The Malady of Death; Intricate lace by Marguerite Duras

I have spent one of the most pleasant hours of my life today in a pub with a decent chardonnay and Marguerite Duras’  Malady of Death.

Marguerite Duras is considered to be an ‘experimental’ writer. She came of writing age during the neauveu roman era of French literature. She differs from Robbes-Grillet and others of the time in that her work is less conspicuously intellectual than emotional. Her books are as much about what is not being said as what is being said, but unlike other writers from the same period, her books are not puzzles to be figured out in the conventional sense, but rather emotional puzzles of sorts, to be figured out – or not – by the reader. beauty and its weight are the mechanism driving the narrative. Similarly to a poet, Duras is famous for sometimes taking a day to write a line. Each and every line is its own separate piece of beauty.

You wouldn’t have known her, you’d have sen her everywhere at once , in a hotel, in a street, in a train, in a bar, in a book, in a film, in yourself, your inmost self, when your sex grew erect in the night, seeking somewhere to put itself, somewhere to shed its load of tears.

And thus begins The Malady of Death. 

Desire, obsession, sex and death form the substance of this work of fiction. An exploration of the alienation that exists between men and women, The Malady of Death traverses the mysterious terrain of love – and its absence. Duras describes an unconventional love relationship between a man and a woman referred to only as ‘she.’ The man hires her (even though she is not a prostitute)  to stay with him for several weeks in the hope that he will, by this relationship, be able to experience love with a woman.  After a few days in a hotel room by the sea, the woman recognizes in him an affliction if which he becomes increasingly aware – the malady of death, the fact that he is incapable of love.

And she, in the room, sleeps on. Sleeps and you don’t wake her. As her sleep goes on, sorrow grows in the room.  You sleep, once, in the floor at the foot of her bed. 

She goes on sleeping, evenly. So deeply, she sometimes smiles. She wakes only if you touch her body, the breasts, the eyes. Sometimes she wakes for no reason, except to ask if the noise is the wind or the high tide. 

She wakes. She looks at you. She says: The malady’s getting more and more of a hold on you. It’s reached your eyes, your voice. 

YOu ask: What malady?

She says she can’t say yet. 

… and then…

You wake her up. Ask her if she’s a prostitute. She shakes her head. 

You ask her why she accepted the deal and the paid nights. 

She answers in a voice still drowsy, almost inaudible: Because as soon as you spoke to me I saw you were suffering from the malady of death.  For the first few days I couldn’t put a name to it. Then I could.

You ask her to say the words again.  She does.  Repeats them: 

The Malady of Death.

The malady of death, like so many of Dura’ novels, is short.  I was able to read it in less than 30 minutes today. For the type of narrative that moves by beauty, words need to be sparsely peppering the page.  Too many words in a narrative this intricately laced weighs it down.

In an article in Practicalities called ‘Men’, Marguerite Duras says “in heterosexual love there’s no solution. Man and woman are irreconcilable, and it’s the doomed attempt to do the impossible, repeated in each new affair, that lends heterosexual love its grandeur.”  She claims earlier in the same article that “it is between men and women that imagination is at its strongest.”  she claims a frigidity which women invoke to paralyse the men who desire them, but that can’t be said to be true for these days. As many women are paralysed by the sexual refusal of the seductive male in this day and age of post sexual liberation.  When the central female character in The Malady of Death refers to love as “a sudden lapse in the logic of the universe”, it is perhaps because Duras cannot find a rationale between the sexes:  that it occupies the space of the irrational. Yet Duras notes in homosexual love things are not quite the same: “in homosexual love the passion is homosexuality itself. What a homosexual loves, as if it were his lover, his country, his art, his land, is homosexuality.”

This is all, of course, very Michel Foucault. What Duras calls the grandeur and the irreconcilable is perhaps the further reaches of Foucualt’s interest in courtship, mentioned in an interview called ‘Sexual Choice, Sexual Act’. Here he says “the experience of heterosexuality, at least since the middle-ages, has always consisted of two axes; on the one hand, the axis of courtship in which the man seduces the woman; and, on the other hand, the axis of the sexual act itself.” Foucault believes “in contrast, the modern homosexual experience has no relation at all to courtship.”

