• 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.

• Friday, May 19th, 2017

Michael Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1943, the youngest of four children. Following his parents’ divorce in 1949, he left at the age of eleven to join his mother who went to live in London. Ondaatje’s parents, who were once wealthy, became poor. His mother worked in hotels in London to support her children and his father drank himself to death.

In England, Ondaatje studied at Dulwich College before joining his brother in Quebec in1962 and becoming a Canadian citizen three years later. He received a B.A. Degree from the University of Toronto in 1965 and an M.A. Degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 1967. He started teaching contemporary literature at York University in Toronto in 1971.

Ondaatje first made his name as a poet before becoming a novelist, an editor, a critic and a film maker. He received several awards and prizes and is one of Canada’s highly regarded and most important contemporary writers. He has two adult children and grand children from a previous marriage. Presently, he lives in Toronto with his second wife who is a novelist. They jointly edit the literary journal Brick.

In The Skin Of A Lion, Ondaatje’s, second novel, was published in 1987. It depicts the city of Toronto during its growth and industrialization in the 1920s and 1930s. Michael Ondaatje pays tribute to the immigrants who, to his astonishment and despite very difficult worker conditions, were never mentioned in Canadian archives nor acknowledged as they deserved. Although they were risking their lives in the construction of two of Toronto’s best-known landmarks: the Prince Edward Viaduct, better known as the Bloor Street Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant.

The novel’s title is a reference to the quotation at the beginning of the book related to the Epic of Gilgamesh – an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia – Gilgamesh mourning the loss of his dear friend Enkidu, wanting to show grievance for his death, exchanged his kingly garments for animal skins. Gilgamesh says: “The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when you have gone to the earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion”.

Are we to understand that the protagonist, Patrick Lewis, like Gilgamesh, is grieving over his dead friend and love, Alice Gull, the former nun? Alice died while mistakenly carrying the wrong bag with the “dynamite on a timing device, a clock bomb”, oblivious to the danger and that “soon everything she held would rocket out into her”. Lewis arrives too late: “he cradled her gently, he could hardly touch her without causing pain”. She dies with her “hand gripping the side of his jacket”. Grief-stricken and heartbroken, Patrick Lewis will seek revenge for her death.

Patrick Lewis, an explosives expert, is originally from a rural logging place called, Depot Creek, in Ontario province. At an early age he has learned from his logger father how to clear the jammed logs with dynamite. Patrick is twenty-one when he moves to Toronto after his father’s death. “He was an immigrant to the city”. He works among Macedonian and Finnish immigrants. He becomes a good friend to the Macedonian immigrant, Nicolas Temelcoff, a daredevil worker who accomplishes all the extraordinarily difficult work during the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct. Temelcoff dislocates his shoulder as he rescues a nun from falling off the unfinished Prince Edward Viaduct. An event following which the nun leaves the Order for unspecified personal reasons and becomes the actress, Alice Gull.

In 1924, after working for a year on many sites in Toronto, Patrick Lewis decides to become a bounty hunter, a searcher for the unrelenting, missing theatre tycoon, Ambrose Small, who had disappeared in 1919. Between 1910 and 1919 Ambrose Small “had been the jackal of Toronto’s business world”. He was a manipulator, a self-made millionaire who purchased Toronto’s Grand Opera House and other theatres all over the province. He owned ninety-six theatres in all. While looking for Ambrose Small, Patrick falls in love with Small’s former mistress, Clara Dickens. When Clara returns back to Small, Lewis falls in love with her best friend Alice Gull.

The non-linear story concentrates on the lives of the workers of the time and the immigrants’ union movement. It intertwines fiction with reality, integrates subplots with characters that appear and disappear and outlines the gap between rich and poor as well as including two love stories. These are the elements which constitute the literary fibre of the disconnected and intricately woven stories. The author manages to tie together most of the loose ends and makes seemingly unrelated characters connect before the denouement.

The novel is made up of stories told in the early hours of the morning by the protagonist, Patrick Lewis, while driving north for four hours to Marmora, Ontario to meet his first lover, the actress, Clara Dickens, who calls him after her first lover, Ambrose Small’s, death to come and fetch her. The surreal stories are addressed to his car passenger he had adopted – the young Hana, daughter of Cato, the worker agitator in a logging camp murdered at Onion Lake and the late Alice Gull, Patrick Lewis’ second lover who died in an accident.

The author says in his novel: “Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become… The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human”.

Ondaatje, who is an immigrant himself, is the compassionate voice of all the workers who have been silenced and erased from the official records, unlike the millionaire, Ambrose Small, or the powerful, city commissionaire, R. C. Harris, whose names are recorded for posterity.

Ondaatje says: ”Toronto is a city of immigrants, but there is very little official history about who they were, what their lives were like. I didn’t want to talk about politicians or historical figures. I wanted to talk about the people who were unhistorical – all those invisible professions that lay behind history”. That is the historical, missing gap that Ondaatje succeeds filling in by writing In The Skin Of A Lion, challenging official historians, who have preferred immortalising some names while intentionally ignoring others.

In The Skin Of A Lion is the first Project Bookmark Canada on Canada’s literary trail. The Project Bookmark Canada is a Canadian literary trail connecting hundreds of Book-marks in cities, towns and other areas across the country. The Project Bookmark Canada plaque which has Ondaatje’s biography and an excerpt from his novel, was unveiled in Toronto in 2009 at the Bloor Street Viaduct, by the Toronto Mayer at the time, David Miller and by the author himself, Michael Ondaatje.