Destroy, She Said: Opening thoughts on style and language

Destroy, She Said: Opening thoughts on style and language

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Marguerite Duras' Destroy, She Said, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Emily Withrow: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the discussion of Destroy, She Said. Marguerite Duras wrote Destroy shortly after May 1968 in France, fresh off the widespread strikes and social unrest credited with kicking the country and its old establishment to the left. The French refer to the country's attitude relative to May 1968, and many of the artists who lived it, like Duras, emerged all the wilder. Much of this spirit of rebellion carries into this novel, which is a true stylistic rupture from her previous work, and an affront to novelistic conventions.

I first picked up the book while living in Paris in 2004 and read it in one sitting, drawn into the seductive, enigmatic language. It was this voice that pulled me in—it's coy, hiding and wrapping details in voyeuristic gazing, yet somehow distant, almost absent-mindedly dropping dialogue and lighting on different, opaque characters. The sentences are short; they create a slow, careful cadence that builds on itself and heightens the tension. I couldn't help but linger over the words, hungry for some kind of meaning that may or may not appear. I imagine this might drive some of you crazy; I delighted in it.

That's part of the game, isn't it? It's a novel that stubbornly ignores its obligations to the reader, cryptic in a way that mirrors the madness of its characters. The narration isn't so much unreliable as it is uncooperative. It refuses to make sense of things, placing that responsibility on the reader.

Now, a caveat: I don't pretend to know what Alissa knows, or to fully understand every line in the book, but I'm certainly game. I fully enjoyed trying to piece together the rules of this social order, Alissa's intentions toward Elisabeth Alione, and to what extent Max Thor and Stein were thwarting her and egging her on. Duras talks in an interview in my edition at length about these characters being interchangeable, but I'm not sure I agree. While I found Max Thor and Stein similarly opaque, I latched on to Alissa and Elisabeth Alione, perhaps because they're the recipients of more of that gazing than the men are. From the beginning of the book, we're looking at the two women, nudged to guess at their natures, and I found myself drawn to them more than to the two men. After a certain point, Stein and Max Thor seem almost incidental, getting in the way of Alissa and her prey.

I'm curious and anxious to see what you all thought, though, so I'll leave it at this. Did you enjoy the game as much as I did? Did you find the language deliciously enigmatic, or frustratingly dense? Somewhere in between?

Donna Bowman: I'm glad you picked this book, Emily, if for no other reason than it sends us on a literary tangent unlike any we've so far explored. And you've started with a great question about whether we as readers find ourselves attracted to the quality of the language employed. Of course it's interesting to consider the role of translation in what we find here; we're not reading the original (though unless I miss my guess, Emily did at one point, so perhaps she can address this topic in a later post). Because of the stripped-down, stage-direction, and declarative-dialogue style, however, it seems likely that a translator's choices play a lesser role in shaping our reading experience than might have been the case in a more florid novel with more complex prose structures.

I think I will put myself in the category of those still waiting to understand the experience I just had.  Like Emily, I found myself reading slowly and carefully, startled and energized by any brief departure from the insular, snow-globe world of the resort. When Alissa says "Destroy" for the first time, I felt my insides grow cold. It's as if a meteor was racing toward the earth, but all I could see of it was this one hotel dining room, cut off from the rest of civilization. But I began to worry, as I read on, that those moments were more trick than trope -- that they were dripped in to give me just that feeling, but that neither the author nor the characters knew any more about the forces they were hinting at than they were giving me. "Dense" is not the word I would choose to describe this suspicion; "willfully opaque" might get at it better.  I wondered if I were staring at a frosted-glass shower door waiting for it to open and reveal naked truth, but suspicious that no one was actually inside.

My tentative assessment, as I closed the book after the short read, was that I'd been watching a version of No Exit, perhaps as directed by Samuel Beckett.. What has stayed with me is the way the characters align and realign, watch and interact, in ever-changing dyads and triads. And if the simple, spare language has a thematic point, I'd say that it's to highlight the instantaneous, sometimes unmotivated switches of gaze, alliance, and persuasion.  I'm convinced that many of you must have understood it better, though, so I'm hoping to continue processing the experience through your neurons.

