“A selection of her books has recently been published in an Everyman’s Library edition, with an introduction by the novelist Rachel Kushner. On the face of it, it’s an idiosyncratic grouping, to put it kindly: ‘The Lover’ (1985); ‘Practicalities’ (1990), her riffs on alcohol, men and other forces of mayhem in her life; and her posthumously published journals, ‘Wartime Notebooks’ (2008). Why not ‘The Ravishing of Lol Stein,’ the novel she was proudest of, I wondered, or ‘Blue Eyes, Black Hair,’ to give a sense of her formal experimentation and sheer weirdness (it’s an entire novel more or less about a naked woman lying on a bed with a piece of black silk over her face — and it kind of works)?
But the wisdom of these choices becomes apparent. We get as complete a portrait as we can hope for: the writer the world knows (‘The Lover’ was a global best seller); the one performing her public role (she’s very much the literary grande dame in the chatty essays in ‘Practicalities’); and the one at work, spurring herself on in notebooks that an editor called Duras’s ‘workshop, gymnasium, kitchen, treasure chest.'”
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. (more…)
Went cycling to Cardiff Bay barrage with Jennifer this morning. We sat for some time in the sunshine, before deciding to return to the cool shade of the apartment. I’m still reading Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, which is just superb. I have also come across a number of interesting articles, reviews, and commentaries from around the web:
12 visual artists interpret Radiohead‘s seminal 1997 album, OK Computer • (Re)reading Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, Falling Man, and Cosmopolis in dark times • Sam Jordison on the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces• David Hering on Alan Clarke‘s ‘hypnotic junkie odyssey’, Christine • On the diaries of T.S. Eliot‘s first wife • And 17 brilliant short novels you can read in one sitting, including works by Marguerite Duras, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño, Cormac McCarthy, Clarice Lispector, and more.
The writer and journalist talks about This Is the Place to Be, and the influences that motivate her
Lara Pawson. Photograph: Julian Richards.
Lara Pawson, This Is the Place to Be
This month brings the release of Lara Pawson’s new memoir, This Is the Place to Be, published by CB editions. Written in a fragmentary form, the book deals with Pawson’s experiences as a witness of war in Angola and Ivory Coast. The writer Joanna Walsh praises it for the way it ‘unpicks the spirals of memory, politics, violence, to trace the boundaries and crossing points of gender and race identity.’ I caught up with Pawson to ask her about This Is the Place to Be, and to find out more about her motivations and influences.
“The Novel That Took Marguerote Duras to the Edge of Fiction and Sanity”
To the extent that she is familiar to Americans, Marguerite Duras is known for Hiroshima mon amour, the 1959 screenplay she wrote for Alain Resnais. Among its other accomplishments, that film has the distinction of being the anti-singularity of modern cinematic language, an originary limit point that acknowledges how the immense weight of an immediate and incomprehensibly violent past has broken the time of the present and preemptively attacked the future. One would have thought that Duras’ contribution, which did earn her an Oscar nomination, would have hardened her legacy in this country. But her tendency, in her near-perfect later films and fiction, to work at the edge of narrative, along with a basic American negligence — an irony given that American postmodern writers would co-opt her techniques to weakened effect — has obscured her importance. The situation is compounded in the literary present, which joins supposedly disparate political camps in their frenzy for positive identification. Duras instead wrote identification slantwise; she wasn’t offering an anti-self so much as a refusal to offer. She isn’t Yeats; she’s Duras. (more…)
Dominique Fabre lists five books he can’t stop revisiting
It’s not easy to choose only five books, so I made up my mind and decided to mention the five I can’t help reading again, once in a while, because they are still here for me today. Every time I read them I find something I hadn’t discovered before—or maybe I had forgotten—so that the book is always the same, and yet always different, as well. Only literature can do that for me. (more…)
Jennifer Glaser (LARB) praises Yuknavitch’s new novel, The Small Backs of Children, as a fine example of experimental women’s writing
The terrain of contemporary experimental fiction has been largely claimed by male writers. This is nothing new. As Andreas Huyssen pointed out years ago, despite Gustave Flaubert’s assertion that Madame Bovary “c’est moi,” he spent most of his career carefully distinguishing his high modernist literary sensibilities from the popular tastes of the feminized masses. The contest between high and low, difficulty and ease, in fiction continues to travel along these gendered lines — particularly in conversations about American literature. Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus’s 2002 row over the value of experimental fiction and the fate of the novel in the pages of The New Yorker and Harper’s marked not only a new, meta-ethical turn in fiction after 9/11, but also a continuation of age-old male anxieties about the feminization (or “Oprah-fication”) of the reading public and what this meant for male novelists concerned about the size of their … impact. Later, Franzen tangled with a new foe, so-called chick lit author Jennifer Weiner, about a related topic: the perils of self-promotion for writers of literary fiction. This conflict, in turn, developed into a larger battle about the absence of women writers in the contemporary American canon — with Weiner and Franzen as its unlikely antipodes.
