L'AMANTE ANGLAISE By Marguerite Duras Translated From the French by Barbara Bray Pantheon. 122 pp. $10.95; paperback, $6.95 THE VICE-CONSUL By Marguerite Duras Translated From the French By Eileen Ellenbogen Pantheon. 169 pp. Paperback, $6.95
BARBARA BRAY, translator of L'Amante Anglaise, has solved the problem of the title by leaving it intact. If English lends itself to palindromes, French lends itself to the olorime, a sometimes elaborate word game consisting of homonyms strung together in parallel lines, and appealing to the subtlest psyches. Thus Victor Hugo could compose an alexandrine couplet of which the verses, identical optically, are aurally related only by sense:
Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime
Galamment, de l'are`ne a` la Tour Magne, a` Nime.
And thus L'Amante Anglaise, which to the eye means one thing (the English lover), to the ear can mean quite another (la menthe en glaise -- the mint in clay).
There is no mention of an English lover in Marguerite Duras' melancholy e'tude, and the sole allusion to mint falls in passing, when we learn that a character named Claire, who is probably insane, writes to garden magazines for advice about growing the herb indoors. But Duras, with her multiple Rashomonian perspectives focusing on a single occurrence which determines both the shape and substance of this work, has confected a sort of massive olorime no less tantalizing than Hugo's.
Claire, a middle-aged middle-class wife in the middle of rural France, has murdered her female deaf-mute cousin, hacked up the corpse, and disposed of the pieces by dropping them from a viaduct onto various passing trains. After a week, only the head remains unrecovered, and Claire rather dispassionately admits to the deed. A journalist comes to town hoping to unravel the tale behind the crime by taping interviews with Claire, with her husband (who may or may not have had an affair with the victim who was his wife's housekeeper for many years), and with their best friend, a cafe' owner. Each of them, in conversation with the writer, gives an account of the same happening. What is uncovered becomes a depiction of the mores of one small town as well as of the universally dangerous emotion of love. But a solid motive for the killing, and the whereabouts of the head, are never disclosed, perhaps because there are no final answers.
The book is composed entirely in spoken dialogue without editorializing or description, a mode uneasily close to Robert Pinget's L'Inquisitoire on the same subject a decade earlier. But the mood remains identifiable as Duras' own. Her art here lies not in how she reveals the heart of a murderous woman, but in how she reveals the heart of the murderous woman in you and me, all in her usual glacial and madly logical tone.
GLACIAL and logical is the tone for her other book too, despite the torrid Indian temperatures evoked and the kaleidoscopic ambiguities. Like L'Amante Anglaise. The Vice-Consul is built around three characters. The former French vice-consul at Lahore, a virgin in his middle years and a social misfit, is now in Calcutta biding his time after having been fired from his post because of some shameful comportment (did he or not shoot randomly into a garden filled with dogs and lepers?). He is shunned by most of the colonials with the exception of the seductive no-longer-young wife of the French ambassador who vaguely leads him on. Their story is counterpointed by that of a deranged and starving beggarwoman, banished years ago by her family when she became pregnant, who now wanders the country, haunting the heroes in the malodorous shadows of lavish diplomatic feasts. In a land of pariahs the vice-consul too is a pariah, like the beggarwoman, or indeed like the colonials themselves, who long for home.
The Vice-Consul's fluctuating and unresolved patterns, like those of L'Amante, finally come to rest through sheer exhaustion. Both books are painful, L'Amante perhaps less so, since the worst is over by the time the interrogation, in its icy compassion, takes place, while in The Vice-Consul the unabated anxiety seems a perpetual becoming. Both contain a semi-visible character, an author, who does and yet who doesn't propel the narative in search of a definition for madness and a motive for unexplained killings. (Duras seems to be telling us that there is no crime gratuit -- that there is in fact an assassin fundamental in us all.) And both retain their tight formal integrity by syntactical device, one being totally in dialogue, the other totally in the present tense -- devices at once effective and affected.
The overall output of Marguerite Duras, now 74, is firmly enough jelled for one to affirm that these two examples, each 20 years old, are typical in that they deal, yet again, with violently untrammeled instincts surging beneath a calm and often banal surface, and in that their format is stageworthy: with little nudging both books become scripts. Most of her early novels have been adapted by herself and others, and she often conceived the same work simultaneously in several forms -- as novels, as plays or teleplays, then as film scenarios. With the success of Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959, she began writing directly for movies stressing text over camera work, even when she herself turned director. But though the visual derives always from the verbal, not the reverse, any of her novels is a cameraman's dream, emphasizing as they do the elasticity and endless repetitions of time moving backward and forward, at different speeds, beneath human episodes that appear as waking dreams.
STILL, with all its exterior panache and perception there is something about the oeuvre I can't quite buy. Is it the manner over content, even in so lauded a prose work as her recent The War with its unique pathos in describing the aftereffects of a concentration camp on an inmate and his wife? Is it the brittle, the cool, the -- dare I say it? -- Frenchness of her protagonists? No. It's that her work, with all its imagination, is without much charm, and charm, despite its bad odor in some intellectual cliques, is a key ingredient of the highest art.
Duras is a first-class second-rater. Although she was clearly born with pen in hand (her phrases flow, her tropes convince, her structures sustain), and although her subject is eternal (life, love and politics seen as horrific, erotic and unselective), her protagonists are clinical and faceless -- they are Everyman, or rather, Everyghost. Nor has she a need for suspense or sentimentality, the old-time virtues still celebrated by, say, Franc oise Sagan whose cast of neurotics is maybe more uppercrust and shallow than Duras' (though the persons in The Vice-Consul are pretty insular and let-'em-eat-cake-ish) but they do weep and sing and jump off the page.
Pantheon's policy of issuing in English the complete works of Marguerite Duras, lifting them intact from the Hamilton Hamish editions of 1966 and 1977, is commendable and overdue. Just as Duras introduced a new dimension to literary France -- a dimension that flirts but does not, thank God, blend with the sterile solemnity of the nouveau roman -- so that dimension now may alter the consciousness of literary America. The alteration is abetted by the translations' Briticisms (Eileen Ellenbogen's job on The Vice-Consul is no less seamless than Bray's) which, to Yankee ears, emphasize the sense of word game. For Duras' main device is the presenting of situations, including the situations of war and peace, as puzzles with unlimited solutions none of which will ever be the solution. Portraying situations per se, rather than the people caught up in them, is the method by which she holds our excruciated attention.
Ned Rorem's new book, "The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-1985," has just been published.