Leonard Pierce: Though I'd love to be corrected, I believe I'm the only one of the Wrapped Up regulars other than Emily to have read Destroy, She Said prior to its selection, and I'm very glad that it was her choice. I, too, picked up my copy in Paris, two years after Emily, and as someone who's always been obsessed with the events of May 1968—both the amazing transformation that took place and the squandered potential when it didn't last—I've always thought that Duras' best work, this one definitely included, was suffused with that "Spirit of '68," that sensation not only of rebellion, but of liberation, of the notion that "in art, anything is possible" wasn't just a theory, but a praxis, an idea that could be applied to aesthetic works and to life as well.

Of course, there has to be the obligatory there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sun disclaimer, and even though the book is tremendously successful on its own merits, I felt that its language—which I absolutely agree is careful and poetic while simultaneously being full of seduction and an almost wild abandon—reminded me of something I'd heard before. It didn't come to me until a year later: It was in the notorious French film Last Year At Mariendbad, the script for which was written by the late Alain Robbe-Grillet.  Like Destroy, She Said, it was a daring piece of verbal gamesmanship disguised as a prolonged seduction, and the link was made when I read Robbe-Grillet's critical treatise "For A New Novel." I felt then that no one, including Robbe-Grillet himself, had really taken up his gauntlet of bringing new perspectives, new goals, and new approaches to traditional narrative as well as Duras had in this book.

Indeed, those works in combination are a big part of why I love Duras' book so much. Robbe-Grillet—someone I've always respected more as a critic than a novelist—makes the argument, and very persuasively, that as a rule, we're using a fairly specific set of 19th-century standards to judge novels. That isn't something we do for film or music or other art forms; each generation has had the freedom, in those media, to invent new sets of rules and to be judged by their success or failure not against a single monolithic critical standard established before they were even born, but against how successfully they live up to their own rules, how well they operate within the new framework they help to design, as well as how that framework builds on (or moves away from) what has gone before. All forms of aesthetic expression, says Robbe-Grillet, were once unfamiliar and difficult to frame; success should, then, be measured by the ability to conjure the new and strange, to create new standards and forms, rather than by the ability to cunningly ape existing ones.

That's why I love Duras so much as a writer, and Destroy, She Said so much as a book. It takes a traditional French literary topic that's centuries old, the gamesmanship and diplomacy of romantic entanglement, and tells it in a way that almost totally escapes traditional methods of storytelling. Since the relationships between these women and men is constantly shifting, altering, transforming, and making itself implicit by way of glances and moods and misheard or misinterpreted conversations, why shouldn't the prose reflect that chaotic and sometimes irrational process? Duras can't think of a satisfying reason why not, so the result is a book that is truly like a romance:  maddeningly difficult, frustrating and unpredictable, but beautiful, exhilarating, and playful by turns.

I absolutely understand why some people won't like this book, and I hope I don't come across as saying "Oh, if you didn't enjoy this, it's because you're just a reactionary who can't get on board with how radical it is." But I'm definitely in the camp that thinks the novel should have horizons as limitless as any other art form, and few people are better than Duras, and few expressions purer than Destroy, She Said, at taking up people like Robbe-Grillet and B.S. Johnson when they challenge us to really take advantage of the novel's potential.  In different hands, this could have been a story as tedious as any Harlequin romance; in Duras' hands, it's more than any story, a leap forward for the medium itself.

Ellen Wernecke: I hit the ending of Destroy, She Said abruptly in the middle of my morning commute. Because my copy includes an interview with Duras and other supplementary material at the back, I landed on the last page much sooner than I expected to. I had another book with me, but I decided to start Destroy, She Said over again to see if maybe it would come into focus a little more for me on the second reading. So I ended up reading it twice, and while I don’t want to say that it drove me crazy, its “willful opacity,” as Donna so elegantly put it, never gave way to something I could identify. At the end, I had even less to grasp than when I started.

