Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

By posted at 11:00 am on December 15, 2013 1

coverMarguerite Donnadieu, known as the writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, was 70 years old in 1984 when her autobiographical novel L’Amant (The Lover) won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.  (The popular film version, written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was released in 1992.)  Duras was a sort of writers’ writer in France, and her 1960 film script of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour had become a cult classic, but it wasn’t until The Lover that she became internationally acclaimed.  Prior to The Lover, Duras authored some 30 works of fiction (her first novel, Les Impudents, was published in 1943 when she was 29 years old), directed 18 films, and wrote screenplays, plays, journalism, and essays.  She is typically associated with the nouveau roman — a post-World War II approach to fiction developed and practiced most notably by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Michel Butor — whose signature features Fernanda Eberstadt described in The New Criterion as such:

…addressed to the reader in the second person singular …in the present tense; what action there is transpires in cinematic, non-chronological quick-takes; the thought, often tinged with Marxist ideology, tends toward an inscrutable abstraction, a tricky relativism, a fretwork of paradox, in which life is found to be a death sentence, or silence a more telling form of speech… the deliberate banality of tone and obliqueness of narrative are used to describe bloodcurdling violence and extremes of sexuality….the nouveau roman — which has been called by some the “anti-novel” — served after the War as an eminently appropriate literary form for a demoralized nation.

covercoverDuras’s vision was indeed dark, and tragic.  She was interested in the inextricability of eroticism and death.  Her best-known works — The Lover (and its follow-up The North China Lover), The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Moderato Cantabile — explore passion in the extreme, its origins in madness and violence, and its ultimate unsustainability.  In an earlier short novel, Ten-thirty on a Summer Night (1960), for example, the alcoholic protagonist Maria becomes obsessed with a murderer-on-the-run while vacationing in Spain with her husband and his (eventual) mistress.  Maria fantasizes about harboring and carrying on an affair with the murderer (whose victims were his wife and her lover), only to be deeply disappointed when he commits suicide.  In Moderato Cantabile, the violent murder of a woman by her husband prompts another woman near the scene, who is also married, to take up with a stranger in a café.

When asked by Leslie Garis in a NY Times interview about the allure of the criminal, Duras responded, “It exerts a fascination for me — all the people who abandon the golden rule of good conduct. Criminals are heroes for me.” That Duras would even mention “the golden rule of good conduct” might surprise her readers: both her life and her work are made of such drastically different stuff from anything polite society might encounter, let alone comprehend or embrace.  She was born and spent her childhood in French Indochina, raised by her widowed mother, nearly destitute; Marguerite and her siblings roamed more or less freely. At age 15, she carried on an intense love affair with a 27 year-old Chinese man (the story of both The Lover and The North China Lover). She passionately loved her younger brother Paolo, who was mentally challenged, and consummated that passion sexually. She was a member of the Communist party and participant in the French resistance; a sometimes outrageous social commentator; and a serious alcoholic for much of her adult life.

coverI came to Duras as many Americans do — through Hiroshima Mon Amour and The Lover. All that darkness, tragedy, and indelicate conduct is, unsurprisingly, both captivating and exhausting. In these works, it is as if all was lost well before the dawn of humankind, and what remains is only to languish, albeit gorgeously (especially when it’s Jeanne Moreau or Emmanuelle Riva in the film version) and with a kind of sacred devotion.  I love Duras for the sumptuous beauty she knew to be inherent in the starkest of suffering; but the Durasian experience I encountered and became enamored of this year is an atypical one, pre-Duras in extremis: the 1955 short novel The Square.

In 56 pages, a young woman and an older man, both poor and alone, meet on a park bench in a Square and do little more than talk.  The woman is a maid to a wealthy family, and she has come to the park with the little boy in her charge.  The boy announces to his young caretaker, who we learn is 20 years-young, that he is hungry.  Duras’s objective narrator then informs us, “The man took this as an opportunity to start a conversation.”  And off we go.

