With its minimal plot, spare dialogue, formal structure and vast unspoken well of bubbling sexual tension, French author and screenwriter Marguerite Duras’ breakthrough novel, Moderato Cantabile (1958), tells of a rich woman repeatedly discussing a recent murder with one of her husband’s former employees, and the pair not quite having an affair. Hong Kong novelist Xu Xi explains how it changed her life.
“I read the book when I was 18 or 19, in about 1972, during an intermediate French class at university. At that time, I could read some French. It was the most astonishing piece of literature I’d ever read. It reveals the way a woman thinks and it’s very sexual. The repression is overtly expressed.”
“I was writing already and Moderato Cantabile struck me as the first thing I’d read that sounded realistic: so spare and so understated, with so much in between the dialogue. I thought it was a much better way to understand psychology than the study of psychology. This is humanity; this is the way people are.
“Marguerite Duras showed me that you can be a woman, find your own voice and write what you want, free from all the usual patriarchal expectations. This lesson has been invaluable. Fundamentally, women talk about relationships and sex in a much deeper way than men, and I’m fascinated by this.
“I’ve been an outlier most of my life, and it’s been a long, slow road, but Duras taught me that I didn’t need to compromise. She didn’t give a s**t about what she was supposed to be.
“She broke a lot of rules about social mores. As a young woman, I was going through many of the same things as Duras. She was a real writer, an artist, a model for someone pursuing literary art.
“Moderato cantabile – literally “moderately and singingly” – is one of those innocuous musical terms that you usually ignore. I’d never seen anyone use a musical term as the title of a book. I did the same with my short story “Rubato”. I thought if she can do it, I can do it.
“When I was writing in my 20s, I knew enough to know I was imitating her, in the dialogue and the spare narrative. But I was almost being too subtle. You know exactly what’s going on with Duras all the time, with the leitmotifs and dramatic images that keep returning. It was something I had to learn how to do.”
“I’ve gone back to it about half a dozen times. I didn’t read an English translation of Moderato Cantabile until years later, but coming to her first in her original language was powerful for me. I kind of stopped reading Duras in my 40s, because she informed my 20s and 30s, and I became more influenced by other writers. I started to think more about my Asian heritage and how to bring that into it.
“Not that I ever really left her. It’s part of my signature now, Duras idolatry.”