on August 21, 2000
I picked this up on a whim. I've enjoyed Duras in the past and it was a story about travel and love - perfect. Turns out, it was an excellent novel.
The beginning felt slow, but that's because Duras has a tendency to describe things so dispassionately that it feels dull. Later in the novel, all those descriptions had laid a necessary foundation for events and conversations that would have seemed completely disjointed without a solid background. The plot sounds like a soap opera: man on vacation decides to leave boring girlfriend and dull job meets a rich widow sailing around the world in search of long lost lover. However, and thank goodness, it's not that simple, and not nearly that sappy. Both man and woman aggressively resist falling in love. Neither of them want to, but they do, but they don't.... Plus, there are a handful of colorful characters they meet and travel with along the way.
It's a character-intense novel that uses a simple plot as a basis to develop complicated personalities and relationships. Special bonus, it's out of print - so you can read something unusual and spark conversation yourself!
I recommend this for folks who like to analyze and then re-analyze followed by over-analyze life's happenings and participants. Be prepared to not want to put it down towards the end!
on February 5, 2012
Marguerite Duras wrote dozens of books, mostly fiction. This is an early novel, recently translated for the first time into English by Barbara Bray. The translation is consistent with the feel of the book and with other Duras I've read, mostly in English, but a couple early on in French.
Reading almost any section of this book without knowing the author or when it was published and you would still know French, 1950s. Languid sums it up. The narrator has worked for eight years transcribing birth and death certificates for the government. His girl friend works in the same office. Everyone, including the narrator, agrees that this (both the job and the girl) need to be jettisoned, but our narrator can only bring himself to sigh, nod in agreement and do nothing.
Events transpire and for some reason he ditches everything: job, girl, suitcase with all his belongings, and joins the rich young beautiful widow who inherited endless wealth and a huge yacht from her United States husband who kills himself when she leaves him after a couple of years. She in turn spends her life, and the book, searching for her lover, a mysterious murderer known only as the Sailor from Gibraltar. If the plot sounds looney, it is, but it doesn't matter. The plot isn't the point. This, as with much of Duras, is a book to read when young, sitting for days at a cafe nursing a cup of coffee or a Pernod with a cigarette (yes, the cigarette is obligatory) while sighing every few minutes. First look at the yacht? "It filled me with a sort of crushing torpor."
Oh life. No one understands me, what shall I do? What is the meaning of my life? Why haven't I quit this pathetic excuse for a life that I am living and just go wherever the wind carries me (though with an endlessly rich and beautiful lover certainly makes it easier)?
Well written and evocative, but oh so of its time and place!
on April 9, 2014
The Sailor from Gibraltar is both a story of sexual obsession and an extended existential metaphor. The narrator (who never gives us his name) is a French civil servant on vacation in Italy with his girlfriend. Faced with returning to a meaningless job and living with a woman he does not love, he seizes upon the tale of a rich American woman whose yacht is anchored off the Tuscan coast. This woman, so the story goes, is sailing the world in search of her lost lover, a sailor from Gibraltar. But she takes on other lovers in the meantime, picking them up in one port, dropping them off in another when she gets tired of them. The narrator contrives to meet this woman (who turns out to be French, not American), sends his girlfriend packing, abandons his job and his luggage, and sails away with nothing but the clothes on his back as the new lover of the woman who is searching for the sailor from Gibraltar.
"Looking for someone is like everything else: to do it well you must do nothing else, you mustn't even regret giving up any other activity, you must never doubt for a moment that it's worthwhile for one man to devote his whole life to looking for another."
Anna, the rich woman, follows tips sent her by agents (former lovers) from all over the world in search of her runaway sailor. They crisscross the Mediterranean, then voyage to West Africa and finally the Congo on tips that he has been seen running a gas station one place, smuggling diamonds somewhere else.
Anna admits that she is almost relieved when each lead turns up false and the quest can go on. Does she even want to find sailor at this point, or is the search all that matters? "Sometimes it's not what you desire the most that you want, but the opposite--to be deprived of what you desire the most."
Passing at night into the Atlantic, the narrator muses, "We left the Rock behind, and with it the disturbing and vertiginous reality of the world... She turned at last and looked at me. 'Suppose I'd invented it all?' she said. 'All of it?' 'Yes.' 'It wouldn't make much difference,' I said."
The meaning of life--"God" if you wish--is never something we find, only something we look for. Life's purpose is only the journey, not the destination.
