August is, of course, Women in Translation month, and as I shared in my end of July post, I have huge stacks of potential books to choose from. Typically enough, however, my first read for #WITMonth is a book which wasn’t in the stacks but which has been lurking in the TBR for quite a while now – “Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night” by Marguerite Duras (translated by Anne Borchardt).

Looking back through the blog, I can see that I picked this up in 2016 from Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road on a lovely day trip to London (I remember those well…); I had previously read one Duras book (“The Lover”) which didn’t really gel at the time but I was prepared to give the author another try. And certainly, “Ten-Thirty…” is novella length at 108 pages and so easy enough to read in one sitting.

Duras was of course a prolific woman, known as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and experimental filmmaker. Interestingly, “The Lover” was a later novel (1984) and “Ten-Thirty…” was originally published in French in 1960, so I was certainly expecting the stylistic differences I found; although there were similarities in my reactions to her writing as we shall see!

“Ten-Thirty..” tells the story of a small group on holiday in Spain: the main character is Maria, who is accompanied by her husband Pierre, her young daughter Judith and her beautiful friend Claire. Having stopped in a small town, the book opens with Maria in a cafe drinking, while her daughter plays in the torrential rain outside. The extreme stormy weather (which is almost a character in its own right and has much to do with the direction of the narrative) has caused havoc, the hotels are full and the locals are buzzing with the fact that a man from the town, Rodrigo Paestra, has killed his wife and her lover and gone on the run. Maria is drinking – something she does fairly heavily throughout the book – and she’s become aware that Pierre and Claire are being consumed by their desire for each other.

As night falls, the storm continues and the four travellers settle in corridors of the hotel to see out the night’s events. Maria, detached and still drinking, witnesses Pierre and Claire kissing on a balcony; she also spots what all the police have managed to miss, which is the murderer huddled on a rooftop hiding from justice. The passive Maria will take action that night, with dramatic consequences for some of the party; and the effects of her actions are certainly not ones she could have foreseen…

There’s quite a lot compressed into such a short book, and much of that can be put down to Duras’ laconic, fragmented style. I mentioned this in my review of “The Lover” but I did feel this read very differently. Duras often writes in clipped, short sentences, designed to get her meaning across in an unadorned way. However, she still manages to capture quite brilliantly the atmosphere of the town, the almost claustrophobic effect of the storm and the police presence, and Maria’s state of mind. Her prose often focuses on observing small details which she uses to convey emotions; this can be surprisingly effective. The overall feel of reading this was, for me, rather like watching a French New Wave film, with the long silences and meaningful looks, just translated into prose.

And as with “The Lover”, and with that kind of film, there is I feel a distancing effect. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in “Ten-Thirty…” which doesn’t matter a bit; but I did feel disconnected from them and their narrative, and although I enjoyed the experience of reading the book, in the end I didn’t actually care much about them or it. The setting and atmosphere were in effect more memorable for me than the characters; and without giving anything away, the denouement and the likely future for any of them really didn’t matter.

So I have mixed responses to Duras once more; I admire her skill and her writing, and I think she succeeds in capturing her characters and her setting quite brilliantly, particularly in the kind of brief prose she writes. This is a book which certainly is impressive in what it conveys and how it does so. However, in the end, both of the books of hers which I’ve read have left me a bit cold and distanced from them, and having given her a second chance I don’t know yet if I would feel the need to read her again. An interesting read for #WITmonth, nevertheless, and one less book on Mount TBR! 😀