Archive for the ‘Marguerite Duras’ Category

The Little Horses of Tarquinia

December 5, 2022

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.

Whole Days in the Trees

April 19, 2022

Whole Days in the Trees by Marguerite Duras is a collection of short stories originally published in 1954 and translated by Anita Burrows in 1984. Duras was only forty in 1954 yet three out of the four stories concern characters who are older. In the title story Jacques is visited by his mother, a rich factory owner, in Paris where he lives with his lover, Marcelle, working as hosts in a nightclub. ‘The Boa’ features a young girl growing up in a French colony more typical of Duras’ writing, but the relationship described is with a female teacher who has never married, and it is filled with the regrets of age as well as the desires of youth. ‘Madame Dodin’ is perhaps the most unusual of the four stories, telling of the affection between the eponymous concierge and a dustman in a generally comedic manner. Finally, in ‘The Building Site’ the relationship, between an older man and a young girl, is resonant of Duras’ most famous work, The Lover, though in this story the couple have very little contact.

In ‘Whole Days in the Trees’ we immediately sense the distance between Jacques and his mother. Her wealth is displayed in the seventeen gold bracelets she wears on her arms and in her appetite – the food Jacques and Marcelle have to offer is not enough and she soon insists on buying more:

“They had this in common, all three: that they were blessed with a hearty appetite. The son and Marcelle because they lived in state of continual semi-starvation. The mother because, as a young woman, she had had appetites for power and strength that had gone unsatisfied…”

The mother wishes Jacques to take on the management of the factory, regarding his present life as wasteful – “there is gold there, do you hear!” she tells him, “Gold to be earned.” Her faith is fuelled by a belief that (as she tells Marcelle) “if he’d chosen to work he would have moved mountains.” Jacques, however, has always chosen the easiest path:

“I can’t work, I don’t want to work. I don’t want to work.”

Even in his relationship with Marcelle he is open in admitting that he does not love her and will soon move on. As she tells his mother, “the moment he has one woman, he goes after another. It never ends.” His mother believes these attitudes originate in childhood (“That’s how it began”) as he never wanted to go to school. The story’s title, ‘whole days in the trees’, is a reference to how he spent his schooldays:

“…once you’d awakened me, instead of going to school I would go around routing out birds’ nests.”

The story captures the way in which both mother and son are trapped in roles they both loathe but are unable to change through their repetitive conversations and the tension of their competing desires, with Marcelle as a meek chorus.

In ‘The Boa’ youth and age also coexist with differing needs. The narrator is a schoolgirl whose family owes a debt to Mlle Barbet for having accepted her into the school. For this reason, she cannot object to regularly accompanying her teacher to the zoo, where, among the other animals, they watch a boa eat a chicken (the boa is a fairly obvious phallic symbol). This visit is followed by Mlle Barbet showing the girl her “lovely linen”:

“She stood very straight so that I could admire her, looking at herself lovingly, half naked.”

Mlle Barbet is in her sixties and, as the narrator expresses it, in a state of “very advanced virginity.” She goes no further than exposing herself, and the girl learns a lesson typical of Duras – that desire should not be repressed. Desire is also the subject of ‘The Building Site’ where a man watches a young girl walk into the woods. Time passes and, when she does not return, he follows her and finds her looking at a building site – the focus of her having ‘discovered’ it suggests that what is also being ‘built’ is her awareness of her own desire. They have a brief conversation, but he does not follow this up, merely watches her from a distance over the days that follow until:

“…she had at least understood the slow power of his waiting and the imminent dawning it contained.”

The story ends with them meeting in the woods for the second time.

‘Madame Dodin’ features a much more comical love story between the title character, a concierge, and the local dustman, Gaston. She has various ways of tormenting those who live in her building – insisting they bring out their rubbish daily, stealing their parcels, and retrieving objects fallen out of windows claiming never to have seen them. Only Gaston is treated kindly but, as the years pass, their friendship fails to go further. Although gentler, it also feels like a warning against repressed desire.

