Marguerite Duras’ The Square and the Meaning of Happiness

I recently rediscovered a copy of Marguerite Duras‘ fiction that had been packed away in a spare room for several years. It is a 1977 edition of “three novels” from publisher John Calder, short pieces offering English-speaking readers an introduction to the French post-war writer. The first novel within, entitled The Square (Le Square, 1955), presents a conversation between a servant girl and a commercial traveller as they sit in a city square. Duras renders the two strangers’ conversation with beautiful economy of expression; her prose style simply conveys their words, with occasional observations of their surroundings. As their exchange develops, the two share reflections on living a meaningful life.

What follows are a few choice quotations from Duras’ novel, translated into English by Sonia Pitt-Rivers and Irina Morduch.

On the meaning of happiness

‘I don’t know if it is that people are not good at happiness or if they don’t understand what it is. Perhaps they don’t really know what it is they want or how to make use of it when they have it. They may even get tired of trying to get it. I really don’t know. What I do know is that the word exists and that it was not invented for nothing.’

On paying close attention

‘But tell me what other things you see when you travel?’

‘Oh, a thousand things. One time it will be spring and another winter; either sunshine or snow, making the place unrecognizable. But I think it is really the cherries which change things the most: suddenly there they are, and the whole market place becomes scarlet. Yes, they will be there in about six weeks. You see, that is what I wanted to explain, not that I thought my work was entirely satisfactory.’

‘But apart from the cherries and the sunshine and the snow, what else do you see?’

‘Sometimes nothing much: small things you would hardly notice, but a number of little things which added together seem to change a place. Places can be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time: a market which once seemed hostile can, quite suddenly, become warm and friendly.’

‘But sometimes isn’t everything exactly the same?’

‘Yes. Sometimes so exactly the same that you can only think you left it the night before. I have never understood how this could happen because after all it would seem impossible that anything could remain so much the same.

‘Tell me more about the other things you see.’

‘Well, sometimes a new block of flats which was half build when last I was there is finished and lived in: full of people and noise. And the odd thing is that although the town had never seemed overcrowded before, there it suddenly is — a brand new block of flats, completed and inhabited as if it had always been utterly necessary.’

‘All the things you describe and the changes you notice are there for anyone to see, aren’t they? They are not things which exist for you alone, for you and for no one else?’

‘Sometimes there are things which I alone can see, but only negligible things. In general you are right: the things I notice are mostly changes in the weather, in buildings, things which anyone would notice. And yet sometimes, just by watching them carefully, such things can affect one just as much as events which are completely personal, as if somehow one had put the cherries there oneself.’

On appreciating the present

‘But don’t you ever do anything of which you could say later that at least is was something to the good?’

‘No, nothing. I work all day, but I never do anything of which I could say what you have just said. I cannot even think in those terms.’

‘Please don’t think I want to contradict you, but you must see that whatever you do, this time you are living now will count for you one day. You will look back on this desert as you describe it and discover that it was not empty at all, but full of people. You won’t be able to escape it. We think nothing has started and yet it has. We think we are doing nothing, but all the time we are doing something.’

On leading a simple life

‘I don’t know what to say but I think it must be very sad to live as you do, always with events which can have no future. I think that from time to time you must cry too.’

‘But no. One gets used to it like everything else. And good gracious me every has cried at least once, every single one of all the millions of people on earth. That proves nothing in itself. Perhaps I should also explain that as far as I am concerned the tiniest thing can make me happy. I like waking up in the morning for instance and quite often I find myself singing while I shave.’

‘Oh but surely singing proves nothing to someone who talks as you do?’

‘But you must understand: I like being alive and I should have thought that was the one point on which no one could make a mistake.’

On the pleasure of being alive

‘No. When someone is without any hope at all, as you are, it is because something happened to him: it’s the only explanation.’

‘One day you will understand. There are people like me, people who get so much pleasure from just being alive that they can get by without hope. I sing while I shave—what more do you want?’


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