Anna asks the narrator at one point what he will do with the rest of his life, and he replies that he will write an American novel about their time together. Why American? Because in American novels they drink whiskey, and he and Anna are drinking it then. They both drink a lot, in fact, and the narrator's moments of sobriety are very few. In style, content and setting Duras's writing here much resembles that of Ernest Hemingway, and there are several references to Hemingway in the novel itself. I found even more similarity between The Sailor from Gibraltar and the work of Duras's American contemporary, Paul Bowles.
on January 13, 2000
A beautiful, haunting story. Love/obsession that may be only what it's perceived to be, or maybe not. By far the best of Duras' early works. A book I knew I'd have to read again before I even finished the first time.
on March 5, 2009
I confess that in spite of having studied French I had never read Marguerite Duras until picking up The Sailor From Gibraltar. It is a stunning gem of a book. I found myself wanting to put it down not because it wasn't good but because it was too effective. The kind of malaise, boredom, and drunken, sun-addled stupor in which the characters are adrift comes off the page and settles on the reader.
The plot is deceptively simple; it starts with the narrator, who is on vacation from a Bartleby-like job in the Foreign Service, where he copies birth and death certificates. He is oppressed by the heat, often drunken and annoyed with his mistress who insists on playing the tourist and has expectations of marriage. Feeling trapped, the narrator abandons her and his job in a little Italian coastal village in favor of Anna, a mysterious widow who searches the ocean in her yacht for the sailor from Gibraltar, a fugitive murderer with whom she had an affair as a young woman.
The real story takes place in the subtle nuances of the narrator's growing relationship with Anna, the crew of the yacht and the influence of the unseen sailor from Gibraltar. The characters are selfish, indulgent, and often ridiculous and yet it is compelling to watch them in their lazy and never ending quest for the sailor. Even these vapid individuals become existential fodder for Duras.
Indeed, seems to come out of the same world from which Albert Camus wrote The Stranger. In this world, the heat of the sun could make you quit your job, abandon your mistress and travel around the world or murder a man.
It is no surprise that The Sailor from Gibraltar was adapted for film. Duras conjures intense, haunting imagery. I can almost see the camera angles and the shimmer of sunlight reflecting off sand and water.
This is the second imprint from Open Letter Books that I have read and if their choices for works in translation continue to be this good, I will start to seek out more works from their catalog. Kudos to Barbara Bray for a dazzling translation.
on December 20, 2008
One of my fondest memories from college is sitting in my fav bohemian café near the music school and reading Marguerite Duras's 1952 novel "The Sailor from Gibraltar." It was February in one of those dim, decaying cities on the Erie where most of the industry has moved overseas, leaving only a few colleges and hospitals, as well as the retail sector, to provide employment. Under the gray skies, dirty snow, and dingy pseudo-Modernist buildings, the town had a sadly Communist-era Eastern European feel. I was often reminded of Mati Unt's "Things in the Night," a 1990 Estonian novel set partially amid the endless Soviet-built concrete apartment blocks of Tallinn. Unfortunately, an act of terrorism destroys Tallinn's power supply on New Year's Day, leaving the residential district seemingly deserted beneath suffocating layers of snow. That is kind of how you feel in the upstate New York's "rust belt" during the winter too.
But Duras's pleasantly meandering story provided a nice respite. The plot is deceptively simple: a bored, angry, frustrated Frenchman on vacation in Italy with his vapid mistress ends up running off with a wealthy widow who spends her days roaming the world in her yacht, forever looking for her "sailor from Gibraltar." There really isn't any conflict per se. The novel is essentially a travel narrative in which the characters are secondary to beautifully evocative prose that paints vivid portraits of beaches and dances along the Italian coast, the bejeweled waters of the Mediterranean, the crowded streets of China, and the post-colonial exoticism of North Africa. I think "The Sailor from Gibraltar" is best summed up as the antithesis to Paul Bowles's "The Sheltering Sky," the darkly hypnotic tale, first published in 1949, of insipid American tourists lost in the stark and monotonous dunes of the Sahara. Interestingly, both novels draw from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," but whereas Bowles and Conrad both focus on death and madness, Duras treats the journey into the alien unknown as merely one more episode in a leisurely, never-ending adventure. Although people meet, fall in love, form friendships, and then leave each other, "The Sailor from Gibraltar" never takes itself too seriously. It simply floats along from port to port, skillfully recalling the casual glamour of the mid-century, that era before plastic flip-flops and dopey t-shirts. It is both the ultimate beach read and a real literary treat.
So if ever you find yourself trapped in the winters of upstate New York, seeing out your window nothing but a grayscale panorama, this is the perfect book for you. My only complaint is that cover Open Letter Press has designed - it looks way too much like the new edition of "Catch-22" with its bold, heavy colors that do nothing to suggest the beauty of Duras's airy prose. But publishing aesthetics aside, "The Sailor from Gibraltar" comes highly recommended.