THE EASY LIFE, by Marguerite Duras, translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes
Remember boredom? The first English translation of the French writer Marguerite Duras’s second novel, “La Vie Tranquille,” published by Gallimard in 1944 but only just here as “The Easy Life,” will transport you right back to those old blank stretches of time when you couldn’t just whip out the Candy Crush. When there was no electronic refuge from your own punitive thoughts, or absence of thought.
“Nothing can be as surprising as boredom,” declares Duras’s narrator, Francine “Françou” Veyrenattes, who is undergoing what we might now call a quarter-life crisis, in one of several meditations on this grayest and most grinding of emotions. “You think each time that you’ve reached the end. But it’s not true. At the very end of boredom, there is always a new source of boredom. You can live off boredom.” (And maybe a little escargot?)
At only 177 pages of text, starting with a plunge into murder before drifting both actually and metaphorically out to sea, “The Easy Life” is itself too short, too seeded with early indicators of its complicated author’s talent, to risk boredom. It crams in three dramatic deaths, only one of which I’ll reveal here: that of Jérôme, Françou’s uncle, who has gotten a walloping from her brother, Nicolas, over a woman — a confrontation Françou encouraged. Once Jérôme begins to expire, a fairly prolonged and graphic process, she quickly covers up the fracas, coldly telling a doctor she summons, and other village people, that the victim was kicked in the liver by her horse.
Not an unreliable narrator then, since she freely confesses to us, but not a clearly likable one either. I’d expect no less from Duras, that mildly tarnished national treasure of France best known in the United States for writing the lulling (some would say maddeningly opaque) screenplay for the 1959 Alain Resnais film “Hiroshima Mon Amour”; for an ahead-of-her-time outspokenness about alcoholism; and for her 1984 autobiographical novel “The Lover,” which is even shorter than this one.
These days, that book would probably have a different title, given that it’s about a 15-year-old white girl’s sexual relationship with a Chinese businessman more than a decade her senior in Saigon, near where Duras was born and raised in what was then French Indochina. “The Lover” came out when Duras was 70 (it’s never too late!), won the prestigious Prix Goncourt that had eluded her over a long and prolific career, and continues to be passed around and pored over.
“Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all,” Duras recorded in it presciently, years before the internet made everyone a créateur or -trice. “I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read.”
Produced during World War II when writing was still a romantic act, “The Easy Life” is an understandably simpler and more homespun book than “The Lover,” from its rural setting to its skein of a marriage plot. Unlike Duras’s parents — her father died young, and she took her last name from his hometown — Françou’s are still together, if a little loopy and logy. (They tend to huddle together conspiratorially whispering.) After a series of even more unfortunate family events, our heroine — invasive ruminations arriving “each one with a little mouse face” — retreats alone to a hotel by the ocean.
There has been much contemplation of nature’s rhythms; Duras describes an “August-before-September vertigo,” where “woods, ripe plains, warmed cliffs, stood still in a supernatural stupor.”When Françou met with her paramour, Tiène, magnolia leaves trickled down from the trees “between the swaths of total silence,” in what would now seem only imaginable in a perfume commercial. The ocean itself is ominous and, like much of Duras’s imagery, vaguely sexualized; night, she writes, “would arrive with its parade of stars and moons in a motionless straddling of the sea.”
The translation, by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes, flows smoothly; only the over-modern phrase “call out,” when Françou shames Tiène in conversation, jarred. I did wonder about the choice to render “tranquille” as “easy,” rather than “quiet” or “calm.” There’s an American ring to that — the Big Easy, easy listening, easy-peasy — while Duras, though her prose is spare and concentrated, is practically an avatar of French existential difficulty.
This is a minor work, in a minor key, that might be of interest only to Duras completists but for its overlaps with other recent chronicles of young womanhood (Sally Rooney, I’m looking at vous). Love, worry, numbness, confusion and urgency about when and how “real” life begins: The technology may have changed, but the song remains the same.
THE EASY LIFE | By Marguerite Duras | Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes | 187 pp. | Bloomsbury | $18