Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras is a curious novella. It is short, 122 pages in my One World Classic version, but has a much more expansive feel to it. The story takes place over the course of a week. Anne Desbaredes, and she is always Anne Desbaredes, is in Mrs. Giraud’s apartment with her young son for his piano lesson when they hear a scream and a ruckus in the street below. It turns out a woman has been murdered by her lover in a cafe.
Anne Desbaredes becomes obsessed with the murder and goes to the cafe nearly everyday where she drinks too much wine and talks with Chauvin, an unemployed worker from one of her husband’s factories. Anne Desbaredes and Chauvin talk of the murder and try to puzzle out why the man would kill his lover.
That’s the story on the surface. Underneath there is Anne Desbaredes’s unhappiness. One gets the sense that for her, everyday is pretty much the same day. But now, here she is, one of the wealthiest women in town, sitting in a shabby cafe getting drunk and talking to an unemployed factory worker who knows way too much about her. Each year Anne Desbaredes’s husband holds a reception at his big expensive house at the end of the street for all his workers. Chauvin has been there, he knows what the inside of the house looks like. He talks to Anne Desbaredes about her bedroom and what she does when she can’t sleep and what she sees from her window.
For Anne Desbaredes, being in the cafe is a social faux pas. She should not be there as it is where the workers from her husband’s factories go when their day is done. This might be why she drinks so much wine, it calms her and keeps her from worrying about the stares from the men. It also helps her focus on Chauvin and the love affair they conduct in words. But the words are never about their own love affair. They are always sitting in public and have nothing in particular to hide, but everyone who sees them seems to know what is going on. There is as much going on with what is not said as there is with what is said.
Anne Desbaredes always goes out with her child. Her excuse to go to the cafe is that she and the boy are out on their evening walk. It’s not clear how old the boy is but my guess is 6 or 7. He plays outside the cafe and comes and looks in the door now and then to check to see that his mother is still there. Anne Desbaredes loves the child but clearly has not much interest in him. She seems rather distant and the boy seems rather desperate for her love and attention.
The title of the book means moderately and melodiously. It is taken from the Diabelli Sonata that the boy is learning at his piano lessons. The tempo of the piece is moderato cantabile. This can also be used to describe the book itself. It moves along at a moderate and melodious pace. The language is beautiful and rhythmic and I floated along through it. I could have read the book in a few hours but I came out of my story trance about halfway through and stopped on purpose because I did not want to rush to the end.
I have not read Duras before but have always meant to. I don’t know much about her so I had to look her up. She was born in 1914 near Saigon in what is now Vietnam and was then French Indochina. Her parents moved there because the French government was encouraging people to work in the colony. Her father died when she was young and the family lived in poverty after her mother made a bad real estate investment. As a teen Duras had an affair with a Chinese man. And was supposedly she was beaten by her brother and her mother.
Duras went to France for college, studied the law, became a Communist, worked for the French government, married (her husband was in the French Resistance and almost died in Bergen-Belsen), and finally ended up becoming a writer of novels and plays as well as a respected filmmaker. She died in 1996 of throat cancer.
Because I had no idea what the Diabelli Sonata sounded like, I Googled it and found a YouTube video of a six-year-old boy playing it at a recital. What could be more perfect?