Moderato Cantabile

moderato

Marguerite Duras’ short novel Moderato Cantabile (translated in 1960 by Richard Seaver) is neither ‘moderate’ nor ‘melodious’; just as her son refuses the instructions of his music teacher to play in such a style, so too does Anne Desbaresdes attempt to rebel against the strictures of her own quiet life. The music teacher, striking “the keyboard a third time, so hard that the pencil broke right next to the child’s hands,” has no effect. The stand-off is interrupted by a scream, “a long, drawn-out scream, so shrill it overwhelmed the sound of the sea. “ The boy begins to play, but as he does so it becomes increasingly clear that something serious has occurred below – a woman has been shot. Anne leaves in time to witness the aftermath:

“At the far end of the café, in the semi-darkness of the back room, a woman was lying motionless on the floor. A man was crouched over her, clutching her shoulders and saying quietly:
‘Darling. My darling.’”

Anne becomes fascinated by the crime, returning to the café the next day where she strikes up a conversation with another customer, Chauvin, on the subject, pretending that she was unaware of the murder:

“Perhaps they had problems, what they call emotional problems.”

Chauvin, it transpires, already knows who she is:

“You have a beautiful house at the end of the Boulevard de la Mer. A big walled garden.”

WITmonth

Anne’s visits to the cafe become daily, each time meeting Chauvin and discussing the murder. Duras hints that their relationship echoes that which so recently ended in death:

“They met by chance in cafe, perhaps even here, they both used to come here. And they began to talk to each other about this and that.”

The man, having mentioned Anne’s house the first time they spoke, proceeds to describe it in more detail, as if he is drawing closer to her:

“Isn’t there a long hallway on the second floor, a very long hallway onto which your room and everyone else’s opens, so that you’re together and separated at the same time?”

The conversation continues at cross-purposes, her insistent probing of the reasons for the woman’s death – a death, it is suggested, she chose; he describing her own life to her. He returns time and again to the workers of the company her husband manages walking beneath her window, sometimes heard, sometimes observed, as predictable as the tide:

“Whether you were asleep or awake, dressed or naked, they passed outside the pale of your existence.”

Their appearance at the cafe, at the end of the day, acts as a sign for her to leave. The man, it seems was once such a worker, remembering a visit to her home, “you were standing…on the steps, ready to receive us, the workers from the foundries.” We are given the impression he has loved her since that moment; what is less certain is how she feels about him, perhaps seeing him as an escape from a life she finds intolerable. What is without question is that their intense feelings charge every scene, with Duras able to encapsulate enormous passion in a moment such as when he lays his hand next to hers. Slowly their discussion of the murder becomes a discussion of their own relationship:

“He had never dreamt, before meeting her, that he would one day want anything so badly.”

Very little happens in Moderato Cantabile: like the sea, which is so often referenced, it is what lies beneath the surface which is most powerful and dangerous. Duras beautifully conveys the repressed feelings of her protagonists to create a love story unlike any other.

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11 Responses to “Moderato Cantabile”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I had not heard of this one before. Your review makes me want to read it!

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks – I must admit, I hadn’t heard of it before either but was looking for one of Duras’ novels to read. It was reprinted in the UK by Alma Classics a few years ago.

  2. elizabethmaddenlitblog Says:

    Reblogged this on elizabethmaddenreads.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I was uncertain of how I liked Duras after my first encounter, but this sounds really good Grant. I may give her another try….

  4. bookbii Says:

    This sounds wonderful. I love Duras, she is a powerful and very intelligent writer. Much like the sea, there is always so much more bubbling beneath the surface than the words initially suggest. Great review, Grant.

  5. JacquiWine Says:

    I really want to read something by Duras for the next WIT Month. I thought I had a copy of this, but it seems to have disappeared! Oh well, plenty of time to try to find it again. This sounds like a story which leaves much to the reader’s imagination, not a bad thing in many respects.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s probably open to a number of interpretations. I hope you find your copy before next year! Mine is from Alma Classics often eclectic catalogue, but I think it has fallen out of print now.

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