6 May 2018

Marguerite Duras: Le Marin de Gibraltar | The Sailor from Gibraltar (1952)

What can a person think of Le Marin de Gibraltar? Four hundred and thirty pages of what exactly? Certainly Duras was mulling over love and its triumphs and disasters, probably in its relation to sex, although there's much more in this book than that. In some ways it's a study in absurdity and futility, particularly perhaps in the absurdity and the futility not only of life itself, but in all the institutions that surround a supposedly conventional and, er, respectable existence: this also comes from 1952, which was in so many ways a different country, but Duras's novel seems to come from, or is a precursor to, a kind of anarchist future.

So we have the narrator who travels from Pisa to Florence with his girlfriend of two years, Jacqueline, in a van in which the driver – a builder – can't understand how the narrator can have held down a job in the Public Record Office for a whole eight years, just recording births and deaths: how can anyone live like that? Jacqueline can't hear anything of the conversation, so can't understand why the driver's words have such an impression on the narrator. So she learns nothing of the apparently paradisiacal village of Rocca, and Anna, the rich American temporarily anchored in her yacht in Rocca, is a long way off mentally.

The narrator's experience of Florence is very different from his girlfriend's, as he spends most of his time in one nearby bar – not drinking alcohol like many Duras characters, but mainly coffee and mint drinks – while Jacqueline tours the sights and can't understand what's gotten into her guy.

Until, that is, he takes her to Rocca, where he more or less dumps both her and his job for he knows not what, although the rich American woman soon teaches him why, or does she? She's incidentally only American (and rich, rich, rich) by marriage to a man who killed himself after learning that she chose this sailor guy – who is, incidentally, a killer, but we'll forget about that detail – picked up in Gibraltar. After that, she's led the life of a rich widow, screwing those she's chosen to take on board for as long as she wishes.

This is one long drink after another, piss-up after piss-up until that becomes the norm. She's searching after this sailor, this lost love cardsharp who disappeared in Shanghai. Is he in Sète, as seems to be suggested? But then, is it him, or someone else, does she in fact not want to meet him again, which of course is absurd, but then so is life, and anyway hasn't she in fact discovered her real love in the narrator – who in spite of all the alcohol he takes to forget whatever, or maybe to just keep his mind in gear – seems mentally to be in on the whole shebang? Or is he? Let's carry on cruising.

(On his way back from a car trail in Sète, the narrator stops his car and meets a young kid pushing a younger kid, and having a cigarette he picks up a nettle, which stings him, although he's forgotten that nettles do this. Duras takes this from L'Ortie brisée, a previously unpublished short story only revealed in 1985 in La Douleur, and I'm thinking 'Uh?'.)

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