Victoria Best (Open Letters Monthly) recounts the relationship between French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras and Yann, a devoted follower of her work
In 1979, aged 65, the iconic French writer Marguerite Duras was exhausted, creatively emptied out and drinking herself to death. For many months, the only thing that had sustained her was writing fragments of letters to an imagined addressee, perhaps as notes to be turned into an epistolary novel but mostly because she needed a confidante and would have to create one if he didn’t exist. The notes were full of exclamations like ‘I must stop drinking at night, I must go to bed early so that I can write you long letters and not die.’ These were perilous times for Duras who, despite a hectic life in the thick of political and artistic movements, was lonely, in a way that not only ate at her soul, but undermined her creative vitality. She had always needed to give voice to her inner violence, either in difficult love affairs or in her difficult texts and films, but here she was, old and ugly and all washed up. What would become of her now? [Read More]
Olivia Laing (The Guardian) offers a brief history
If you write a book about alcohol and male writers, as I did, the one question you’ll be asked more than any other is: what about the women? Are there any alcoholic female writers? And are their stories the same, or different? The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, of course there are, among them such brilliant, restless figures as Jean Rhys, Jean Stafford, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, Anne Sexton, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson. Alcoholism is more prevalent in men than women (in 2013, the NHS calculated that 9% of men and 4% of women were alcohol-dependent). Still, there is no shortage of female drinkers; no lack of falling-down afternoons and binges that stretch sweatily into days. Female writers haven’t been immune to the lure of the bottle, nor to getting into the kinds of trouble – the fights and arrests, the humiliating escapades, the slow poisoning of friendships and familial relations – that have dogged their male colleagues. Jean Rhys was briefly in Holloway prison for assault; Elizabeth Bishop more than once drank eau de cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet. But are their reasons for drinking different? And how about society’s responses, particularly in the lubricated, tipsy 20th century; the golden age, if one can call it that, of alcohol and the writer? [Read More]
Writer and translator Lydia Davis talks to Dann Gunn about Beckett and The Emperor of Ice-Cream (via Music & Literature)
A very orderly Greek friend visited me recently, and on stepping into my office and seeing the state of my desk, cried out “Dan! What is that?” He was genuinely shocked, perturbed even, at the sight of the books, papers, unopened envelopes, and assorted debris that flows from several piles over my desk, threatening at any moment to spill off the edges (as it regularly does) and onto the floor. My response was not, I hope, unduly defensive: “It’s a sign that I’m being productive.” Indeed, my desk is clear and tidy only ever for a brief moment after some task has just been completed (or at moments when I remember some unopened bill that needs to be paid). I do like to observe something organized emerging from the apparent chaos; and when that chaos threatens to become a liability, I turn to photos of the studios of artists I admire, of Francis Bacon or Alberto Giacometti, and protest: Now their mess really was a mess.
When I was seventeen, I chose to leave Edinburgh, where I was raised, for the University of Sussex, not least because I had read a book by Gabriel Josipovici entitled The World and the Book; it said on the cover that he was teaching there. What I admired (and still admire) about this wonderful critical work was that it dealt openly and freely with different periods and authors, from different cultures and languages, from Dante to Proust to Saul Bellow. Also mentioned on the cover was that Gabriel Josipovici wrote fiction as well as criticism. In some quiet place within me I seized hold of this as a model: a critic who also writes fiction; a novelist who also writes criticism. I had eight fantastic years at Sussex, taught in an ideal setting by the best teachers imaginable. As it happens, on my very first day I was introduced to my “personal tutor” (what in America would be called my “academic advisor”): Gabriel Josipovici. We quickly got to know each other and have remained friends ever since. The Sussex of those days confirmed for me that one did not have to be (only) a specialist, that one could draw inspiration from many sources, refusing to be boxed in to a single discipline or period or language. I still find that the criticism emerging from this openness suits me best. I have recently been rereading with delight Tony Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker—a book by a former Sussex professor that emerges out of precisely what I’d call the “Sussex spirit.” (more…)