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Books can be like Russian Matryoshka dolls. Similar to these nested wooden dolls where one primary doll has many smaller dolls stacked within the bigger ones, a solitary book can lead the willing and eager reader down a warren boasting many other books each of which in its own right has keys to multiple burrows. A deep dive into a random rabbit hole led me to this wonderfully appealing yet intimidating stream of consciousness essays penned by French novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and experimental filmmaker, Marguerite Duras. But for the arresting essays of best-selling author Rachel Kushner, I would have been blissfully oblivious to the life and lessons of Duras. Equally, but for a whimsical spend on a yearly subscription (which at the time seemed the antithesis of alacrity) in consideration for receiving 12 books selected at random from an innovative bookshop on John Street, Mrs. B’s Emporium, I would be none the wiser about the musings and mischiefs of Ms. Kushner herself! The world of books is a virtuous eco-system that never stops giving!
Writing contains a primary essay carrying the same title as the book (lengthiest essay in this extraordinarily slim volume) and three more essays, each of them more progressively abstract and cryptic than its predecessor. The first essay on writing is about solitude. Writing is about writing in solitude. Writing is about writing in solitude about solitude and how writing bereft of solitude is not exactly a piece of writing. Confused? There’s more. Much more. Duras holed herself up inside a 4400 square feet house in Neauphle for the greater part of a decade or more and in its deafening and pregnant silence, churned out some of her best works such as The Ravishing of Lol Stein and The Vice-Consul. Arguing that without such solitude – only interrupted intermittently by the appearance and disappearance of her lovers and a few close knit friends – any writing even if produced would ‘crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write’, Duras revels in the company accorded by solitude. As one reads deeper into the meanings of her words, the postulation even ceases to be a paradox. Company and solitude do, in fact seem to be perfect handmaidens to each other. Within this solitude (which also encompasses inside its ambit the existential concept of death and the immediately material physicality of Whiskey), as one sits down to write, there is no idea for a book. As Duras informs her readers there is a paucity or a dearth everywhere. The hands are as empty as the head, and any potential book represents a ‘dry, naked writing, without a future, without echo, distant, with only its elementary golden rules: spelling, meaning’.
Writing neither imparts the nuance of grammar nor reiterates the benefits of writing every day sitting at the same place and at the same time. Instead, it wades in an esoteric manner into the deficits and conundrum once experiences by not writing and the purgatory which one must undergo in order to commence writing. Alluding to the ‘displacement of literature’, Duras spends a great time in recounting her experience of watching an ordinary housefly go through an agonizing last fifteen minutes of its life. One feels like yelling out at the passages and pages “for mercy’s sake can’t you swat the life out of the pitiful creature?” But not for Duras a merciful euthanasia. “The death of that fly has become this displacement of literature. One writes without knowing it. One writes by watching a fly relinquish its life. One has a right to do that.”
The second essay titled ‘The Death of a Young British Pilot’ is a stirring but complex homage to death. On the very last day of World War II a twenty year old British pilot named W. J. Cliffe gets shot out of the sky above the Norman forests while trying to let loose a fusillade of bombs on the Germans ‘for fun’. The citizens of a village called Vauville, located very near Deauville, extricate the young pilot from his Meteor aircraft and bury him in a grave replete with a granite tombstone. An elderly gentleman visits the grave for 8 years and weeps his heart out. He informs the people of Vauville that the departed soul was an orphan. Relating the young man’s death to that of her own brother, who shares an unmarked grave in Saigon, Duras wonders whether the War and all its attendant evils lay in repose under the shining tombstone that is tended to with immense care giving company to a boy who has attained eternity at twenty. “The eternity of the young British pilot is there, present; one can kiss the gray stone, touch it, sleep against it, weep…He’s a king as well: a child alone in death as a king in the same death’.
The other two essays, one dealing with the history of Rome and the other on paintings are abstruse and make for some fatiguing reading.
Special mention to Mark Polizzotti for a stupendous effort in translating this complex work.
‘Writing’ both appeals and dissuades. Maybe it even makes you a tad bit wiser. But it also leaves you lightheaded and giddy. Dizzyingly wise perhaps!