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Marguerite Duras: Moderato Cantabile (Moderato cantabile)

Duras continues the nouveau roman style in this novel, much of which is in the form of dialogue. Claude Roy has described it as Madame Bovary written by Béla Bartók. Indeed, music is an important factor. The piano teacher, Miss Giraud, is giving piano lessons to the son of Anne Desbaresdes, the wife of a well-to-do industrialist. The boy, understandably, is not too keen on following the rules and, in particular, refuses to say what moderato cantabile means. Obviously, Duras is making the point about his mother, too. Her life is moderato, i.e. conventional and very boring, while she longs for the cantabile, the exciting, the lyrical. The relationship between love and death is a key theme for Duras and it is this that soon gives her the cantabile. The piano teacher’s apartment is opposite a café where Mme Desbaresdes witnesses a woman being killed by her lover.

The next day, Chauvin, an unemployed man who hangs out at the café and who also witnesses the crime, approaches her and asks her opinion of the crime. They soon strike up a friendship and start talking. He used to work for her husband but quit. However, it is Mme Desbaresdes who pushes Chauvin for an explanation about the crime. She is not so much interested in the murder itself but what led the lovers to that state, what led to their passion for one another. Gradually, in their conversations, they start to play the roles of the two lovers. But this is a nouveau roman, so don’t expect more blood and gore. However, they do, in their minds, play out their roles to the full but, in the end, Mme Desbaresdes and Chauvin have to go back to moderato.

Publishing history

First published in French 1958 by Editions de Minuit
First published in English 1960 by Grove Press
Translated by Richard Seaver