Longing, Passion, Philosophy In Revived Duras

The Sailor from Gibraltar
The Sailor from Gibraltar
By Marguerite Duras
Open Letter Books
Paperback, 276 pages
List price: $12.95

Read An Excerpt

Marguerite Duras i i

In addition to writing prolifically throughout her life, Marguirte Duras directed many films. hide caption

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Marguerite Duras

In addition to writing prolifically throughout her life, Marguirte Duras directed many films.

Anna is a woman on a mission. For three years she has been circling the globe in search of her lost love, the titular Sailor from Gibraltar. She is not the only one looking for him — he is in hiding after murdering a rich American. Violence, passion, world travel — it all sounds like a formula for a glamorous, thrilling story.

But this is a novel by the cerebral French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, so nothing much happens at all. And it's all the more thrilling because of it. There are long philosophical conversations about love and obsession and identity, and characters stare out at the sea for what seems like hours. A woman's mussed hair says volumes about her inner turmoil, and there is no conclusion to speak of. It's not a book to rush through. It's a book to be savored while drinking cognac and smoking pretentious cigarettes.

The narrator joins Anna's yacht, the Gibraltar, after having a breakdown while on vacation in Italy. He leaves behind his girlfriend and job in the French Ministry copying birth and death certificates to help search for the sailor and tend to Anna's physical needs. He's such a half-formed creature, one almost completely incapable of making his own decisions, that Duras doesn't bother to give him a name.

The author of the Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Lover and the screenplay for the French New Wave masterpiece Hiroshima Mon Amour, Duras (1914-1996) spent her career chronicling doomed love and existential quandaries. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray and now back in print for the first time in a generation, The Sailor from Gibraltar is an early book that, despite off-center pacing, holds up well to her more celebrated works. By the time of the book's initial publication in 1952, Duras' writing had already developed the fluid effortlessness that makes her fiction so enchanting.

"One's always more or less looking for something," Duras writes in Gibraltar, "for something to arise in the world and come toward you." Whether that's a lost love or a reason not to go home again, Duras captures the longing that infects her 'haracters — and all of us from time to time — with elegant prose and a story that will set you blissfully adrift.

Excerpt: 'The Sailor From Gibraltar'

The Sailor from Gibraltar
By Marguerite Duras
Paperback, 276 pages
Open Letter Books
List price: $12.95

We arrived at the museum.

It wasn't like any I had seen before. It was an old one-story house, built for the summer and painted dull pink, which looked out not on the town but on an inner garden surrounded by an open arcade paved with red stones. Although that day I was at the height of my passion I stopped in my tracks as soon as I saw the house. It seemed to me very beautiful. It was simple in form — just a hollow square. I didn't think I'd ever seen such a beautiful house. It had a special sort of beauty. Nobody had intended it; it was beautiful naturally, so to speak, and simply because, looking at it, you could see quite clearly why it had been built. Why? Because the people that built it had a deep knowledge, and perhaps experience, of summer. Probably some people would have preferred other kinds of houses, more welcoming, more ornate, looking out over mountains or the sea instead of just turned in upon itself. But they would have been wrong. Because, coming out of this one, you must come upon the town as out of no other, as if out of the sea into the warm air, dazzled. The shadow it cast was so intense it looked like a river passing beneath. It was as if the Magra flowed by the garden. Coming out of the sun into that shadow I was taken aback.

"Come on then," said Jacqueline.

I followed her. She asked a guide where the Annunciation was. Once, when I was about twelve, when my father was on leave and we spent a couple of months in Britanny, I'd had a reproduction of the angel hanging over my bed. Now I had a vague desire to see what it was like in real life, so to speak. We were told that the picture was in a room near the entrance. We went straight there. It was the only picture in the room. A dozen or so tourists were standing looking at it in silence. Although there were three benches placed opposite, none of them had sat down. After a moment's hesitation, I did. Then Jacqueline sat down beside me. I recognized the angel. I'd seen other reproductions besides the one in Britanny, but that was the only one I could really remember. I recognized the angel as well as if I'd slept beside him the night before.

"Isn't it lovely?" whispered Jacqueline.

Although this observation was by no means unexpected, its effect upon me was. It had no effect upon me at all. I was resting as I sat and looked at the picture. For the last four nights, since I'd been dreaming of the river, I'd had practically no sleep, and I suddenly noticed that I was fantastically tired. My hands, resting on my knees, felt like lead. The light that came in through the door was green, as in a painting, reflecting the green of the grass. The picture, the tourists and I basked in this painted light. It was very, very restful.

"Especially the angel," whispered Jacqueline.

I now saw that the other reproductions that I'd seen since didn't give such a good idea of the picture as the one in Britanny. I recognized the woman too. I was so young when I first saw the angel that I couldn't remember whether I liked him at first or not. But I knew I'd always rather disliked the woman. Is he telling her that her son is going to be murdered?

"Isn't it lovely?" said Jacqueline again.

I remembered that often, during those holidays, I wondered whom he could be leaning toward like that.

"Of course, she's lovely too," said Jacqueline.

