Favorite Reads of 2018

Here are my favorite reads for 2018. They are not ordered in any way. I didn’t review all of them, but the ones I did are linked. There are some real standout works there. I wish the Zúñiga and Tizón would be translated into English. Great collections each.

The Seawall by Marguerite Duras – A Review

The Seawall
Marguerite Duras
Herma Briffault, trans
Perennial Library 1986, pg 288

Duras’ The Seawall is one of her earlier works about Vietnam. Published in 1950, as the French empire was about to lose its eastern possessions (Dien Bien Phu was four years away), it captures an empire that had long begun to fade. Set in the mid 1920’s, Duras’ Vietnam is a place where one does not go to make a better life, but rather suffer in miserable penury.  Written at a time when France had been convincing itself that the empire was critical to hold on to, it is powerful work full of cynicism that both questions the social and political dimensions of the colonial project.

Much like The Lover, the central focus of the The Sea Wall is a young woman Suzanne, who has no prospects and whose mother seems intent on marring her of to someone of wealth. It’s a purely commercial transaction, one where Suzanne’s mother in her struggle to eek out a the smallest living, places little value on her. Suzanne has agency, though, and her vacillations between the men who wish to buy her and her search for someone who she wants, give the novel its liveliness and its edge. Suzanne is certainly no prude, although she is a dreamer, her head filled with the dreams found in movie theaters. She lets one suitor, in what becomes a commercial transaction, watch her shower. Druas is frank in her depictions of the back and forth between Suzanne, her mother and the men, and it’s what lets Suzanne breathe.

Duras has sympathy for Suzanne’s mother. While she wants to essentially sell her off, she is a woman beaten down by the illusion of the empire. Moving to Vietnam with her husband to teach, she ends up a widow with two kids trying to run a plantation. The land though is worthless and despite trying to build a seawall to reclaim some of the land she’s in debt to the land agents who knowingly sold her worthless land. She slips into anger and bitterness, always hopping she can rebuild the wall. But its futile. The seas come back every year and salt the land and make it unusable. For her, the dream of an empire where you can go strike it rich don’t exist. For most colons life in the colony is all hard work and little gain. Your only hope is that some rich person who’s well connected and made their fortune years before, will connect you. For the average colon, the question is, why stay in Vietnam anyway? Suzanne’s mother never asks the question, but a reader sure will.

If one can’t make it on their own, finding a someone with means is the answer. Scenes of wealth and extreme disparity run throughout the book. Monsieur Jo, the dandy, is the most obvious example. He offers Suzanne gifts, drives around in a large chauffeur driven car. Her description of the large city (possibly Saigon) near the farm gives you the sense of the differences.

As in all Colonial cities, there were two towns within this one: the white town-and the other. And in the white town there were still other differences. The periphery of the white town was known as the Haut-Quartier—the upper district, comprising villas and apartment buildings. It was the largest and airiest part of the city and was where the secular and official powers had their places. The more basic power-the financial—had its places in the center of the white town, where, crowded in from all sides by the mass of the city, buildings sprang up, each year higher and higher. The financiers were the true priests of this Mecca.

Duras does describe the Vietnamese and the poverty they are subjected to. She also describes a Malay servant, the Corporal, the family has. Stylistically she her writing changes when she describes them, moving from a narrative, to a set piece of description, where the lives of the people are not voiced, but aggregated. Its telling the her description of the city is written in the same way. It makes it even clearer the Vietnamese are an after thought in any French plans, and the layer on layer of oppression dehumanizes everyone. So much for bringing civilization to new lands.

The Sea Wall is an impressive work and is a good start when looking for literature of colonial collapse.


L’Amour by Marguerite Duras – A Review

Marguerite Duras
Open Letter, 2013 pg 109

Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour is a fascinating experiment in style and story telling. Functioning almost as a film script, the novel eschews typical approaches to narrative and distills the book into dialog and simple descriptions of action. The lean writing is fragmentary, as if the reader were the camera eye, making the reading disorienting, as the narrative starts, stops, repeats itself as the images are overlay-ed on themselves. The effect  is a powerfully transitory exploration of three lives rendered in as objectively physical terms as any piece of fiction can be.

The story follows a traveler who comes to the town S. Thala. It is not clear why he is there at first, he just roams at the edge of the scene. Then slowly he enters to talk with the woman who sits on the beach mysteriously. They interact in short fragmentary conversations that are illusive and return to a past that is never clear. Between the fragmentary conversations and the fleeting scenery, memory plays itself out as something elusive yet physical. As the traveler goes farther into the past that he has shared with the woman there is a clarity, not so much in the relationship, but in the impossibility of memory to create a well rounded explanation of events. Story fails.

The traveler, of course, is only moving through time, reconstructing what once had shape. He fails, though, to construct an overarching narrative. Or better said, he fails to construct one for the reader and, instead, finds himself reconstructing the little scenes of a story. Duras posits a cinematographic vision of memory, or grasps the only metaphor possible in the age of cinema. Again, it makes for disorienting reading, a disorientation that is pleasurable as the traveler moves from the beach where he first meets the woman, towards the hotel where the deeper anxieties of relationships once played themselves out. The shore is calm, soothing; the hotel is terrifying with hints of tragedy and fracturing love.  S. Thala is not a place where one wants to return.

The notion of a place of unwilling memories is evident, too, in Duras’ writing style.

It is the beginning of the afternoon. They pass by.

He, along the edge of the sea. She, on the boardwalk.

The traveler is on the boardwalk.

Shed does not see him. She does not see anything.

They walk toward the sea wall. Disappear behind it.

Perhaps they are preparing for the birth of the child, over there, behind the wall of the cry of S. Thala.

They come back that night. The seagulls screech. She walks bent slightly forward, almost heavily: its seems as if the birth of the child is imminent.

Doesn’t call them.

Everything is elusive. What is the relationship between the three people? Why the fragments of narration? The memories come but in uncertain pieces that cannot even place the birth of her child, which opens a new mystery. Who would no the woman so intimately, but not remember when the child was born. Even the construction of the sentences is fragmentary, built of simple sentences as if these memories have been suppressed, as if the rationalizations that come from long, introspective explanations have never taken place.

It is that elusiveness that enchants but also keeps the reader at a distance, always returning to the memories that resurface and collapse like the waves the characters spend so much time looking at. There is no closure for the traveler, as there should not be. Memory does not end, it is just reworked. So just as the traveler is left on the beach with his memories, so too is the reader left with uncertainty that can never quite be resolved. It makes for an effective and haunting way to end a novel of memory.