I'm not too awful, although the book I wrote, Critical Subjectivities, is a comparison of Duras with Colette. If anything else comes to mind, I'll drop you a line.

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    3. Victoria, thanks so much for these wonderful suggestions (I wasn't aware or had somehow forgotten that you yourself had written a book on Duras--a nice bonus!). I hope to read more by and about Duras in the near future, so this will provide a great start.

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  2. I've been wanting to read more Duras since reading the portrayal of her in Villa-Matas' Never Any End to Paris, and this sounds particularly promising.

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    1. Scott, I can't see this book not satisfying you--with or without that Vila-Matas incentive. It was only my second Duras to date, but I'm so excited to get to all those other books of hers now.

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  3. I keep reading the first five pages of this in French; I must get around to going on with it one of these days.

    Murakami? Laughably inept? - Someone's sure to take offence at that!

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    1. Are you thinking about reading this for your nouveau roman project, Obooki, or just for fun? I keep reading things about Moderato being considered one of Duras' most nouveau roman-like works, but all I can tell you is that I greatly enjoyed it and am glad that I finally made time for it.

      Murakami's Kafka on the Shore was so inept that I don't think I'd even enjoy trashing it in one of my so-called "mean posts." It'd be like picking on the movie Spy Kids or something--or at least what I imagine that would be like given that I've never seen that flick. Bah...

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    2. No! I want the mean review, I want it. I feel it might be a worthy follower of the Margo Lanagan review.

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    3. I agree. More "mean" reviews. I was in a pub this evening, and someone on the left a copy of 1Q84 on the neighbouring table. I was tempted.

      Yes, Duras as a nouveau roman. I'll force myself to read it soon.

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    4. *Caroline & Obooki: Wow, you guys want blood! Good to know for future reference (I do aim to please once in a while, you know), but I don't know what more I could add to "laughably inept" and "the Japanese Dan Brown" about Murakami here without getting bogged down in boring specifics. One of the lowlights in Kafka, though, had to do with a Margo Lanagan-like fight to the death between a supernatural entity and a magic rock--I kid you not!

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  4. Yeah, someone start up the heated Murakami argument!

    This one's on my someday-Duras list. Sounds pretty great.

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    1. Tom, Moderato cantabile is a sure thing--a great book to include on a "someday-Duras" list for sure. Murakami, on the other hand, well, let's just say that I think most of Murakami's fans are too busy drinking up the Kool-Aid to want to get involved in any heated arguments about their idol. Kafka was so bad in comparison to Murakami's own The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a book I thoroughly enjoyed last year), in fact, that I was shocked to discover that the author of a book I liked could turn into the Japanese Dan Brown so easily. Pretty distressing.

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  5. It is my favourite Duras. I like exactly that cinematographic eye with which she describes scenes. It's so artful but still engaging.
    I find it interesting and revealing how your Murakami verdict was interpreted. :)
    It's Kafka on the Shore which is called laughably inept! Not Murakami. Oh I'm pedantic and killed the argument.

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    1. I can see how this could be your favorite Duras, Caroline: "the cinematographic eye," the masterful building of tension, the emotional violence depicted in such an "artful but still engaging" way. Great stuff. As for the Murakami "verdict," I think it was mostly interpreted the way I meant it. Tom explains part of the reason for the wording below, of course, but I was also somewhat conflicted because I thought my first Murakami was so great and this one was just so ridiculous: lame-o fantasy/sci-fi with ludicrous interior monologues and unconvincing characters put in ridiculous situations over and over again until the end (i.e. Murakami = the un-Duras).

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  6. I ve only read the lover by Duras I must admit I like sound of this one Richard she is a writer that seems to put a lot of her own life into her works ,all the best stu

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    1. Stu, writing-wise I think Moderato cantabile somehow manges to be both elegant and forceful at the same time if that makes any sense. Just loved it and think you would enjoy it, too. Agree with what you say about the autobio elements/influence in her work--at least, that's what others who know more about her seem to keep harping on in the little Duras criticism I've looked at so far.

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  7. Respuestas
    1. Ever, tienes toda la razón. I can't argue with that after reading Kafka en la orilla!

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  8. We commonly use the author's name as a synecdoche for a single work.

    And as a logical matter, if a book is inept its author was at least for a time - during the writing of that book - himself inept.

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    1. Thanks for the grammar--and logic--help. Who would have ever thought that a gratuitous Haruki Murakami insult in a Marguerite Duras post would have been just the ticket to turn this blog into Languagehat?!?

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  9. Isn't this a beautiful book? I read it a couple years ago and was amazed at how so much was packed into so few pages and how completely emotionally charged it was. It is the only Duras I have read but I hope to read more of her work sometime.

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    1. Stefanie, yes, definitely a powerful and "completely emotionally charged" work! I've only read two of Duras' titles so far, but I was floored by her prose both times--not quite sure how she was able to balance the writerly subtlety and the "emotionally charged" aspects, but I'm guessing one probably had to do with the other. Anyway, look forward to seeing what you decide to read by her next.

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  10. As with Scott, my acquaintance with Duras was piqued by her role in Never Any End to Paris by Vila-Matas. I like the quirky vibe I get from your review.

    I will not contest your Murakami comment as you know I agree with you 100%. He is equally inept in at least 3 or 4 more books.

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    1. Rise, I think you'd enjoy Moderato a lot--it reminds me a bit of some of Cortázar's stuff in terms of Duras' smarts and her command of the material. In any event, thanks for reminding me that I need to get to that Vila-Matas one of these of days so I can make my acquaintance with the fictional Duras. As for Murakami, wow, what a bummer to hear that he is "equally inept in at least 3 or 4 more books." I thought Kafka and its supermarket sci-fi would be hard to top, or rather, lower in that regard!

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