After reading Annie Ernaux’ Simple Passion, I read somewhere that that book was similar to Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. So, I thought I should read The Lover sometime. Recently while thinking of new French novels to buy, I discovered that there was an omnibus edition which had four of Marguerite Duras’ novels in it – The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas. Four novels in one book – how can one resist it? I also remembered that Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat had recommended Moderato Cantabile and 10:30 on a Summer Night and Moderato Cantabile was also one of the featured books in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ One Hundred Great French Books. So, I had to get this collection. I got it last week and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
All the four novels featured in the collection – The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas – had one common narrative technique. Two strangers, typically a man and a woman, met accidentally in a place – a park, a café, a bar, a meadow – and started a conversation. The rest of the book was the conversation. Sometimes the conversation happened over a few hours. Sometimes it got interrupted and continued the next day and went on like this for a few days. So, most of these books were filled with conversations and dialogue. This is the kind of narrative technique which is irresistible for a reader like me. So, I totally loved the format of these novels.
Now on the individual novels.
The Square features a travelling salesman and a housemaid who meet accidentally in a park. They sit at the opposite ends of a bench and strike up a conversation. They talk about their lives and experiences which touched them deeply. The maid wants to change her life, but she feels that she can do it only if she gets married. The salesman is indifferent to his life and has accepted it. He enjoys travelling and the experience of discovering new cities though he doesn’t think much about his job. How this accidental meeting touches these two people and brings subtle but important changes to their perspectives on life forms the rest of the story.
Moderato Cantabile is about Anne who takes her son every week to a piano class. One day, at the café opposite the piano teacher’s house, a man shoots and kills a woman. After the class Anne strikes up a conversation with a bystander and discovers that the man and the woman were lovers and the woman was already married. It is not clearly known why he shot the woman. Some people say that she asked him to shoot her and he did it out of love. The next day Anne takes her son for a walk to that place, enters the café and has a glass of wine. A stranger sits next to her and Anne strikes up a conversation with him. They talk about the dead woman and her lover who killed her and who has now been arrested. This stranger buys Anne more wine. After a while Anne leaves, but she comes back the next day. The stranger waits for her. They have wine together and continue their conversation. They continue talking about the two lovers, one of whom is dead. The stranger says that they probably met in a café like this and started having a conversation accidentally which later turned into love. After a while we the readers start getting the feeling that Anne’s life starts resembling that of the dead woman more and more – she meets a stranger in a café and has a conversation, she starts going to the café regularly and the stranger waits for her and buys her wine and the continue with a conversation, and they start feeling a connection. Anne is also married to a wealthy man and she has a son. What happens next? Will this all end well? Will Anne’s life really mirror that of the dead woman? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.
10:30 on a Summer Night starts with a scene which is very similar to the main theme of Moderato Cantabile. There is a woman who is sitting in a café and she has a glass of wine while having a conversation with a stranger. The stranger tells her about a murder that has happened in the town recently. A young woman has been shot and killed by her husband Rodrigo. When I reached this point of the story, I couldn’t wait to find out whether this was another version of the story told in Moderato Cantabile, but told from a different perspective. But, at this point the story changes direction. This woman, Maria, goes to the hotel where her husband Pierre, her daughter and her friend Claire are waiting in the lobby. Maria senses that Pierre and Claire are in love, but they try to hide it from her. She is unsure of the future. That night because of the storm which is passing over the city there is no power and everything is dark. There is a murderer afoot as Rodrigo hasn’t been caught by the police yet. There are policemen everywhere waiting to nab Rodrigo. Maria is not able to sleep at night, while everyone else is sleeping soundly. She suddenly sees a humanlike form on the opposite roof. She realizes that it could be Rodrigo. She calls him gently. After a while he responds by getting up and waving his hand. Maria asks Rodrigo to wait, goes out, gets her car, goes to that building entrance and asks Rodrigo to climb down from the roof and come down. He comes down and hides in her car. Maria beats the police patrol and drives out of the city into the countryside. She parks near the fields and Rodrigo gets out. They have a short conversation. Maria tells him that she has to go back to the hotel. She says that she will come back by around noon and get him and then they can leave the city. Rodrigo nods and then goes to sleep in the fields. Maria goes back to the hotel. Is Maria able to come back and get Rodrigo? Is Rodrigo able to escape from the police? Does anything happen between Maria and Rodrigo? What happens between Maria and Pierre? Do Pierre and Claire get together? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.
The events of The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas happen across an afternoon. Andesmas is sitting in his chair outside his home which is there on a hill, dozing away the afternoon. He has an appointment with Michel Arc who is expected to come and discuss with him about building a terrace for his house (his daughter Valerie wants the terrace) but Michel hasn’t arrived. After a while a dog passes through the place, tries to be friendly, wags its tail and then leaves. Then Michel’s daughter comes and tells him that Michel will be late. Andesmas waits for hours but Michel still doesn’t arrive. Then Michel’s wife arrives with the same message – that Michel will be late. She then comes and sits next to Andesmas and they have a conversation. The story continues in this vein till the end. Michel doesn’t arrive till the end.
I liked the first three stories in the book very much. The Afternoon of Mr.Andesmas didn’t have the same kind of impact on me. It was probably because it made me think of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where two people wait for Godot and nothing happens on the stage and Godot doesn’t arrive till the end. My favourite out of the first three was probably the first story The Square and this is probably because I read it first. If I had read one of the other two first, they might have been my favourite. But I liked the way all three stories explored the characters’ interior worlds through conversation and dialogue and when we think that there is nothing happening in the stories – there are no events, only conversations – we realize when we reach the end of the stories that a lot has happened in the characters’ interior worlds and the characters have undergone subtle and sometimes strong changes which have transformed them in very important ways. The way Marguerite Duras brings out the intensity of emotion and feeling of her characters not by describing them but through conversations and how through this conversational window she gives us a peek into the core of her characters’ hearts is a defining feature of all the stories. I loved this aspect of the stories.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. (all from The Square)
“All the things you describe and the changes you notice are there for anyone to see, aren’t they? They are not things which exist for you alone, for you and for no one else?”
“Sometimes there are things which I alone can see, but only negligible things. In general you are right : the things I notice are mostly changes in the weather, in buildings, things which anyone would notice. And yet sometimes, just by watching them carefully, such things can affect one just as much as events which are completely personal. In fact it feels as though they were personal, as if somehow one had put the cherries there oneself.”
“As for the other kind of fear – the fear of thinking that no one would notice if you died – it seems to me that sometimes this can make one happier. I think that if you knew that when you died no one would suffer, not even a dog, it makes it easier to bear the thought of dying.”
“Please don’t think I want to contradict you, but you must see that whatever you do, this time you are living now will count for you one day. You will look back on this desert as you describe it and discover that it was not empty at all, but full of people. You will not escape it. You think this time has not begun, and it has begun. You think you are doing nothing and in reality you are doing something. You think you are moving towards a solution and when you look round you find it’s behind you.”
Have you read any of these four novels or any other books by Marguerite Duras? What do you think about them?
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