6 July 2009

Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile, 1958

It would have helped to know a little more about the French nouveau roman movement before taking on Moderato Cantabile, however my rather back-to-front way of dealing with the book has still been an education, which ultimately is the whole point of my choosing to read diverse styles of fiction. This is one of the more famous pieces of nouveau roman, the manifesto for which Duras didn’t exactly align herself with even though a large middle segment of her work, beginning with this novel, is recognised as such. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a little wary of stories in which everyday characters are (for want of a better term) ‘overcome by symbolism’; such stories risk going way too far up their own postérieur beyond any legitimate experiment in style, resulting in the kind of artistic endeavour that years later usually ends up the subject of legitimate parody.

In a French coastal town, a woman whose unnamed and recalcitrant son is taking piano lessons overhears a murder in the street. The following day she meets a man in a café who also witnessed the murder, and their subsequent encounters are based purely on exploring ideas of how and why it happened. She finds herself drinking copious amounts of wine, and he has motives beyond mere conversation. Their speculations soon become the vector of emotion between them, something clearly more real and important to them than these two deliberately barely-sketched characters are to the reader. This set-up itself is interesting, however the execution and end result left things to be desired, at least for me; others will no doubt find it a satisfying read in its adherence to the nouveau roman credo: one of the movement’s aims was to subvert characterisation, bring other story elements to the fore and explore the tension in between. With that knowledge Moderato Cantabile becomes a far easier story to understand, because some of the elemental symbolism Duras employs is also of the kind more readily understood in the visual arts. I found its depersonalising aspects a little troublesome in terms of actually enjoying the book, but on reflection I can see how it holds up as an example of magnificent literary sleight of hand.  PY


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