Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"L'Amante Anglaise" by Marguerite Duras

Clytemnestra by John Collier

“L’Amante Anglaise” is my introduction to the works of French writer Marguerite Duras. It is not one of her more famous works like "l' Amant" or " Hiroshima mon Amour", but it is according to Gabriel Josipovici, a genuine masterpiece.

It was not seen that way back in 1968, at least not by the Time correspondent who reviewed it negatively: “Marguerite Duras”, he commented,  “is generally considered one of the leading ladies in the new school of French experimental novelists. Some would say the leading lady —although it is hard to see why”. He adds “It is precisely this kind of pretentious writing that has given the nouveau roman a bad name. Not that Duras need to be so dull. She has a flair for describing violent action and an undoubted talent for inventing plots. It is simply that she is too ambitious for her fairly limited gifts”.

It is my reading of Josipovici’s dissertation on Modernism which has directed me to Duras amongst other representatives of le “Nouveau roman”. Josipovici spends two pages on “L’Amante Anglaise”, because it illustrates so well an aphorism by Soren Kierkegaard:  “To find the conclusion, it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then  in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it”.
Writers, he says, should avoid coming to conclusions in their novels because they shatter all possibility of a true rendering of reality.

Despite this huge challenge, “L’Amante Anglaise” remains an easy read. I finished it in just a few hours but kept thinking about the craftsmanship, Duras masterly displayed ,for a few more days.

“L’Amante Anglaise” tells the story of a gruesome murder which takes place in the neighborhood of Paris. Written in 1967, it is based on a newspaper article which appeared in "Le Monde" in which a "fait divers" was recounted about a woman, Amélie Rabilloux, who killed her husband, cut his body into pieces and then dumped the different dismembered pieces on wastelands of Savigny- sur-Orgues, a suburb of Paris. This grisly occurrence so much fascinated Duras, that she wrote both a play ( Les viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise ) and a novel about it.

In her novel Duras brings the story in the shape of a transcription of a tape recording of an interrogation. Three interrogations to be precise: that of Robert Lamy, proprietor of café Barto and witness of the public confession, that of Pierre Lasnes, the husband of the murderess and finally Claire Bousquet herself, who has publicly confessed the killing and butchering of her cousin, the deaf-mute Marie-Therese Bousquet. The victim lived as a housemaid under the same roof as the Lasnes couple.

Together these recordings are the only information the reader will receive. They consist of a number of dialogues who shed light but also obscure the happenings surrounding the murder. This is frustrating because it is a murder mystery that lacks background, explanations and conclusions, but is also exhilarating because we have to make up our own version of what has happened. One of the first spoken sentences in the book is “A book about the crime of Viorne begins to unfold”. Indeed ! in our own imagination. Together with the frustrated interrogating policeman, we can say “ I am looking for a reason for her [to commit the murder]”

We suspect Claire to be mad, not only because of the horrible crime she confesses but also because she gives herself carelessly away, after all the gruesome efforts she took earlier to hide her crime. It is rather funny in a macabre way, but Claire, it seems, has been busy over several nights dumping pieces of the cut-up body from a railway bridge into open carriages of passing freight trains. The body pieces are discovered all over France and the crime scene is untraceable. But the smart French Police need no more than retracing back the routes of the different trains to find out on which specific spot they all passed in the last weeks. X in this case marks the crime scene, or at least the place where the assassin tried to get rid of the body parts. The Police, undercover, are then dispatched to the cafés in the neighborhood of the bridge and speak to the inhabitants to try to find out more. When one policeman suggests that it has happened in the nearby woods, Claire Bousquet, who has joined her husband in the café, stands up and corrects him: "not in the woods, in my cellar..."

All this is learned during the interviews, for Duras has cut all narrative information out of her novel. No descriptions of characters, no description of places, or moods or feelings, nothing but dialogues and descriptions of actions. Only the words of the four fictional persons build the story in our mind.

The inspector who questions the three protagonists wants to know the truth, wants to understand Claire and her motives: Why has Claire murdered her cousin, did she do it all by herself or is she protecting someone else? What was the exact relation of the three people living under the same roof and most symbolically, where is the head of Marie - Therese, which is still missing?

Truth of course cannot and will never be found in the interviews, even if the people swear they will speak nothing but the truth. On the contrary, following the conversations or the interrogation more and more questions come up, doubts are raised, suspicion created...After hours of interrogation the inspector still has nothing more than what is said. The Truth and many other things with it remain hidden.

Claire will not answer, for she has no answer. But for the sake of her story that does not matter. In the words of Josipovici, “The constant circling around the event and the refusal to come up with explanations convey a far more powerful sense of what has happened.”

It is not the story, but the way it is told that draws attention to this work. Duras has found a clever way to represent a "reality". Just like in real life, each careful revealing of detail obscures explanations at the same time as it sheds light onto the dreadful occurrences that happened in the small village.