Thursday, July 3, 2014

Two Novellas: Duras and Grossman

Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras

Frenzy by David Grossman

It's neither fish nor fowl. The novella, defined as a "short novel" or "a literary work less developed in plotting and characterization than a full-scale novel" in many literary reference works--a fine lot of good that does us!--isn't a novelette or a short story or, obviously, a novel. Oddly, works like The Secret Sharer, The Old Man and the Sea, and Billy Budd are counted by some as novellas, but they seem more like short novels--each has the kinds of thematic complexity, character development, and intricate plotting one associates with the longer form.  And why would anyone think that Heart of Darkness was a novella while Paul Harding's Tinkers, easily readable in one sitting, is a novel? Both books have the characteristics of novels, though Conrad, as one would expect, packs more philosophy and psychology into his short classic.  Or what must one do with the slender final novels of Philip Roth (Indignation) or the trilogy of short autobiographical (but fictional!) works of Coetzee, or the many tiny mad monologues of Bernhard (Wittgenstein's Nephew)?  It's a baffling distinction, and word count alone seems to me to have nothing to do with the matter. I always marvel at how Alice Munro can unfold in twenty-five pages all of the richness of novels that are ten times as long.

Genre aside, I thought it would be fun to read--back to back--novellas by two writers who are as diametrically opposed in style and theme as any two writers I can think of, but who nonetheless share two interesting qualities: both are often found writing about what I think of as the pathologies of love; and both substitute interior monologue, indirect discourse, "telling instead of showing," and loads of opaque description--detached from place and time and character--for the traditional engines of plot.

Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile is representative of her other novellas (collected in a handy Grove Press edition): the theme of her work is the difficulty of living a reasonable life in a world that is wholly unreasonable. Duras hasn't a romantic bone in her body (Grossman has many). Anne Desbaresdes, whose son has no interest in the piano lessons he is forced to take, witnesses a man shooting his girlfriend. Anne becomes obsessed with this act of, presumably, passion; it's difficult to know the facts--are there facts?--, and begins an obsessive series of conversations with a mysterious but attractive barfly named Chauvin, peppering him with questions about the murder, inciting him to concoct a fable about the shooting and the lives of the murdered woman and her male assassin. What does Chauvin know? Nothing much, but his myth-making has about it the same seductive qualities of the myth-making that Duras used to such powerful effect in the screenplay of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Anne isn't interested in having an affair, or rather she isn't primarily interested in Chauvin as a potential lover; what interests her is death, the death of the unknowable woman and her own death as well. It appeared to me partway through the novella that she was tempting Chauvin to kill her, but at the end it seemed that this wasn't her intention at all. Duras isn't one to tidy up loose ends, but it occurred to me that "moderately and melodiously" we are led toward the recognition that neither the murder, nor Anne's questions, nor Chauvin's fabulated responses have any meaning at all. "I'm already dead" Anne declares, and we believe her.

David Grossman is an Israeli, the author of the remarkable epistolary novel Be My Knife as well as several books on the Arab-Israeli limbo. (What to call it? Tragedy? Crisis? Standoff? As it appears hellish and unending I'll use the word "limbo," optimistically).   Where Duras writes lovely elliptical sentences that flit around unspeakable truths--e.g. Anna's indifference toward her child--Grossman writes long, meandering, poetic paragraphs, dense with indirect quotation, unattributed dialogue, brisk physical description, and deep psychological probing that leaves this reader both stimulated and perplexed. The story is simple: Shul's much beloved--adored, neurotically obsessed over--wife Elisheva has apparently been carrying on an affair with a Russian emigre named Paul for ten years--ten years at precisely fifty minutes per day. Since the entire book, though narrated in the third person, presents only Shul's speculations about the affair, and these speculations are rife with self-lacerating but, one presumes, purely imagined details, we can't say for certain if this illicit relationship is taking place in the way that he says, or, indeed, if it is taking place at all. It seemed at several points in the short (130 pages) whatever-you-call-it that Shul, like Chauvin, was fabulating to win the sympathy, or perhaps the affections, of his sister-in-law Esther. But this relationship is impossible to parse--the long dialogue/monologue that occupies most of the book involves fragmented conversations between Esther and Shul as they drive toward an anti-climactic rendezvous with Elisheva. The story's ending leaves many questions unanswered, but, I think, properly so.  It is impossible to describe the dynamics of any relationship, and Grossman skillfully examines the meaning of what is unspoken. At one point I wrote in my notebook: "this isn't a novel about what is known but about what is wished for, yearned for in some perverse way." In this regard Grossman and Duras are working common ground. Though Duras maintains a magisterial distance and deeply ironic detachment from her story, and Grossman imbues his with deep feeling, as if he were Shul, both writers wish to understand the drives that push us toward, or repel us from, one another. They don't write about love, but about the impossibility of love, its inherent misunderstandings and the stories we must tell ourselves to persist in believing in love's possibility.

Whatever a novella might be, these compact books, each of which can be read in a summer afternoon on the front porch, casts a strange spell over our hours--so foreign are these stories, so removed from (at least my) ordinary existence, and yet, in their understated styles, utterly compelling.

George Ovitt (7/3/14)

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this! The novella is my favourite form, I think -- as a reader and as a writer -- and I'm always pleased to find other people who love novellas too!