Fiction – paperback; Calder; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the French by Richard Seaver.
I’ve been keen to read more books by Marguerite Duras having loved The Lover a few years ago. Much of her work appears to be out of print, or at least difficult to track down, so when I saw Moderato Cantabile on the shelves at Waterstone’s a month or so ago I just had to buy it.
First published in 1958, it was republished by Surrey-based Calder (an imprint of Alma Books) last year.
It’s a rather strange and beguiling novella (easily read in an hour), but one that is hard to pin down. I’m not sure I fully understood everything it was about.
I’m guessing that the title — a direction for playing music in a “moderate and melodious” way — is a metaphor for the book’s structure, which is based around eight short chapters. The final two are rather climatic compared with the six earlier chapters, which are so moderate as to be slow and, dare I say it, a tad repetitive. In other words, it reads a bit like a musical score: beginning slowly, repeating notes and choruses, then building to a crescendo.
A simple story
The story is a very simple one. Anne Desbaresdes, a well-to-do woman, takes her young son to piano lessons every Friday. On one particular Friday, shortly after the piano lesson is finished, she hears a scream from the café below the piano teacher’s apartment. A crowd has gathered and a man is sitting on the floor of the café, a woman next to him, whom he has murdered.
When Anne discovers that the murder was a crime of passion, she becomes slightly obsessed with it. She visits the café the next day in the hope to find out more. She orders a glass of wine and strikes up a conversation with a fellow drinker, an unemployed man called Chauvin, who claims he witnessed the murder.
Every day, for the next week, Anne visits the café and converses with Chauvin in a bid to imagine what might have made the man kill his lover. She brings her son with her, but he is free to roam the streets and the harbour of the coastal town, leaving her free to enjoy adult company.
But Anne, who is not normally a drinker, finds herself becoming increasingly enamoured by wine (“How wonderful wine is,” she states, seven days in). She also becomes enamoured with Chauvin, who seems to know a lot of detail about her life, including where she lives and what the interior of her house looks like. She’s constantly nervous — her hands shake whenever she’s in the café — but nothing untoward ever happens between them. Their hands rest side by side on the table, but they never touch.
It’s clear, though, that their “relationship” is a forbidden one, for Chauvin is working class and Anne is not. Her husband, it turns out, owns the factory where most of the men who drink in the café are employed. The café’s landlady clearly doesn’t approve of their liaison, watching them carefully from behind the bar. More often than not they sit in the darkened back room away from prying eyes.
Anne is always careful to leave in the early evening, not long after the factory whistle has blown, presumably so that she can get home before her husband. Yet by chapter six — more than seven days after the murder — the normal pattern of her day-to-day life has been influenced by alcohol, and after drinking one too many wines, finds herself getting home late for a dinner party she is supposed to be hosting. Her husband is disgraced by her drunken behaviour and she’s left to sleep on the floor of her son’s room, presumably having been thrown out of the marital bed.
By the novella’s end we see how the murder has turned Anne’s life upside down, unravelling the tight formality of her existence, and leaving her to pursue a relationship that is seemingly just as shallow as the one from which she is trying to escape.