Book Review: The Malady of Death by Marguerite Durascategories: Book, French Literature, Liaison, Erotic, Meaning of Love, Marguerite Duras
Author: Marguerite Duras
Publisher: Grove Press
Short & Mortal (the Tragedy Of The Inability)
a review by Margo BerdeshevskyThe "Malady of Death" ("La Maladie de la Mort") was originally written in French by Marguerite Duras, (better known for her later book, "The Lover," and the screenplay, "Hiroshima Mon Amour." ) Translated into a trenchant English by Barbara Bray, who was responsible for many Duras translations—the book is nothing less than a confrontation with the human soul, known and unknown, in the dark and in the dim light—and it leaves a scar.
"You wouldn't have known her," it begins. Darkly subtle, erotic, philosophical, poetic, demanding: a tiny novel, (by chill night-by-the-fire Russian-novel standards, or by vacation-reading standards.) "The Malady of Death" is one of my treasures, huge in scope, at a mere 64 pages. Spoken in the second person to an unseen "you," written with precise incisions of a surgeon's tool, the book splays the modern human's defenses. It bleeds (in the ancient healer's sense) the illness of the inability to love. It leaves the body that suffers—wide open for days and nights of hard questions. Because if we do not know how we are unable to love, and Duras' two character book scrapes at just that question—then we are lost. They are. And by suggestion, we are. And we disappear.
The book describes an affair, a "liason." A man hires a woman whom he does not really want to see, does not want to feel. Hires her for only a few weeks in a dark room by the sea. But she must be there. Until one day, she is not. She is the "other." He tries to control her. She must not voice her pleasure. Or, (unstated,) also her pain. The woman sees him bluntly. She has no pity. No rage. She just sees. Sleeps. Sees again. Sleeps again. Hears his pain and will not heal it. Cannot. Sex or "will" do not help. The human who is ill is a man who is dead, and trying to learn to love, to know why. (He could as well be a woman. Gender does not define the lack, but humanity does.) In Duras' telling, the one with the malady is, yes, a man. In a narrow bandwidth, an enormous music of longing and its illness plays throughout "filmic" pages. Yes, it "could" have been a film.
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