Marguerite Duras’s bitterly gentle prose has a seductive and impressive immediacy. Her sardonic and incisive style resembles that of Katherine Mansfield, and they share the same quality of atmospheric, fragile miniaturism. ‘It began with the fear,’ Emily L opens, ‘We’d driven to Quillebeuf as we often did that summer. We got there at the usual time, late afternoon …’
At hardly more than a hundred sparsely printed pages, Emily L is a long short story beautifully translated here by Barbara Bray, and the more effective for being self-contained yet elusive. The narrator, a Frenchwoman, sits with her lover outside a cafe. She used to love him, he still loves her; the tragedy lies in the conflict of perceptions. Emily L is a work of mood rather than of plot, a slim novel of ideas but also of emotions where the philosophy is reflective but not dogmatic. The narrator drops hints of her colonialist background, her fear of Asiatics and her sense that the world will end through Japanese cruelty; her lover cannot share her views and is frightened by her vulnerability. Retreating indoors as a shipload of ‘Koreans’ embark on the quayside, the couple project their own frustrated relationship upon two English alcoholics who are propping up the bar.
This simple structure allows Duras a mirror-upon-mirror effect. We don’t know who we’re listening to, the French woman (a writer) or the characters she creates, who drip information about their lives in sixth-of-a-gill measures. Duras has an intensely perceptive way of elaborating detail, and the tale which emerges is one