Author:
• Friday, September 29th, 2017
Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951. She first went to a private preparatory school before moving to Queen Anne Grammar School for Girls in York, where her parents ran a medical and surgical supplies shop. After graduating from school, she left home to study English literature at Dundee University in Scotland. Following her masters degree in 1974, she researched a postgraduate doctorate on American Literature but failed her PhD oral (viva voce) presentation. She taught at Dundee before taking several jobs throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, including working as a chambermaid in order to survive with her two daughters.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Kate Atkinson’s first novel, was published in 1995 and won the 1995 Whitbread Book Of the Year Award. It was such a big success that it has been adapted for radio, theatre and television, of which Atkinson wrote the screen-play herself. It was labelled at the time of its publication by the press as an “anti-family” novel. Nonetheless, it was a bestseller in many countries and was translated into several languages.

Kate Atkinson is a short-story writer, a playwright and a novelist. She has received several awards for her work and was awarded an MBE (Member Of The British Empire) in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. She now lives in Edinburgh in Scotland.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum begins with the brief statement of the eccentric, witty, Ruby Lennox: “I exist!”, after her conception at midnight in 1951. Ruby Lennox is born into an English middle-class family and is the youngest member of the Lennox brood. She is the main character and narrator of this family saga.

Her father, George, is a philanderer and her mother, Bunty, who is bitter and resentful about her marriage, daydreams about how her life could have been with another, better husband. The tyrannical Bunty is void of emotions save irritability.

Ruby has two sisters, the plain-looking, rebellious and melancholy, Patricia and the headstrong, manipulative, self-centred, bad-tempered, Gillian. They all live in an apartment above their parents’ pet shop in York in England.

The story that Ruby recounts with great lucidity and British black-humour, despite several tragic deaths occurring, goes briefly over the two world wars and extensively over the history of her family. She relates her mother’s unhappy, disappointing married life, her grandmother and going back as far as her 19th century great-grandmother, the beautiful, delicate, Alice who leaves her husband and young children along with the countryside life and poverty and runs off with an itinerant French photographer.

Three generations of women seeking happiness and freedom from their servile, suffocating matrimonial life. Marriages which were contracted more for convenience than for love or any kind of attraction. All the women in the novel dream of a better life. Ruby draws accurate lively images of the trials and tribulations of the dozens of her characters.

The author intertwines past and present events, going back and forth in time by adding footnotes, not necessarily in chronological order, between the chapters. An original technique of narration. She also describes the different, sometimes awkward, relationships between the characters as well as the recurrent patterns of unhappy marriages that seem to run in the family over the decades, explaining that the present demeanour of some member of the family takes its roots in the past.

After their parents’ death – father George, having had a heart attack following sex with a waitress at a family party, and mother Bunty’s demise in 1992, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Patricia and Ruby, who have been dissatisfied with their own lives and are now adults and with children of their own, decide to break their family’s recurrent, ill-fated pattern for the sake of future generations of the family.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum is a multi-layered story, not lacking sharpness nor surprises and revealing a well-kept secret towards the end, discretely hinted at in various parts of the novel.

This family saga is presented in a form of “shambolic”, fragmented accumulation of memories. Atkinson claims that her novel is not autobiographical. In one of her interviews she becomes emotional when talking about several similarities between the novel and her own childhood. She mentions her recollection of growing up the same way as her protagonist in the centre of York, above her parent’s shop.

Atkinson says: “The novel is a hymn to my relationship with the city, constructed out of history, memory and nostalgia”. As for the title of the novel, she says that after writing a few chapters, she dreamt that while she was alone, wandering and frightened in the dark in the rooms of the Castle Museum in York, “objects sprang into life”. Upon awaking, she decided “that dream was called Behind The Scenes At the Museum” and said to herself: “of course, that’s what the novel should be called”.

 

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Author:
• Friday, June 16th, 2017

Marguerite Duras is a pseudonym of Marguerite Donnadieu. She was born from French parents in 1914 in Gia Dinh, a town in the northern suburb of Saigon, Vietnam and died in Paris, France in 1996. Marguerite Duras spent her childhood in Vietnam and had two elder brothers. Both of her parents were teachers in the French colonial service. The family became poor after Duras father’s death when she was four and following her mother’s bad investment in an isolated farmland property in Vinh Long, Vietnam.

After obtaining her baccalaureate in Vietnam, Duras moved to France at eighteen to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. She obtained a degree in law and in politics. She was a member of the Communist Party for ten years and after quitting the party, she continued to believe in communism.
During World War II Duras joined the French resistance movement.