I almost feel reactionary saying I didn’t like it, but this book was a puzzle I couldn’t solve, nor could I let go of my expectation that there would be something to solve. This was my first exposure to Marguerite Duras, and while I wondered early on if something had been lost in the translation of my copy of Destroy, She Said, I was the one who felt at fault for not being able to appreciate her larger game and being bogged down in the details. (I think this is one of those books that should not have any back cover or jacket copy at all, because even the least is too much.)

Every time I started to feel guilty for wanting Duras to shape her narrative in a way that would be more recognizable to me, the book rejected my intentions to frame it. I had trouble distinguishing the characters from one another, I became confused at the gaps and lapses in time, and even with the arrival of Bernard Alione, which I could see through the fog as an important turning point, I didn’t know what it meant. So yes, I felt frustrated, and yes, I ended up nearly regretting the second pass I took through the novel. But can you blame me? I felt like a guest at the same resort, always in a lawn chair watching the couples on the other side and hearing snatches of conversation that never assembled themselves into anything meaningful. To be perpetually excluded from the action, even if nothing is in fact taking place – it’s an unsatisfying place to be as a reader, and I itched to be out of it.

Todd VanDerWerff: I have a feeling we'll be discussing this a little more later on, but while I neither loved nor hated Destroy, She Said, I found it surprisingly easy to read and follow, seeing in it any number of ways that the whole thing could be read and interpreted, while still finding a lot of its opacity a hair frustrating. I think there's a good reason for this: I read a lot of stage plays, screenplays, and TV scripts. Because they're templates for what's to come later, scripts of all sorts are literature by necessity, but also things that are deliberately sitting there for other people to interpret. Reading a script is even more an act of imagination than, say, reading a novel, because it involves selecting camera angles in your head, doing your own casting, and ascribing motives to the characters. There is no inner monologue, but in the best scripts, you can kind of see your way to one by the way the writer directs your attention to different things.

That's largely how I felt about Duras' work here. She's writing almost exclusively in what I guess I'd call "point of view" shots. (Again, I don't want to step on the toes of anyone in the week to come with my rambling here.) The book is about people who watch each other, really, and while I could find that as frustrating as Ellen did from time to time (since the book definitely does hold you outside of the central foursome, making it all the easier to identify with Bernard, something that Duras suggests is not what she wanted the reader to do in the end matter I have!), I appreciated the way the book is constantly shifting between the gazes of all of the characters, suggesting that who is looking at whom and how they're doing the looking is more important than any of the novel's physical action.

But at the same time, I wish I hadn't read the end matter, which consists of a series of interviews with Duras. I thought I was finally circling around a concept of the novel that I understood, one that was making me like it, when I read that Duras essentially thought the opposite of me. This is why I often try to avoid statements of authorial intention, though Destroy was such an odd little read that I wanted to know more of what went into it. Duras views the book as a deliberately political work, and while I can see where she's coming from, I liked it better when it was more a story of people forcing their wills on each other. I mean, yeah, that's what it is, and yeah, that's a very political thing to be writing about, but I rather wish I had just stayed away from what she had to say altogether.

Tasha Robinson: Like Todd, I often tend to avoid statements of artistic intent where possible, in my case because they're so often pretentious (especially when dealing with physical artworks), and so often at odds with letting the reader/viewer/whatever reach their own interpretations and establish their own relationship with an artwork. But Destroy, She Said was such a wispy, airy slip of a book that I broke down and read that postscript interview with the hope of learning something concrete about its creation that would help me appreciate it better. Instead, I got this quote from Duras, which dissipated half my interest in one shot: "I have the feeling that I wrote it in a state of imbecility. And in the dark."

And I immediately felt that I knew what she was saying: It's a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness story, filled as she says with interchangeable characters without strong voices, repeating themselves over and over or making huge leaps of illogic, all moving toward an end that isn't ever spelled out. It's a book more about tone and emotion than about solidity and specificity. It was a book that could be written on an all-but unconscious level. But as such, it's a book that's hard for me to respect. I've always been a fan of craft, artifice, and calculation; It's easy to go too far in that direction and come up with a well-structured but lifeless book, but I still tend to prefer art that errs on the side of ambition and planning to one knocked off from the hip, as Destroy seems to be. Its slightness made it hard for me to enjoy; its shapelessness even more so.

