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Unlikable Protagonists and Morality in “The Easy Life”

Unlikable Protagonists and Morality in “The Easy Life”

“If you are squeamish don’t prod the beach rubble” is a line by Sappho* that serves as sound advice for the novels of Marguerite Duras. If you are squeamish, don’t crack the cover. There will be grief, there will be a threat of madness, there will be sensuality mottled with darkness, a family may be shackled together in a violent dynamic. There will be scenes of high drama (critics would say melodrama), though Duras cannot be accused of sentimentality. The last tatters of an unsuspecting reader’s sentimentality will burn and curl into ash in the dry heat of her prose, because Duras doesn’t stop at the lyrical moment, the cinematic moment, the literary moment. She goes beyond, she pokes the beach rubble. Duras will not only masterfully evoke the harrowing screams of a man dying, she will take that audacious step further and note when the screams go on so long they become boring to those bearing witness. She will always take that next step.

The Easy Life, Duras’s second novel, published in 1944, is available for the first time in English in a translation Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes The narrator is Francine, a woman in her twenties who has spent most of her life on a remote farm, waiting for her real life to begin. In the opening scene, Francine is watching her uncle limp home after an intense physical fight with her younger brother. Her uncle is mortally wounded, and the entire family, Francine’s parents included, remains passive as the man takes to his bed and dies a slow and excruciating death. It’s an event that has been desired but unspoken for years, as the uncle’s bad decisions financially ruined the family, causing them to live in shame and isolation and destroying the children’s future prospects. A doctor is only summoned at the final hour. We later learn that Francine subtly instigated the mortal fight by emotionally manipulating her brother.

The first half of the short novel concerns the fall-out of the uncle’s death, a series of dramatic events that would be sufficient to fill a long book on their own, but instead are told in quick succession. In the second half, the action stops short, and the narrative becomes entirely internal as Francine takes a trip alone, to spend time by the sea for the first time in her life. She grapples with the tumult of the past months, cycling through grief, desire for her lover (a mysterious, handsome farmhand), and shock at her own existence and decisions, which have suddenly been thrown into relief. 

Duras’s prose style elicits swooning or disoriention, sometimes both in the span of a page. The first half unfolds with tension and intensity. The images are piercing and the sentence clipped and clear. In the second, dreamier half of this strange novel, when the other characters are left behind and Francine is alone with her thoughts, Duras indulges with flights into abstraction, best enjoyed in small sips. These are sometimes impenetrable on first reading and sometimes full of obscure insight, like a poem: 

On the sea, everywhere at once, flowers burst, I think I hear them growing on their stems a thousand meters below. The Ocean spits its lifeblood into these hatchings of foam. I traveled to the hot and muddy vestibules of the earth that spat me out from its depths. And now I’ve arrived. You come to the surface. There’s enough room for the entire Ocean to croak in the sun, for each part of the water to marry the form of the air and ripen around it. My own form observes them. I am flower. All the parts of my body have burst from the power of the day, my fingers burst from the palm of my hand, my legs, my stomach, and all the way to my hair, my head.

The shift in narrative style is unwieldy—the two halves feel unmatched—and the pacing is uneven as the story comes to an abrupt conclusion. The oddly shaped plot may be evidence of the author’s youth (she was 25 at the time of writing), but the bold, internal-facing voice, the dissection of a twisted moral code unique to a family, and the drive to tell the truth about women’s sexuality, hold more than historic interest. This novel makes recent book-world discussions of whether main characters need to be likable and whether novels should offer ethics lessons seem simplistic and retrograde. Duras’s sui generis style is here, fully formed, as is her lifelong interest in illuminating the depths of the human psyche.

*Sappho translation is by Mary Barnard. Anne Carson translates the same line as “Don’t move stones,” while Willis Barstone offers “Don’t stir up the small heaps of beach jetsam.”


The Easy Life

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by Marguerite Duras

Translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes

Bloomsbury Publishing

Published on December 06, 2022

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