Duras started writing in 1942. She was a novelist, an essayist, a screenwriter, a playwright and a film director. She became known worldwide for her film screenplays: Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959 and India Song in 1975. Duras wrote forty-seven books and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1984 for her novel L’amant. In 1983 she was awarded the Grand Prix du Théâtre de l’Académie Française.

Moderato Cantabile, published in 1958, was made into a film that won a prize at the renowned Festival de Cannes in 1960. In 1958 it also received the first awarded Prix de Mai, founded by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the leader of the Nouveau Roman or New Novel. Duras had to undergo treatment for alcoholism in 1982.

Moderato Cantabile, Duras’ first major success, is labelled as “nouveau roman” or New Novel style, a French literary movement that started in 1950 and ended in 1970. It diverges from the classic literary genre, which was said to be old fashioned and had exhausted its potential as well as not being a suitable medium to convey the anarchic, confusing post-war era. This new genre of novels eschewed essential classical components like developed plots, linear narrative, character depiction, dramatic progress and logical coherence. Duras says in her interviews that she felt suffocated by classical novels and especially by Balzac, who describes everything as if it was an inventory. She goes on to say: “his books are indigestible. There’s no place for the reader”.

Moderato Cantabile is a lyrical, carefully constructed novel, based mainly on dialogues. The novel is divided into eight chapters and the plot consists of the fortuitous, brief encounter of two lonely, unhappy young people. They have in common their difficulty and discomfort of living and their attempts to communicate and share love.

The book’s title means “moderately and singingly” or “moderately and melodiously”, which is the tempo used by the Austrian composer, Anton Diabelli, for his sonatina that Anne Desbaresdes’ boy is learning to play. The title also conveys the tone and rhythm of the novel and its delicate incantation. An exceptional structure of a non-existing story and yet…

The story is set in an unmentioned small provincial seaside town in France, where the idle Madame Anne Desbaresdes, the wife of a rich factory owner, lives. She is a loving mother who accompanies her stubborn little boy for his piano lessons every Friday afternoon. The boy dislikes playing the piano and has an aversion to his surly, strict piano teacher, Mademoiselle Giraud. During one of these lessons, the three of them hear a woman scream from a café in the street at the foot of the building. Anne Desbaresdes runs to the café to discover that a young woman has just been shot in the heart by her lover.

Anne Desbaresdes becomes obsessed by this murder after hearing the sudden frightful scream of the young woman and seeing her inanimate body, as well as watching her killer and lover holding her in his arms and kissing her bloodied lips in front of the gathered crowd. Inexplicably, Desbaresdes is morbidly fascinated and curious to find out the reason for this murder. For her it’s escapism from the monotonous, sad life she leads and reveals her unconfessed desire to communicate beyond words with someone as well as her yearning for love and independence.

Almost every day she feels the urge to return to the scene of the crime; this shabby workers’ café in the harbour. She becomes friends with Chauvin, an unemployed, working-class man, whom we assume was working in her husband’s factory. He is a tortured, desperate soul like her. They drink wine together and discuss the murder while fantasising about what might have been the relationship between the two lovers, the killer and his victim. They imagine that it was the wish of the woman to be killed by the hand of the man she loved and who loved her.

Despite being a short novel, Moderato Cantabile is eminently powerful and poetic, of refined sensitivity, a melodious whisper of the heart. The slowness and the banality of the protagonists’ conversations gives some psychological depth to the story, a certain tension. The author’s art of writing consists of saying without saying, using silences and voids, which are clearly more eloquent than words. Like a painting of live and true scenes achieved by small strokes of a brush.

With her technical skills, the author is forcing the reader, by arousing his curiosity, to speculate over the two protagonists’ secret yearnings.

Were they seeking in their frenzied euphoric intoxication of blood, wine and words exchanged, the possibility of ending their infatuation the way it had been done a few days ago in this same café? This would suggest that Desbaresdes desired death at the hands of Chauvin, whom she desired and who desired her, in the same way as the murdered woman had obtained death from her lover a few days ago in this same café.

The author gives nothing away, everything is concealed in an ambiguous way. We will not discover more by the end of the novel. We are to assume, as Blaise Pascal, the seventeen century French philosopher, said: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

The story is stripped of all superfluous distractions, concentrating on the essentials. The solitary voices, whose aim is not to advance the story nor recount it, but instead to transmit their despair, the lack of love they suffer and the absurdity of the world they live in. In an introverted, equivocal way they invent their own world of perhaps reliving the same legend of love and death like the unknown tragic lovers of the café. The longing to be killed, the self-destruction for love because desire can’t be perpetual. Desbaresdes and Chauvin are reminiscent of characters in Greek tragedies.

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