is a 1958 romance novel that established its author, the Frenchwoman Marguerite Duras, as a major critical and popular success. Written in French, the novel’s title comes from musical directions on a piece of sheet music which translate roughly to “moderately and singingly.” The book tells the story of a rich industrialist’s wife who enters into a friendship with a younger, unemployed man after she witnesses a horrifying act of violence.
At the beginning of the novel, Anne Desbaresdes leads a rather banal existence. Apart from her wealthy but distant husband and her child whose name is never even given, Anne’s only interactions with people occur when she takes the child to his daily piano lessons taught by Mademoiselle Giraud in a seedier part of town than the one where Anne lives. One day during the lesson, Anne hears a bloodcurdling scream emanate from a nearby café. She investigates the scream to discover a dead woman bleeding profusely in the arms of her husband. The police arrest the husband and charge him with shooting his wife in the chest, even though he apparently did it at his wife's request.
Fascinated by the passion and anguish needed to fuel such a horrific act—the very kind of passion and anguish that’s missing from her own life—Anne returns to the café the next day during the child’s piano lessons, even though the people who populate it are working-class folks generally looked down upon by wealthy people like Anne. On that day, there is only one other patron in the café, an unemployed man named Chauvin who used to do work for Anne’s husband. As Anne nervously drinks down her wine, Chauvin engages with her and tells her a passionate and captivating story about the man and his murdered wife. Though it is clear that the story is speculative and a work of imagination, it draws Anne in further away from her comfortable but boring life toward the dangerous yet seductive margins of humanity.
Each of the book’s next few chapters covers a different consecutive day on which Anne visits the café to talk and drink with Chauvin. Although it would be a scandal for Mr. Desbaresdes and his colleagues to discover his wife drinking with another man—particularly someone from the working class—the two are totally oblivious to the fact that over the course of several days and nights their conversations are witnessed by hundreds of workers. As the town begins to spread gossip about the pair, Anne and Chauvin both wish to take their relationship beyond mere conversation, though this desire seems to stem less from sexual attraction and more from the excitement of flouting social conventions.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters detail the sixth consecutive day the two meet, and the evening culminates with a dinner party at Anne’s house that she arrives late to, only to discover her husband and his colleagues have all found out about her daily meetings with Chauvin. Anne’s reaction is to drink more until her husband sends her upstairs where she vomits and falls asleep in her child’s bedroom. Meanwhile, Chauvin is outside Anne’s house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, but the two miss each other.
In the final chapter, Anne arrives to the working-class neighborhood alone. She has been kicked out of her house by her husband and has presumably lost the privileges of seeing her child. When Anne and Chauvin talk, their conversation is far more cold and distant than before, perhaps because Anne is now separated from her husband and so any kind of sexual activity between them is no longer forbidden—and, therefore, no longer exciting. For the first time, the two touch hands, but there is little feeling from either Anne or Chauvin. Hoping for some spark, the two kiss and embrace, but this too leaves them both feeling cold. Anne gets up from her seat without saying another word and leaves Chauvin with a look on his face that betrays no emotion.
In the end, Moderato Cantabile
is a work of little plot but intense symbolism. Frequent references to a magnolia blossom serve as a stand-in for Anne’s sexuality. Chauvin discusses a magnolia Anne once wore over her semi-exposed chest at a reception where he remembers seeing her when he was still employed by Mr. Desbaresdes. Later on, Anne closes a window because the smell of magnolia from outside is too strong, a scene which mirrors Anne’s deliberate ability to reject her own sexual urges to maintain her standing in society and in her own family. Elsewhere, a motorboat which is frequently seen passing by in an open window represents freedom, according to many Duras scholars. The fact that the motorboat can be seen but not reached adds to the theme that freedom is something we all want but that it is often fleeting and unattainable. Indeed, when Anne and Chauvin are finally free to consummate their relationship, the two are deeply dissatisfied with their act of physical embrace.
Far more experimental than Duras’ early works, Moderato Cantabile
is acclaimed by critics and beloved by audiences for the realism
of its austere portrayal of human relationships. Its austerity only breaks down in the dinner party section when Mr. Desbaresdes’ guests greedily and comically devour the cornucopia of food before them. This gluttony could also be viewed through the prism of human freedom, and therefore it’s telling that Anne does not partake in any of the food. In this way, Moderato Cantabile
is the story of a woman who ostensibly longs for freedom, but perhaps more accurately revels in the act of desire for its own sake. That’s why when Anne finally moves to fulfill that desire, it extinguishes what made the desire so intoxicating to her in the first place.