I have to say that I had no problem with being excluded from the action, as Ellen did; I took that as a deliberate choice on Duras' part. Really, it seems to me that the reader is necessarily included in the action because the only ways to appreciate this book are to drift along with Duras in the dark, questioning nothing and just letting the language glide over you, or to be involved in every line and every paragraph, as an interpreter and translator. I tried it both ways—skimming along and appreciating the language and the catty, circling, stalking tone without concerning myself with meaning, I liked the book better, but I kept coming up sharply, realizing I had no idea who was speaking, or what about. Alternately, I tried reading closely, trying to find the metaphor or meaning in every line. When Alissa says "It's too late to kill you, it's too late," what exactly is she communicating? What's her tone? Is she trying to frighten and discombobulate Elisabeth, or expressing a truth? Has she changed her mind about destroying Elisabeth, even if only for the moment, or is she cruelly toying with her prey, or did she never plan to "kill," just to devastate?

This kind of savage hunt for meaning is in its way an enjoyable way to approach the book—maybe not fully satisfying, since there's never any definitive proof as to whether one reading or another is "right," or even supportable in context with the rest of the book. But Duras revealing the lack of planning behind the work somewhat takes the wind out of my sails there. I'd prefer not to put more thought into a novel than the author did; it makes me feel like I'm trying too hard, and like I'm doing Duras' job for her. On a basic, visceral level, I didn't much enjoy Destroy, She Said simply because I felt I was staring hard at a naked emperor, trying to pretend I saw clothing, and then the author's interview as much as said that she didn't actually work very hard on sewing any.

Zack Handlen: Like Ellen, I read this twice. First time through, I kept expecting the mysteries to come together, and then, once I realized there almost certainly wasn't going to be an open-and-shut explanation at the conclusion, I disengaged. I don't think I have to grasp art completely in order to enjoy it, because I like filling in the edges. I love some of my favorite books because I don't fully comprehend their limits; it's like every time I pick one up, I'm blazing new trails for myself. But Destroy, She Said was a mixed experience for me. I found it eerie, I was half-expecting some kind of Sixth Sense twist, and I appreciated the tone, like listening to a dinner party full of effortlessly elegant sociopaths. But I'm not sure I enjoyed it, and when I read it again, I was doing so entirely to have something to contribute to the discussion. If I'd just gone with my first reading, I would've managed a half-hearted "Eh," and that would've been that.

I like games, but there is a kind of gamesmanship that irritates me. I appreciate the philosophy Leonard brings up, but I don't enjoy being toyed with by fiction. Play is fine, trickery and oddity and elusiveness are attractive qualities in literature and life, but… This was soulless to me. It's slippery narrative felt less like experimentalism and more like an unwillingness to commit. I respect a desire to find new forms, but I left Destroy unconvinced that this particular form added much beyond an ease of reading and an ability to convince anyone it means anything. Yet I can't entirely dismiss it, and that's probably what I found the most frustrating. If this was just dry artifice, then I wouldn't have gotten such a chill during the card-playing scene—and here was one of the few places that the sparse text actually really worked for me. I had to figure out on my own that Max, Alissa, and Stein were terrible card players, and that this knowledge made the game into something that wasn't intended. And I became uneasy at the end, when I realized the group was planning to track Elisabeth and her husband on their vacation. 

Although I guess this was supposed to be a good thing? I dunno, I didn't get into the interview in the second half of the book, I'm just putting together what others have said. So far, I don't really see how this wouldn't have worked better as a play or a film, and that, to me, is the most damning aspect. If you're gonna play with the form, play. Don't dabble, or you're wasting my time. Destroy wasn't a complete nothing for me, and I'm glad others got something out of it, but I need literature to be written in blood, not pencil scribbles on a napkin.