I suddenly thought I'd tell her I knew this angel, the swine, had known him since I was a little boy. It was an entirely insignificant detail that I could have told anyone; it wouldn't have taught her anything about me that she didn't know, it wouldn't have committed me in any way. Yes, I'll tell her, I thought. But — whether it was because I was tired I don't know — I couldn't. It wasn't so much I myself who couldn't tell her as my lips. They opened, and then sort of stuck and shut up like a clam. Nothing came out. Something wrong here, I thought, slightly anxious.

"But especially the angel," Jacqueline said again.

I tried again, but in vain. I simply couldn't bring myself to tell her a simple little thing like that, that the angel was as familiar to me as an old school-friend. It was quite clear: I was a man who'd conducted his life in such a way that not only had he nobody to whom he could say such a thing, but he couldn't even manage simply to utter it. And yet it was quite an easy thing to say: When I was small I had a reproduction of that angel for a couple of months. Or, seeing that angel's like meeting an old friend, because once, in Britanny, I had a reproduction of it hanging over my bed. To say that might present a problem to a dog or to a fish, but I was a man. It wasn't natural. There were a thousand and one ways of saying it, but I couldn't find one way of saying it to her. I could have said to him, Do you remember? But what would be the point? He wouldn't remember anything, and I couldn't stand there talking to myself. The sun shone right on the picture now, making the colors blaze. Couldn't I just keep the fact that I knew it to myself?

It seemed to me not; or rather that the time had come for me to tell it to someone.

It was a thing I'd have liked to say. Not of any importance, of course, but suddenly something I found it difficult to do without. So I made another discovery — this time one that concerned only myself (one discovers what one can, at whatever age one can, and at whatever opportunity): that there was no reason why everyone should go on in ignorance of the fact that I had known that angel when I was a child, in Britanny, and no reason why I should keep quiet about it any longer. The thing had to be said. The formulation of it trembled within me, with all the shamelessness of happiness. I was amazed.

I stayed sitting on the bench for a long time, probably longer than the picture was worth, over half an hour. Of course the angel was still there. I looked at him mechanically, without seeing him, my attention concentrated on the relief that had come with my discovery. It was a great relief. My feebleness was leaving me. I sat motionless and let it go. I was like a man who has been dying for a long time to relieve himself, and finally does it. When a man relieves himself he's always very careful to do it as well as possible, to the very last drop. So was I. I was relieving myself of my feebleness to the last drop. Then it was done, and I was at peace. The woman beside me slowly recovered her natural mystery. I no longer wished her the slightest harm. In short, in half an hour I grew up. And that's not entirely a figure of speech. And having grown up I began to see the angel again.

In profile. He was still only a painting, and indifferent. He was looking at the woman. She too was only a painting, and looked only at him. After half an hour Jacqueline whispered:

"There's all the rest to see and the museums don't stay open very late."

I realized at last that she only said that because she didn't know I knew the angel, and she didn't know only because I hadn't told her, and for no other reason. But I didn't tell her, nor did I stir from where I was sitting. I'd have needed more time for that. The angel was still resplendent in the sun. You couldn't have said whether it was a man or a woman — it could be whichever you chose. On his back he bore the wonderful warm wings of untruth. I'd have liked to see him better — if he could have turned his head and looked at me, for example. After gazing at the picture all this time, steeping myself in it, such a thing didn't seem impossible. Once I even thought I saw him wink. Probably it was only refraction in the light from the lawn — it only happened once. Ever since he'd been there, imprisoned in that painting, he'd never looked at a single tourist, he'd only paid attention to the charge he was entrusted with. From all eternity he was only interested in the woman. Besides, the other half of his face didn't exist. If he had turned his head to look at me he would have revealed an exceedingly thin countenance with only one eye. It was a work of art. Whether it was beautiful or not I didn't know, but it was a work of art. One shouldn't always look at them too long. In four hundred years had he ever so much as winked at anybody? I couldn't take him away, or burn him, or embrace him, or gouge his eyes out, or kiss him, or spit in his face, or speak to him. What good would it do me to keep on looking at him? What I had to do was get up from the bench and get on with my life. And what good had it done me to look at the other, also in profile, while he drove his van like a maniac and told me to be happy? I'd dreamed of him every night, and now he was as fixed in his stonemasonry at Pisa as this one was in his picture. I suddenly felt a great pain in my chest, over the stomach. I recognized it. I'd cried twice before in my life, once in Paris and once in Vichy, both times because of the registry. He's the angel, I said to myself, that driver, that traitor. But why was I crying? The pain got worse: it was as if there were flames in my chest and throat, and I knew I could only get rid of them in tears. But still I asked myself why I was crying. I was hoping that if I could find the reason for this strange desire I should abolish it and the pain would end. But soon the fire was in my head, and I couldn't look for reasons any more. I could only say to myself, well, if you want to as much as all that, go ahead and cry. You'll find out why afterwards. If you try to stifle it you're not being honest with yourself. You never have been honest with yourself, and it's time you started, understand?

The words seemed to fall on me and submerge me like a huge, terrifying wave. I couldn't escape.

Excerpted with permission from The Sailor from Gibraltar, by Marguerite Duras.

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