• 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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Category: Book Reviews
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