Back into the room you go again, She is there, sleeping, abandoned in her own darkness, her magnificence. 

You realise she’s so made that it’s as if at any moment, at her own whim, her body could cease to live, could just turn out around her and disappear from sight, and that it’s in this threat that she sleeps, exposes herself to your view.  That it’s in the risk she runs, with the sea so close, and empty and black still, that she sleeps. 

The malady of death explores a relationship that is irreconcilable, where the gap is the most interesting thing, not the attempts to close it. The woman is presented in the third person as she; the male character in the second as you. “You say you want to try, try it, try to know, to get used to that body, those breasts, that scent. To beauty, to the risk of having children implicit in that body.”  Julia Kristeva in Black Sun has astutely referred to Duras’s “aesthetics of awkwardness”, the way Duras will create a truncated syntax to achieve a certain sense of fragmented melancholy. “Duras’s work does not analyze itself by seeking its sources in the music that lies under the words nor in the defeat of the narrative’s logic. If there be a formal search, it is subordinate to confrontation with the silence of horror in oneself and in the world.” Kristeva adds, “such a confrontation leads to an aesthetics of awkwardness on the one hand, to a noncathartic literature on the other.” In an interview, ‘Black Sun: Melancholia and Creation’, Kristeva mentions students saying to her of Duras’s work, “We cannot read Duras because it is so close to us that it plunges us back into the sickness.” Kristeva later adds, “catharsis supposes that we leave depression, while I have a sense that these books plunge us into depression and do not give us a way to get out of it.”

In The Malady of Death, the literary style seems to force upon us an inevitability that cannot be reversed; for these are characters caught in a metaphysical battle of sexual wills that goes far beyond their individual characteristics. Rather than types of human creatures, this is more about the condition of a certain type of man and a certain type of woman, rendering the result inevitable. The man wants to ‘try loving’ but he is paying the woman. Conversely the more he demands, the more she charges. When he says he wants to sleep “with your sex at rest, somewhere unknown,” and that he wants “to weep there, in that particular place”, “she says in that case it’ll be even more expensive. She tells you how much.” Is this why the malady of death takes over; because he is in love with a woman that he cannot possess except on economic terms? Duras’ brilliance lies in her ability to combine the personal with the universal. This is a very specific story about a very troubled man ans a woman who both tries to help him and takes advantage of him, while at the same time it addresses the universal complications between the two sexes.

What Duras’s book captures is the further reaches of that unknowability, a grandeur of the inexplicable, we might call it, the inevitable gap between the sexes that will occasionally reveal the abyss. One reason why Kristeva feels such trepidation in the face of Duras’s work is that it traps the reader in a state of inevitable melancholy. In the interview, she sees Duras’s work as perhaps personal, but that touches upon “something general that joins a universal symptom of our generation, I think. That is why her books speak to so many people.” Kristeva reckons, though, that the work’s danger lies in that “it is not cathartic but, let’s say, an echo, a connivance with depression.” This connivance with depression meets the gap between the sexes, and Duras talks interestingly of the idea that men in heterosexual relationships are biding their time. Waiting for what?  For the language Duras claims, although they don’t know they don’t have it yet. If the novella has the man searching out the unknown (the unknowable) then Duras claims they can also fall into boredom. it is this enui and the refusal to address it or its so.utions that gives Kristeva the discomfort and lack of solution she talks about.  If the woman is finally no more nor less than an obsessive revelation of nothingness, or someone with whom time stands too still, what hope is there for the couple?

Perhaps Duras would claim ultimately that the man is not confronting his lack of love but rather his lack of feeling.  When the woman claims love never happens through an act of will, is she informing him that his attempts are fruitless? The very  premise of The Malady of Death implies a flawed possibility. A man buys a woman so he can experience love with her: We know under these circumstances love will be almost impossible.

All you remember of the whole affair are certain words she said in her sleep, the one’s that tell you what’ wrong with you:  the malady of death.

Soon you give up, dont look for her anymore, either in the town or at night or in the daytime. 

Even so you have managed to live that love in the only way possible for you.  Losing it before it happened. 

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