Whole Days in the Trees demonstrate a remarkable range in Duras’ writing, and, in particular, a sympathy for older women of all classes. It reasserts her abilities as a writer who has been rather marginalised as telling only one story. Though in some ways her fame persists, it would be better if her work was also more easily available.

Lost Books – Emily L

June 1, 2019

How good a writer was Marguerite Duras? Certainly good enough to have most of her work translated into English, but, twenty-three years after her death, very little of that remains in print, with only The Lover apparently impervious to fashion. Of course, she wrote so much and for so long, mainly novellas, slight and intense, and, I suspect, repetitive. There is perhaps a clue to her process, and therefore her legacy, at the end of Emily L, a late novel from 1987 which was quickly translated by Barbara Bray:

“…one ought to write without making corrections, not necessarily at full tilt, no, but at one’s own pace and in accordance with what one is experiencing at the time; one ought to eject what one writes, manhandle it almost, yes, treat it roughly, not try to trim profusion but let it be part of the whole, and not tone down anything either, whether its speed or its slowness, just leave everything as it is when it appears.”

That the novel ends at this point reminds us that it is as much about writing as anything else. Its narrator, we assume, is Duras herself, sitting with her lover (addressed as ‘you’ throughout) in a bar overlooking the Seine. “One day,” he tells her, “it’ll all be in a book – the square, the heat, the river,” and she acknowledges:

“I was going to write the story of the affair we’d had together, the one that was still there and taking forever to die.”

Instead they watch another couple in the bar, an English couple (much of their dialogue is in English in the original) who have arrived by boat. He is quickly designated the Captain, and she, later, Emily L. The narrator observes that their relationship, too, is coming to an end:

“It was clear it was all over, and at the same time she was still there.”

This idea becoming conflated with another ending, death:

“And they’re at the end of the last voyage, the end of life.”

Emily, in particular, is seen as a living momento mori:

“Her body, hidden before, is now visible. Visible in its mortality. Her body is dressed like a girl’s, in the worn-out clothes of youth; on her fingers the diamonds and gold of her people in Devon. But under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…”

Already the narrator is reading her story into what she sees and, as the novel progresses, she will create Emily’s narrative from her observation, which will also be her own story, having decided “to write it all directly – no, that’s all over, I couldn’t do it now.” Emily, too, we are told, was once a writer, writing poetry – an act which the Captain finds unbearable:

“The Captain suffered. Suffered tortures. As if she’d betrayed him, as if she’d led another life at the same time as the one he thought she’d been living in the apartment over the boathouse. A life that was secret, hidden, incomprehensible, perhaps even shameful, and more painful to him than if she’d been unfaithful to him with her body.”

It is the first poem she begins writing after she has lost a child which the Captain destroys; when she cannot find her unfinished work she does not write again. It is at this point that they begin to travel: “All other uses for their love were rejected.”

This ends the first part of Emily’s story, but the narrator begins it again, introducing the character of the caretaker of Emily’s family home for whom Emily has an unfulfilled longing, something the narrator’s lover immediately connects to her:

“…you wanted to have one absolute perfect love, and at the same time to have another, to help out.”

The divergence in their lives is that the narrator has continued to write, an activity which allows her some control:

“…when it takes possession of your whole life long… It’s as if it protected you from some kind of fear.”

In contrast she wonders whether Emily “every evening of every day…with the languishing gentleness, the incredible tact of the English, she’d asked to be allowed to die.” The narrator’s own fear is referenced in the novel’s opening line – “It began with the fear” – and strangely represented by a group of Koreans.

In the retelling it seems very much as if one character (the narrator) is telling the story of another character (Emily), but the novel is far more subtle than this, with the stories bleeding into each other, not only in their parallels but in their telling, and, of course, Emily existing in the world of the narrator. This makes for an enigmatic narrative (sometimes too enigmatic: “They were so alone in the world, they’d forgotten what solitude was”) which focuses on seeing (“We must have looked at them first without seeing them, and then all of a sudden have seen them”) with the suspicion that in looking too closely we see only ourselves, or, closer still, “under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…” A novel of so many surfaces we can no longer tell the depth.

Moderato Cantabile

August 27, 2016


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.”


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.