What do they talk about?  Well, everything.  The girl is isolated, and miserably overworked; as the two begin to talk about their lives, she declares that she is “full of hope,” waiting for a change, that change being only one possibility, and that is marriage.  “One day someone must choose me,” she says.  “Then I will be able to change.” The man, a travelling salesman, begins to tell her that he is beyond the possibility of change and doesn’t either imagine or hope for it: at first he says that marriage couldn’t possibly bring him the sort of change that she imagines for herself, but then it becomes clear that what he really means is that any sort of change is impossible for him.

You will change but I don’t think I will, or rather I don’t think so anymore.  And whichever way you look at it there is nothing to be done about it…I mean a life can begin anyhow—a fact we do not appreciate enough.  And then time passes and we discover that life has very few solutions: and things become established until one fine day we find that they are so established that the very idea of changing them seems absurd.

As with all original and arresting fiction, it is difficult to accurately describe the experience of their exchange; one simply must read it. Duras has rendered the conversation directly, providing little narration or stage direction, and no interior exposition at all.  In other words, the characters develop solely through their spoken words, and the reader both apprehends and feels the “happening” of the encounter through speech and speech alone.  It’s a style she became known for — long dialogue scenes with little commentary –but The Square exemplifies this form even more strictly than later works like Moderato Cantabile and Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night.

What’s also distinct about this early work is that these characters do have a sense of “good conduct” — each is genuinely curious about the other’s feelings of hope and hopelessness, their contrasting experiences of despair and survival.  Repeatedly each apologizes for mis-expressing his or her own station, or mis-apprehending the other’s; and each kindly, but desperately, attempts to nudge the other toward a different way of living and seeing, while at the same time recognizing the presumptuousness of doing so: “I wanted to say…that I would be very unhappy if you thought, even for an instant, that I was trying to influence you in any way.”

We feel, gradually, and then acutely, the stakes that these lone souls develop in each others’ transformation: the man somehow needs for the young woman to change her stance on the necessary misery of her housework, and also on her resistance to travel, and change, and independence; the woman is desperate for the man to believe in the possibility of change in his own life, frightened by his apparent apathy and resolve: “But you, what will happen to you?…Something will happen to you or else it will only be because you don’t want anything to happen.”  What’s revelatory as we journey through their conversation is how clear and muddled at once is the human necessity for both generosity and self-preservation: in their encouragements, urgings, and questioning, each reveals simultaneously how terrified she is to have her own worldview, her very survival strategy, shaken; and how gradually is his isolation beginning to open up toward something like hope — genuine, terrifying hope for someone else’s fate, and by extension one’s own, which, in the world of The Square, is the essence of love.

Some critique Durasian dialogue as wooden, and her characters as more representational than human (contra the lovable messy-ness of two other talky-talks that may come to mind, i.e. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy).  The “flatness” of speech is indeed a trait of the nouveau roman, a re-fashioning of human beings as abstractions — as talking heads, disembodied and uninflected.  The act of talk itself becomes a subject of both the dialogue and the novel — talk as loneliness’s antidote, and then as its cause:

“Time seems shorter when one is talking,” said the girl.
“And then afterwards, suddenly, much longer.”

When stylized dialogue draws too much attention to itself, self-congratulatory in its coolness and minimalism (Brad Pitt hocking Chanel No. 5), it’s irritating, it puts one off.  There are other scenes in Duras’s oeuvre that have struck me this way.  But in The Square, the characters express the real thing; they are humanity stripped down to profound simplicity.  In this reader’s experience, it is Duras’s great accomplishment that, by the end of The Square, I am convinced that these two minds and souls are not only fully real, but that they are me.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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One Response to “A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung”

  1. Rodney Welch
    at 6:41 pm on December 15, 2013

    Excellent piece. Passionate, thoughtful, interesting criticism, and a helpful short guide to a famous writer about whom I know almost nothing.

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