The Little Horses of Tarquinia

The Little Horses of Tarquinia is one of Marguerite Duras’ early novels, originally published in 1953 and translated into English by Peter DuBerg in 1960 for John Calder, and reprinted in 1985 (a newer translation seems to have been self-published in 2009). It takes place over only a few days during of summer in a Mediterranean village by a lake where a group of friends are holidaying. Sara and Jacques are there with their four-year-old child; Ludi and Gina are returning to the place where they meet twelve years before, and there is also the unattached Diana, as well as a newcomer, the man with a motorboat (Jean – but generally ‘the man’). The novel charts the tensions in its characters’ relationships, which they discuss obliquely without ever quite understanding each other. As Diana says, in one of many quotable lines:

“The worst thing of all is the way married people get to know one another.”

As is often the case with Duras, the atmosphere comes before the plot. We immediately learn that the weather is particularly hot, even for summer, and the characters frequently comment on how unbearable this is:

“The summer was hot all over Europe, but here everyone was completely crushed by it…”

At one point a forest fire is seen in the distance, but such is the lethargy created by the heat (but one suspects more deeply rooted than that) no one is unduly concerned. The atmosphere is also affected by a death – a man has been killed by a mine and his parents, having spent the last few days collecting pieces of his body, have still not left. The mother is refusing to sign the death certificate:

“The village was in mourning. Everyone was waiting of them to go.”

This acts a memento mori in the novel, and the friends often go to visit the couple, and the shopkeeper who has appointed himself their guardian. He talks about his dead wife whom he loved but who did not love him back:

“Death is always a sorrow, even after the worst of possible lives that people could have together.”

This adds another strand to Duras’ examination of relationships, and of faithfulness. Although Gina and Ludi’s marriage seems to be under the most stress, Gina declares, “When I’m with one man, I can’t do it with others at the same time.” Yet, they frequently argue, and we sense long-running resentments – for example Gina’s refusal to go to America with Ludi – which display themselves in more trivial actions, such as when Gian gives noodles aux vongole, Ludi’s favourite meal, to the old couple.

It is Sara, however, who is at the centre of the novel. “Ever since the moment he was born I’ve lived in a dream,” she says of her child, suggesting she cannot believe it is quite real rather that it is a ‘dream come true’. She does not demonstrate much affection for the boy, as the narrative highlights by using ‘the child’ throughout, and shares the care of him with the maid. The maid, however, has a lover whom she asks to see every night. The others often criticise the maid, and Diana wonders whether Sara really needs to give her every night off:

“The fact is you just want to avoid spending too many evenings with the rest of us.”

In fact, much of the time Sara simply seems not to want anything very definite. Much of the narrative tension revolves around whether she will have an affair with the man who owns the motorboat, but her reluctance to take risks is demonstrated in her attitude towards the sea:

“I’m terrified when I can’t touch bottom.”

As the man says to her, “You’re afraid. It isn’t that you don’t know how to swim.” Later he will encourage her to go out of her depth, though he also makes the point, after telling her he once fell asleep in the water, “It’s something that can’t be taught or I’d teach you.” Rather than being ruled by fear, Sara seems to lack the desire to overcome it – there is certainly no moral objection to sleeping with the man. Matters are complicated when Jacques decides to take a trip – the possibility of seeing the little horses of Tarquinia is mentioned. The trip feels like a provocation towards Sara to admit the affair. When she wants to put the trip off for a few days, he asks her to explain why, and then turns to the man: “What do you think of all this?” adding opaquely:

“I like to have things stated clearly.”

This is typical of the way the characters neither avoid sensitive topics nor talk openly but rather tackle their problems obliquely. The reader may care for neither for Sara nor Jacques – no matter how intimate we are with their feelings there is always a distance – but there is a fascination in observing their relationship, as there is with all the relationships here. This is Duras’ great skill as a novelist and why we should continue to read her.


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7 Responses to “The Little Horses of Tarquinia”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    A wonderful review. I like the way you’ve drawn attention to stylistic features and themes that I can look out for in later novels.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great review Grant – although I’ve only read a little Duras I totally get what you say about her characterisation and the atmosphere of her writing. Her books stay with you rather unexpectedly!

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    You are right about availability. Some of her books are readily available at The Big A, but this is one is only available second hand, at $367AUD. Copies begin at a more reasonable price at AbeBooks, but the cheap ones are in poor condition and they’re in the UK where postage to Australia is usually more than the price of the book.
    It’s surprising that the small indie translating presses haven’t picked this one up yet.

  4. Books of the Year 2022 Part 1 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] year I read some of Marguerite Duras’ early work: her novel, The Little Horse of Tarqinia, and her short story collection, Whole Days in the Trees. Both impressed me, and I was particularly […]

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