Alma continue their attractive re-packaging of the Calder backlist1 with The Garden Square, one of the lesser-known gems by Marguerite Duras, best known for The Lover (l’Amant) and the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Although grouped with the 1950s French nouveau roman, her work eschews the formal innovation of Butor or Alain Robbe-Grillet. More akin to Nathalie Sarraute (whose work I probably prefer), her writing explores the emotions latent beneath the surface of our interactions.
I’d recommend both the film and screenplay (cine-roman) of Hiroshima Mon Amour, if you’re unfamiliar with Duras’s work. The cine-roman goes into more depth thanks to Duras providing background material – similar to extras on a DVD – as appendices. Resnais’s first full-length film2, it covers two days in the life of a French actress and Japanese architect who have a passionate affair amid the rebuilding of Hiroshima. The treatment of time – how the past is depicted via flashbacks – was revolutionary.
Gone were dissolves, or any method of making a memory’s appearance onscreen look different from what was happening ‘in the present moment’. In that way, it echoed with the times, as Robbe-Grillet’s fictions treated such mental constructs (memories, fantasies, paranoia) in a similar manner: memory and the present moment are both mental processes, and should therefore be depicted in the same way. In Hiroshima the woman – they have no names, typical of both Duras and Robbe-Grillet – has flashbacks to her wartime romance with a German soldier in Nevers, and the retribution meted out to her afterwards to punish her for this ‘collaboration’.
Duras (and Resnais’s) subtlety is also demonstrated in the treatment of Hiroshima itself. It would have been very easy – and a mistake – to have the destruction of that city as a major theme3. How do you deal with a subject like Hiroshima? How do you portray a love story against such a background without being disrespectful? The answer: you don’t “deal with the subject”, you acknowledge that it exists – to do otherwise would be offensive – but life goes on, and love goes on with it.
W.J. Strachan, in his introduction to Duras’s Moderato Cantabile4, observes that a key aspect of Duras’s work is:
“an atmosphere and setting…where life’s normal preoccupations with earning a living are temporarily shed and the characters, less inhibited, surrender to emotional impulses”
This is the case in Moderato Cantabile (a good place to stand Hiroshima Mon Amour and, in a different form, The Garden Square.
A girl, employed as a nanny by a family resident in a nearby apartment, meets and talks to a travelling salesman on a bench in the local square, while her charge, a small boy, plays. It is late afternoon in spring; the weather is changeable. The child gets hungry. These are almost all of the non-verbal pieces of information we are given.
W.J. Strachan is right when, though not talking specifically about this book, he5 says “dialogue features prominently and [is] a very personal instrument of expression”. The Garden Square is a book almost entirely consisting of the conversation between the girl and the man – both characteristically unnamed. It’s no surprise that Duras adapted it for the stage.
It’s a very French book, in that the concept – an extended discussion, over a period of an hour or more, between two strangers about desires and the ability or inability to make crucial life decisions – is almost unimaginable in a British context. Here, the book would be three pages long and consist almost entirely of observations on the weather (which the two characters do indeed indulge in, almost as a means to change the subject, or take a mental breather).
What’s also refreshing – and in the era of social media, verging on the bizarre – is the politeness with which the characters maintain their arguments. They disagree about much (otherwise, again, it’d be a far shorter book) but do it graciously, allowing the other person their say and respecting their point of view, before calmly and rationally venturing their own opinion. “Courteous formality” is the phrase Strachan coins to describe their relationship.
The girl is ambitious, but fearful of making a move that would improve her life. At the same time, she is reluctant to make her current job more bearable. She does not know how to make the evolutionary leap into adulthood and independence, preferring to believe that somewhere a man exists who will want to marry her. The commercial traveller reassures her:
“I think that those things either come about suddenly, all at once, or else so slowly that you never notice them. And when they have happened, when they are there, they don’t seem at all surprising: it feels as if they had always been there.”
He – his age is not given, but we can assume he is some way over thirty – is more resigned. He has travelled a little, loved a little and can either take consolation from the memories his experiences provide, or acknowledge the pain they have caused. His siblings were ambitious and have become successful, and he knows that by contrast he is among “the lowest of the low”.
They probe each other’s statements, continually circling back to feelings that the other has expressed in order to clarify something vague or throwaway. This represents what Strachan refers to as
“jusqu‘auboutisme – taking a situation to its logical extreme, pushing an emotion, an individual obsession, or a shared obsession to the absolute, the impossible…”
…but done here with tact and decency.
Marguerite Duras is not a writer whose technique is showy; her writing carries deep truths lightly. Next to Robbe-Grillet hers are quiet works. Like emotions, their effects are subtle and easily missed: her fiction invites re-readings at a slower pace, in order to sound the depths between the words. I look forward to more of her books being republished in English.
1 This time last year I reviewed Michel Butor’s excellent Changing Track
2 I’d also recommend anything by Resnais, especially the Robbe-Grillet-scripted L’Année dernière à Marienbad and his early short films.
3 Resnais’s most acclaimed work to that point was Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) which was about the Holocaust. He understandably did not want to re-make a previous work, this time about atomic destruction.
4 Also published by Alma. Filmed by Peter Brook and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jeanne Moreau. The DVD is worth tracking down.
5 I can find no information on W.J. Strachan’s gender, and have assumed male. Happy to correct if this is wrong.
Duras, Marguerite: The Garden Square (Alma, 2018)
Duras, Marguerite: Moderato Cantabile (Alma, 2008)
Duras, Marguerite: Moderato Cantabile – Twentieth Century Texts (ed. W.J. Strachan, Routledge, 1968)
Duras, Marguerite: Hiroshima Mon Amour (Grove Press, 1961)
Resnais, Alain: Hiroshima Mon Amour (Studio Canal Blu-Ray, 2016)
Brook, Peter: Moderato Cantabile (DVD, Korean import, year uncertain)